You might have guessed from the title that this is not going to be the most objective post. This month's trip to Helsinki was my third in as many years. Each time I find more to love about this city, which celebrates extremes of light and darkness, heat and cold.
I grew up with temperatures that often dipped to eyelash-freezing -35 C or so (not counting the dreaded wind chill), but at least we had clear, sunny skies even in mid-winter. The Finns have to deal with a period of nearly complete darkness at the coldest time of year, while in June the sun refuses to set. No wonder they think nothing of baking in a sauna at 100 C, then jumping through a crust of ice into a lake (when no lake is handy, they simply roll in the snow).
My reasons for loving Helsinki have less to do with the climate - I'm a wimpy southerner now - than the food. Yes, you heard right. Aki, Jari and Eeropekka, the witty and erudite editors of the innovative restaurant trade magazine Viisi Tähteä, organized the first Eat & Joy event two years ago to draw attention to the city's fast-developing restaurant scene. That year, then-French-president Jacques Chirac had made some very insulting remarks about Finnish food that I won't dignify by repeating here (let's say that only Britain came out worse in what was not his most diplomatic moment ever). As a representative of France, I spent much of my time on that first trip reassuring the Finns that Chirac had not spoken for everyone. I was even interviewed on Finnish TV, which shows how wounded the country was.
Admittedly, Finland is not widely renowned for its cuisine, but anyone with a taste for grains, berries, wild mushrooms, cold-water fish and unusual meats (I am mentally drawing a happy face next to each of these) will find its food irresistible. In the past few years Finnish chefs have been rediscovering the local bounty, and some of them are willing to go to great lengths - often as far as Lapland - to obtain the best ingredients. I met a chef who hunts his own bears (legally) to make juicy burgers which he serves on Moroccan flatbread with Korean mayonnaise at Hotel Sello. I also visited a primary school, where I discovered that the free school lunches were far superior to what Sam eats in France (Finnish schools have their own kitchens, while Sam's food is supplied by Sodexho from a central kitchen). Finland is full of surprises like this.
If you are thinking of visiting Helsinki anytime soon, here are five things I think you shouldn't miss:
1. Breakfast at Klaus K
Breakfast has never been the same for me since I first grazed my way through the fabulous buffet at the Klaus K. You won't find your run-of-the-mill omelettes and Corn Flakes here - every food displayed on the buffet, from the dill-marinated salmon to the sea buckthorn muesli, comes directly from a small producer. What I love most is the cauldron of hot cereal, which most often is barley that has been slow-cooked for several hours in milk (see recipe below). On my last morning at the hotel I drank fresh carrot juice, something I had never before seen at a hotel.
The man behind this admirable initiative is Markus Maulavirta, probably the city's most influential chef thanks to his attachment to small farmers. The first time I saw him he was dancing through the dining room while beating on his witch drum, which for him is totally in character. He is unfortunately leaving the Klaus K to lend a hand to the poro (ie reindeer) herders in Lapland, but the breakfast will not change. The Klaus K is also one of the best places to stay in Helsinki, with the most comfortable beds I've ever encountered and beautiful modern Finnish design.
2. The butter at Nokka
There are many wonderful things to eat at this contemporary Finnish restaurant, where Markus originally worked, but what really sticks in my mind is fresh, pure taste of the artisanal butter sourced from a small producer. Even in France, home of great dairy products, I've rarely encountered butter that I simply couldn't stop eating. Slathered generously onto the restaurant's wholemeal bread, which is made on the premises, it could practically be a meal in itself. This year, I tore my attention away from the butter long enough to taste an exceptional, sherry-like wine made of blackcurrants and fortified with cherries and cranberries. This ceviche-style fish was pretty wonderful too.
Finnish cuisine isn't only about doing surprisingly sophisticated things with poro. Like any country that can feel proud of its cuisine, it has a great street food tradition. Meat pies - like big doughnuts, only filled with minced meat and occasionally sausages - are the perfect antidote to the hangover that is likely to hit at least once if you spend any time in Helsinki. Eat one first thing in the morning, preferably without having slept at all, and you will feel like a real Finn. Meat pies also provide a great excuse to visit the covered market on the harbor, which is a feast in itself.
4. The herring buffet at Sundmans Krog
My passion for herring has been fed by many an harengs pommes à l'huile (marinated herrings with warm potato salad) in Paris bistros, so imagine my delight to find herring in at least a dozen different guises in the casual main floor dining room of this elegant restaurant on the harbor. If you can't be in Helsinki for the Baltic herring festival in October, this is the next best thing.
Fried herring with mashed potatoes and pickled beet is another classic Finnish dish and this noisy, down-to-earth restaurant founded in 1934 is one of the most atmospheric places to enjoy it. Of course, culinary tastes have moved on and there are now some great modern bistros in Helsinki: Demo and Postres are two of my favorites. But to eat only modern bistro food in this city would be to miss something essential.
For more on Helsinki restaurants, here is a link to the piece I wrote earlier this year for the Times Online.
In case you're wondering about the picture above, it was Aki, confidently steering us in his Russian torpedo boat to the Ivana Helsinki show on the world heritage site Suomenlinna.
Ever since my first trip to Finland I've eaten a lot more porridge for breakfast, usually topped with blueberries that I've stewed with a little sugar (this is one thing I buy frozen), plus all sorts of nuts, seeds and dried fruits. Barley porridge takes a long time to cook, so the best way to do it is overnight. Marcus Maulavirta gave me this recipe, along with a bag of barley. If you use milk it might curdle and caramelize a bit, but that's part of the charm.
4 cups milk or water, or half milk and half water
2/3 cup barley
A pinch of salt
Combine the milk and/or water, barley and salt in a heavy ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid. Place in the oven at about 225 F (100 - 120 C) for at least six hours or overnight.