Ever picked Rudolph’s rosy schnozzle off the menu? The schnozzle is fried in fat, spiced with black pepper, salt and cooked tender in beer or cream. Even when Christmas is around the corner and even though slaughtering Santa’s reindeer for a meal is generally an unpalatable idea, in Finland, poronkäristys (sautéed reindeer) with a side of mashed potatoes and lingonberry preserve is a big, fat gamey meal. Lean, actually: it’s high in B-12, omega-3 and omega-6. It’s also dished as reindeer steaks and cold smoked reindeer.
Finland is one of the biggest exporters of reindeer meat and in 80-year-old Savoy, one of Helsinki’s grandest dining rooms, I could order glazed leg of wild reindeer with whey cheese-seasoned celeriac and smoked ham sauce. Or, I could book a seat at a table for 22, get suspended 50 metres mid-air for a Dinner in the Sky — with my feet dangling over the Helsinki skyline, and sample reindeer pate. Instead, I head for Loyly, the newest sauna in the Finnish capital. Mostly for their menu: lightly smoked garlic soup, fish cake made of rainbow trout and pike, butter potatoes and crayfish stock, and licorice panna cotta.
In Finland, all meals begin with dark, sour ruisleipa, the country’s most popular bread; and its cousins named limppu (dry rye bread), reikäleipä (rye bread with a hole in the centre), vesirinkeli (small rings of yeast leavened wheat bread), jalkiuunileipa (after-oven bread), nakkileipa (crisp bread), korppu (rusk), and rieska (unleavened barley flat bread). With oat and potato bread also in the basket, Finnish bread can be white, brown, dark, flat, round, with a hole, wheat, rye and barley. Rye is the most common and preferred because it is famously immune to spoiling — it can stay on for months without developing a mold.
On cold days, when even the mornings are inky, Karl Fazer Cafe is the best place to warm up with a tall coffee tumbler. Founded in 1891 and famous for its art deco facade, this cavernous cafe is where the history of Fazer chocolates started. One can choose from salmon and shrimp sandwiches, towering sundaes and dazzling cakes. Before stepping into the cafe, remember to leave all saucy stories behind — rumour has it that the glass cupola of the cafe reflects sound. Certainly a bad place for gossip.
No food trail in Helsinki is complete without a berry-day. There are nearly 50 kinds of wild berries in Helsinki, of which 37 are edible. Once summer ends, Finnish grandmothers slip into their boots, scarf their hair and then disappear into the woods. As twilight falls, they return home laden with treasures — lingonberries, bilberries, cloudberries, raspberries, cranberries, bog whortleberries, mountain crowberries, sea-buckthorn berries and rowanberries. Roughly 500 million kilogrammes of berries and 2 billion kilogrammes of mushrooms grow in Finland’s forests every year.
But I am no grandma and it wasn’t the end of summer, so I skipped the berries. Instead I picked a metal plate, a tin cup and felt like a convict inside a prison restaurant, called the Jailbird Restaurant. Housed within Hotel Katajanokka in Helsinki, this place was a county prison and pre-trial detention centre until 2002 — it is now a posh lily pad. And ensconced in that lily pad, I remembered a billboard I saw at Helsinki Airport: Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you. You, Badass. Welcome.
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer and photographer.
Finnish Eating This
Karjalanpiirakka: Rye flour pastry filled with potatoes, rice or carrots served with egg butter spread on top.
Kalakukko: Similar to karjalanpiirakka but bigger in size and filled with muikku (small herring-like fish).
Grillimakkara: Fat sausages eaten with mustard and washed down with beer.
Korvapuusti: Cinnamon buns.
Mustikkapiirakka: Bilberries served with milk.
Silli ja uudet perunat: New potatoes with herring.
Kaalikaaryleet: Cabbage rolls.
Hernekeitto: Pea soup.
A Salvador Dali Dinner
Fish served in satin slippers. Frogs hopping out of cloche. Or, snails sitting on fish fillet. Salvador & Gala Dali’s dinner parties were as quirky as the artist himself. In the tony Finnish town of Pargas, Dali’s dinners are recreated in Art Bank, an art gallery by Ted Wallin, the man helming Art Bank. The recipes are picked from Dali’s erotic cookbook Les Diners de Gala and wine from Dali’s Wine Book. The price tag: 2,500 euros (roughly Rs 2 lakhs) for 10 people.