I’ve just spent a few glorious computer-free days in Tampere, about 200 miles north of Helsinki. The snow is deep, the sausages are plentiful, and the best of the local beer is flavoured with birch tar.
Tampere, like most Finnish cities outside Helsinki, has surprisingly few Finnish restaurants. Every other restaurant seems to be a burger place or a kebab shop. Our flight got in very late, and the only open restaurant in our hotel was Amarillo (every Finnish town has a branch of Amarillo – some have two), a Finno-Tex-Mex. Remarkable stuff, like nachos made by people from the Frozen North who appear to have seen a picture of some nachos once upon a time. They came with bits of smoked Finnish sausage, smetana and soft Finnish cheese. Surprisingly tasty, but not nachos like you’ve ever seen them.
Happily for those looking for honest Finnish stodge that hasn’t been interpreted through a Mexican filter, Plevna, a microbrewery in an old cotton mill by the city’s rapids (incidentally, this was the first building in the Nordic countries to be lit by electric light back in 1882), produces some seriously stodge-tastic drinking food and some breathtakingly good beers. We’ve suggested to them that they send a couple of barrels to this year’s Cambridge Beer Festival. You’ll find local favourites like perry, cider and sparkling mead on the drinks list, along with light-(ish) choices like wheat beers and pilsners. Things start to get seriously, seriously good with the stouts, porters and syrupy dark lagers, which seem perfectly adapted for a cold, snowy Finnish March. There’s a long list of hearty, beer-friendly food like reindeer steaks, sausages, pork knuckles and rostis with mushroom sauces.
Each of the menu items has a little number at the top, indicating which of the beers on the list will be best alongside it. Portions are enormous – the Hop Grower’s Board (the bock is recommended with this starter) here, with rolls of smoked ham and beef, a local garlic brie, creamy prawn tartare, pate and lovely sweet Finnish pickled cucumber is meant to be for one person. We split it between two. A goat’s cheese salad arrived for one of the friends we were dining with. It was a bowl of salad about the size of his head with a whole, hand-sized grilled cheese perched on top.
The main food event at Plevna is the sausages. You can try Tampere’s local speciality, mustamakkara (Tamperelainen on the menu), which is a black pudding, crisp on the outside and moist with rye grains in the middle, traditionally served with a spoonful of lingonberry jam. It’s delicious, and at €9.50 it’s one of the cheapest things on the menu. (Mustamakkara also pops up at every hotel breakfast buffet in town, and it’s a great way to start the day.) You can choose from a selection of several German-style sausages, and if you’re unable to make a sausage decision, you can just ask for the sausage pan, full of bratwurst, Thuringerwurst, herb and cheese sausage and little sausages stuffed with pearl barley. It’s served with a creamy potato gratin full of bacon, and I defy you to finish the whole dish. Spoon over some of the sweet Finnish mustard (a real treat, this mustard, and I’ve come across Finns on holiday in England who keep tubes of it in their pockets when they are invited to barbecues – look out for toothpaste-like tubes marked sinappi in supermarkets) and enjoy.
It wasn’t the recommended beer, but #11, the Rauchbier James was a wonderful accompaniment to the smoky sausages. It’s a smoked, tarry drink; dark, fruity and syrupy. Don’t worry about tomorrow’s headache – you can deal with it in the sauna while you sit back and plan another meal.