Food in Finland?

Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
Trip End Nov 04, 2011

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Monday, June 20, 2011

As soon as I boarded the train from St Petersburg to Helsinki I thought to myself, "ah - this must be a Finnish train". So sleek and quiet and punctual. Not that I'd had any particularly bad experiences with Russian trains but as I was on my way to Scandinavia, all those images of an orderly country were coming to mind. I'd been to Helsinki Airport twice before but that doesn't count. Also, I'd been to two other Scandinavian countries - Sweden and Denmark - so I kind of knew what to expect in Finland. My expectations of Finland were pretty high. I was imagining a city where everything works so smoothly and you can almost hear a pin drop. On the train I headed over to the restaurant car and had a tasty lunch of Finnish meatballs with mashed potato, berries and an Australian wine to wash it all down. Yes - Australian wine was all the rage on this train and although it was 10 euros a glass, it was so nice to be able to sit back and watch the Finnish forests pass by while anticipating my arrival.

Getting from the station to the hotel in Helsinki was as easy as I predicted. No hills, no dreadful intersections and no traffic. I could have done it all with my eyes closed. Since St Petersburg, the weather in this region had deteriorated somewhat and it was resembling Sydney in winter. Grey skies and about 18 degrees with occasional rain. Time to rummage around the suitcase for warmer clothing. It didn't bother me that it was summer and I was having to wear heavier clothes. After all, I've been carrying this luggage around for months now so it was good to get a chance to wear warm clothing again. Not only did I have good feelings about Finland as a country but I also had a good vibe about the hotel - and I was right!

The Torni Hotel is a part of the Sokos chain and for 120 euros a night (cheap for Finland) this hotel is fantastic! Yes - Finland is extortionately expensive but I was only here for one night and my main priority was to find a hotel within walking distance of the station and I hit the jackpot. The bedroom was like a hospital ward and I know that sounds depressing but try to imagine a hospital room where you'd actually want to stay if you were sick. Lots of stainless steel frames and an open bathroom with typically Scandinavian furniture and design to make it feel like something out of an IKEA showroom. As tempting as it was to stay in the hotel room while the weather outside was looking miserable, I forced myself to have a look around Finland's modest capital city. The fact that it was raining didn't bother me and it actually felt like it should be raining. After all, this is not the tropics.

Being an overnight stop, I didn't have huge plans for my stay in Helsinki and as far as capital cities go, there isn't much to offer. It's not an extremely beautiful city but it has a certain charm that makes people feel automatically drawn to it and I'm not sure if I can pin-point that precise charm but I think it's a combination of order and friendly service. Almost everyone speaks English and I know that's contrary to my reasons for travelling but after really trying hard with languages like Russian and Arabic, I felt like a soldier on an R&R weekend. All of a sudden I could let my hair down and not have to worry about language difficulties. Of course, I learnt a few Finnish words and phrases but my advice to anyone who visits Finland - and this totally goes against everything I preach to people travelling abroad - is that it's not necessary to learn any Finnish to get by here. None at all! However, it never hurts to learn a few basics like "thank you" and "good morning" etc and I'm sure I experience excellent hospitality as a result of my efforts to use the local language.

All the time I was walking around Helsinki and enjoying its calm and orderly vibe, I couldn't stop thinking of a comment that was made by the French prime minister, Nicholas Sarkovsky. I'm quite sure it was him that said it. He once commented that Finnish cuisine is the worst in Europe in his opinion and it didn't go down well in Finland, as you can imagine. It's quite offensive to speak negatively about a country's cuisine when you're in a position of diplomacy and I really felt for the Finnish people. I don't share his opinion about Finnish food and in one evening I was able to prove him wrong. Food in Finland is as good as it is anywhere else. 

As it gets dark quite late in this part of the world in summer it's easy to forget that it's almost midnight. When I realised I hadn't eaten since being on the train it was already quite late so most of the restaurants were closed. Not to worry. There's always street food. As it's my mission to avoid all those multinational food chains, I eventually came across a little food stall in the middle of the city that sold typical Finnish street food. Like most places around the world, you can get your versions of kebabs, fries, burgers and pizzas but this particular stand had some real Finnish treats. I tried something called Lihapulla Perunat which is a combination of fries, meatballs, some type of green salad like sauerkraut and a bit of ketchup and mayonnaise. It may not sound like the sort of thing you'd find in a fancy restaurant but it was very tasty! So I'd like to challenge Mr Sarkovsky to find me something similar on the streets of Paris. When I was last in Paris I tried so hard at 11pm to find something typically French and I had to walk for over half an hour, passing three McDonald's stores, several pizzerias, kebab stores and lots of sushi restaurants until I could find something French. The finest restaurants in Paris may have some very fine food on their menus but the average Parisian doesn't spend hundreds of euros a week on expensive French food in Michelin star restaurants. The average Parisian eats Vietnames pho, sushi, hamburgers and lots of pizza. Not much different to Finland really.

The breakfast in the hotel that next morning has to go down as the most amazing breakfast on this trip so far. It was an absolute banquet of all that is Finnish and while I've eaten the occasional croissant with coffee in Paris for breakfast, I was astounded at the variety in this Finnish hotel and if I wasn't so concerned about how much food I'm eating on this trip I could have stayed in there for hours. I'm addicted to the meatballs and there's a chocolate milk drink sold in stores here that is truly out of this world. So what does it mean to be the worst country in Europe for food and how is that determined? Dig deep and you will find! In fact, I didn't have to dig deep in Helsinki at all. I passed many Finnish restaurants that displayed a very tempting menu of everything from abundant seafood to smoked reindeer. To finish the evening (finish with something Finnish?) I went into a bar and had a wonderfully creamy salmon soup with one of Finland's finest beers. Now - where would I find that in Paris? Tell me. At one o'clock in the morning when it's starting to get dark? Not a chance. 
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