Saaga, Helsinki

I’m afraid that this is the second review in less than a month that compels me to start with a wide-eyed appreciation of the toilets. The men’s toilets, in this case – one of our friends came down the stairs of this Lappish restaurant, eyes full of bloodlust, and told me I absolutely had to go and have a look at the corridor of death outside the loo.

It’s an Arctic taxidermist’s heaven. A not very aerodynamic-looking snow grouse dangles from the ceiling, stubby wings at full stretch. A small stoat in its winter coat clings rigidly to a bough. A wolf stuck in mid-howl gazes glassily into the distance, and an elk’s head (if it were mine there would be coats and hats hanging off the antlers) stares past a sad and very dead reindeer. Stiff ptarmigans point the way to the lavatory. A fox’s tail, nailed to the wall sans fox, yearns for a Davy Crockett to take it on adventures; and it took us a while, but we finally identified the spotty carpet-thing with holes where there might be legs as the peelings of a seal. In the restaurant proper, a brown bearskin looks insulted as flambéed bear meatballs are delivered to diners, and a little shelf by our table was heaped with detached antlers.

The Lapps like their meat wild, big and preferably with a great big arrow sticking out of it. It’s hard to object to animals as interior design when you’re also eating them.

Saaga (Bulevardi 34 B, 00120 Helsinki) is that rarest of things, a rather touristy restaurant serving really great food. As usual in Helsinki, the menu is available in a number of languages, and the English version was charmingly poetic – where else will you find dishes called things like ‘Fish of the Four Winds, Served on an Arctic Slate’, or ‘Hungry Like a Wolf’?

Your coat is taken by a gentleman in full Lappish costume (other examples of traditional dress are on display at the National Museum, but here they’re actually wearing them), and you’re invited to settle in with a drink. I asked for a Lappish Glimmer, one of those deadly concoctions that’s mostly pure alcohol (in this case brandy and a cloudberry liqueur with a couple of cloudberries bobbing in among the ice cubes) but tastes completely innocuous. The Finns are good at booze. For starters, I went for fried vendace (my new favourite fish) with Granny’s Pickled Cumbers. Granny’s cucumbers are a dead ringer for the cucumber salad I blogged here last year, and arrived in a wooden bowl with some baby vendace, flour-dusted and deep-fried, and a sour cream dip. Whitefish a la Lake Nakkälänjäarvi (try saying that after a Lappish Glimmer) was a slice of moussey terrine with a dollop of vendace roe on top, everything garnished with plenty of dill.

Dr W and I ordered Hungry Like a Wolf as a main course – a slab of honed wood tiled with meat. Smoked reindeer shank, elk fillet and a juicy reindeer fillet were bathed in a slightly gamey reindeer sauce, with turnip rösti and roast red onion prepared with birch tar on the side. Other main courses were just as spectacularly presented, with one of our friends being presented with a hunk of lamb (the wimp) on a wood and metal mesh box, a little flame burning away inside. Someone ordered the inevitable flambéed bear meatballs, and I begged a mouthful. I’m still feeling slightly guilty every time I catch the eye of my teddy bear, but these were great – bear is a marbled, slightly sweet meat with loads of flavour, and is only available in a limited number of restaurants in the city. A friend who moved out to Helsinki from England a few years ago tells me that there only a certain number of bears can be hunted for food every year, and that restaurants serving the meat require a special licence. If you can get past childhood memories of Pooh, Yogi and Balloo, it’s well worth trying, and the cepes, mashed potato and game sauce this came with were fabulous.

More of the baked cheese with cinnamon cream and cloudberries we tried at Salve was on offer. This time I tried pancakes (more blini than crepe) with more cloudberries and a gorgeously smooth and creamy spruce shoot ice cream. Tart cranberries are also on offer here in hot caramel sauce, served in a bowl made of ice. I can’t get beyond the mouth-pucker you get with raw cranberries, and nor could anyone at our table.

We’d been drinking Lappin Kulta beer throughout the meal (I am assured this has nothing to do with rabbit-worship), and had become fairly cheerful. Things descended into a boozy mist when I ordered a coffee with brandy in a Lappish kuksa, a birch cup honed completely smooth. A kuksa is velvet-smooth to the touch, and a wonderfully comforting fit in the hand. This was really a mug full of brandy with the barest splash of coffee, and the woody cup gave up a particular and delicious flavour to the drink. I recall starting the drink with relish. I don’t remember finishing it, and the headache the next morning was only alleviated by twenty minutes in the sauna and a lot of cold water.

Bellevue, Helsinki

The Katajanokka area of Helsinki – this translates as Juniper Point in English, which I think is rather splendidly romantic – is where you’ll find the Russian Orthodox cathedral, some gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings, and the city’s oldest Russian restaurant. Bellevue (Rahapajankatu 3, 00160 Helsinki) opened in 1917, a year which found a lot of Russians looking for an out-of-town venue for lugubrious vodka and bear-stew parties, and has been serving traditional dishes ever since. The menu says that this place would never have survived so long without a thorough understanding of the ‘joys and melancholies of the Russian soul’. I can see what they mean. The food was so tasty that it made me want to weep uncontrollably.

Oddly, you’re greeted at the door by a signed photograph of Barbara Bush (melancholy). Inside is a cosy clutch of dining rooms, decorated in sombre colours with paintings of troikas on the walls, the sound of Russian bass voices (more melancholy) hanging woefully in the air as you drink your grain alcohol (joy). The menu – there is an English-language one for those, like me, whose Russian is even worse than their Finnish – is packed with old Russian favourites like a borscht thick with grated beetroot, wild boar tartar and potroast bear.

I’ve been wanting to try vendace roe since we’ve been in Helsinki. The northern European vendace is not the same as the fish of the same name you find in parts of England; it’s a whitefish which was called the ‘favourite fish of the Tsars’, and its roe is particularly prized. My serving of apricot-coloured roe turned up in a little lacquered wooden bowl painted with rowan berries, alongside bowls of smetana (a fermented cream a bit like rich soured cream) and sweet red onion. The blini that arrived to go with the roe was a monster – about five inches across and half an inch deep, made from a floatingly light buckwheat batter and sizzling in literally heart-stopping amounts of aromatic butter. Joyful tastebuds, melancholy arteries. Vendace roe has a delicate flavour, less salty than most other fish roes you’ll find on tables Russian and otherwise, and was richly gorgeous glopped all over the blini with generous amounts of smetana and onion.

You’ll find a recipe for Chicken Kiev on this site, and it’s interesting to compare it with Bellevue’s more authentically Russian (and rather more attractive) version – they provide the recipe here. This Kiev is plump and juicy. The waiter stabs it with a knife at the table for you, and a simply amazing amount of lemony butter leaks out into the mildly curried rice on the plate. A peach chutney marries up very nicely with the rich, butter-swimming chicken breast. I wasn’t able to finish mine; especially after all the butter in the blini, I found I was in danger of keeling over (melancholy) from the sheer richness of it all. Fortunately, Dr W is like a Jacob’s Cream Cracker in his ability to soak up vast amounts of butter (joy, I suppose), and happily ate anything I’d left.

All this left me unable to face anything very challenging for dessert, so I asked for the Russian tea tray. A glass of pale, black tea in a silver holder arrived, alongside some strawberries and biscuits, and a silver pot of raspberry jam. ‘Put it in your tea’, said the lady serving me. I assumed this was another Russian melancholy joy, and did what she said.

Tea with jam is, it turns out, a bloody marvellous idea, and I have no idea why it’s not precipitated further west. (See? Joy at the discovery that there’s something you can do to make tea even nicer, and melancholy when you realise that there’s no way anybody back home is going to believe you when you tell them how good it is.) Raspberry jam is really, really good in tea, being rather tart as well as sweet, and it turned the little glass of steaming tea into something like distilled joy when compared with those melancholy dried fruit teas you can buy at vast expense in branches of Whittards back home.

Filled with joy and melancholy, we walked back to our hotel alongside the waterfront, torn between kicking our heels and throwing ourselves into the Baltic.

Salve, Helsinki

So here I am in Helsinki, enjoying fantastic Scandinavian breakfasts and icy-clear sunshine. It’s about eight years since I was last here, and I don’t know why I left it so long; I love this city, with its mixture of deco and modernist architecture, its lovely tree-lined boulevards, the curiously Baltic quality of light and wonderful, wonderful food.

Salve (Hietalahdenranta 11, 00180 Helsinki) is a quiet-looking little joint, opposite one of Helsinki’s harbours. Walking past on the way to the adjacent flea market, you’d never guess that this is, in fact, one of the city’s oldest restaurants. Salve is a traditional sailors’ pub, which has been serving its speciality, fried herrings and mashed potato, for more than a century.

We visited early on a Sunday evening, expecting a relatively quiet restaurant. It was, in fact, packed, and we were lucky to find a table at the back, next to the bar. There’s maritime memorabilia all over the place; huge, waxed ropes dangling here and there, a Captain Haddock-type effigy by the door, and little wooden model boats in full sail hanging from the ceiling. The menu is in six languages. This is a boon for those of you who, like me, struggle with Finnish. I can reliably pronounce only a handful of words in Finnish, including hei (hello), kiitos (thank you), kippis (cheers), olut (beer) and sauna (sauna, unsurprisingly). You’ll find that this very small vocabulary will serve you very well over here, where beer, saunas and extreme friendliness are the order of the day.

There are only a few starters on the menu – the main event is the herring, which heads up a list of mostly fishy main courses. The herring is delivered to the restaurant fresh from the boats you can see bobbing about across the road. It’s cleaned and prepared in the restaurant’s kitchens, then dredged in a savoury flour mixture, fried and piled on top of a heap of mashed potato. Although Helsinki has its months of darkness in the winter, its springs herald very long, startlingly bright days of sunshine, and the flavour of the potatoes is all the more rich and concentrated for this, especially at this time of year.

These are enormous portions, and even with the ravening hunger that results from a recent bout of flu and mild jetlag, I couldn’t finish mine.

Desserts are along traditional lines, with an emphasis on dairy and berries. There’s a free-for-all in this country on berries; you can pick what you want unless you’re in certain parts of Lapland, where the cloudberries are particularly prized and are rationed. Cloudberries, a yellow fruit a bit like a raspberry on steroids, are particularly delicious, and I ordered a dish of sweet baked cheese in a cinnamon cream with cloudberry jam. This is a traditional dish that you’ll find in most restaurants serving Finnish cuisine. The cheese resembles halloumi in texture, but is only very barely salted, and it takes on a toothsome sweetness when prepared with cream and a dusting of cinnamon. Dr W went for a glass of frozen cranberries in butterscotch syrup – another very typical dessert. I’m one of those people who find cranberries extremely bitter, especially when raw, but if you’re someone who likes cranberry juice, you’ll probably enjoy this dish; and you’re likely to find it in most restaurants serving Finnish cuisine.

Salve is a traditional and inexpensive restaurant brimming with style and local custom. Use an acidic cup of the excellent coffee to settle your stomach before you waddle back to your hotel, and congratulate yourself on having eaten a piece of real Finnish history.

Chocolate fondue

Thanks for all the kind emails – I’m still recovering from the flu and am decidedly wobbly, but a whole lot better than I was at the start of the week. Just as well, because next week I’ll be in Helsinki, on the lookout for reindeer, vendace roe, rye bread and soused herrings.

Cooking’s been beyond me since my encounter with this horrible germ, and my tastebuds are still not giving any kind of sensible feedback to my brain – most things are still either tasteless or, oddly, extremely bitter. Happily, there’s one foodstuff that even the flu can’t ruin for me: chocolate. So it’s out with the new fondue set.

If you’re making your own chocolate fondue, try dipping cantucci, those hard little Italian biscuits; dried pear, marshmallows and fresh, ripe bananas are also great. I’m not a huge fan of strawberries in any chocolatey context; they’re too acid, especially out of season, to work well with chocolate. I’m aware that I’m in a minority here though – if you like strawberries dunked in chocolate, dip away.

To serve four, you’ll need:

250 g good quality dark chocolate
100 ml double cream
2 tablespoons Amaretto
Fruits, biscuits, fresh almonds etc. to dip

Hopelessly easy, this. Put your chocolate in a sealed bag and wallop the hell out of it with the end of a rolling pin, until it’s reduced to little bits. Stir the chocolate bits into the cream in your fondue pot, and melt together with the cream over a low heat on the hob, stirring all the time. Transfer to a low flame on the fondue stand and stir in the Amaretto. Proceed to fight over who gets the pink marshmallows.


Apologies to those of you who’ve been waiting for an update; I’m busy getting over a bout of flu. It’s getting better – this is the first day I’ve been able to get out of bed and look at a monitor without coughing all over it and then being sick, but I’m afraid that the very thought of food is still making me want to crawl back into bed with a box of tissues and die quietly.

I am bored stiff. I’ll be back as soon as I can – in the meantime, I’d love to hear ideas about things I can do which involve lying very still and not using my brain too much (thinking hurts) in the comments section.

Jerked chicken – and brining 101

I promised you a post about brining. Brining sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first; how on earth is giving a piece of meat a bath in salty water going to make it taste better?

Back in the dark ages when I was at school, cooking lessons were called domestic science. I am unconvinced that there’s a lot in common between my constructing a pie and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but understanding how brining works does actually require you to think back to your biology lessons. This is because what’s going on in your chicken once you’ve popped it in its salty bath involves osmosis, whereby the cell walls in the muscle let through the concentrated brine to try to balance the concentration inside and outside the cells. This results in a plumping of the muscle – the cells draw up the brine all the way into the core of the piece of meat and become very juicy, leaving you with a lovely moist piece of cooked meat. There’s also some denaturing of protein thanks to the salt; this will make your meat much more tender. All this science works at its fastest and best when your brine is as close to freezing as possible – once you’ve made yours, refrigerate it (perhaps with a couple of ice cubes bobbing around in there) until it’s very cold before using.

The brine can also push certain flavours deep inside the meat (far deeper than ordinary marinading can achieve). When choosing what flavours to add to your brine, be careful – you need to use only those aromatics which are soluble in water or vinegar, not those (like the essential oils in a lot of herbs and spices) which are only fat-soluble – these flavours won’t make it past the cell membranes. Any of those chilli sauces which have a vinegar base (Tabasco, Frank’s and so on) work brilliantly in a brine; so does lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, mustard, flavoured vinegars and any alcohol. Be careful when adding wine or cider to a brine though; because the brine works on the deep tissue of the meat, not just the surface, it can be hard to cook the brined meat little enough to keep it tender while also cooking it enough to burn off any alcohol lurking deep in the middle.

I like sugar or honey in a brine, especially with chicken, because as well as adding flavour to the meat, it makes the surface skin much nicer – brown, crisp and quick to caramelise. You can add another variable by buying some vacuum containers like the ones I reviewed here, which will make brining about four times faster. Without a handy vacuum tub, brining times for chicken are:

  • Chicken breasts, no bone – 1 hr
  • Chicken joints, with bone – 1 ½ hrs
  • Whole chicken (about 4lb) – 3 hrs

I’ve made a jerk rub to slather all over chicken once it comes out of the brine. This Jamaican seasoning is unusual in its heavy use of allspice, usually a dessert spice, and it works really well here. To make unbelievably succulent, spicy chicken for two, you’ll need:

Chicken and brine
1 chicken, jointed into six pieces (ask the butcher to do this for you or go at it yourself with a very sharp cleaver)
70 g salt
1 litre water
1 ½ tablespoons Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons honey

Jerk seasoning
2 tablespoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon onion salt
1 teaspoon dried habañero pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper

Mix the water, salt, Tabasco and honey and heat gently in a saucepan, stirring, until all the salt has dissolved. Chill in a large bowl in the fridge until very cold. Add the chicken pieces to the brine and leave for an hour and a half.

Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Drizzle with a little olive oil and rub well with the jerk seasoning. Grill the chicken on the barbecue or under the grill in your oven for about 7 minutes per side (be careful here – for some reason, brined chicken takes less time to cook than virgin chicken).

I’ll put up a recipe later this week for a plantain accompaniment for this chicken.