People often make fun of other people's food -- haggis and lutefisk, for instance. But it isn't common for high government officials to be scornful of their allies' dining preferences, and it is rare indeed that one nation should be the target of two such assaults within less than a month. Yet that was the fate of Finland this summer. In July, before the Gleneagles summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, French President Jacques Chirac was famously overheard by a reporter as saying that Britain was the worst place to eat "after Finland." Less widely quoted was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who in June publicly spoke of having had to "endure" Finnish food during his travels.
This summer my wife and I stopped in Helsinki and were able, at least in a superficial way, to put the two leaders' appraisals to the test. We ate some delicious food and some things that weren't so wonderful -- as we have in pretty much every other place we've been to. And we had a few delightful surprises.
We started at the Old Market Hall along the waterside. The building no longer serves as a market but is set up with stalls along two aisles running the length of the building, mostly selling prepared food to take out or eat on nearby stools. Choosing a couple of stalls at random, we tried several open sandwiches and stuffed pastries, all featuring local products and, we were assured, pretty typical of what Finns eat (everyone we dealt with spoke English, most of them fluently). For $2.50 or $3 apiece, we bought:
* An open sandwich of fried herring on flavorful, dense rye bread spread with a sweet mustard sauce, with pickled pearl onions and lemon -- moist and delicious.
* Vendice (or vendace -- tiny fish in the salmon family) baked into an open tart, also based on rye flour -- bland and mouth-desiccatingly dry, with the fish monumentally overcooked.
* Two egg-shaped little pies called kulibiak (similar to the Russian pie, though far smaller), one filled with salmon and rice, the other with reindeer and rice -- both perfectly seasoned and moist, with a crisp leavened crust still containing rye flour.
* And, most elegant of all, lightly cured Baltic whitefish on the usual rye bread, with aromatic dill and an optional drizzle of that sweet mustard sauce. This one, a Parisian restaurateur would have been proud to serve.
So, out of five tastes, only one dud. Not bad, I'd say.
Dinner that night was at G.W. Sundmans (Etelaranta 16; $90 per person for a four-course menu), whose kitchen aims to update Finnish and other Scandinavian cooking while remaining well rooted in tradition. The 19th-century building, near the Old Market Hall, was once the house of an obviously well-heeled sea captain. The handsome, spacious restaurant sprawls over several second-floor rooms.
The friendly, professional service could not have been better. What most impressed me was the clarity of the flavors: While most dishes contained several well-harmonized elements, the ingredients did not lose their identity in terms of flavor or texture. For instance, we had a first course of perch terrine topped with a freshwater crayfish salad and a broiled langoustine. The flesh of the perch had not been chopped or too much tinkered with; it retained all its structure and taste, enhanced by having been neatly "compacted" in its rectangular mold. The same pattern continued through the meal. The chanterelle soup tasted of chanterelles; the reindeer tasted of what one imagines reindeer would taste like (and was astonishingly tender); and the oily arctic char was smoked so lightly that it tasted of char, not wood chips. The late-summer house aperitif was white wine aromatized with raspberry and blueberry juices.
This dinner was not the product of an impoverished cuisine.
The next evening's meal probably came closer to real life. Everyone I asked said that Sea Horse (Kapteenikatu 11; about $36 per person for three courses) -- lively, moderately priced and full of locals, tourists and business travelers -- cooks what Finns actually eat. Let me start with the bad news: Two of our three main courses were unimpressive, however tempting they might have sounded. I love hash and I love stuffed cabbage, but here neither proved very appealing. The first, made with potatoes, onions and ham and topped with a fried egg, was too oily, though nicely seasoned. The second was uninteresting and dense, and the cabbage was overcooked.
On the other hand, my wife's pike-perch topped with sharp butter-braised horseradish was lovely, as were the first courses. Among these was one of the delightful surprises I mentioned earlier: spiced, lightly cured beef that had been frozen and sliced. It was like a thick-cut carpaccio, but more flavorful, and the quality of the beef was amazing. Portions, incidentally, were gigantic.
The rest of our table time was spent eating cakes and pastries, notably at the venerable Fazer (Kluuvikatu 8) and at the cafes in the Stockmann department store (Aleksanterinkatu 52 B) and the Academic Bookstore (Keskuskatu 1). Some were delicious and elegant, some coarser but nonetheless tasty. Many were based on Danish-pastry-like yeast doughs; others seemed more indigenous, such as a vividly cardamom-scented bun topped with butter and sugar. The coffee was very good indeed: Espresso drinks were rich, not bitter, and filter coffee was aromatic and stronger than a typical American brew. Nothing in the pastry line suggests a withered culinary sensibility.
The fact is, that no matter what certain highly-placed people may say, you don't need to "endure" the food when visiting Helsinki. You can eat well, even while eating Finnish.
-- Edward Schneider
For more information on visiting Finland: Finnish Tourist Board, 800-FIN-INFO, www.visitfinland.com.