Helsinki Tastes, From Vorschmack To Garlic
by Fred Ferretti
It is not possible to wander around Helsinki without happening upon
some memento of Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. All over the open, airy capital
of Finland are recurring images in bronze and stone, street signs, photographs,
and etchings of his austere mustached face — lest any resident forget,
or any traveler fail to inquire about, this quintessential European aristocrat
who was, in the early part of this century, field marshal of Finland's armies,
the country's regent, architect of its independence, and president of its
Through the heart of Helsinki runs a broad boulevard and tram route,
and its name is Mannerheimintie. In front of the city's main post office,
just off Mannerheimintie, is an equestrian statue of Mannerheim, several
times larger than life-sized. On a bluff overlooking Helsinki's harbor,
on an arc of a street called Kalliolinnantie, is the Mannerheim Museum,
once its namesake's home, which draws visitors through the public life
of this remarkable man who is without question Finland's national hero,
the beloved "Marski."
Born in 1867, Mannerheim was of Finnish-Swedish-Dutch ancestry and grew
up in Finland, then part of Russia. He was commissioned in the czarist
cavalry after graduating from the elite Nikolai Cavalry Academy and served
in the Russo-Japanese War. From 1906 to 1908, on an information-gathering
assignment from the Russian General Staff, he journeyed on horseback eight
thousand miles through the northwest frontier of Turkistan to China, all
the way to Peking. This trek is preserved in a multitude of photographs,
many of which are displayed in his house, along with rich carpets, silks,
tapestries, porcelains, gold tiles from the mosque of Samarkand, and Tibetan
Buddhas, truly an awesome display of the breadth of one man's desire to
Mannerheim rose to become major general; then cavalry brigade commander;
and, in World War I, lieutenant general and then corps commander. But
after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 he returned to Finland,
there to be appointed commander-in-chief of the so-called White Army in
his country's civil war, a struggle that led to Finland's independence
from Russia. Mannerheim was the nation's regent in 1918-19, was made field
marshal in 1933; and became supreme commander of its defense forces with
the onset of World War II. At the age of seventy-two he commanded the
Finnish forces that twice in 1939 repelled massive Russian attempts to
invade Finland in what the Finns call the Winter War; and at seventy-five,
in 1942 he was named marshal of Finland. From 1944 to 1946 he served as
Finland's president. He died in 1951, by all accounts a stern, proper,
unyielding man, a rider and a hunter, until the end.
On my most recent stay in Helsinki I went to his house-museum for the
third time, to spend a couple of hours simply musing upon and marveling
at his life; to admire his huge roll top desk and his library filled with
books in Russian, German, French, Swedish, English, and of course Finnish,
all languages he spoke fluently; to appreciate his aesthetic eye, which
could evidently spot the artistry and integrity of a carved ivory miniature,
a small gilded Buddha, a patch of woven carpet, or a desert tent. Mannerheim
was nevertheless an ascetic man, it is said, a disciplinarian and a hero
in every sense of that overused word. Visit him in Helsinki.
Perhaps eat with him as well. In his later years, Mannerheim would often
dine at the restaurant Savoy, which opened on what happened to be his
seventieth birthday, June 4, 1937, and has remained unchanged for more
than a half century. This extraordinarily beautiful restaurant —
with its hedged terrace jutting out over the trees lining Helsinki's Esplanade
shopping street — was the creation of Alvar Aalto, surely one of
Finland's, and Europe's most influential and honored architects and designers.
The décor is of carved and rounded, stained and polished, birch;
the seating padded with black leather. Ceilings and walls are of olive-wood-grained
blocks. Aalto's free-form vases, know throughout the world, adorn the
restaurant. The lighting fixtures, the serving stations, even the coat
racks are Aalto's — the same as when the Savoy opened.
At the far end of the restaurant is a corner banquette, and on the two
walls that meet there is an etching of Marshal Mannerheim, in full medal,
and a small bronze plaque identifying the bench as his customary luncheon
seat. To be sure, was my reply when I was asked if I would care to sit
in the marshal's seat for lunch. And, I added, I would like as well to
have the dishes that Mannerheim would have eaten then.
"Agreed," said Gero Hottinger, the Savoy's chef de cuisine. "Starting
with a schnapps, the way Marski had it." He explained that the first time
the field marshal came in, the story goes, he asked for a schnapps, "but
he didn't like what was served. So several schnapps were tested and mixed,
including one we now call Marskin ryyppy," or Marshal's schnapps, to create
a taste he would like. Also, he preferred his schnapps very cold and insisted
that the glasses be frozen. If not, he would send them back to the kitchen.
And the glasses had to filled until the schnapps rose above the brims.
He had a steady hand and wanted to test all other hands." Like many other
things in Finland, this Marskin ryyppy is often called simply Marski.
I told chef Hottinger that I possessed a steady hand and also preferred
my schnapps cold. A frozen glass arrived, with schnapps beading the brim.
I brought it to my lips and drank, without spillage.
"Good," chef Hottinger smiled. "The marshal's memory approves."
Mannerheim was an unwavering creature of habit, the chef said, noting
that the marshal's breakfast, first served to him by his mother, never
changed during his lifetime. "Always he had two soft-boiled eggs in a
glass, coffee with milk, and toasted homemade bread with marmalade. And
his newspaper. For lunch it was vorschmack."
Vorschmack was either a Mannerheim creation "or it was brought from
the Russian court — we are not sure," Hottinger said Lamb and beef
are roasted with onions. When done the meats and onions are ground together
with salted herring and anchovies. The mixture is heated with a bit of
water and garlic until it boils. Then it is allowed to simmer for many
hours. Gravy from the roast is added, along with black pepper, and the
vorschmack is ready to be served. It comes in a mass, quite like a hash,
with smetana (sour cream), the way Mannerheim enjoyed it, and with potatoes.
My vorschmack was brought as I sat in the marshal's seat. I tasted it
and decided that Mannerheim had known his food as well as his battle tactics.
The wonderful, pungent preparation, redolent of its ingredients, was a
satisfying dish, but chef Hottinger insisted that Marski always ate it
as a first course, and therefore I was obliged to have some of the other
Mannerheim favorites. Following the vorschmack came a fillet of pike perch,
grilled, brushed with butter, and served with grated horseradish — marvelous,
direct food. As was a dessert of apple baked in a ramekin with vanilla
sauce and a touch of Madeira. "We call it Marski's apple pie," said the
I await with eagerness my next visit to Helsinki, so once again I may
share a vorschmack with the marshal of all Finland.
Around our wooden benches were beds of chives and oregano, four kinds
of mint and two of tarragon, thyme, lovage, lavender, dill, and the sorrel
that in Finland is called "salt grass." On a grill nearby lay a fat wild
salmon and a sea bream (fish the Finns call meri-lohi and lahna respectively),
cooking gently. Salt had been rubbed into the fish three hours earlier,
and the aromatic smoke enveloping them came from the alder wood chips
burning beneath them and the cubes of sugar that had been dropped into
the chips and filtered through the matted layers of chervil on which the
fish rested. We were in the fragrant backyard of Kati Nappa, who is best
described as Finland's Julia Child.
Each morning in Helsinki, Kati conducts a televised cookery program,
"Katin Keitti," or "Kati's Kitchen," demonstrating on Good Morning Finland
the many ways to prepare Finland's indigenous meats, the exquisite fish
that swim in native lakes and rivers, and the fine vegetables and fruits
of the country. My wife, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, had earlier in the day been
a guest on "Katin Keitti" and had steamed a Finnish salmon trout in the
Chinese manner, with spring onions, ginger, shredded pork, and sesame
oil, as Kati translated her English commentary into Finnish for the television
audience. It was after this that she invited us for lunch at her home
Espoo is a rustic suburb of Helsinki, about ten miles west of the Finnish
capital, and we had arrived to the aromas of Kati's herb gardens, of fish
grilling — courtesy of Pertti, Kati's husband — and of morels
and nettles steaming together on a stove. Pertti is a city planner who
took an old rooming house, now their home, and personally finished its
interior with varnished birch and pine slats; built a small sauna, the
efficacy of which I can confirm, and added a glass-enclosed porch, where
he placed Kati's homemade benches and her grandmother's rattan chair.
The house, the herbs, and the earthen terraces of the grounds are shaded
by tall oaks, firs, and birches. It was in this mottled light that we
sat and smelled and watched as Kati cut up tomatoes and cucumbers into
a bowl, pulled sprigs of chervil and oregano from a garden bed and dropped
them in, sprinkled with salt and pepper, added olive oil and balsamic
vinegar, and mixed our salad. When Pertti pronounced the fish done, we
went to the porch, where on the table Kati had already set steamed yellow
potatoes dressed with feathery dill along with the morels and nettles
tossed with butter and nutmeg. "We have so many nettles we have to eat
them or we will be overrun," Kati said.
We lifted sections of the fish onto our plates. It was absolutely moist
and magnificent, tasting of salt and smoke, and perfectly matched with
the accompaniments. We drank icy bottles of Alsace wine with the meal.
"Good?" asked Kati.
"Very," I replied. "Very, very."
"Thank you Pertti."
Then Kati brought out her kakku. A kakku is a popular cake. Kai's variation
of it was basically a layer of baked meringue spread with créme
fraîche, this in turn covered with a thick layer of cooked rhubarb,
and finally topped by more meringue, dusted with crushed almonds. "I usually
do it with berries, but I wanted to try the rhubarb, which I boiled with
sugar. Do you like it?" Kati asked.
"I am smitten," I replied.
Coffee followed, then a drop of brandy, and we sat under the trees for
a while, enjoying another afternoon in Finland.
Kynsilaukka is a most unusual restaurant in Helsinki. It would be, as
a matter of fact, odd anywhere, for kynsilaukka is an old Finnish word
for garlic, and that is what this small establishment is all about. Virtually
every dish from its kitchen contains garlic in some form, and in varying
amounts, a circumstance, that pleases greatly patrons such as myself.
The menu is adorned with bits of romance and humor for those who require
enticement. Thus such preparations as "heart sweet," "passion forever,"
"secret desire," "sonata for whitefish," and "flirting chicken" lure the
Leif Lunderstrom, a fiercely dedicated gastronome introduced me one
evening to Kynsilaukka, located on a side street called Fredrikinkatu,
or Freda for short. He contended that the place is significant to Finland's
culinary posture as saunalenkki — a pork sausage one eats while
in the sauna or dressing room after grilling it in a foil bag on the sauna
coals (a food to which Leif is addicted).
So off we went to Kynsilaukka. We sat down, and three crocks of condiments
were set before us
— puréed garlic, garlic-flavored mustard, and pickled garlic
cloves — to enjoy with bread and a drink, concocted by the restaurant,
of garlic-flavored schnapps, and cold beer. It was explained by the chef,
Hannu Lautam▀ki, that, at Kynsilaukka, garlic finds its way into everything
from fish soup to chicken with raspberry cream sauce (the "flirting chicken.")
"You must taste my garlic jam," he said.
For our first courses we were served liemitietty, or "heart sweet" (a
cream soup with garlic) and loistavat lätyt, or "fantastic small
crêpes" (filled with a salad of diced mushrooms and with sour cream
garlic sauce). All good. "How about some 'overwhelming passion'?" Leif
I could use some of that, I agreed.
The ikuinen intohimo ("passion forever") was a gratin of beef and mushrooms
with, of course, garlic, crushed. Would it, I asked, induce passion? It
would not, but it tasted just fine. Next came salahalu, or "secret desire,"
slices from a loaf of salmon and pike perch with minced garlic. Why "secret
desire?" chef Lautamäki was asked. "I am not responsible for the
names, only the cooking," he said. Aha. Siikasonaatti, or "sonata for
whitefish," a braised whitefish dotted with garlic slices, was next. "Enough?"
"Do they have garlic ice cream?" I asked.
No, the chef said, but his garlic jam was good on top of ice cream with
cloudberries. He urged me to try it.
I did. It was good, and I wondered as I ate it how it might taste with
A FINNISH SOJOURN
Most of my first afternoon in Finland was spent sitting in the sun on
a shelf of water-smoothed rocks jutting out into Jaajalahti, a protected
cove of the Baltic Sea on the northwestern edge of Helsinki. The waters
of Laajalahti are tidal and come lapping in against the rocks of a shoreline
dense with tufted fir trees and silver birches barely twenty yards from
the lovely, unobtrusive hotel the Finns call KALASTAJATORPPA, the "Cottage
of the Fisherman."
Kalastajatorppa, is made of slabs of white marble set so artfully into
descending ledges of granite that it is virtually unnoticeable from the
road above the water. It is, however, one of the finest of all Finnish
hotels, and one of the best equipped saunas in Helsinki is built into
its lake level. And that is where I spent the rest of that first afternoon,
alternately poaching myself, perspiring in rivulets, and diving into the
cold waters of Laajalahti.
I recall that afternoon squinting through the steam clouds of the sauna
at a tall Finn sitting next to me on a bench and commenting to him with
a good deal of enthusiasm that the ritual of sauna was to my mind more
than merely invigorating, it was really quite wonderful. "Yes it is,"
he agreed. "That is why we have over a million of them in Finland." (Which
works out to one sauna for every four people.)
That brief exchange established a pattern that would be repeated throughout
my visit to the country the Finns call Suomi — gasps of wonder,
the happiness of discovery, expressions of delight, all acknowledged laconically
with subdued satisfaction.
For reasons that are quite sensible the Finns don't boast all that much
about their country. With a landscape of such lean and unsullied beauty,
of equal measures of rugged red granite, dense green timber forests, and
coldly blue-gray waters, they simply don't have to. They allow their pure
water and their sixty-two thousand lakes, their uncountable miles of firs
and spruces and birches, the clean widths of low-profiled cities with
boulevards open to the sun, their dynamic sense of environmental design
and style, their efficiency and an assured self-effacing wit to speak
Clinging stubbornly to their geography, resisting changes that would
alter their environment, the Finns relish their country's shifting moods,
the essence of which has perhaps never been captured so ably as by their
best-known composer, Jean Sibelius, in his tone poem "Finlandia." The
land, like the music, encourages solitude and introspection, and, as you
travel about the land you find yourself wishing over and over again that
you might stay here, in your evergreen-decorated hideaway of a Helsinki
hotel, or here, in a forest cabin near Rovaniemi just below the Arctic
Circle, or perhaps here, up on the ramparts of a castle in Turku, watching
the busy, bobbing traffic up the Aura River, for some limitless measure
If a visitor would understand Finland, I was told more than once, then
he or she should think of the country, of Suomi, in terms of the letter
"S." "We are Sibelius, Sauna, and Sisu," a man told me one evening over
an iced glass of koskenkorva, the Finnish schnapps. Sibelius because his
music has captured the many moods of the country, Sauna because this is
indispensable to the Finns, and Sisu, for this is the word that the Finns
say defines the essence of their character — courage, stamina, and
stubbornness. It has been these characteristics that have seen the Finns
survive, first as a partitioned possession of Sweden, later as a duchy
of czarist Russia, still later as the fiercely independent nation it is
now, which coexists with the Soviets along a shared seven-hundred-mile
The Finns, tough reserved, are friendly, given to tending to their own
business but willing to share their country, their table, and a koskenkorva
with you anytime. A Finn may be reticent initially, but if you ask his
or her help the response will be one of generosity, offering not only
what you have requested but the hospitality of home and food as well.
The Finns are proud of their food, which is basic and hearty, and of their
food markets — pockets of unsurpassed freshness — stocked
high with salmon and crayfish, chanterelles, dill, new potatoes, thick
and heavy rye breads, smoked trout and pork and sausages, and the dense
meat of the reindeer, raised by the hundreds of thousands in Lapland just
as we raise domesticated cattle.
On my recent visit I was invited to roam about this country, which retains
many historical vestiges of Sweden and Russia, and a varied trip it was,
encompassing ten different flights of Finnair, its state airline; crisscrossing
Helsinki by metro, tram, taxi, and bus; riding Finnrail to Turku, once
Finland's Swedish-dominated capital; traveling through fourteenth-century
Porvoo and twentieth-century Tapiola by tourist coach; and sailing overnight
aboard a giant two-thousand-passenger cruise ship from Stockholm to Helsinki.
It was a visit of images clearly retained, of serendipitous experiences
well remembered. I recall an evening at WALHALLA, a restaurant fashioned
from a portion of the old-stone fortress walls of Suomenlinna, the eighteenth-century
Swedish version of Gibraltar that sits on six connected islands guarding
Helsinki's harbor. The restaurant is a series of arched domes, formed
by sandblasted old brick and stone. Its floor is of waxed bricks, and
its chairs and tables are polished birch. Its table settings that night
were remarkable — Arabia porcelain sitting on Saarinen wood plates,
Iittala glassware and Hackman stainless, and the vases holding sprays
of fresh daisies were classic Savoy by Aalto. The table linens —
a pattern of black waving reeds on beige — was Marimekko. It was
quite simply dinner in a living museum, a setting so breathtaking that
I almost neglected, but not quite, the cold smoked salmon, the marble-sized
potatoes with dill, and the compote of fresh Finnish berries that was
our waterside dinner. Imagine the subsequent shock of pleasure when, on
the very next morning, in the Museum of Applied Arts, Helsinki's museum
devoted to Finnish industrial design, just off the Esplanadi, I discovered
every item from that restaurant setting on exhibit, including the Marimekko
cloth, which was draped in great rolling folds overhead at the museum's
Other memories are as vivid.
There was the somewhat frantic observance of the beginning of the crayfish
season, an annual event that begins the last week of July, when crowds
of Finns with net shopping sacks come pushing into the old Kauppahalli
Market hall in Turku like so many lemmings to pick up the little, nipping
creatures, which they then boil Louisiana-style and serve with icy beer
and icier koskenkorva. It is an event the Finns love to share with the
rest of Europe, and so the signs in restaurants like Havis Amand and Kappeli
in Helsinki fairly shout, "Krapuja! Kräftor! Crayfish! Ecrevisses!"
I recall my wonder at the massive railroad station in the middle of
Helsinki designed by Eliel Saarinen and the excitement of watching the
daily evening train to St. Petersburg chug out to the east. I recall the
clean, mustard-yellow neoclassicism that Carl Ludvig Engel left in his
buildings in Helsinki and Turku, and I remember biting into the fresh
sausage of pork, rice, and raisins called rusinamakkara in the Turku market.
There was pleasure in watching families scrub their household rugs on
floating docks lashed to Baltic Sea piers and seeing the sun still up
at midnight through the clear roof of a bus rambling along a Lapland highway.
And I remember the odd juxtaposition of the four spirited American students
from Tulsa, singing with guitar and tambourine that, "Soon and very soon
we are going to meet the king," oblivious to the masses of tourists inching
their way through the spectacular underground stone, concrete, and slate
church, Temppeliaukiio, blasted out of the bedrock of central Helsinki.
I remember the fun of the tongue attempting to cope with the Finnish
language, a language in which easily enough a bank is a pankii, the police
are poliisi, a hotel is a hotelli, but where a railroad station is a rautatieasema,
your luggage is matkatavara, a waitress is a tarjoilijatar, and a telegram
is a sähkösanoma. I experimented with it but was thankful that
virtually every Finn spoke English, which is taught in all of the country's
schools as a second language.
And there was always the recurring sense of space. In the Helsinki planned
by Engel the buildings are massive but low, the streets and the boulevards
extraordinarily wide. The market squares in every city from Helsinki to
Turku, from Porvoo to Rovaniemi are vast open areas, and parks seem to
be everywhere, all of them seemingly fronting on some body of water, either
a patch of the Baltic or a lake.
In the best of parks like the one dedicated to Sibelius and dominated
by a giant steel and aluminum paean to music, which looks like a pipe
organ suspended in space, an effort is made to keep them atmospherically
natural. Thus grass is tended but grows free and unedged, walks are of
packed dirt or gravel, and trees are in clumps or in groves, not artificially
placed for effect. All of this is simply because the Finns prefer it that
way; their country is not one of soft beauty. Finland seems rather to
take your breath away, and it does so with its waters, trees, and boundless
space which its cities seem merely to interrupt. In the south it is all
archipelago with thousands of treed islands offshore separated by zigzagging
currents. Inland Finland is a variation on the theme of forest and lake
beneath a sky that is cloudlessly bright for long periods during the short
summer, coldly brittle in winter when it is constantly altered by scudding
All routes through Finland, except of course if you're coming south
from the Arctic, begin in Helsinki, the capital and home to one tenth
of the population. The city sprawls, constantly spreading from its historic
waterfront in all directions to its quite considerable suburbs. A large,
modern city packed with museums and markets, with a clean and highly efficient
public tram system, it is remarkably free from crowding and urban blight.
Surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki
is a city wedded to the sea. Each day the fishing boats, large and small,
pull alongside the quays of Market Square, nets filled with fish that
are carried directly to nearby kiosks for sale. Around the peninsula that
is Helsinki sprawl long commercial piers, equally lengthy receiving ports
for container ships, huge dry docks, and giant shipyards. Still farther
along are the piers from which the massive ships of the Silja Line depart
on their overnight trips to Stockholm. Thousands of pleasure boats dart
about the harbor between Helsinki and Suomenlinna, and all along the shore
there are parks, restaurants, and promenades facing the water, for it
is to the water that the Finns come for sustenance and holiday pleasures.
As you travel about Helsinki you are never far from some glimpses of water,
and , in the summer on the sunniest days, the blue sky and the reflecting
waters impart to the city a brightness that enhances its vast open spaces.
Great is the pleasure of walking around Helsinki in the sun, to the
grand railroad station and the Art Museum of the Ateneum across the street,
a wonderful Baroque building filled with Klees and Mirós, Ernsts
and Henry Moores, Arps and Yves Tanguys, Picassos and Légers; or
to the Mannerheim Museum in a lovely park called Kaivopuisto, the home
of the late Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim, Finland's national hero and former
president; or along the Mannerheimintie, the broad avenue named for him,
past Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall to Stockmann's, Finland's largest department
store, at the head of Aleksanterinkatu, a street for Italian shoes, Icelandic
sweaters, Russian fur hats, and Finnish Lapponia jewelry; or to the next
block, the Esplanadi, with its fine shops of Marimekko, Vuokko, Arabia
How delightful to lunch in the delicate Russian-built gingerbread pavilion
called KAPPELI on the Esplanadi facing Market Square, a one-hundred-year-old
café of copper-sheathed roof and colonnaded front from which to
watch the brass band concerts in the mall of a park that separates the
two sides of the Esplanadi. The restaurant has a horseshoe-shaped buffet
table that may include such specialties as fried whitefish with dill,
mushroom broth, and fresh strawberries that come from the market just
A walk among the orange awnings of that food and flower market is a
party of color and taste. All around are bunches of yellow, red, pink,
even orange roses, as well as red, white, and pink carnations and the
pale purple Arctic brambles. Stacked alongside are piles of fresh mint,
dill, basil, salvia, and parsley and leeks, onions, lettuces, white beans,
and cucumbers. I buy small baskets of strawberries, raspberries, and lingonberries
and eat them as I stroll among the kiosks with their potted violets and
rush baskets filled with beets, carrots, cauliflower, and radishes. Or
the granite steps leading down the quay into the harbor waters the fishermen
sell salmon fillets and steaks from the bow of their boats.
How fine to walk through the market before dusk and watch the tents
fold, the trucks with mechanical brushes clean the cobbled square, and
the men with hoses bathe the stones clean, ready for the next morning.
Then I walk back up the Esplanadi to the climbing street called Kalevankatu
to the restaurant SˇKKIPILLI, "the Bagpipe," and my first totally Finnish
meal — a soup of salmon, potatoes, and dill in cream, called lohikeitto,
served with a heavy rye roll called a limppu, the stew of shredded reindeer
meat and morels called poronsienipata, and tiny crêpes filled with
lingonberries and napped with raspberry cream — an excellent meal
but, oddly enough, in a restaurant where one is greeted by a portrait
of Prince Charles in Royal Stewart tartans and served by waitresses similarly
clad. Excellent nevertheless.
On another such bright day we are en route westward out of Helsinki
over a series of causeways to Tapiola, a thirty-year-old planned community
five miles outside the city's center. In Tapiola, housing and shops and
buildings of the Helsinki University of Technology blend into the greenery
to produce an unobtrusive, self-contained, self-supplied city within Helsinki's
borders. It is a prestigious address and a perfect place in which to immerse
yourself in the essence of Finnish architecture. Buildings are of brick
and poured concrete, of stucco and fieldstone, of slate and wood, of copper
sheathing and glass. Roofs soar, timbers and steel frameworks jut out
from thickets of firs like the prows of ships. Broad open greens surround
the town and the Hotel Dipoli, governed and operated by the university
students. Tapiola is home to only about twelve thousand of Helsinki's
people, which I am told with a smile is "the way Tapio, King of the Forests,
would have liked it."
Tapio, you see, is the hero of Finland's national saga, the Kalevala,
an enchanted, unwritten folktale passed along by poets and storytellers
for centuries. Often compared to the Iliad, it encompasses what the Finns
think of themselves, their sisu. In it, the people of the kingdom of Kaleva,
ruled by Tapio, constantly fight against an enemy called the Pohjola for
possession of a powerful symbol called the Sampo. The stories evoke Finland's
forests and lakes, its customs such as the sauna, and its traditional
occupations of lumbering and seafaring.
These mythical struggles, only put down in writing less than a hundred
years ago, have come to symbolize to the Finns not only the battles of
long ago against the Laplanders of the north but conflicts of more recent
times such as those with the Swedes and the Russians. Nor do the Finns
attempt to erase in any way their subjugated past from their consciousness.
Russian architecture abounds in Helsinki's Senate Square and in the icons
of Uspenski Cathedral, under whose thirteen golden domes sits the largest
Orthodox church in the West. Statues of Czar Alexander II stand in Finland's
cities as a mark of respect for a ruler who they believe was kind to them.
In cities such as Helsinki and Turku street signs and location names are
in Swedish as well as Finnish, because Swedish is still one of the country's
official languages. These days the boats and planes go between Helsinki
and Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg, and there is a large and receptive
audience for the food, drink, and products of Russia.
We talk of Finland and Russian and the uneasy coexistence between these
countries after World War II as we bus eastward the next morning along
The Kings Road, a direct route to Stockholm and St. Petersburg. We are
going to Porvoo, founded in 1346, the second oldest city in Finland after
Turku, a traditional settlement for writers and artists with tiny eighteenth-and
nineteenth century gingerbread houses. Much of The Kings Road stretches
through dense tree growths, and we see traffic signs warning that moose
occasionally cross the highway. We are told that Finland is home to an
estimated 150,000 moose as well as a few bears and wolves, which have
become an endangered, and protected species.
Porvoo was an old harbor town, and along the banks of its river are
red-painted wood houses, which were built originally to store salt. Today,
preserved, repainted, and with roofs zinc-sheathed, they are desirable
weekend cottages for people from Helsinki, who often go out to Porvoo
by river steamer. The town is small and pleasant to walk through. The
rough exteriors of its wood buildings, painted powder blue, yellow, and
cream, with dainty, decorated tin awnings over their entries, some dating
back four hundred years, are protected by law, and any new construction
must blend with them. Porvoo is basically a Swedish town, a reminder of
what Finland was like during the period of Swedish domination from the
twelfth to the nineteenth century. To this day even many Finns refer to
Porvoo as Borge, its Swedish name, and relish walking to its market square
through the street called Välikatu, because it is dated 1346 and
the oldest existing street in the country. Most notable in Porvoo is the
cathedral, built in the fifteenth century but with a base structure that
proves there was some sort of a house of worship on that site as early
as the thirteenth century.
Constant restoration has uncovered medieval frescoes in the stucco and
stone church, which because — when the Russians made Finland a Grand
Duchy — a symbol of its Protestantism, which the Russians were obliged
to tolerate. We stop for morning coffee and pastries in the Wanha Laamanni,
a tiny restaurant of several rooms with white stenciled walls and handmade
furniture, which is just next to the cathedral. Then we depart Porvoo,
doubling back a few miles toward Helsinki to the HAIKKO MANOR hotel for
lunch. The Haikko, just downriver from central Porvoo and a regular river
steamer stop, is one of Finland's finer resort hotels, reminiscent of
an English country house. It is colonnaded, commands a view of lawns so
sweeping they can contain a golf course, has twenty-seven utterly beautiful
rooms all furnished with antiques, and is home to two ghosts, the friendly
sort we are assured, who annoy only those guests whom they suspect may
be averse to paying their hotel bills. The 1871 building also houses a
quite satisfactory smorgasbord that contained, among other things, a delicious
roast fresh ham stuffed with apples and prunes.
It is not a long drive back to Helsinki and our sauna at the Kalastajatorppa,
and a nap, before taking a late tram into central Helsinki to hear some
American jazz at a restaurant called Groovy. The music is New Orleans,
the drink is koskenkorva, or the wonderful tangy beer called Karjala,
and we finish the long, long day with pizza. The Finns must love pizza,
a conclusion to be drawn simply by noting all of the pizzerias scattered
about, one of which is the RIVOLI and supposedly Helsinki's best. We shared
that night a "Quattro Stagioni," an adventurous pie covered with tomaattia,
juustoa (cheese), herkkusienia (mushrooms), kinkkua (ham), paprika, sipulia
(onions), parsaa (asparagus), cayennepippuria, valkosipulia (garlic),
and oreganoa. It was, to be sure, a most memorable gastronomic adventure.
The next morning, we entrain westward to Turku, the capital of Finland
until 1812. It is a large city, with 165,000 inhabitants, and quite similar
to Helsinki because of the dominance of its architecture, which was also
designed by Engel along neoclassical lines, and because, like Helsinki,
it was virtually rebuilt in the nineteenth century after a series of devastating
fires. The reconstructed Castle of Turku overlooks the Aura River, which
divides the city. On the river's eastern side is the cathedral, an amalgam
of styles that include thirteenth-century stone walls, fifteenth-century
Gothic vaulting, and the clean, square lines of Engel, who redesigned
the church after a fire destroyed it in 1827.
And no more than a hundred yards from that church, just down Bishop's
Street, is still another different piece of architecture, the Sibelius
Museum, an open-to-the-sky square of poured reinforced concrete and stone.
Its official name is the Institute of Musicology at Abo Akademi, but it
is known by just about everybody as the Sibelius Museum. It contains a
collection of antique musical instruments, photographs, paintings, drawings,
and memorabilia of Sibelius and a sound system that surrounds you completely
with his music as you sit in the open center of its auditorium. Still
another, newer aspect of Turku is the nearby town of Naantali, a fishing
village turned summer sailing resort that also happens to be the summer
residence of the president of Finland; and there always seem to be more
sails billowing, more boats tacking into shore when the blue-cross-on-white
flag is flying from the waterfront house, because then the Finns know
that the president is at home.
Of consuming interest are Turku's two markets, a huge, open square filled
with vegetable kiosks and a tiny gambling tent where the farmers play
a form of roulette for fresh coffee. And there is the enclosed Kauppahalli,
a true kaleidoscope of Finnish food products. A good deal of reindeer
meat — noisettes, loins, chops — is for sale in this extraordinarily
beautiful market, restored just two years ago. And there are the sausages,
those blood sausages called verimakkara; a rice and fat sausage called
uunimakkara; even reindeer sausage, which goes by the name of porolenkki
and the pork sausages called lenkkimakkara, which are to be eaten only
after being grilled on the stones of the sauna.
There were karjalanpiirakka, so-called Karelian pasties, half-moons
filled with either seasoned rice or potatoes, a vestige of Finland's gastronomic
past when Karelia was part of Finland, not Russia; kalakukko, loaves of
bread with lake fish, such as perch or pike, baked inside of them; and
omenapiirakka, a sugarless tart filled with apples. In markets throughout
Finland an inquiry will immediately result in a taste — often quite
generous — and that afternoon in Turku was certainly no exception.
From Turku we went north, far north, just below the Arctic Circle to
Rovaniemi, the city that is the heart of Finnish Lapland, or Lappi as
it is called. The landscape changes markedly: The forests seem unending
and the towns and cities, the clearings of civilization, mere interruptions
in the pattern of trees and lakes and rivers. The Laplanders will tell
you that in the many hundreds of square miles of the north there are only
200,000 people, one for each of the 200,000 reindeer. Actually, what is
known as Lapland is a long stretch of country that encompasses parts of
Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia, and the Lapps, descendants of northern
aborigines, have become minority inhabitants of all of these countries.
In Finland it is estimated that only four thousand of the people in the
province of Lappi are true Lapps. Where the south is flat, northern Finland
is rolling, often steeply hilly. It is a land for loggers and, for the
Lapps, reindeer herding.
One can drive to Rovaniemi via the Arctic Highway (Route 4) from Helsinki,
but we flew, and with one stop en route it was just an hour by air. Rovaniemi
is basically a new town reconstructed upon ashes left in 1944 by the retreating
German armies, home to thirty thousand people. Historically it was a lumber
and trading center for both the Swedes and the Russians. Reindeer pelts
are piled high in front of stores that sell all sorts of lumberjack paraphernalia
from cleated boots to chain saws. In the spring the two rivers that meet
in the center of Rovaniemi, the Ounas and the Kemi, are impassable because
so many logs are being floated southward.
The redesigned city and the spare, lean Rovaniemi parish church with
its vast, impressive altar mural of Christ in a cloudy Heaven was planned
by Alvar Aalto, who then farmed it out to other architects, leaving its
civic center, Lappia House, to himself. This poured-concrete, glass-domed
complex houses an extensive library, Finland's northernmost theater, and
a Lapland bird and mineral collection. Inside and out, it is worth a visit.
More mundane is the "Trading Post," which sits precisely on the Arctic
Circle five minutes outside of the city. A must stop for the busloads
of tourists, it contains souvenir shops as well as a small log cabin that
was built in just six days in 1950 as a guesthouse for Eleanor Roosevelt,
who flew to Lapland to monitor the reconstruction of Rovaniemi. "They
were hanging the door when her plane landed," said a caretaker with a
grin. There is also a pole just outside from which hangs a sign reading,
"Napapiiri, Polcirken, Polar Kreis, Arctic Circle," and visitors stand
beside it to receive their Arctic Circle certificates and to have their
But not far away is a stretch of fir forest, which hides the Teno River
and an underground spring-fed lake. One evening we went there, to a huge,
caulked log cabin called Karhunpesä, or "Bear's Den," where we sat
before a burning pine log fire, sipped wine, and ate reindeer tongue in
aspic and large pieces of a thirty-pound salmon that had been caught only
an hour earlier and grilled slowly over smoldering coals — but not before
we perspired in the cabin's sauna repeatedly and then dashed down to the
lakefront and dived into the cold water. The after-dinner fire and the
touch of cloudberry liqueur that accompanied it were a most welcome, and
admirable, prelude to our midnight return to Rovaniemi, with the sun shining
in the night sky.
Early the next day we flew south from the forests of Lapland back to
the boulevards of Helsinki. Aptly enough my first visit that morning was
to the Museum of Finnish Architecture, where the exhibit was of inground
and log structures built during the lean years of World War II. The logs,
the earth, the roughness of the terrain brought Lapland back to me with
a rush. We had Arctic Bramble ice cream in an Art Deco establishment called
the Casino on Helsinki's outskirts, and then I went a-marketing, first
to the Hakaniementori, an old two-story food market in an elaborate brick
building in the northern part of the city, then back to Market Square
and Helsinki's meat market. It was again sampling time.
At Hakaniementori I ate a lovely bread lanttukukko, stuffed with roast
pork and a duxelles of mushrooms; smoked mackerel liberally dotted with
peppercorns; and a white, flat, mozzarella-like cheese called aito pohjalainen
juustoleipa, not to mention powdered sugar-covered donitsi. Then I hopped
aboard a tram and made my way back to the meat market housed in an 1889
peaked building on the shore from which the ferry sails out to Suomenlinna.
This is still another Russian-era building, with a very high corrugated
tin roof supported with thin steel struts and cables. The individual stalls
are quite ornate, with knobs, moldings, and newels all of wood, all brightly
enameled, all framing the names of the meat purveyors — Kosonen, Neumat,
Roslund, Kulinaris. And in front of them lay sianliha, smoked pork, boudins
and special Medwurst, white-breasted chickens raised without pens and
called kananliha, a special knackwurst called Suomi-lenkki, very little
beef, which is not all that common in Finland, and packages of reindeer
The market visits were a perfect prologue to my last night in Finland,
a feast at the Kalastajatorppa, that "Cottage of the Fisherman," which
consisted of platters of boiled, peppery crayfish, a smooth fish mousse
napped with a crayfish-based sauce, and bowls of strawberries. And darned
if we didn't take our glasses of lakka, the golden liqueur made from cloudberries,
and walk out onto a pier to look at the moon reflected in the waters of
Laajalahti. Along about this time I had become somewhat adept at bits
of basic Finnish, especially "kiitos," or thank you, simply because of
the generosity I had experienced. I had learned that Finns teach foreigners
to say "kippis" when toasting, but say "hei" or "terveydeksi" when cheering
each other. I also discovered that Finns do not say thank you to a host
or a friend for a visit or a kindness. Instead, when next they meet, they
say, "kiitoksia viimeisest," or "thank you for the last time." I'd like
to say that.
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