Burbot and roe in January, morel mushrooms, nettles and rhubarb in early spring, then the summer feast of new potatoes, fresh vegetables, salmon and strawberries. August is time for crayfish, autumn brings berries and mushrooms, before game comes onto the menu in early winter. That would pretty well sum up the Finnish culinary year - albeit in very simplified terms.
In honour of the 450th anniversary of its foundation and as part of the programme for its year as a European City of Culture, the capital has developed a "Helsinki Menu", which is built around Finnish ingredients and the effect of the country's four distinct seasons on its culinary traditions. Some of the most famous Finnish chefs have helped put together "food baskets" and recipes appropriate to different months. Each of the restaurants taking part in the scheme is drafting either a complete menu or a multi-course meal in line with its own style. Dozens of restaurants in the city and surrounding region are offering Finnish gastronomic delights within the framework of the Helsinki Menu.
Sourced nearby, according to the season
The idea with the Helsinki Menu is to promote Finnish culinary culture and make it better known. Finnish raw materials are the basis of everything; why serve angler fish or tuna when our own freshwater fish or species from the brackish Baltic are far superior in taste? Seasonal variety is another key asset: the delicacies that the particular time of the year provides are enjoyed fresh, just when their taste is at its peak of perfection. Not everything need be available always.
Besides examples of the bounty of nature - mushrooms, fish, berries and game - the food basket features such treats as organic pork and a cross-sample of the many kinds of bread made such as rye bread in various parts of Finland. Items made from excellent Finnish milk likewise feature centrally: Emmental- and Roquefort-type cheeses and, reflecting the eastern influence, smetana and quark. For those with a taste for sweet bakery products there are such delights as Alexander cakes (named in honour of the Czar) and Runeberg tarts (after the national poet). Beverages include vodka, beer and berry liqueurs.
Nearly all of the items in the food basket come from sources as close as possible to Helsinki, but there are exceptions. These include delicious finger-shaped potatoes and reindeer meat from Lapland and muikku, a sardine-sized species of whitefish from the lakes of eastern Finland.
Influences from East and West
"Taste and aroma, absolutely", is how the trump cards of Finnish food are summed up by Chef Olli Vuori, who was part of the team that developed the Helsinki Menu. "Our northern location and the long days in summer give vegetables, berries and mushrooms that unique aroma that sets them apart."
Chef Vuori's personal favourites include fish - "the world's best" - along with roes, dill and other herbs, berries and mushrooms. "Finnish food culture has been shaped by influences from both East and West, from Russia and Sweden and to some extent from Estonia and Germany as well. Our history is clearly reflected in our cuisine," says Vuori.
Vuori began the jubilee year in his own restaurant by serving burbot dishes in January, as the Helsinki Menu advises. The delicious fish is served in a variety of ways: its smoked liver with mozzarella and red whortleberry pesto sauce, or the fish wrapped in Parma ham and served with a spinach-potato puree, with white chocolate mousse for dessert.