So much has happened on the Helsinki food scene since the ’90s that some call it a revolution.
All current Michelin-star restaurants in Helsinki have been created since 2003 and none of the current Bib Gourmand restaurants existed before 2009. In addition to Russian, Tex-Mex and Mediterranean restaurants, which were some of the first international cuisines to arrive in Helsinki, choices keep growing. There is now a Kosher deli. A Peruvian restaurant opened earlier this year. Two young chefs mix Korean, Japanese and North-Chinese flavors. Hakaniemi neighborhood has turned into a bazaar of ethnic grocery shops. The Restaurant Day concept, born in Helsinki in 2011, has now spread to more than 30 countries. The first street food event was organized in March this year. And the list goes on. Indeed, Helsinki has never been as welcoming to foodies as it is today!
As someone who left Helsinki in the mid-’90s, I am intrigued by the latest food scene developments of my old hometown. During my last visit to Helsinki in May this year I took this passion even further and spent an entire day touring the Finnish capital with a professional food guide. Read further to see why this day was fantastic!
I met my lovely guide Veera in front of the Hietalahti Market Hall, which was our first stop. According to an urban legend, this 110-year-old covered market was used as a horse stable during the Russian rule.As visiting Finland is nothing without discovering local fish, our first stop was Fish Shop Marja Nätti. We had a chance to run into Petri, Marja’s son, who proudly explained to us that the sandwich we are eating is their newest recipe: cold-smoked salmon and asparagus on malt bread topped with caviar-infused Hollandaise sauce. Wow. It was as delicious as it sounds like and yes, it was eco-friendly caviar grown in the heart of Finland’s lake district.
Indeed, respecting the ecosystem, traditions and small fishermen were the words that kept appearing in Petri’s talk. He revealed that this summer Marja Nätti will co-run a fish and chips restaurant at the entrance (outside) of the Hietalahti Market Hall. One of the items on the menu will be a fish burger made of those Finnish fish (roach, pike, etc.) that have been ignored for a long time by chefs.Just as we were leaving, Petri grinned and asked “are you adventurous“? Curious as we are, Veera and I responded yes and Petri brought us another new product: fried salmon skin, a Finnish delicacy from the ’60s and the ’70s. I was a bit skeptical before tasting it, mainly because I am not a big fan of fried food, but it was lighter than I thought. And very tasty. My guests in Paris, are you ready for fish skin starters?
Our second and third stops were chosen by Veera because they are true representatives of the classic Helsinki: Lasipalatsi and Fazer. She explained to me that in spite of all sorts of exotic tendencies that hug Helsinki at the moment, these two places have maintained the market position thanks to their excellent, traditional products and loyal customers. At times when so much new comes to the market every week, people like to return to the roots from time to time, she added.
Lasipalatsi is an architectural masterpiece, a perfect example of Finnish Functionalist architectural style from the ’30s. Originally built as a temporary office building, Lasipalatsi is today one of the main landmarks of Helsinki and home to a well-known retro restaurant and a busy cafe, as well as other businesses.“The best cafes of Helsinki are located in the residential neighborhoods but Café Lasipalatsi in the heart of Helsinki is one of the rare exceptions” Veera told me. She continued to explain that helsinkiläiset (residents of Helsinki) are very fond of this institution, making Café Lasipalatsi a meeting point of different generations. As we were walking out, I snapped some quick photos that in my opinion portray well that particular atmosphere (very Kaurismäki some may say).Our third stop, Fazer, needs no introduction to Finnish readers. To my foreign readers, let me start by saying that Fazer is a confectionery and food company, created in 1891. Whenever there is a ranking of the most-loved Finnish brands, Fazer and its products are on the top of the list. For example, if you ask a Finn living abroad what she misses about Finland, she/he will probably tell you “Fazerin Sininen” (Fazer’s most popular milk chocolate).We stopped for a cup of coffee but Veera reminded me that I should try to come back to enjoy Fazer’s famous brunch. Apparently reservations are sometimes needed a month in advance but this seemed understandable to me. Who would not salivate over these sandwiches? From the city center we moved to a charming neighborhood called Kruununhaka, and this is where I got a little bit lost. I know Helsinki very well, and could have guessed the previous stops, but suddenly I had no idea where I was walking. Suspense!Anton & Anton, where we stopped, is a lovely grocery store created out of love. The founders, previously unknown to each other, met and decided to create a super market that specializes in personalized service and sells the kind of food they would want to eat themselves. Conveniently, they both had a son called Anton, and that resolved the problem about the shop name. Cute, isn’t it!While we were tasting different types of cheese (with fantastic fig and rhubarb jam!), I learned more about the everyday business of Anton & Anton. Veera told me that the idea of Anton & Anton is not to sell exclusively organic food, but simply good food: seasonal products, handpicked artisan products, food that comes from respected origin, grown by passionate small farmers, etc. Some products come from Finland –many from the Åland Islands I noticed– but there are products from abroad, too. Before we left Anton & Anton I made a note to self: fill your picnic basket here next summer.
Our next and last destination required catching Helsinki’s funky orange metro. It was a nice ride by the sea and this time I knew where we were going: Teurastamo alias the Abattoir. Yes, this lovely ’30s building made of brick was indeed a place of blood until the early ’90s. Veera was taking me around the Abattoir complex but I had to stop her to confess something. “Veera, I do not understand what the Abattoir is about. It seems to be work in progress but where is it heading to?“, I asked her. Veera laughed and said it was well said. She continued that indeed the Abattoir is an urban concept still looking for its identity, but that basically its role is to provide premises for different activities (often ad hoc) including city gardening, food-related lectures and festivals, flea market, concerts, exhibitions, etc. One can also book a sauna (of course, after all we are in Finland!) or simply use the premises for a private barbecue party. The main guideline of the Abattoir is to keep it easily accessible and available to everyone.
In addition to aforementioned activities, there are a wholesale market and some restaurant-bars. We visited Jädelino, an ice-cream bar run by a Finno-Italian couple. Valerio, the Italian side of the love story, served us amazing pistachio and divine chocolate ice cream. He explained that he has no previous experience in ice cream making but that a kind man in his home town taught him all the tricks. Last November Valerio was ready and Jädelino opened its doors to serve ice cream and sorbet of Finnish and other flavors. When Valerio mentioned that some customers come from really far away just for his ice cream I was not surprised –I will return from Paris for his pistachio! And I will definitely return to the Abattoir. For me, it is one of the most interesting things happening on the Helsinki food scene at the moment.
… places visited during the tour:
The Hietalahti Market Hall: http://www.hietalahdenkauppahalli.fi
Fish Shop Marja Nätti: http://www.kalaliikemarjanatti.fi
Lasipalatsi Restaurant: http://www.ravintolalasipalatsi.fi
Café Lasipalatsi: http://cafelasipalatsi.fi
Karl Fazer Café: http://www.fazer.fi/kahvilat-ja-leipomot/kahvilat–ravintolat/karl-fazer-cafe/karl-fazer-cafe/
Anton & Anton: http://www.antonanton.fi
Teurastamo (The Abattoir): http://www.teurastamo.com