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Everything’s Fishy in Finland

February 3, 2010

Alison’s recent blog about Robert Del Grande’s delicious all-Wild-Yukon-River-Salmon meal in Houston reminded me of the fish-and-more fish atmosphere I found in Helsinki, when I traveled there recently to speak to the European Millers’ Association conference.

Aerial view of Helsinki's Old Market Hall

Helsinki’s Old Market Hall, shown above, opened in 1889, right next to the harbor. More than a century later, a stroll through the market gives a great overview of the local diet, all in one place. Want to come along?

While much of Helsinki mixes Scandinavia with Russia – think onion domes next to pastel stone façades – the Old Market Hall seems like a piece of British Victoriana, with its red brick exterior and beautifully crafted wooden interior.

Interior of Helsinki's Old Market Hall

The market stalls nearest the door show a variety of choices, more like a general grocery store than a farmer’s market. Cheeses, eggs, honey. Lingonberry, cranberry, and blueberry jams, juices and syrups. Licorice. Mushrooms. And then we turn the corner and things get fishy.

Salmon and Other Fish

Assorted of mixed fish at the market

Only six million people in the world speak Finnish, and I’m definitely not one of them. That’s okay; it’s clear that all these words mean fish, in one form or another. Dried fish, smoked fish, salted fish, fileted fish, whole fish. Are there any fish left in the Baltic Sea, or are they all in the Market Hall?

Eat your fish snack right now!

Now the displays morph from fish-for-dinner to fish-for-snacking. Finns don’t tend to eat Ho-Hos and Twinkies when they’re hungry between meals – they simply reach for more fish. This booth has cocktail sauce, mustard, salt and pepper at the ready, for anyone who wants to just scarf that fish up right away.

Cup O Fish and Fish Pizza

One of the most popular snacks seems to be what husband Lew and I call “Cup O’ Fish,” shown here in the foreground. It’s just what the name implies – small whole fish, bones, head and all, fried up and served in a cup. So much healthier than walking around town with a serving of French fries – plus it fits so well in the cup-holder of your car.  Note the little mini-pizzas, with fish, in the back on the left.

Finally it seems that we have made it past the fish and arrived at some yummy pastries. Is that an apricot Danish in the middle?

Fish Danish

No! As we look closer, we realize it’s more fish, in a delicious ring of puff pastry.

It would be inaccurate to imply that the Finnish diet consists of nothing but fish, as beloved as fish is. There is in fact plenty of meat, too. (Lew was served reindeer-liver cake with melted butter on his first trip to Finland, many years ago, so I knew there was more than fish.)

Reindeer and Moose Meat

Reindeer is in fact very popular still – though we couldn’t afford it at almost 60 Euros (over $100) per kilo. Luckily, the Moose Salami from the same vendor was only 6.50 € per salami, much more amenable to our budget.

Sausage Finger Sandwiches

We couldn’t tell by looking whether the very popular five-finger sausage sandwiches were made with reindeer, or moose, or some other meat.  We started to wonder, what would a vegetarian do to survive in this beautiful country?

Vegetables, Helsinki Market

Finally. The only booth with fresh vegetables in the whole market. Not surprising, on reflection, since the growing season in Finland is extremely short. We were there in mid-June – and you can see that, although the fresh asparagus had finally come in, this display still leaned heavily to root vegetables and cabbage.

For me, since I’m involved with Oldways’ Whole Grains Council, no trip is complete without an overview of the local whole grains scene. Finns are heavy consumers of whole grains, with dense rye bread a favorite. We slipped into a nearby supermarket to check things out. The yellow box I’m holding below, in fact, is whole grain rye, or täysjyvä (whole grain) ruis (rye).

Whole Grains in Finland Cynthia Harriman

Back on the street, there was still no escaping the fish. Here’s a street vendor, shoveling her Cup O’ Fish into containers as fast as she can. You can’t see it here, but the line stretches down the street! Everyone wants their Cup O’ Fish.

Making Cup O Fish in Helsinki

Like my trip to Finland, traveling with Oldways is always a wonderful mix of history, culture, and food. We don’t have plans to head back to Helsinki anytime soon, but we are leading a Culinaria trip to Normandy from April 24 to May 2 this year. Check out the details here, and sign up soon – there are only a half dozen slots left.  (Cindy)

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