Finnish cuisine goes local

Photos of VIP's line the brick walls of Nokka, a high-ceilinged restaurant housed in a former warehouse facing the water in Helsinki.

15 Oct 2007

They are not of politicians or actors, but "Very Important Producers": small farmers, sometimes from remote parts of the country, who supply the restaurant with organic lamb, rare black potatoes or stone-ground wholemeal flour.

This concern for quality ingredients and vocal support of local agriculture is typical of the restaurants that are making waves in Helsinki these days.

Behind the movement are a few chefs who have realised that Finland's extreme climate, cold and gloomy in winter, but perpetually bright in midsummer, can result in exceptional produce.

Fancy Finnish farming
Markus Maulavirta, Nokka's first chef, deserves much of the credit for bringing local ingredients into the limelight. Berries, wild mushrooms, freshwater fish and poro (the Finnish word for reindeer) have always played a part in the Finnish diet, but it took this charismatic gap-toothed chef to convince people of the country's potential for producing great food.

"When he started at Nokka five years ago the other chefs saw him as a wild boy from the countryside," says Jari Etelaelahti, one of a threesome that edits the restaurant trade magazine Viisi Taehteae, publishes the 50 Best Restaurants in Finland guide, and organises the annual Eat and Joy event to promote restaurants and bars in Helsinki. "Now the younger chefs are asking him for tips on where to find the best ingredients."

The Maulavirta method
Among the chefs to have adopted Maulavirta's approach is 30-something Hans Vaelimaeki, who in a few years has gone from criticizing the quality of local ingredients to forging relationships with small producers.

A restaurant that presents local products like jewels on the plate is Restaurant Savoy, voted Finland's restaurant of the year in 2007 by the Finnish Gastronomy Association.
Chef Kai Kallio has cultivated a network of producers who bring him the best farmed and wild products all year round. A believer in the healing properties of plants, he also gathers his own nettle, dandelion, rose hip, birch, spruce bud and wild vegetables.

But it's not only the priciest restaurants in Helsinki that are highlighting local ingredients. Chefs Teemu Aura and Tommi Tuominen revolutionised the city's restaurant scene when they opened the pared-back bistro Demo four years ago. They created a living-room-like space where age and occupation take a back seat to a shared love of great food.

Demo's success has inspired a generation of young chefs with limited means to open their own bistros. Even some older chefs are opting to go solo rather than work for one of the big groups, such as Royal Restaurants and Palace Kaemp, that dominate the Helsinki restaurant landscape.

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