Before visiting Finland I didn’t realise what I was going to get myself into. I’d like to get one thing clear. I’m not a big seafood eater. In fact, I don’t use the “F” word very much. I’m talking about FISH. Probably one too many bad experiences when I was a kid and it turned me off most seafood. The rare occasions when I have eaten fish in Australia involved it being deep-fried, slathered with tartar sauce and lemon juice to mask the fishy flavour. Then in Greece earlier this year I experienced a fresh grilled fish dish that opened my mind. I’ve proceeded with caution and have been stung with bad fish dishes in Bulgaria, but that didn’t turn me off.
When I visited my first restaurant in Finland, I quickly realised that fish would dominate every menu. I couldn’t ignore it. So I took a deep breath, lifted the fork to my mouth and tasted… and waited… Hmmm, maybe I missed something, but this actually tasted GOOD! In fact, it tasted damn good. Ka-pow!
I may not convert to Pescetarianism but I’ve found how delicious fish should taste. Finland is my new benchmark, and it’s sure set that benchmark high.
In the 4 days I toured around the Saimaa region in the southeast of Finland, every meal included fish and every meal was spectacular. So if I, as a fish-sceptic, can be converted, anyone can.
What to eat?
The freshwater lakes in the Saimaa region are home to Salmon, Pike Perch, and Perch, amongst other types of fish. These 3 tend to dominate the menus at Finnish restaurants, and with good reason. Since they are locally caught and freshly prepared, the delicate sweet flavours are retained without the nasty fishy taste. In fact, if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t even know its fish.
You simply cannot visit Finland without gorging on fish.
Another long-time culinary foe of mine. But, unlike fish, I still haven’t been converted. The strong aniseed flavour of liquorice is polarising – you either love it or hate it. The much-loved local Salmaik is something you’ll need to try at least once. It’s actually salty and pretty intense. Many Finns swear by the stuff, so find out for yourself what all the fuss is about.
But liquorice doesn’t stop there. You can find it hidden in all sorts of other foods. In particular, one noticeable variation was ice cream. Either made with an obvious dark charcoal tinge, or a lighter variety with swirls of dark stuff, the liquorice-flavoured dessert didn’t win me over either, but it did make believers out of other folks I shared the meal with. So you never know.
Ok, I’ll just put this straight into the “weird” category. I’m not sure how anyone can hold down the super sour flavour of this fruity juice drink. If this florescent orange beverage doesn’t make your lips pucker, nothing will. The common name for the berries that make this drink is “Sea Buckthorn”. And to top off the weirdness, it’s actually pretty good for you since it’s jam-packed with more Vitamin C in one small bottle than an armful of oranges.
In line with Everyman’s Rights, anyone is allowed to forage for berries in Finland – even on private property. My favourite 2 varieties were blueberries and lingonberries. These can be added to just about dish, you name it – juices, cocktails, pancakes, even fish dishes. Or just enjoy these little beauties by themselves. The acidic tones can brighten your day – so I’d suggest just pick a handful and open wide.
Elk & Moose
Maybe not at the same time. While these meats may be run-of-the-mill for Scandinavians, it seemed pretty exotic to me. At least they’re not quite as cute as the popular reindeer meat. If you’re a fan of beef, you’ll probably like elk and moose. Similar in texture and flavour, yet still unique in their own way. These 2 meats increased my tally on the “Josh versus nature” scoreboard as I try virtually any possible edible meat as I travel around the world. My motto is that you have to try it at least once.
Where to eat?
Delicious Finnish food can be found around every corner. It’s surprisingly easy – from hotel restaurants, to eateries in the middle of busy towns, to the more isolated how-did-anyone-find-this-place joints.
But if you’re looking for the most authentic experience, try a meal in a “kota”. It looks like a wooden igloo or tepee, with a steep pointed roof, and single room inside for cooking and eating. The diners usually sit in a circle around the edge of the room, and it sets a friendly atmosphere to enjoy a hearty meal and a few laughs.
And finally, any trip to Finland will have to involve a smoke sauna. So don’t let your tastebuds miss out while you sweat yourself silly. A few icy cold drinks and snacks (with salmon) will never go astray.
So where should I really eat?
Here’s a list of the places I enjoyed a meal in Finland, and in very rare fashion, I’d be happy to recommend each one.
Anttolanhovi, Anttola – Part of a holiday complex, the main restaurant is quite family-friendly with a kids play area inside, and an outdoor playground as well. Add to that the beautiful view over Lake Saimaa and local specialities and you’ve got a great combo.
Try: variety of local salads, grilled Salmon, liquorice ice cream.
Sahanlahti Resort, Puumala – This was an amazing dinner experience. Our meal was prepared by an experienced chef who lovingly used only the freshest local ingredients. Vegetables were sourced from a farmer 2kms away. We ate in the Pajapirtti restaurant, but the resort also has 2 other dining options on-site.
Try: raspberry & lingonberry cocktails, country style salad, potato salad, goose pate with lingonberry mayonnaise, flame grilled local salmon, pike perch, and finally topped off with pancakes and blueberries for dessert.
Restaurant Niinipuu, Puumala – A cute country setting with delicious buffet lunch. Part of Okkola Holiday Cottages, they also offer holidaymakers gorgeous wooden cabins complete with kayak and outdoor equipment.
Try: grilled salmon, range of salads, blueberry leaf drink.
Harjun Portti's tepee, Punkaharju – This unique shaped structure provided the traditional dining experience found in the north of Finland. In addition to the tepee, the company also offers outdoor equipment rental, a range of cottages, café, and plenty of activities.
Try: salmon soup, variety of salads, mash potato, moose stew.
Jarvisydan Resort, Rantasalmi – A gorgeous medieval themed restaurant. The history of the area dates back to 1658, and they also have an impressive medieval style banquet hall available for hire. Even the wait staff are dressed to match the part. After you’ve eaten up, kayaks can be hired for padding around the lake.
Try: elk entre, grilled perch, and finished off with French toast for dessert.
Bistro Ville, Mikkeli – One of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had in my entire life. Don’t be put off by their simplistic website. All the creative energy in this restaurant happens in the kitchen. The ingredients are treated with respect and I could taste the love put on each plate. A rare 10 out of 10 for me.
Try: salad with goose pastrami, grilled perch & pureed carrot, chocolate mousse with mint.
Gastropub Eino, Mikkeli - Even though this is an unsuspecting pub that serves food, the quality of the dish I tried was impressive. The pork was melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.
Try: pan fried pork with bacon and root vegetables.
Café Espland, Helsinki – This is the bakery where locals in the know go. The location is excellent, across the road from the Esplanadi park. And while the atmosphere and coffee is average, the pastries and cakes are out of this world.
Try: carrot cake (and anything else you can get your hands on).
Wrap up this tasty goodness already!
So there you have it. You now know what to look for when eating in Finland. Fish, fish and more fish. And if you’re like me and some of the dishes sound a bit outside your comfort zone, then that could be a good thing. After all, memorable holidays start with memorable food, and you’ll find that in spades in Finland.