In the hands of innovative chefs, Finland's local ingredients come into their own at new Helsinki restaurants, writes Leisa Tyler.
In years gone by, Nordic food was considered as glum as northern Europe's winter sun. Perhaps spurred on by the success of what is being dubbed "new Nordic cuisine" and the trailblazing kitchen of Rene Redzepi and his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, or perhaps influenced by the locavore movement sweeping the restaurant world, the cuisine from the far northern reaches of continental Europe is experiencing a revolution.
Discarding imported products and the borrowed culinary styles of France and Italy - traditionally very influential in Nordic countries - chefs have been turning their focus inward and rediscovering the bounty of their own gastronomic heritage.
The trend has swept through Denmark, Sweden and Norway; some of their chefs are rated among the best in the world. Now the spotlight is turning to Finland.
Until now, Finnish cuisine was best known as the object of diplomatic blunders, such as when the French president Jacques Chirac sniped that Finland had even worse food than Britain. When the European Commission decided to station the European Food Safety Authority in Helsinki, the-then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi opposed it, arguing he had been to Finland and endured its cooking.
Heavy in berries, pickled and preserved tubers and cabbages, meaty stews of moose and reindeer and wholesome breads of sourdough and sprouted rye, Finland's cuisine was hearty but often bland, yet was well-suited to the country's long, cold winters. Globalisation and new-found wealth in the mid-20th century saw trendier, easier-to-prepare European foodstuffs move into mainstream diets. But now cuisine culture is turning a full circle: playing with age-old cooking traditions, wild herbs collected from the country's vast meadows and spruce forests and locally grown vegetables and meats, Finnish chefs are rediscovering the bounty of their heritage.
"I think the Noma phenomena woke us Finnish chefs up," says Sasu Laukkonen, the genteel owner-chef of Chef & Sommelier Restaurant, a cosy 20-seat space in Helsinki. "It made us think about our own backyards."
Laukkonen has just come in from a morning spent harvesting wild lingonberries with his young daughter. He is considering using the sour little red fruits, which grow on a stubby evergreen shrub, with chocolate and other locally grown berries for tonight's dessert.
Laukkonen will serve the dessert after a clutch of ocean- and farm-to-table dishes: crayfish plucked from the frigid waters of northern Finland and made into bisque before being topped with tart apples; fall-off-the-bone lamb from the Baltic Sea's Aland Islands that has been cooked for 14 hours and teamed with heirloom potatoes; whitefish with fennel; a buttery beef tartare with horseradish and parmesan mayonnaise. They will be accompanied by slices of perfectly elastic and nutty sourdough and rye bread with rosemary, which Chef & Sommelier's tiny kitchen of three staff cook from scratch and serve with whipped organic butter made especially for the restaurant by a local dairy farmer.
The food is simple, unpretentious and an ode to Finland. "Ten years ago we wouldn't have dreamt of serving Finnish lamb," Laukkonen tells me. "Now that is all we serve, as well as locally grown organic fruits and vegetables. We have started to believe in our own produce."
At Restaurant Olo, an elegant charcoal and white 48-seat restaurant tucked under an office building in Helsinki's central business district, chef Pekka Terava serves Finnish lamb reared in the western province of Kiikala, preparing tender medallions with beetroot and swede covered with a beef emulsion.
Terava's cooking is innovative and refined, and aims to take guests on what he calls a culinary trip through Finland - from the archipelago of islands in the Baltic Sea to the frozen creeks of Northern Lapland. The pickled herring with cucumber foam I am served as a starter is light, tart and fresh; the succulent, slow-cooked pork that comes next is served with ylatasanqon potato, a ruby red species that dates from the Viking era. But the star dish at Olo is the dessert: rich liquid liquorice teamed with velvety marshmallows, crystallised strawberry mousse and tangy raspberry sorbet.
The Finnish locavore movement received a big push when, a few years ago, chef Sami Tallberg released a book listing 75 wild edible herbs and plants that can be found in the country. Now in its fifth edition Villiyrtti has become a bible for local chefs hoping to expand their repertoire beyond the marketplace.
Tallberg began his fascination with foraged herbs under the auspices of British author Miles Irving, who made his name highlighting edible weeds that can be found on London streets. Returning to Helsinki, Tallberg began nibbling on the berries, lichens and herbs growing in the Finnish forest, looking for replacements for ethically questionable ingredients often associated with luxury and fine-dining. He replaced foie gras - the fatty liver of force-fed ducks and geese - with burbot liver, a seasonal fish whose liver can grow to 150 grams and which Tallberg says "is definitely equal [to], if not even better than, foie gras". And he replaced caviar - sturgeon roe which in many countries has become endangered or extinct due to the harvest of its eggs - with the roe from vendace, a native freshwater fish.
Tallberg says the biggest advantage of the locavore movement sweeping Finland is that diners have started to think about what they are eating. "There is more respect for the seasons and for the origin of ingredients," he says. "And there is more respect for vegetables, especially root vegetables."
Straddling the Arctic Circle, Finland isn't exactly blessed with vegetable-growing weather. Traditionally Finns have pickled, brined, dried and even buried ingredients under the snow to keep them edible through the long winters, when snow covers the ground for up to seven months and the sun appears for only a few hours a day; such traditions are back into vogue.
High on Tallberg's must-visit list is Restaurant Ask, a smart and intimate 22-seat diner that opened on a quiet residential street near the Helsinki Cathedral last September, overseen by Swedish Finn Filip Langhoff and his wife, Linda. Langhoff has been storming the Finnish culinary world with his artistic and delicately presented take on organic herbs and root vegetables that he mostly sources from a town called Heinola, 50 kilometres south of Helsinki.
With this in mind I sit down to one of Langhoff's eight-course dinners. It includes a salad of pickled celeriac with elderflower vinaigrette, an innovative combination producing a unique sweet and floral taste. Up next is a slightly oversalted thumb of eel resting on slices of tart apple. Thinly sliced slivers of swede and turnip have been topped with even thinner shavings of raw cow. Lamb has been cooked on the bone and served with baby turnip - leaves, stalks and all - which Langhoff recommends we at least try.
In each of the dishes the ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves. Langhoff keeps his cooking simple, without too much meddling, although as with most Finnish restaurants I find many of the dishes oversalted; traditionally salt was the key flavour-enhancer in Finland and the new wave of modern chefs use it more liberally than I am accustomed to.
Laid-back 18-seat Spis also takes its vegetables seriously. The small industrial-chic diner with exposed ducts, wooden floorboards and naked brick walls, which opened on a back-street in the central business district last year, fashions its entire daily tasting menu around seasonal vegetables, with only one fish dish and one red meat dish on the menu at any one time.
"It takes a lot of innovation to work with the same vegetables throughout winter," Spis restaurant manager Jani Kinanen tells me.
Innovative, Spis is. Teaming each dish with organic or natural wines, which Kinanen has sourced from his travels, Spis presents an intriguing experience. My meal starts with a refreshing and very tasty amuse bouche of tiny goblets of carrot and parsnip with a wild mushroom pate teamed with a cloudy, cider- scented, unfiltered chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. The ice-cream with seven types of wild herbs and flowers is a little odd, especially as it arrives as the second course of the degustation meal. Things get back on track with a spectacular mushroom emulsion solidified with made-in-Finland Gruyere cheese. The tart, sweet, fungi, creamy, cheesy dish is absolutely delectable, and a perfect match for the smoky Slovenian orange wine Kinanen pours.
As in all the restaurants I tried in Helsinki, some dishes at Spis work better than others. But admiration comes not for the taste, but for the foresight of these clever young chefs to use the bounty of their land and to start paving a new road for little-known Finnish cuisine.
In the words of Jani Kinanen, "Finland has a whole new generation of chefs growing up". The future for them is bright indeed.
Leisa Tyler travelled courtesy of Finnair and the Finnish Tourism Board.
Getting there Finnair has a fare to Helsinki for about $1750 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Hong Kong (about 9hr with a partner airline) and then to Helsinki (11hr); see finnair.com.
Staying there At 14 storeys high, the Sokos Hotel Torni is one of the tallest buildings in Helsinki. Double rooms from €192 ($246); see sokoshotels.fi.
Klaus K Hotel is a 173-room hotel in a 19th-century building. Double rooms from €161; see klauskhotel.com.
Eating there Restaurant Chef & Sommelier is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday; set menus from €44; chefetsommelier.fi.
Olo is open for lunch Monday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; lunch from €39; olo-ravintola.fi.
Restaurant Ask is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; set two-course lunches from €25; restaurantask.com.
Spis is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday; mains from €18; spis.fi.