Where to stay
Anttolanhovi Art & Design Villas
Stunning, individually designed villas on Lake Saimaa. Part of a Wellness Village with a range of options, it offers luxurious peace and comfort guaranteed. Twin rooms from £78. Hillside Villas from £245. Lakeside Villas from £498. Anttolanhovi, Hovintie 224, Anttola, 00 358 20 757 5200, anttolanhovi.fi
Contemporary boutique hotel designed around a lovely courtyard. Spacious rooms have subdued colours and high-tech fittings. Doubles from £95. Fabianinkatu 7, 00 358 9 6128 2000, hotelfabian.fi Hotel Helka Good mid-range choice in a well-modernised, 1920s hotel with iconic Finnish design furnishings. Standard twins from £65. Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 23, 00 358 9 613 580, helka.fi
Award-winning designer hotel with day spa and gym. New Sky Loft rooms include a roof terrace. Standard twins from £100. Bulevardi 2-4, 00 358 20 7048 7205, klauskhotel.com
Cottages Traditional holiday cottages each with private sauna and jetty on the shores of Lake Saimaa on the island of Puumala. The Restaurant Niinipuu nearby serves a fine Sunday buffet. Cottage sleeping four from £66. 00 358 50 025 9378, okkolanlomanokit.com
Private cabins and well-equipped hotel rooms, each with a balcony or terrace and glorious views over Lake Saimaa. The food is excellent and there is plenty to do (or not) for all the family. Twin hotel rooms from £50. Villas from £123. Lietvedentie 830, Puumala 00 358 40 779 9896, sahanlahtiresort.fi
The five cosy guest rooms here are kitted out with antique furniture and are all situated close to the manor house itself. Superb breakfasts and other meals. Doubles from £71. Tertin Kartano, Kuopiontie 68, Mikkeli, 00 385 15 176 012, tertinkartano.fi
The currency of Finland is the euro. Helsinki is two hours ahead of the UK, and flights from the UK take just under three hours. Best times to visit are between April and September and, in July, the days are very long – even with ‘nightless nights’ in Lapland above the Arctic Circle. Winters are cold, but you can sometimes see the Northern Lights as far south as Helsinki during these months.
Finnair operates daily direct flights from London Heathrow and Manchester to Helsinki. finnair.com
British Airways also operates daily flights from London. ba.com
Visit Finland is a great resource for planning your trip, from activities and accommodation, to food, drink and events, including visits to
the Northern Lights in Lapland and the lakes. visitfinland.com
Visit Helsinki is the capital’s top tourism portal. visithelsinki.fi/en Visit Mikkeli has essential information on the region. visitmikkeli.fi/en
Wild Herb Cookbook by Sami Tallberg. English edition of a fascinating and enthusiastic guide to wild plants with seasonal,
delicious recipes, and a forward by Mark Hix. readme.fi
The Food and Cooking of Finland by Anja Hill (Aquamarine, £15.99). An excellent introduction to authentic Finnish cuisine, ingredients and customs.
Xenophobe’s Guide to the Finns (£4.99). Funny, quirky and irreverent but with more than a grain of truth. xenophobes.com Culture Smart! Finland (Kuperard, £6.95). Helpful and practical guide to Finnish society.
Offset emissions for your trip at climatecare.org, which supports environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London Heathrow to Helsinki produce 0.41 tonnes of CO2, costing £3.08.
Where to eat
Prices are for three courses, excluding wine unless otherwise stated
The superb cocktails and fine modern cuisine at A21 are paired in a themed tasting menu that takes you on a storybook ‘journey’ through a seasonal Finnish concept. What could be gimmicky is, in reality, a unique food trip thanks to the quality, professionalism and enthusiasm of the owners. Five or seven courses: £47/£57. Kalevankatu 17, 00 358 40 171 1117, a21.fi
Intimate restaurant with only 26 seats and a daily set menu, most of which is organic or biodynamic. Small menu £42; full menu £64. Vironkatu 8, 00 358 40 581 8100
Near the Helka Hotel, this small, sculpture-filled restaurant offers beautiful modern Finnish cooking in a short, market-driven menu. £32. Arkadiankatu 14, 00 358 10 281 8242, ateljefinne.fi
Architecturally cool café and bistro in a redeveloped part of the waterfront. Classic organic burgers and salads. Food is cooked on a wood fire. £25. Hernesaarenranta 2, birgittahernesaari.com Päämaja Brew Pub One of the best of the new micro-breweries to crop up in Finland. Eat excellent sausages and ribs while sampling
the fruity Marsalkka Pale Ale. Raatihuoneenkatu 4, Mikkeli, 00 358
15 214 616, oxa.fi/paamaja
Moomin-sized, 18-seat modern restaurant with a daily-changing, set tasting menu of market-fresh Finnish ingredients. Great concepts, accomplished cooking and a laid-back atmosphere. Boasts an excellent wine list. Short/long menu: £41/55. Kasarmikatu 26, 00 358 45
305 1211, spis.fi
The popular bistro menu is based on local, seasonal ingredients cooked with skill, honesty and a welcome lack of fuss. The interior is warm and welcoming – but diners also have the option of sitting out on the terrace in the sunnier summer months. £25. Savilahdenkatu 11, Mikkeli, 00 358 15 210 663, vilee.fi
- Wild strawberry
- Pea pods
- Rye pasty filled with fish and fat pork
- Yellow chanterelles
- Karelian stew
- Slipper- shaped Karelian rye pasties usually filled with rice
- Cinnamon buns
- Pike-perch (zander)
- Cardamon-scented, braided bread
- Strong, sweetish beer made from a variety of grains
- Seisova poyta
- Buffet of savoury and sweet dishes
- Baltic herring
- Porridge in oven
- Fermented sour milk
- Lamb and herring appetiser
Food and Travel Review
Precision is a national virtue in Finland: as a result, the visitor soon learns the country has 187,888 lakes, 179,584 islands, 5,100 rapids and the one true Father Christmas. As well as a
lot of Angry Birds (yes, thank you Finland for this gift to global sanity). Plus the best strawberries in the world.
The Finns make the most of the brief summer months, when up to 20 hours of daylight means a sudden release and rush, and the dazzling growth of trees, flowers, fruit and grain. The long days and white nights bring out a sweet intensity in the berries piled into scarlet pyramids in every marketplace, served with pancakes and cream, and sold at Helsinki’s monumental modernist railway station along with pails of pea pods. There is synergy between city and the countryside, a rus in urbe that reflects the Finnish love of nature: even within the city, woods and parks create an archipelago of greenery where carpets of tiny, twinkling wild strawberries are there for the picking.
Foraging pioneer and chef Sami Tallberg explains the Everyman’s Rights code – essentially a freedom to roam anywhere except private gardens, and pick everything but protected species. A chance meeting with legendary Kentish forager Miles Irving kick- started his interest ten years ago. Although Finns have always collected berries and mushrooms and fiercely value their silent, solitary forest walks, other types of plant-hunting had, until recently, become virtually forgotten skills.
Foraging was associated with wartime hardship and, in the subsequent post-war years, rejected in favour of status-symbol, shop-bought food. Sami’s mission has been to find free food, celebrate the virtues of real, healthy produce and enlighten minds. ‘Once you understand where ingredients come from, you see their beauty and learn to respect their natural qualities with the minimum of processing,’ he says.
The chef can now recognise over 80 edible herbs and plants. ‘When I returned to Finland, I realised I was living in a green supermarket. We still celebrate the seasons but we need to make more use of the natural plants that surround us. I get so excited when I’m out foraging – I imagine how lovely the violets will be with fish or how the fern polypody is a natural lavour enhancer for game or how I’m going to use pine needles like rosemary or deep-fry nettle leaves… and then I remember I’m still in Helsinki – it’s crazy! Since I got the foraging bug, it’s given me a new angle on life, not just on gastronomy.’
The Finnish affinity with the environment has a spiritual energy. Surrounded by wood and water, granite and stone, it is apparent how the strong, clear lines of the Finnish architectural and design aesthetic takes its cue from the slender, soaring spruce and birch trees, the silver lakes and colour palette of shore, forest, clouds and sky. The dynamic buildings, glittering glass and bold ceramics are matched by a sophisticated simplicity on the plate. Just as Finns avoid unnecessary fuss and small talk, so the modern Finnish kitchen rejects extraneous clutter. As in the best design, form and function join to find the beauty of everyday things.
Ruled in turn by Sweden and Russia, Finland’s destiny was to act as an involuntary hinge between East and West. This tug has influenced the food: salmon soup and August crayfish parties on the one hand, but more rye and roots than in countries to the West, fewer saltwater fish and a hot meal always for lunch. Meatballs are ubiquitous – perhaps try them at Helsinki restaurant institution Seahorse – but whether they are Finnish or Swedish is as tricky a topic as Eurovision voting or ice hockey rivalry.
The long border with Russia has added a special accent: vodka rather than aquavit; powerful, sour rye bread; crimped rye pasties stuffed with rice or potatoes; pies filled with an intriguingly luscious mix of salt pork and the tiny vendace lake fish; soft-boned Baltic herrings dipped in rye flour and fried in butter; bitingly tart pickles; Karelian stew made with mixed meats and, sometimes, bone marrow has been voted the favourite national dish. It makes for a rugged style of cooking that is also vital and honest.
Helsinki reflects these qualities: it is a hip, edgy but contained city, not instantly beautiful but a city of second glances, from ingenious drainpipes to elegant door handles. Laid out in a grid, the cobbled boulevards are criss-crossed by tramlines that run past an eclectic mix of neo-classical, Jugend (art nouveau), art deco, modernist, Soviet-style and contemporary, cutting-edge buildings. In summer, the seascapes offer limitless possibilities – or so one can muse at Café Birgitta, an ultra-modern, eco-friendly, waterfront café designed like interlocking boxes, that serves excellent coffee and cinnamon buns. Finally, the Finns have matched their capacity for drinking boiled and stewed coffee with quality. Competition among new- wave roasters and baristas is fierce.
Although often described as such, strictly speaking Finland is not part of the Scandinavian peninsula; if anything, it is Nordic… or Baltic… or something of its own, emphasised by a practically impenetrable language that seems a deliberate ploy to prevent anyone else from understanding what they are talking about. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that the country has hitherto been overshadowed by Sweden and Denmark in the rise of the ‘new Scandinavian’ food movement. The Finns themselves put it down to reticence – they’re not shy, but they don’t self-promote in the way, they say, that a certain country beginning with ‘S’ does.
They might have suffered from a ‘middle child’ syndrome, but the brigade of young Finnish chefs now rock to their own northern vibe. Think electric Sibelius. It is telling the capital has appointed food radical Ville Relander to drive policy forward. As he says, ‘There is a kind of Scandinavian halo, but we are more good neighbours than rivals. We share an interest in local, seasonal food, though we also do our own thing in Finland. This is especially true of hugely popular events such as Restaurant Day, which happens four times a year, when anyone can set up a restaurant in their home, and Streat Helsinki, where the city is taken over by food trucks and stalls.’
And there has been a corresponding rise of artisan producers and retailers, such as ex-engineer Antti Alavuotunki, who makes fine cow’s milk cheese inside Helsinki University, the organic Anton & Anton deli chain, and the beautifully restored Old Market Hall.
Tattooed rock ’n’ rap chef Tomi Björck is known for his innovative Asian restaurants, four in Helsinki and one in Sweden. He notes an interesting parallel between Japanese and Finnish food ways. ‘Both countries go in for pickling, curing, fermentation – their wasabi is our horseradish, their sashimi our gravlax.’ Both cuisines, indeed, have a love of simplicity, minimal lines and careful attention to detail.
The determined sensation-seeker can sample reindeer meat burgers on the harbour, where the Gulf of Finland meets the Baltic Sea, should they choose to battle the hordes of cruise-ship daytrippers, although these meaty specialities are really a Lapland staple. At his classy restaurant, Nokka, Ari Ruoho serves reindeer ‘tartar’ with deep-fried lichen, vendace roe and cranberries.
But it’s no hardship to forgo reindeer, when there is such a profusion of dishes in Helsinki’s vibrant restaurant scene that cleverly pair classic ingredients with modern techniques: braised neck of pork, carrots and dill seed and memorable liquorice-spiced crème brûlée at arty Ateljé Fiine; elegant white fish roe with fennel, cucumber and elderflower at A21; Filip Langhoff’s market-driven Ask menu, as spare as the design of an Alvar Aalto chair; the playful, multi-course menu at tiny, funky Spis, where you might find scallops with lemongrass and parsnip, and nettle soup with sour milk cheese.
The traffic from country to city is not all one-way, however. In the Lakeland region of Savonia in the East, several young chefs have de-camped from Helsinki drawn by the quality of the homegrown produce: just-dug waxy new potatoes, fat asparagus, gilded chanterelles, lavish bouquets of dill, incandescent tomatoes and spring onions as large as lightbulbs.
At the delightful Vilee Bistro, housed near the art deco theatre of the market town of Mikkeli, there may be perch soup with perch quenelle or white fish home-smoked over alder wood. Historic Tertti Manor, built in the Russian vernacular, offers a lavish buffet that may feature gravlax and liquorice sauce, smoked lamb and mint jelly, veal tongue and horseradish sauce, borscht shots with horseradish leaf and sour cream, and rose petal salad with homegrown leaves.
Here in the serene countryside, from where winter travel and trade to St Petersburg was once via a chain of ice-bound lakes and frozen sea, there is both fertility – the largest rhubarb plants known to mankind, the exquisite White Finnish rose, rippling fields of grain – and old ways. Compared to the 120-year-old yeast starter used at Tertti, the dark, sour rye bread baked by Paula Okkola at the Niinipuu restaurant is based on a mere stripling of 30 years. Tending a brick oven fuelled by pine and birch, her enthusiasm is infectious, ‘You have to feel the dough, it’s all about touch and feel!’
At the Hauhala free-range goose farm it is surprising to find geese are not historically part of Finnish cuisine, but the enterprising couple who set it up a few years ago are now finding a ready market for the meat as well as for goose pâtés, feathers and down. The Ollinmäki Winery produces berry and fruit wines and a kind of tar-flavoured ‘moonshine’ (essential for dancing the stomping ‘humppa’); the Heikkilä Herb Farm offers the unexpected sight of thriving outdoor basil; and Buticken På Landet is a delightful English-style teashop on an organic dairy farm complete with scones and leaf tea.
Finland is a big country with a small population, and one of the most progressive and welfare-conscious in Europe. The quietly confident, problem-solving efficiency of the egalitarian Finns has meshed with native creativity, design genius and a whimsical streak epitomised by Tove Jansson’s iconic Moomin characters. Finns take pride in being a touch eccentric whilst not standing out from the crowd. It sounds contradictory but this probably explains the popularity of Nordic summer walking (with poles, but no skis!), mobile-phone throwing games and mosquito-killing contests.
The clarity of light sharpens minds and sensibilities. Not to mention appetites. Little matches the pleasures of fishing for perch on Lake Saimaa and cooking them over a fragrant, open fire. Or a wood-heated sauna, the knife-sharp heat followed by beer and meaty sausages grilled on juniper sticks. The pure air, ice-blue water and sky and silver-white birch trees that mirror the colours of the national flag, are both invigorating and calming. If there was a country called wellness, it would be Finland.