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.