I write a lot about food tours it seems and there’s a good reason for that. Not only do I just really enjoy them, but I think they’re the perfect way to quickly learn about a new city and its culture. Through food we learn not just about the culinary habits of the locals, but the history, culture and traditions that make the city and even the country tick. They’re a type of walking tour I always look for and in Helsinki, while the options were more limited, I did find a great tour to join and even on a cold and rainy day in the Finnish capital, I was warmed by the bites and stories I enjoyed that day.
My guide from met me in front of the Old Market Hall along the waterfront, she too was eager to get out of the miserable elements. Food halls not only in Europe, but around the world are making a comeback mostly for shoppers who want to incorporate fresh, local ingredients in their daily lives. In Helsinki, the Old Market Hall reminded me of so many others I’ve visited, offering a little bit of everything from fresh meats, cheeses, breads and vegetables to small cafes and restaurants using those same ingredients to create delicious meals and snacks for people on the go.
Finnish food culture is still in large part fairly traditional. Meats and hearty stews and soups are all common and are cherished. Touring the Market Hall I tried a little bit of everything, from dried reindeer to locally made cheeses to make the perfect snack combination. At its base, the flavors of Finnish food seem familiar and homey, they’re not too crazy or daring, but instead I found them to be comfortable and almost always delicious.
A lot of what I tried though on my Helsinki food tour wasn’t savory, but on the sweeter side. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed my time in Finland so much, like me they appreciate sweets and pastries, but they also especially love coffee.
You can’t talk about food in Finland without mentioning the fact that Finland consumes more coffee per capita than any other nation. That’s an astounding fact if you think about it, Finland beats out coffee crazed cultures like the US, Italy, Austria and Australia to take the mantle of most caffeinated. As a big coffee fan myself, I felt the need to investigate the coffee culture in Finland and what I discovered was a little surprising. The average Finn consumes around 26 pounds of coffee a year, but nearly all of that is in the form of a light roasted filter coffee. As an American, filter coffee is my preferred way to consume the beverage, but increasingly it’s a rarity around the world. In most other countries I’ve visited, from Europe to Australia, espresso-based coffees are the norm. Long blacks, flat whites and their equivalents are typically what you find in local coffee shops. I grew up drinking filtered coffee though, and it remains my favorite and so I was thrilled to find it everywhere in Finland. Not only do I prefer the taste, but I also prefer the convenience. Ordering an espresso-based coffee is a process, usually an expensive one, whereas filtered coffees can be lugged around in giant thermoses or vats, ready to be poured.
More than the statistics though, coffee is just a normal part of life in Finland. Talking with an expat living in Helsinki, she told me that she doubts most Finns realize how much coffee they drink. It’s just a normal part of the day, grabbing a cup in the morning or taking a much-valued coffee break at work; consuming coffee blends in with every other natural part of the day. Finns may not have the same sort of Fika culture that Sweden enjoys, but they do take great stock in the coffee house and enjoying something to eat along with their favorite beverage. Eating at the Fazer Cafe, the famous chocolate manufacturer has created a basic but excellent place to warm up and enjoy something hearty while chatting with friends. Throughout the year a variety of cakes and other sweets are available, some seasonal favorites are around for just a few weeks, but the one staple pasty you’ll always find here, or anywhere else in Finland is the Korvapuusti. Just one variety of Finnish Pulla, or sweet pastry, Korvapuusti are found everywhere and at every time of day, from breakfast to a late night snack. They’re traditional, they’re cheap and they’re delicious. However, if you think you’re buying a cinnamon roll, you’re not. Well, sort of. The Korvapuusti in particular do have cinnamon, but the rolls aren’t nearly as sweet as what we have in the US. But what’s more interesting to me is that other forms of pulla or pastries actually use cardamom instead of cinnamon. The taste is different from what I was used to, but I quickly grew to love them as much as I do their sugary cousins here at home.
Throughout the course of the afternoon we ambled around town, trying local favorites like that pulla I mentioned and learning more about Finland’s great love of candy, including the often maligned (and rightly so) salmiakki. It would be easy to simply call salmiakki licorice, but that’s not quite accurate. Salmiakki is a variety of licorice that is flavored with ammonium chloride, which gives it a salty or astringent taste. I don’t like licorice on the best of days, but I knew how important salmiakki is in Finland and so of course I decided to try it. Immediately I thought something had died in my mouth. The taste was overwhelming and downright awful. The literature all says that salmiakki is an acquired taste, but that’s being exceedingly diplomatic. I think instead that it’s a food you have to simply grow up eating, otherwise acquiring a taste for it is a long and probably arduous process. But it’s important to try. It’s important to sample these bites, even though we may not like them, in order to better understand new cultures and ultimately to better relate to the people who live there. Will I be ordering a supply of salmiakki at home? No, but I’m proud I at least gave it a shot.
The tour ended at yet another food hall, one a bit more modern where I saw Helsinki’s creative side on full display. Ramen shops and former food truck concepts turned brick and mortar exist alongside more traditional soup stations and coffee bars. It was a great representation of Finnish food all in one place. A little quirky, a little traditional and a little fun, but almost always delicious. Except for the salmiakki, that’s death in confectionery form.