Fieldwork Journey Part 1: Helsinki

I’m writing this on a boat to Åland in the middle of the night. Note to self (and anyone who decides to take these weird mini-cruises around the Baltic/North Seas) – book a cabin, even if you’re cheap and you’re supposed to arrive at your destination at some ungodly hour like 4:30 in the morning. Just book the cabin, or else you’ll find yourself in a boat that doesn’t have a lounge area, getting woken up from your attempted naps by the hostess at the cafe, and getting invitations from slightly drunk Finnish men to stay in their cabins, which may be genuinely hospitable, but no one really wants to take that chance, do they? The cabin is worth it. So, that is what leads me to sitting in a random corridor in the middle of a boat sailing through the Baltic sea at midnight writing you this, while teenagers dressed up in 80s hair metal outfits pass me every five minutes. This boat is definitely living up to the ‘party cruise’ reputation right now.

But as I was hoping, this gives me some time to write up my next blog post. I should tell you a little bit about what I’m up to at the moment: for the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into some of my first encounters with legitimate ‘fieldwork’. I’m starting this trip in Helsinki (which I’ll talk more about in a moment), then passing through the Åland islands – a group of islands in between Sweden and Finland, where I’m headed now – then shortly to Sweden, and finally ending in Copenhagen, for what I hope will turn out to be a few interviews and wrapping up some thesis technicalities. But for now, I’ll get into a bit of part one of my fieldwork adventure: Helsinki.

First of all, I definitely have way too much information to talk about for one post. The one thing I have to say right off the bat is that I am absolutely amazed at how many people have been willing to take time out of their days to talk to me, how much effort they have put into getting me in contact with others who may have interesting opinions, and how genuinely interested in my project they have seemed. It is both slightly overwhelming and extremely encouraging all at once.

At the moment, I have some time to give you a bit of a general overview of all the things that went down in Helsinki.

I decided to start in the capital city of Finland because of a street food festival, Streat Helsinki, that had been discussed at a workshop on New Nordic Food I had attended in February at Nofima, the food research lab in Norway where I’m writing my thesis. The workshop had brought together people from all over the Nordic region to reflect upon a 4 year project on how to strengthen New Nordic Food’s global competitive edge that the Nordic Council of Ministers had funded from 2010 – 2014 (New Nordic Food II). As I wanted to do some observation at events that were connected to New Nordic Food and the workshop discussions, I thought this could be a good opportunity. It also gave me the chance to kill two birds with one stone and collect some interviews at the same time.

So, what is Streat Helsinki? It all started last year when the City of Helsinki’s food culture strategy team decided to take a weekend in March to celebrate Helsinki’s street food scene with one day of talks and parties, and one day of eating. The festival was made up of 37 street kitchens and 22 international speakers, and ended up attracting 20,000 food lovers. It was so successful that this time around, they decided to expand the festival to a full week event. The week started off with a series of workshops held on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) street food development and support initiatives, starting up your own street bike, and new street food trends like bugs (yes, bugs.) Guest speakers came from as far as Turkey and San Fransisco. The festival then culminated in a weekend of eating, with a total of 64 street food kitchens from Finland, Sweden, Germany, Estonia and even Russia to choose from. The results have come in, and the number of attendies this year grew to a whopping 30,000.

Once I decided on attending, I contacted Elisabeth Heinrichs at Visit Helsinki, who I had met at the workshop at Nofima, and asked her if she would be around for the festival and if she had any suggestions as to who I could get in contact with in terms of who was involved with New Nordic food in Helsinki. Elisabeth was key to why the Helsinki portion of my trip was so successful for many reasons, and was the first person to teach me on this trip how valuable reaching out to someone for help can be. She responded very promptly to my e-mail, letting me know that she would love to meet up and would be going to the workshop on the future of street food that I was also interested in attending, and listing off a wealth of contacts who may be useful in terms of potential interviews for my thesis. She also let me know that she would be hosting an international blog trip with Visit Helsinki, and was kind enough to let me be take part.

The list Elisabeth gave me was extremely helpful in giving me a rough overview of who was involved in Nordic and Finnish Food Culture in Helsinki, including chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs,and city officials. Even more amazing to me (who had been stressed out at the time after not having many responses to the initial round of interview-request e-mails I had sent out), almost everyone on the list I contacted responded to me by the time I arrived in Finland. I had four interviews lined up for my four days in the city with a variety of individuals, including Milla Visuri, communications officer of City of Helsinki’s food culture strategy; Perttu Jokinen, chef at Spis, Helsinki’s 2015 Restaurant of the Year; Jukka Nykänen, chef of Juuri, Katja Henttunen and Pekka Terävä of Olo, and Filip Langhoff, chef and owner of Ask. I’m not going to cover these interviews specifically in this post, mainly due to time constraints and wanting to give each the time and attention they deserve, but we’ll get back to them all in later posts. Paired along with the festival, I knew this trip was going to be a lot of work. I had no idea.

I arrived in Helsinki late on Wednesday. My friend Lea, who I had met through a mutual friend of ours, was gracious enough to put me up on her floor while I was visiting Helsinki. Lea is originally from California, but has Finnish heritage, and moved to Helsinki to study neuroscience (Lea, if you ever see this, feel free correct me if that’s wrong – I know it’s something smart to do with science and brains).

The lovely Lea Urpa

The lovely Lea Urpa

I seriously don’t know what I would do without the vast list of extremely kind friends I have with floors, couches, and extra beds for me to sleep on – when it comes to travelling on a budget, these people have saved me every time. Not only is it economical but it’s also always more fun and informative to stay with a local, whenever it’s possible. If I have any advice to give on the matter, even if you don’t know a person so well (and as long as you feel comfortable around them, of course), it never hurts to ask. The worst they can say is no, and you may end up with a new friend.

On Thursday, my first official day in Helsinki, I met with Milla first thing in the morning. We went to Restaurant Story in Vanha Kauppahalli, a renovated old market on the water, where we ate amazing baked goods and porridge made with barley from Malmgård, a local farm owned by one of the old ‘noble families’ of Finland. While we ate, we talked about the history of Finnish food culture and her experiences with New Nordic food. Though I won’t get into the interview now, I’ll tell you a tiny bit about Finnish food culture, to give you some context.

Finnish pulla: a good mix of Eastern & Western influences.

Finnish food culture is interesting and unique in terms of the Nordic countries because of it’s Nordic and Eastern influences, since the country shares borders with both Sweden, Norway, and Russia. Traditional food is diverse, as there are 30 different counties and each has its own dish, Milla tells me. Much cuisine is based around root vegetables and preservation techniques like pickling, salting, and smoking, due to the often long and harsh winters.

The variety of potatoes amazed me. They even have a potato colour code, you know, like the codes they have for wine. Each bag has a little coloured square that will tell you what the potato is good for. In this case, reds are soft and good for mashing, yellows are neutral, and greens are quite hard and solid.

The variety of potatoes amazed me. They even have a potato colour code, you know, like the codes they have for wine. Each bag has a little coloured square that will tell you what the potato is good for. In this case, reds are soft and good for mashing, yellows are neutral, and greens are quite hard and solid.

One Eastern influence can be found in the popular Karelian meat pasties. I grabbed one of these as well when I was at the old market hall (but devoured it too quickly before remembering to take a photo), and the best way I can think of describing it is as a sort of savoury donut – like if you took a boston cream, got rid of the chocolate icing, and stuffed it with rice, meats and spices instead. They also seem to be associated with heart attacks according to a book Milla gave me on Helsinki’s Streets of Food, which leads me to believe they’re Finland’s (very tasty) version of a heart attack on a plate.

And also, there’s a whole lot of fish. Smoked fish. To my pleasure, of course.

Obligatory message to the biggest smoke fish fan I know, my mother.

Obligatory message to my mother, the biggest smoke fish fan I know.

After I spent the morning chowing down at Vanha Kauppahalli, I headed over to Spis to meet with Perttu Jokinen, who explained his cooking techniques at Spis and their Nordic inspiration, and also let me taste a few pieces of homemeade Nordic-inspired candy.

From the top: chocolate potato cake, sea buckthorn berry licorice, blueberry marmalade.

I wrapped up Thursday evening by going to a workshop on the future of street food, featuring Geetika Agrawal, one of the organizers of San Fransisco’s street food festival, which was one of the inspirations for starting StreatHelsinki. She explains how the festival got it’s start, as a festival connected a non-profit organization she works for called La Cocina, a “kitchen incubator” space for low-income, mainly female immigrant entrepreneurs who cannot afford their own professional kitchens but need a space to create their products. The San Fransisco festival started off as a “block party” where La Cocina could celebrated their entrepreneurs’ food, but became so popular that it quickly grew into the full-blown festival that exists today. Geetika discussed some of the challenges they’ve faced (especially permitting), and what trends they were seeing take over which may not have reached this side of the pond yet (there was a shout-out to poutine, which was welcomed with cheers of joy from me).

At the workshop I also met with Elisabeth, who gifted me with a Helsinki survival kit, filled with lots of fine Finnish goodies, including a beautiful Golla laptop case, an Ivana Helsinki bag, a custom made pin from titiMadam of Havis Amanda, a famous sculpture found in the middle of Helsinki, some Vitalis balm which has proven to work wonders, and of course the Fazer chocolate and Salmiakki staples. (Salmiakki is a famous salted black licorice that is extremely popular with almost every Scandinavian child – and adult – I have met. It definitely takes some time getting acustomed to enjoying it. I’ve almost gotten there… )

Said “Helsinki Survival Kit” goodies

After my Survival kit excitement, Elisabeth decided that she needed to introduce me to Kenneth Nars, the presenter of the workshop we were at and a famous Finnish food writer who Elisabeth tells me has written a lot on New Nordic Cuisine. This was when things start to get even more interesting, interview-wise. Elisabeth introduces us and I explain my thesis project, and he tells me to come by his office the next day. One more interview on the schedule. He also encourages me to get in contact with Sasu Laukkonen, head chef and partner of Chef & Sommelier, a Michelin-star restaurant in Helsinki focussed on local cuisine. Sasu is well-known for his involvement in Nordic cuisine, and  almost every other person I had interviewed had told me I needed to contact him – Kenneth and Elisabeth confirmed that he would almost definitely respond to me over Twitter. Lo and behold, after tweeting him that night, he responded to me the next morning asking when I could come by. The magic of social media really does exist. One more interview added to the list.

On Friday, I woke up early to meet with Jukka Nykänen at Juuri, and he tells me a bit about the history of the restaurant, which had just celebrated its 10 year anniversary that past fall, and how they have experienced the evolution of Nordic food through the decade. I then met with Kenneth, who gave me a history of Finnish dining culture, and told me about his experience of watching New Nordic develop. He also helpfully had many more suggestions of who to talk to regarding the concept and development. I then ran across the city to meet with Filip Langhoff at Ask, who had carrot metaphors that blew me away, and many other interesting perspectives I can’t wait to get into when I write a proper interview post. Finally, I ran back through the city to meet with Katja and Pekka at Olo, who were able to give me a historical perspective on the past ten years in Finland and around the region, before one final run of the evening to our blog trip dinner hosted by Finnair at Restaurant Nokka. Talk about a jam-packed (but amazing) day. My head was swimming with thoughts, but a delicious dinner was the perfect way to end it.

My favourite dish of the night: Rainbow trout from Åland with sea buckthorn berry and cauliflower.

While at dinner, I was finally able to meet the other bloggers who joined us on our trip. Along with some official journalists from Jamie Magazine’s Russian office, and Huffington Post’s South Korean office, there were bloggers from Estonia (Nami Nami‘s Pille), Sweden (Picki Pickis Christina and her partner Carl), and the UK (Thoroughly Modern Milly‘s Milly herself and her partner Simon). It was interesting, as an amateur and inexperienced blogger, spending the weekend getting to know them and learning their tactics for running a successful blog.

Saturday began our official blog trip weekend, starting with a guided food tour with Heather’s Helsinki, who toured us around the Karl Fazer Café, one of the oldest cafés in Helsinki, and definitely the most famous for their chocolate, where we tried Budapest cake. We then went to Stockmann’s flagship location, which is the oldest department store in Helsinki. Their selection was mindboggling, even for a North American. At Stockmann’s we tried Mämmi, a traditional rye porridge that is popular around Easter and described most accurately by my host Lea as “that stuff that looks like baby shit” – baby shit resemblance aside, it’s definitely not that disgusting (though an acquired taste, for sure – I look at it as a porridge-version of fruit cake.) We then stopped by Iittala, one of the main actors behind Finland’s design fame (and producer of the Moomin mugs I am obsessed with collecting). After going to the biggest department store in Helsinki, we stopped by one of the smallest, Kaartin kotikauppa, before wrapping up at what had become my local spot by this point, the old market hall, for some local cheese tasting.

If one food-related festival wasn’t impressive enough, Helsinki stepped up their game with one more, as our next stop was Helsinki’s first ever Coffee Festival. Not only am I impressed with how much coffee is drank in the Nordic region (just like beer, I wasn’t much of a fan… until I moved to this area of the world – now I can’t go without at least a cup a day), what I find even more impressive is their amount of small independent coffee roasters around the region and the concern they take on being directly connected to the producers of their coffee beans. There is a transparency that is not found in much food-related industry right now that I really respect. Some of said local coffee roasters included at the Helsinki festival were Kaffa Roastery, who had a coffee from Kenya with the coolest cat-themed logo that smelled so delicious I couldn’t resist picking up a package), and Good Life Coffee, who let me try their newest experiment, which is about to become my newest summer obsession and is way better than iced coffee: cold brew and tonic water. I know, it sounds skeptical, but don’t dismiss it until you give it a try. Trust me on this one.

After a long day of running around, I had one final interview to conduct. Unfortunately, after a weekend of so many amazing incidences, at least one thing has to go wrong. After running around with my phone all day and being in an area I wasn’t yet accustomed to, I got lost looking for a bus stop. Finally, I found the bus stop, but as soon as I did, my phone died – which meant I didn’t have the stop I was supposed to get off at, and my main source of data collection for interviews, and I was already cutting it way too close in time to stop home and grab a charger. After roughly guessing which stop to get off at (which luckily, turned out to be the right one), and relying on some helpful teenagers to look up where the restaurant was, I ran to Chef & Sommelier, almost half an hour late. Even though I got there 30 minutes late with a dead phone, Sasu, the chef, had the perfect reaction to a scatter-brained, flustered, nervous and inexperienced masters student: “no big deal”, a hug and a magical phone charger he pulled from under the counter, so I could actually record and remember our interview. I’m so glad I was able to capture it, as well, because it was not only amazing, but also concluded in him finding a way to fit me and Lea in for a late dinner that night.

That dinner actually turned out to be a second dinner, as the blog trip was also hosting a dinner that night, at a brand new place called The Cock. As the co-owner was the former food culture strategist for Helsinki, and all I had heard was good things about him and the restaurant, of course I had to go check it out. But really, who am I to complain about too much eating? That is the definition of a luxury problem, if I’ve ever heard one.

Helsinki’s newest spot, The Cock.

Though I tried to limit myself at The Cock, the food I did try was absolutely delicious. Casual and tasty dishes included beetroot and ceasar salads (the latter made with kale and avocado, a refreshing twist to something regularly boring and overdone), chicken wings (something my inner North American couldn’t resist), and a variety of pastas, including a tasty dish with little clams.

Luckily, I was able to save room, because our late dinner at Chef & Sommelier blew my mind. As this post is running long, I think I’ll save that story for a post all on it’s own. But I will share one dish with you, my dessert for the night called ‘The Forest’, since it’s really stuck with me. The dish was a mix of very subtle white chocolate tastes, sprinkled with a variety of fresh and pickled evergreen shoots, with a syrup base that I want to say was spruce or pine, but can’t remember to be exact. Anyways, it really did taste like the forest, in the best of ways – and brought back so many memories of childhood walks in Southern Ontario on crisp winter days. I think this dish really fits the ‘Nordic’ aesthetic that gets talked about so often. It also makes me wonder why people don’t use evergreens more often in cooking – every time I try it, it blows me away (and makes me want to go out and eat trees). Here’s a picture borrowed from Thoroughly Modern Milly, since mine did not turn out nearly as well.

Chef & Sommelier’s ‘The Forest’

On my last day in Helsinki, we finally get to try some street food. Unfortunately it was quite cold and cloudy, but the food was well worth it. Choosing where with 64 options available was hard and I probably could have eaten all day, but ended up deciding on a lamb slider at Liesikiesi, which was topped with a red cabbage slaw and the finest fries I’ve had in quite a while. And with such a wide potato variety available here, I’m not so surprised. I’m thinking some Canadian could be pretty successful introducing the Finns to poutine here. Some people thought the slaw was a bit too much, but as a fan of red cabbage and fully loaded burgers, I was quite content.

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Liesikiesi’s lamma slider

Since it was so cold, and I wasn’t quite as stuffed as I could be, I decided to try out a tom yum soup from one of the Thai vendors. It initially drew me in because it had the biggest prawns I have ever seen (not to mention the vendor was also offering free prawn chips), but proved to be quite delicious, nicely seasoned with fresh herbs, and the perfect solution to the cold weather.

Monster Prawn Tom Yum soup

I was over the moon about Helsinki by the time I left, the city and the people I met there really did charm me. Not only was everyone so open, welcoming, and as helpful as they possibly could have been, the city itself was thriving with food culture incentives that are so exciting and progressive. Food culture seems to be quite down to earth and accessible in the city, but I think they tend to get overlooked because of their ‘humble and quiet’ nature (the popular Finnish description, but not my experience!) Overall, I think that Helsinki has a lot to show the world, and other cities that are looking to improve or even get their food culture strategies off the ground can learn a lot by using Helsinki as a very successful example.

And that leaves us at the boat to Åland. But more about that in my next post.

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