A culinary tour of the Finnish Lakeland offers a fascinating setting of the rich gifts of Finnish nature, peculiar traditional delicacies and modern local food.
The snack bar staying open late at the edge of a Finnish town’s marketplace is the lighthouse in the night for the night owl heading for home. It is an irresistible attraction. The classic of snack bars is meat pie with different fillings. It’s on the menu of every self-respecting grill bar. The most famous of the meat pies are eaten in Lappeenranta, where they are known by the scientific sounding names Hydrogen and Atom.
“Sure, Hydrogens and Atoms are on offer elsewhere, too, but they come nowhere close, if the meat pie isn’t made by the local Kesämäki bakery – the only right one”, reminds Ritva Lohko. She has held her legendary café kiosk at the Lappeenranta marketplace for three decades and in the summer sells Hydrogens and Atoms from her mobile ”hydrogen van”.
The Hydrogen is a steam-heated pie made of dough and filled with rice and minced meat, a pat of butter, cooked or smoked ham, a sliced boiled egg and spices to the customer’s wishes. The Atom, in turn, contains either of the fillings, ham or egg. The birth story of Hydrogen is known. In 1962, Antti Myllärinen, lorry driver from Joutseno, had the idea of asking for ham as the filling for his meat pie, in addition to the conventional egg, at the Laakon Mamma café kiosk. He instantly fell for the delicacy and named it Hydrogen on the spot. It was then natural to baptise the lighter version with egg the Atom. Seven café kiosks sell Hydrogen and Atom at the Lappeenranta marketplace. But the sinfully tasty Hydrogen and Atom are not the privilege of night owls. The sturdy meat pie is a good hunger-killer both for breakfast and lunch.
Säräpirtti Kippurasarvi in Lemi feeds over 30,000 hungry customers annually, although there is only one item on the menu: the Lemi särä, lamb poached in the oven for a long time, served with potatoes, rieska (unleavened barley bread) and butter. Mixed fruit soup is served for dessert. When the food is made according to a millennial tradition, nothing more is needed.
Säräpirtti’s own history goes back to 1978, when Lea and Tauno Hietaranta started preparing ancient and traditional Lemi food at their home, alongside their bakery business.
People loved the delicious mutton. Ten years later the Hietarantas built a proper restaurant for friends of the traditional mutton dish. In 2004, the next generation took over, as their son Esko began hosting Säräpirtti. Särä has remained popular over the years. Almost daily, all the 150 seats of Säräpirtti are taken by people enjoying the mutton dish.
To make the Lemi särä they use roasted lamb, potatoes, salt, a wooden frying trough, a baking oven and plenty of time. Särä gets its name from a birchwood frying trough, which develops cracks (“särö” in Finnish) after much frying. In the preparation of särä, two-kilogramme lamb roasts are piled at the bottom of the trough and put in a well-heated baking oven, which is located at a central spot in the Säräpirtti dining room. Alder billets are placed under it to prevent the trough from burning. When the meats have baked in the oven for three hours, they are taken out and turned over. Medium-done potatoes are laid under the roasts, and they absorb the delicious fats trickling from the roast during the two hours of final roasting.
“Särä is a sturdy and simple dish. People made särä in this same way a thousand years ago. The recipe is so good that there has been no need to change it in the course of the centuries”, Esko Hietaranta says.
At Säräpirtti, you can eat as much särä as you like. And they do eat a lot. Säräpirtti burns a hundred cubic metres of birchwood billets to heat the oven, roasts 30,000 lambs and bakes tonnes of potatoes annually. There is something magical about särä.
When the Finnish Tourism Association and the Finnish Local Heritage Federation organised a contest in the early 1970s to find the seven wonders of Finland, the särä of Lemi was selected on the list out of 700 proposals – as the only food. At Säräpirtti, tables are set daily at preannounced hours. You only get to eat, if you reserve a table.
Säräpirtti Kippurasarvi, Rantatie 1, Lemi, www.sarapirtti.fi
A South Savonian banquet was set in the Tertti Manor hall for the first time in 1978. Tertti was known for its food before, too, but mostly among its own folk and guests. Matti and Pepita Pylkkänen, who ran the manor and its domains in the fourth generation, were convinced that the future of Tertti could be in food and tourism. Traditional agriculture was no longer profitable the way it was in the old days. They weren’t wrong. A banquet is set even today in the Tertti hall for the summer season. It has become familiar to thousands of travellers on highway 5. Many consider it absolutely the best banquet in Finland. Outside the summer season, you can feast in the halls of the manor whenever you like by making a reservation, in reserved events and on festival days. In the cafeteria in an outbuilding, the pot is hot and a light buffet is served year round. You can buy take-away delicacies prepared at the Tertti Manor, from paper-thin crispbread to juniper berry jelly.
The Tertti kitchen always prepares foods according to the season. From one generation to the next, the Pylkkänen family has collected recipes, from which the Tertti kitchen today conjures up foods adapted to the present day.
“We have respect and passion also for ingredients that are not valued generally, such as roach and bream among fish. We try to utilise every possible part of animals, from the snout to the tail, like they used to do in farmhouses in the old days. Cabbage, root vegetables and mushrooms, conserved for the winter, fill the cellar. Much good stuff can be found for free in nature. For example, spruce nut and garden angelica are common ingredients in our banquet. We have planted oaks in one field and truffle mycelium at their roots. We have already obtained a few truffles. Maybe one autumn we can have a real banquet serving the manor’s own truffles”, says proprietor Matti Pylkkänen.
Tertti Manor, Kuopiontie 68, Mikkeli, www.tertinkartano.fi
The most delicious address of Mikkeli is also where they put together the best theatre in town – the Mikkeli Theatre. Restaurant Vilee started in 2015 in the stone foundation of the venerable theatre building under the sturdy brick arches, to offer food one would get in a Parisian neo-bistro.
“Vilee’s food consists largely of the day’s supply and tastes of the province’s offerings. Essential for me in cooking is respect for handiwork and the careful implementation of details”, says the restaurateur of Vilee, chef Ilkka Arvola.
For years, Arvola made a career in the best restaurants of Helsinki. Little by little, the idea of his own local food on the home turf took hold of him. In 2010, Arvola and his wife Vilma moved to Mikkeli. The couple opened Bistro Vilee with their own money in the centre of Mikkeli. The restaurant also incorporated a small local food shop, selling bread from the oven of the restaurant’s kitchen. Vilee’s delicious and economical local food quickly won friends – but not enough. After five years of entrepreneurship, Arvola closed shop.
A new opportunity opened up when the premises of restaurant Holvi, operating in the theatre building, became available. At the new address and in the idyllic milieu, Vilee has become a favourite among the Mikkeli people. Arvola has got busy elsewhere in Mikkeli, too. Café Bakery Vilee has opened next to the marketplace, offering lunch in addition to coffee. Otava Food Factory prepares local food from sausages to spiced pasta from local producers’ offerings. You can buy them to take away, for example, at the Mikkeli market hall.
Vilee also moves on wheels. Street Grill Vilee is a familiar sight at summer events around Eastern Finland. The Vilee food cart sells the super-popular pike burger in their own bakery’s bun as well as pork neck brewed overnight and coleslaw. At the bistro, Arvola recommends savouring the three-course Saimaa Menu.
“It is a good way to get to know the flavours of the Saimaa area. The producers of the near-by areas are my personal friends. I can be proud of how they fish, rear their animals and cultivate their fields. I believe I bring the best and purest flavours of this province together in Vilee”, says Arvola.
Bistro Vilee, Savilahdenkatu 11, Mikkeli, www.vilee.fi
This was quite unexpected: in the middle of fields, at Juva in the heart of Savonia, they drink tea and eat freshly baked scones in the best of English traditions. The long outbuilding belonging to the Grotenfelt family manor provides a dignified setting to the delectation popular among the English gentry. The Grotenfelt manor was built in the 18th century as the king’s horse farm. The Grotenfelt family has resided on the estate and managed it ever since.
Today the main production line of the estate, managed by Carin Grotenfelt, is organic milk. 150 dairy cows inhabit the large cowhouse in the manor compound. There are other things happening in the compound as well.
Carin’s sister Anna Grotenfelt-Paunonen runs the TeaHouse of Wehmais, Finland’s only tearoom specialised in the English tea tradition. It incorporates a tea shop of over a hundred tea qualities and Wehmais Deli Deco, selling the delicacies of small producers of the Saimaa area. Currently the assortment of the TeaHouse consists of about a hundred loose teas.
“We also have three different teacakes, pu-erh tea and flower tea. Our assortment includes black, green, yellow and white tea as well as oolong and rooibos. There are both unflavoured tea qualities, such as Keemun, and flavoured ones, such as Earl Grey. The teas are flavoured with natural ingredients, natural aromas or natural essences. Therefore, the flavours and fragrances of our tea qualities are strong and enjoyable”, explains Anna Grotenfelt-Paunonen.
The crux of the matter, sipping of tea unhurriedly, takes place in the tearoom, in romantic rooms decorated with flower wallpaper. In the summer, the doors open to a lush garden, where there are more tables.
“For the sweet tooth, choose the Cream Tea menu, which consists of freshly baked vanilla scones with whipped cream and strawberry jam. The Afternoon Tea consisting of both savoury and sweet scones are suited to satiate a bigger hunger. There are other jams for the scones, too, but strawberry jam is the original one, which Anna, the duchess of Bedford, ate at afternoon tea in her day. The preferred tea is selected from the tea list. The English tea ceremony isn’t more complicated than that. What is important are superior products and, above all, leisureliness. The purpose of tea time is to soothe both the soul and the body”, Grotenfelt-Paunonen reminds.
TeaHouse of Wehmais, Pieksämäentie 234, Juva, www.teahouse.fi
Stora Enso’s huge paper mill with its colossal chimneys dominates the townscape of Varkaus. The most expensive culinary delicacy of Finland, genuine sturgeon caviar, is produced in the recesses of the industrial zone, concealed from prying eyes. Carelian Caviar Ltd. was the first enterprise in Northern Europe that started breeding sturgeons in circulation pools in its premises in 2007. The production of caviar is not for the impatient. In Varkaus, they only got to taste the caviar for the first time after six years of toiling.
“The main species that is bred is the Siberian sturgeon, which reaches sexual maturity at the age of five to six years and then starts to produce caviar. Some pools house massive belugas which produce the most valuable beluga caviar. The belugas do not hurry with their growth pursuits. You can expect caviar when they reach the age of about 15 years and size of some hundred kilos, says the ”father figure” of the sturgeons in Varkaus, Carelian Caviar’s production manager”, Jani Rantula.
Carelian Caviar produces about five tonnes of caviar a year. There is pool potential for even greater production. Some 100,000 sturgeons swim in the pools. In Varkaus, the caviar is processed in high-hygiene production facilities through fresh salting, packed unpasteurised into caviar tins and sold to buyers around the world. The world’s top restaurants, such as Noma, elected the best restaurant in the world, and Geranium, of three Michelin stars, in Copenhagen have been pleased to serve Finnish caviar, because its method of production is ecological and environment-friendly. The WWF shows green light to the Varkaus enterprise in its seafood guide.
“Above all, its fine taste has convinced top chefs”, says Mr Rantula with professional pride.
The most delightful way to enjoy caviar is to come to Varkaus in August, during the celebration of the Sampea ja Samppanjaa (Sturgeon & Champagne) town festival on the shores of river Pirtinvirta.
Kuopio is one of the few cities in Finland associated with its own food. In Kuopio, it is kalakukko (“fish rooster”), an ingenious confection baked overnight in the oven. The kalakukko can be considered the Savonians’ gift to the cuisine of Finland and, why not, to the whole world. It is also an apt demonstration of the Savonians’ inventiveness. The kalakukko is a full meal with bread, fish and meat all in the same package. In the old days, a Savonian workman did not need other provisions. The kalakukko had everything necessary, went along handily in the rucksack and kept well in room temperature for many days. Finland’s best known kalakukko bakery, Hanna Partanen, still operates in the same wooden house near the Kuopio marketplace in which the baking of kalakukkos began in 1930.
First Hanna Partanen baked the kalakukkos at home, but their demand was so high that a bakery had to be established for the purpose. The Partanens are the fourth generation of “kukko” bakers. The secret of the popularity of Hanna Partanen’s kalakukkos, stretching from generation to generation, is the uncompromising handiwork and the bakery’s oven that uses alder billets to bake 150–200 kalakukkos daily. The kalakukkos weighing about a kilogramme are prepared from rye flour, fresh vendace, pork flank slices, vegetable fat and salt. Baking the kukkos starts early in the morning, because they bake in the 150 °C oven for ten hours.
The kalakukko is such an important part of the Savonian taste identity that it has enjoyed EU’s name protection since 2002. You can buy Hanna Partanen’s freshly baked kalakukkos in the bakery’s shop on Kasarmikatu. The most popular – and in many people’s minds the only right – place for eating kalakukko is the Kuopio marketplace, where they are available at the stalls of several bakeries. The main ingredient of kalakukko, vendace, is enjoyed by the Savonians in other forms, too.
The Kuopio restaurant classic Sampo has prepared vendace dishes since 1931. Sampo has developed into an institution which, it is hoped, will never change. Indeed, Sampo has resisted time quite well. The milieu and the food are largely the same as they were back in the 1970s. Vendace-fish has its own menu at Sampo, naturally written in the Savonian dialect. Interpreting it may be quite a task to a non-Savonian. If and when you clear the language barrier, you can order vendace smoked, stewed in the oven, fried or in soup. The best known vendace dish of the house is crispy vendace: that is vendance rolled in rye flour and fried in butter, and served with mashed potatoes. Perhaps not the healthiest food in the world, but certainly tasty.
Once you have tried and enjoyed vendace in Kuopio, you should try out stylish Savonian fine dining food in the atmospheric vaulted-cellar restaurant Musta Lammas or have Finland’s best lunch for 11 euros. It is prepared by the talented chef Anssi Kantelinen in Urban, at the corner of the Kuopio marketplace. No table reservations are taken, so the quick snatch the best spots. And there is good reason to be quick. It is always full in Urban at lunchtime.
Kalakukko bakery Hanna Partanen, Kasarmikatu 15, Kuopio, www.hannapartanen.com
Sampo, Kauppakatu 13, Kuopio, www.ravintolamaailma.fi/ravintolat/sampo-kuopio
Musta Lammas, Satamakatu 4, Kuopio, mustalammas.ravintolamestarit.net
Urban, Puijonkatu 15, www.ravintolaurban.fi
Arriving at Joensuu, the principal town of easternmost Finland, you are no longer in Savonia, but in North Karelia. The Karelians are known for their hospitality and their plentiful banquets. A banquet is set whenever there is the least reason for a feast. The stars of the Karelian cuisine are Karelian pies with egg butter, Karelian roast, smoked fish, fermented cabbage, various mushroom delicacies as well as berries from cloudberries to wild raspberries. In the Karelian cuisine, east interestingly meets west.
Local Bistro, opened next to the Joensuu marketplace in 2015, has won the local gourmands by offering modern versions of familiar Karelian dishes. The catch of the menu is the street food section which marries street foods from around the world with the Karelian culinary tradition. You can find on the list a hamburger made of moose meat, Russian carroty blinis or Korean kimchi à la carélienne with duck confit. At Local Bistro, barriers are made to be overturned.
A stone’s throw from the Joensuu marketplace, restaurant Kielo presents the most ambitious version of the Karelian cuisine. Kielo was established in 2007 by Petri Heikkinen, who had made his mark in the top kitchens of Helsinki. Heikkinen had worked under Markus Maulavirta, the pioneer of Finnish local food. With Maulavirta’s teachings in mind, Heikkinen moved back to his home turf to realise his own Karelian local food mission. Heikkinen began a determined research to find out what the local producers had to offer. And the work paid off. Heikkinen brought in the Kielo kitchen lamb, wild boar beestings, freshly caught fish, root vegetables, forest fruits, organic strawberries, ceps.
Kielo’s menu stringently adheres to the seasons. Early in the year, it is burbot season. In meat dishes, long-poached parts of the carcass are utilised, such as the tongue and the cheeks, with root vegetables. In the summer, there are fresh product from the vegetable garden, herbs and berries. In the autumn, the kitchen prepares game and mushrooms, particularly ceps, which are plentiful in the North Karelian forests.
“We are now starting to grow herbs, edible flowers and root vegetables. With our kitchen team, we also gather birch buds, spruce nuts, willowherb, dandelion and nettle from the forest. You can taste the forest in Kielo in both sweet and savoury dishes”, says Heikkinen.
Local Bistro, Koskikatu 9, Joensuu, www.localbistro.fi
Kielo, Suvantokatu 12, Joensuu, www.ravintolakielo.fi
The Savonlinna Opera Festival in July is in the A series of the world’s opera festivals. At festival time, the hustle and bustle in Savonlinna, of 35,000 inhabitants, is like in an international metropolis. The buzzing centre of Savonlinna is at the market place and its cafés. Their attraction is lörtsy, a flat fried pastry of doughnut dough. Its shape distinguishes it from a doughnut. The lörtsy is flat, shaped almost like a half-moon.
According to the story, lörtsy came to Savonlinna during World War II, when Karelian ladies Strömberg and Kero evacuated to Savonlinna, away from the racket of the war in Karelia. They brought the skill of making lörtsys with them. The Savonlinna bakery Laurikainen still bakes lörtsys with Mrs Strömberg’s recipe. Lörtsypojat is another well-known local lörtsy baker. Lörtsys are a must at the Savonlinna marketplace.
There are both salty and sweet versions of lörtsy. The meaty lörtsy contains minced meat. It is spiced with mustard, ketchup and onion. Sweet lörtsys have apple, bilberry, strawberry or cloudberry jam inside. The most popular chaser for lörtsy is coffee, but nobody at the marketplace minds other alternatives.
In addition to lörtsy, vendace is also available at the Savonlinna marketplace. Kalastajan Koju, next to the bridge, is dedicated to fried vendace. The vendace comes from the local waters north and south of Savonlinna. The traditional delicacy, rolled in rye flour and fried crispy in butter, is so tasty that it is excellent as such, with a wedge of lemon.
Panimoravintola Huvila marries local food with the beer of the house. The right address for a full-scale savouring of Saimaa flavours can be found at the shore opposite the marketplace. Panimoravintola Huvila’s kitchen utilises the fish, vegetables, meat and gifts of the forest of the nearby areas. The dishes are prepared to match the taste of beers. The Waahto Brewery in the same address brews the unfiltered ales of the house.
Kalastajan Koju, Savonlinna marketplace, Savonlinna, www.kalastajankoju.com
Panimoravintola Huvila, Puistokatu 4, Savonlinna, www.panimoravintolahuvila.fi
Hotel Punkaharju is located in the middle of a national landscape. Saimi Hoyer had a successful international career as a top model. She risked a lot by buying the ancient State Hotel in Punkaharju on top of a beautiful pine ridge, with her husband Thomas in 2016. In fact, the scenery around the hotel is so beautiful that it was declared a natural reserve already in 1802. In 1878, the forest ranger’s house on top of one hill was expanded into a hotel. It even attracted the royalty of the Russian court, who could travel to Punkaharju by boat all the way from St. Petersburg. The Hoyers thoroughly renovated the old hotel and reopened it in the summer of 2016 with the name Hotel Punkaharju.
Having become a heavy consumer of hotels during her modelling career in Milan, Paris, New York and other fashion metropolises, Saimi Hoyer knew exactly what she wanted of her own hotel: a comprehensive experience created by a beautifully constructed milieu, magnificent nature and experience services, and above all good food.
“My being a hotel entrepreneur now is largely due to my craze for mushrooms. We moved to Punkaharju, in the middle of the forest, in 2011. I love to pick and eat mushrooms, and Punkaharju is a mushroom-picker’s paradise. I also published my own mushroom book, titled “Mushrooms and People”, a couple of years ago. We always eat mushrooms in some form at Hotel Punkaharju. During the mushroom seasons in late spring and autumn, we organise special mushroom weekends in the hotel: we study mushrooms, pick them and, of course, eat mushroom dishes. At my request, our bartender also developed a mushroom cocktail. It consists of cognac, as well as mushroom broth, dust and tea”, says Hoyer.
Many other dishes are served in Hotel Punkaharju as well.
“Headed by our chef, Mikko Lahtinen, we use as many gifts of nature as possible. We collaborate with Sami Tallberg, Finland’s best known wild herb cook. He has taught and shown us how many magnificent flavours can be found in the forest, right in our backyard. Sami has also shown us what fine fish the pike and the roach are. We keep them on the menu as much as possible”, says Hoyer.
Hotel Punkaharju, Punkaharjun harjutie 596, Punkaharju, www.hotellipunkaharju.fi
Mika Remes (2017)
“The producers of the nearby areas are my personal friends.I can be proud of how they fish, rear their animals and cultivate their fields.”
The secret to the popularity of Hanna Partanen’s kalakukkos, stretching from generation to generation, is the uncompromising handiwork and the bakery’s oven that uses alder billets to bake 150–200 kalakukkos daily.
“The main species that is bred is the Siberian sturgeon, which reaches sexual maturity at the age of five to six years and then starts to produce caviar.”
“Early in the year, it is burbot season. In meat dishes, long-poached parts of the carcass are utilised, such as the tongue and the cheeks, with root vegetables. In the summer, there are fresh product from the vegetable garden, herbs and berries. In the autumn, the kitchen prepares game and mushrooms, particularly ceps, which are plentiful in the North Karelian forests.”
“During the mushroom seasons in late spring and autumn, we organise special mushroom weekends in the hotel: we study mushrooms, pick them and, of course, eat mushroom dishes.”
The vendace comes from the local waters north and south of Savonlinna. The traditional delicacy, rolled in rye flour and fried crispy in butter, is so tasty that it is excellent as such, with a wedge of lemon.