I'm picking chanterelles in a Finnish forest, so gloriously gold they're a snap to identify. I'm no mushroom expert, so this is my kind of foraging. And to top it off, it's free. In Finland, the forests belong to the people, and that includes tourists. Anyone can set up a stand and sell the forest's bounty without paying taxes. I pluck handfuls of wild raspberries and ripe red currants too, but rather than go into business, I eat the profits.
The Finns are modest, which may explain why the rest of the world is unacquainted with the richness of their culinary raw materials. Italian and French chefs have thumped their chests for generations, but it's only recently that young Finnish chefs had that collective, wait-a-minute realization that they had a lot to offer too. What's now called the New Nordic Kitchen is a countrywide manifesto that promotes small producers and is designed to help make Finns a little less humble, at least when it comes to gastronomy. A poll published in a Helsinki newspaper shows it is having an effect, with children listing their most desired professions as doctor, pilot and chef - in that order. In decades past, chefs were considered lowly workers.
A good place to start exploring the food scene is a shop in the heart of Helsinki, on the ground floor of the Lasipalatsi Film and Media Centre, called Maatilatori (www.lasipalatsi.fi), which translates as "farmer's market." This hip co-operative is revolutionary for the Finns, selling only locally sourced fish, heritage Kyytto beef (every bit as amazing as Kobe), gorgeous produce, traditional rye bread and artisanal cheese. The smoked herring I brought home is the most sensational I've ever tasted. Things as simple as strawberries and potatoes were more flavourful than any I've had, because of a short growing season in mineral-rich soil combined with the intensity of the Nordic midnight sun.
Maatilatori was started by a trio of cool guys, Aki Arjola, Jari Etelalahti and Eeropekka Rislakki, whose company, Eat and Joy ( www.eatandjoy.com), is dedicated to the restaurant and bar culture of Helsinki. They publish a guide, The Best 50 Restaurants in Finland, so look no further when seeking the latest places to eat.
The website sent me to Nokka ( www.royalravintolat.com/nokka), Juuri ( www.juuri.fi), Loft ( www.ravintolaloft.fi) and Atelje Finne ( www.ateljefinne.fi), all of them boasting local ingredients, cutting-edge design and chic, appreciative crowds. The guide doesn't neglect to celebrate old-school Helsinki restaurants that also have a strong commitment to Finnish cuisine, such as the iconic, Alvar Aalto-designed Savoy ( www.royalravintolat.com/savoy), and the heartwarming Kolme Kruunua ( www.kolmekruunua.fi), built in 1952 for the Helsinki Olympics.
Quality restaurants aren't cheap, but the budget-conscious have plenty of options. In the daily, year-round, cobblestoned market on the harbour are tents selling low-priced, filling meat pies and a Finnish hunters' specialty called kalakukko, rye bread pastries stuffed with fish or pork.
This was my fifth trip to Finland, pilgrimages that began several years ago after my father's genealogy search turned up long-lost relatives. From my first visit, I felt the landscape in my bones, perhaps because Finland's green fields, lakes and forests reminded me of Minnesota, where I grew up. I also discovered, to my delight, that I was the great-granddaughter of a reindeer herder. In Finland, reindeer are a popular meat product, not destined to drag Santa's sleigh. And indeed, reindeer roast, filet, shoulder and jerky are delicious, low in fat and closer to steak than venison.
On this most recent return trip, I found myself filleting a foot-long pike-perch while gazing out on the clear Baltic Sea where it had been caught. I worked a murderously sharp knife along its spine, the crack of the skeleton drowning out lapping waves and the wind whispering through the mossy forest. I was taking a lesson from Pekka Kettunen, the tall, manly chef at Westerby Gard, an elegant manor house 45 minutes southwest of Helsinki.
Westerby Gard ( www.westerby.fi), built in 1857, is on a breathtaking archipelago, and is surrounded by apple orchards and fields of oats and hay. The chanterelles I had helped pick were to be sautéed in butter and cream and ladled over the pike-perch. Chef Kettunen patiently guided me in how not to mangle the fish, then demonstrated smoking a whole salmon over alder wood, adding sugar cubes to the wood to caramelize the pink flesh. I've taken plenty of cooking classes, but this was a foraging and cooking experience like no other.
The Finns are passionate about game as well as fish, and I happened to be there during duck-hunting season. At Tertin Kartano ( www.tertinkartano.fi), another pastoral guest house in Finland's south, I stuck close to the property after I observed armed men in hunting gear. The sunlight, wildflowers and rock-walled secret gardens evoked Provence. The estate includes an excellent restaurant, a casual café, a darling gift shop and guest rooms in the former horse stables. A lunchtime buffet is served in an antique-filled dining room brightened with vases of pea shoots and kale. Platters of smoked salmon with juniper jelly, lettuces grown in the garden, wild berry and currant soup, and roasted lamb rolled in fresh herbs were just a small fraction of the abundant offerings.
No matter where you go in Finland, it's hard to resist eating continually. Even at Ainola ( www.ainola.fi), the timbered villa where Jean Sibelius, Finland's greatest composer, lived from 1904 until his death in 1957, I found myself picking crisp apples and juicy red currants in the lush backyard. When everything's for the people, why would I resist?
Special to The Globe and Mail
If you go
- When to go: Late summer and early fall is crayfish season in Finland, the culinary climax of the year. Warm, sunny weather produces abundant berries, currants and mushrooms ripe for the picking.
- Getting there: Throughout the summer (until Sept. 9), Finnair offers five non-stop flights per week from Toronto to Helsinki ( www.finnair.com).
- Getting around; Helsinki is compact and relatively flat, ideal for walking. The public tram system is easy to navigate; bikes for rent are plentiful. To reach Westerby Gard, Tertin Kartano and Ainola, rent a car.
- Where to stay
- Hotel Haven: Convenient to Helsinki's Market Square, this luxe boutique hotel featuring a new day spa has rooms starting at $209. Unioninkatu 17, Helsinki; 358-9-681-930; www.hotelhaven.fi.
- Hotel Klaus K: Small, spirited, high-design hotel with rooms starting at $185. Bulevardi 2-4, Helsinki; 358-20-770-4700; www.klauskhotel.com.
- Tertin Kartano: Rates start at $170 a night, including breakfast. Kuopiontie 68, 50350 Mikkeli; 358-15-176-012; www.tertinkartano.fi.