Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Pizza

Once upon a time there was an Italian Prime Minister who, irked that the EU chose Helsinki as the city in which to headquarter the new European Food Safety Authority, came back from a trip there and proclaimed to his countrymen that the Finns were less qualified to host any sort of food authority because their cuisine sucked.

Ok, he didn’t exactly use those words, but he actually came pretty close.

Then there was the French Prime Minister who once claimed that “After Finland, Britain is the country with the worst food.”

Fuck you, Chirac.  You may think that, but you don’t need to say it.  Dick.

Finnish cuisine really does take a beating… And to be fair, the Finns definitely aren’t known internationally for their cuisine.  But after visiting the country, I’ve determined that there really isn’t a reason they shouldn’t be known for their cuisine.  Every meal we had was fresh and delicious, and even the scarier of the foods turned out to taste pretty good.

Let’s start with dessert, because I love to start with dessert.  I picked up these lusikkaleivat (aka spoon cookies) from an old lady at the markets.  She made them from scratch and sold them in batches of 10 in little unlabelled plastic containers.  Essentially, these are the Finnish version of Danish butter cookies.  Buttery.  Sweet.  Absolutely delicious.  The jam in the middle is the traditional way of making them in Finland and was a nice touch.

Speaking of the markets, we also spotted many of these:

Lingonberries!  More commonly thought of served atop Swedish meatballs, lingonberries are native to Finland too and are found all over.  Lingonberries are a bitter berry with a very strong taste (hence why it is often served with savoury foods), but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make a great dessert too.  Our first night in Helsinki, Charlotte and I tried some whipped lingonberry porridge with white chocolate cream.  And cream is exactly what I did… Who said that?

If bitter lingonberries are at one end of the berry spectrum, then the cloudberry is at the other.  Also native to Finland, cloudberries are orange in colour and very sweet.  I’m pretty confident the cloudberry jam was the best jam I’ve ever had, and I’ve been trying hard to find it in Sydney without much luck.  We accidentally got a serving of the orange jam as part of a massive breakfast that we had at this cute little cafe that we accidentally stumbled upon.  For €15, we got all of this plus a juice and a coffee.

The cloudberry jam was served with the square block of cheese in the bottom right corner.  The cheese is called leipƤjuusto and is often referred to as Finnish squeaky cheese.  I didn’t actually realize what it was at first, but I was in love as soon as I tasted it.  It is very similar to haloumi – and I LOVE haloumi – but it’s less salty.  It goes extremely well with the sweet cloudberry jam and I REALLY want some here.

Of course, anywhere I go, I have to try the local chocolate, which for Finland, proved much better than the chocolate I tried in Estonia, Russia, or Mongolia.  Fazer is the big brand and it was good quality.

If cheese and chocolate are my first two vices, then beer is definitely my third.   I heard the beer in Finland wasn’t all that good, but I tried two local varieties and was pleasantly surprised by both.

There is also meat.  Up until very recently, the only meats I ate were chicken and turkey.  I’m not a big meat eater and didn’t even eat beef until June, lamb until July, and I had my first bite of fish (smoked salmon) only a few days before this trip.  So I surprised myself when I tried a bit of herring at the markets.  It was actually pretty good, though I only had the free sample so it was quite small.  The big ticket item, though, was not the herring… or the squeaky cheese or the cloudberry jam or the lingonberry pudding or the chocolate or the beer or the butter cookies.  It was the Italian Prime Minister:  Berlusconi.

Back when Berlusconi made his comments about Finnish cuisine, the Finns got angry.  And apparently when the Finns get angry, they get even.  And “how?” you may ask.  With pizza.  Finnish pizza.  They take an Italian staple and they Finnishize it.  And then they enter it into an international pizza competition in New York and take the gold medal, beating out the Italians who come second.  Ha!  And what did these Finns call their Finnish pizza?  The Berlusconi.  Never before in history has an entire country so elegantly and cleverly added insult to injury, and I LOVE it.  And I also loved the pizza.

Served at a chain restaurant called Koti Pizza, the pizza consists of “a dough that is high in fibre, smoked reindeer, chanterelles, and red onions”.  This was our hangover lunch after our big night out on the town, and it really hit the spot.

I ate reindeer.  I ate Rudolph.  Take that, Christmas!

So, the next time some ignorant leader from some bigger European nation makes a snarky comment about Finnish cuisine, just tell them how delicious squeaky cheese and cloudberry jam and butter cookies are, and remind them that Finland has a Berlusconi too.  And the Finns’ Berlusconi is way better than the Italian one.  What a turd.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

#44: Temppeliaukio Church

Let’s start with the old:  Suomenlinna.  Meaning “Castle of Finland”, Suomenlinna was built by the Swedes in the mid-18th century to protect their kingdom from those pesky Russians.  While Finland is a fairly obscure place today, Suomenlinna was well known at the time as being the strongest fortress in Europe.  Our tour guide told us that the equivalent would be the Titanic – unsinkable.  But just like the Titanic, Suomenlinna went down.  Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom until 1808 when Sweden lost Suomenlinna and the rest of Finland to the Russians during the Finnish War.  Today, the island fortress in the harbour is a popular weekend picnic spot for locals and a must-see tourist attraction.

Now let’s move onto the newer.  The biggest thing I was excited to see, however, was one of the items on my list of 103 Things:  Temppeliaukion kirkko, also known as the Rock Church.

It is known as the rock church because it was built into a giant rock.  That’s right. In the 1960’s, the Finns excavated a giant rock and put a church it in.  A giant dome tops the structure and lets in plenty of natural light.  Only Nordic people – with their amazing sense of design and style – would think of building a church which breaks all the molds (especially in the 1960’s…)

Of course, I was on cloud nine the entire time, though I always am when I cross one of the 103 Things off my list.  Charlotte seemed to really like it too!

For even more amazing Finnish design and style, we did a bit of window shopping at Marimekko – the quintessential Finnish design store which specializes in women’s apparel and home furnishings.

We also went to Stockmann, Finland’s main department store, but spent more time in the food hall looking at chocolate then we did at fancy Finnish clothes.  Ooops.

With design and style also comes art.  The Kiasma is Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  It was relatively small, but absolutely fantastic.

Did I mention it was a bit provocative too?

Oh my.

We also hit up the outdoor markets on the waterfront, which had amazing produce, sweets, and other foods, as well as all sorts of locally made crafts.  Glorious.

I’ve blogged about the city.  I’ve blogged about the sights.  All that’s missing now is the food… but of course, that gets a whole blog entry to itself.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Despite my big trip being centred around Russia and Mongolia, the place I was most excited to see was Helsinki.  I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve had a fascination with the Nordic countries ever since I was young.  I think it maybe has something to do with the free healthcare, safe cars, designer furniture, and all of the other statistics which rank Finland and the other Nordics at the top of nearly every quality of life, freedom, health, environmental, democracy, anti-corruption, etc. survey imaginable.  Arriving into Helsinki Airport was a sign of the amazingness to come.  Within about 10 minutes of landing, I was off the plane, passport stamped, bag collected, through customs, out the door, and waiting for a bus.  Ten minutes.  Ten.  10.  I think I’d faint from shock if that happened at Sydney Airport.

Those thinking Finland may immediately think about Nokia or reindeer or… well, probably not much else.  Honestly, how many people know anything about Finland other than that it exists and that it’s probably somewhere near Sweden?  Finland isn’t big on the world stage if you’re not paying attention.  While France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and other big European powers are like the popular kids in school – everybody knows them – Finland is the quiet kid sitting at the back of class.  You would barely know he’s there if you didn’t see him on the map once in a while.  Once you talk to him, however, you realize that oh my god he’s the coolest one in the room.  And he’s also really attractive…

Especially during autumn when the leaves were changing all sorts of colours.

Helsinki was a city of contrasts, and a beautiful one at that.  Gorgeous old buildings could be found everywhere, and each and every one of them was well-maintained, just to match the clean, litter-free streets.

It wasn’t all old and glorious - there were plenty of new construction cranes dotting the skyline showing the growth that the city and country are experiencing.  Helsinki is consistently ranked one of the ten best cities in the world to live in, so it only makes sense that more and more buildings are popping up to accommodate those seeking the good life.  When they can, the old and new were mixed together, creating some very unique architecture.

Old and new weren’t just in the architecture.  All around town were signs of traditional Finnish culture, folklore, and more.

And then there was the new influence from outside cultures, and a good sense of humour to go with it.  Exhibit A:  we went to the biggest gay club in Helsinki and got Hello Kitty stamps at the door.

More and more, Helsinki is becoming a major hub for air traffic, especially as Finnair expands with direct flights to more and more international cities.  It’s location on the great circle route for many flights between Asia and Europe also helps.  My friend Charlotte, back in London after a few years of living in Australia, jumped over to Helsinki to meet me for the weekend – just because it is really close and easy to get there.  And with more and more international exposure comes more and more international influence to complement traditional Finnish culture.  This could easily be seen in the food.  Where else can you get a chicken burrito and Corona or a cider and bowl of salmon soup at the same restaurant?  Only in Helsinki…

The Finnish people too are a reflection of the country in which they live.  They are hospitable, going out of their way to ensure visitors feel welcome and at home.  I had the pleasure of meeting up with several locals when I was there, including Fredrik from CouchSurfing.  Fredrik and his mate Jari took me and Charlotte – complete strangers – out for a night on the town.

The hospitality was everywhere.  Exhibit B:  different English pamphlets for Brits/Aussies and Americans/Canadians.  How thoughtful!  I could read both fluently.  Does this mean I’m bilingual?

And they are progressive.  Exhibit C:  Jesus and Johnny Cash.  Even the most diehard country music  fan from Bumfuck, Texas would take offense to anything which distorts Jesus’ image.  The Finns don’t give a shit.  Let’s have some fun with it!

And finally, the Finns, despite their old history with Russia, are truly Nordic, which I love.  Exhibit D:

I know I have a majority of the world’s cities still to explore, but even after seeing them all, I have a feeling that Helsinki will always be ranked near the top of my list.  It’s definitely on the list again for a second, longer visit… and third visit…

Monday, February 17, 2014

#42: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral!

As mentioned in my last post, Tallinn’s old city is gorgeous with its cobblestone streets, medieval passageways, and colourful buildings.  The entrance into the old city was a throwback to medieval times when a long wall and series of towers guarded the city.

Once inside, however, the look and feel became strictly modern Western European.  Well-maintained buildings housed fancy boutiques, cute restaurants, and more than a few souvenir shops.

For me, the jewel of the old city was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a gorgeous Russian Orthodox Church built in the late 1800’s.  As a Russian building, it was once viewed negatively by Estonians and, with many other churches under Soviet rule, was left to decline.  After independence, however, the church was restored and is now somewhat of a symbol of the city.  And what a pretty symbol it is!

Pictures weren’t allowed inside the building, unfortunately, but I snapped a few of the outside and am pleased to have crossed this site off my list of 103 Things.

Aside from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, I also visited St Olav’s Church.

While the architecture itself wasn’t as grandiose as the Nevsky, the best part of this church was its tower.  A narrow, winding 258 steps led up to the top where sweeping views of the city could be found.  When I arrived in the morning, the skies were gray and dreary, but somewhere between step 1 and step 258, the sun did me a favour and poked out.

I wandered around more of the old city, hitting up the medieval street of Katariina Kaik, following the old city walls, and finding my way to Raekoja Plats, the central square.

I also visited the hilariously named Kiek in de Kok (ok, it’s only hilarious if you’re English-speaking and immature like me, but come on… kick in the cock!)  The name actually means something along the lines of “peep into the kitchen” because of the ability of occupants in the tower to look down into homes and other buildings.  The tower was one of many surrounding Tallinn and contained cannons and other artillery to protect the city.  Nowadays, it contains a museum about the city.  Of course, I was instantly drawn to the maps portion of the museum and learned that Estonia once belonged to the Swedish Empire.

Atop a one of the city’s hills, my big walking tour wound down at one of the best viewpoints over the whole city.

It was from this point that I could really see the old versus the new represented in the buildings in the background.

Tallinn was a surprising and enchanting city, and while I was sad to leave, I was excited to get back across the gulf and check out what Helsinki had on offer.