Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dining in Finland

This was my first time in Finland, and I was very excited about discovering a new country far away from any others I’ve visited.

Also, it would be the Summer Solstice when the sun only sets for a few hours, which I’d never experienced. Why the trip? My daughter-in-law’s brother was marrying a lovely lady from Helsinki.

Planning food carefully, I ate a light snack in the afternoon, skipped dinner to sleep on the plane, and had a light breakfast. After the overnight flight, I took the bus to the train station and decided to walk to my hotel. I am always thinking of ways to keep fit. What I didn’t realize is that street signs are in Finnish and Swedish, with six syllables per word. Also, street signs are not always there. Instead of a 25-minute walk, it took me 45 minutes, a street map and directions from five locals.

As I would be staying three non-continuous nights in Helsinki, I asked the bride and the writer for www.calorieking.com, whom I consult to and who coincidentally moved to Helsinki, for suggestions. The advice was great; see my take on Helsinki Hotels at the end of this article.

For my first lunch, the abovementioned writer joined me. I was happy to meet someone I’d only emailed in the past. We ate the buffet lunch in the Jailhouse Restaurant in the basement of the hotel. It was decorated like an upscale jail. Hehehe. Food choices were soups, salads, salmon and trout pies, herring, meats and cheeses. Bread included dry rye toast and crimped-edged Carelian pies (rye pastry filled with rice porridge or potato). Thank goodness some starchy foods did nothing for me. So, the choice was not too different from US buffets except there were more healthy options and no fried foods. We chose our foods carefully so as not to overeat. As one could assume, food is fresh and clean, and tap water is safe to drink.

Lactose-free milk was served with coffee. Why lactose-free? Few Northern Europeans have lactose intolerance; lactase enzyme deficiency is more common in Black Africans, Asians, Mediterranean and Jewish people. Surprisingly studies show there are a small percentage of Finns who are lactose intolerant. Oh well …… according to reports, this industry is going through a boom. Maybe it’s a trend, like “wheat allergies” that sprung up recently in the USA.

In the afternoon I explored the boat area, main shopping/hotel street with a lovely park in the middle, and took a bus tour, waiting for jet lag to set in. I was fine. Afterwards a boat tour of many islands; there are thousands; a rest for two hours, then a 25-minute walk to my younger son’s hotel as he was arriving with his family.

Diet and exercise were going well so far. Actually, activity throughout the trip was from one hour to six hours of walking per day.

The first night we went to a really sophisticated restaurant, Teatteri, beautiful and elegant. They were not too keen to serve two children under six years of age for dinner after 9 pm, but when we explained it’s actually 2 pm for them, they made an exception. The food was as good as any in NYC. We ordered salad, beets, white fish roe (caviar), white fish, herring, reindeer, etc. Way too tasty. With tasting everyone else’s dessert, I was too full - a sign of overeating. After dinner, I could walk the 15 minutes to the hotel, as it was still light at 11 pm, but felt sluggish so took a cab.

The second night, the wedding party celebrated with a fantastic set menu at Postres restaurant. Each course was a work of art, and flavors tingled in the mouth. Between courses there were amuse bouches to die for. The chocolate plate after the dessert did me in. I left very happy and very full. Again…..

Friends raved about their dinner at Sasso restaurant - also sophisticated and mouth-watering.

Breakfast is pretty much the same everywhere: many cereals and oats (salty), breads, meats, cheese, eggs, sausages, juices, fruits, stewed fruits (some sour), coffee, tea. If you need to leave before breakfast, some hotels will have fruit, coffee and snack bars to pack.

My son and his family tried lunch at the harbor. They loved the fresh fish cooked at the outdoor grill. People were shocked to see my 5-year-old grandson eat the skin of the fish. He loves the skin.

The third day, we drove 2 ½ hours to the lake area. Okay, everywhere there’s a lake area. Anyway, the location for the wedding was in a large, old, elegant estate converted to a hotel. I stayed in a home on the property with my son, daughter-in-law, nanny and two grandsons. We bought groceries so there was plenty of nutritious foods to eat. Other guests brought their snacks to our kitchen as well. Unfortunately, they brought donuts, chips and chocolates, which are hard to resist. I was weak so spoilt my dinner, a buffet with salads (hardly touched them), beet salad (not my favorite), fish, chicken, rice (too full to eat much) and fruit salad and cream.

During the day, everything is very relaxing and fun. Guests walk between the hotel, the clubhouse, the saunas and the lake. This continues throughout the night, which feels like day. At midnight, it is certainly dark, but flashlights are not needed.

The wedding was perfect. Everything went according to plan and the weather was great, around 70F. The reception was in a barn-like building, very nicely decorated. Food was buffet style starting with salads, salmon, sardines and pasta salad. The hot food was smoked ox, potatoes, carrots and broccoli. For dessert it was pannacota and strawberries. Then the five-tier cake was cut, white cake with cream and berries, beautifully done. Wine was served with every course. Food was not that much different from the USA except there were less choices as they aren’t into junk foods.

Afterwards we danced all night, which was great exercise. The Helsinki band was really hip and played all sorts of music, getting everyone out of their seats.

At midnight we went to the lake for a bonfire. No lights are needed as you can see your way through the gardens. Guests used the saunas - naked, swam naked in the cold lake, and then went to the sauna again. This is the Finnish way, not my way.

On our return to Helsinki on the last night, eighteen of us went for dinner at the only restaurant that was open late on a Sunday and could accommodate all of us. It was also half the cost of the other restaurants and half the quality. I had reindeer steak. It wasn’t great, but neither was the other food, however they let my two grandsons run around, as there was no one else there.

What is different?

Saunas: Saunas originated in Finland so there was a smoke sauna and a water sauna. Some did the sauna then a nude dip in the really cold lake.

Sleeping: I slept well although the house and some hotels do not have black out curtains. Going to bed at dusk (midnight) is weird.

Mosquitos: Dusk goes on for six hours so there are many mosquitoes. Fortunately I packed mosquito repellant and an after-bite ointment, which my grandsons desperately needed. They were scratching the bites on their faces.

Language: Finnish has no words related to the four languages I speak. Most of the younger Finns speak English.

Travel tip: Pack hand luggage only to get around easily, even for two weeks vacation. You can wear clothes three times, wash underwear, and put toiletries in tiny containers to last two weeks only.

My Biased Overview of Helsinki Hotels

Hotel Katajanokka: a former prison and looks like it, but of course, much more comfortable – a fun experience - takes 15 minutes to walk to the main strip.

Family-run Hotel Rivoli: central, reasonably priced, cozy, really nice people, but needs an update.

Super-trendy Hotel Glo: central, glam, fabulous and friendly. Dress in your most hip outfit – pressure!

The Hilton: large rooms, not a pretty area, 20 minutes from the center.

Hotel Kamp: high-end traditional hotel on the main strip – great to sit on the sidewalk and watch the people, if you’re happy to pay ridiculous prices for food and drink. We were – once only.

Goodbye Finland.

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