Helsinki cafés

Your daily eating schedule in Helsinki is going to be a bit different from what you’re used to. Here, it’s the norm to eat a simply gargantuan breakfast, then to skip lunch altogether or eat something very, very light in one of the city’s cafés.

Most hotels offer a large buffet breakfast. Whenever I’ve been in Helsinki I’ve ended up at one of the Radissons in town. This visit found us at the Radisson SAS Seaside, about ten minutes’ walk from the very centre of town. The hotel is also right next to a tram stop – €2 will buy you an hour’s use of the city’s tram/bus network, and a ticket can be purchased from the driver.

This hotel is less seaside than harbourside, but has extremely comfortable memory foam beds, clean laminate flooring in the rooms (marvellous for allergy sufferers) and great black-out curtains. This being Finland, there are also saunas, including two complimentary ones and one on the roof which can be rented by the hour for parties. Radissons always seem to offer great spreads for their buffet breakfasts, and we conscientiously filled up each morning on little sausages with sweet Finnish mustard, bacon, eggs, organic porridge (cloudberry, raspberry and strawberry jams and maple syrup were on hand), smoked salmon, several different crispbreads and rye breads, soused herring, cucumber both fresh and pickled, salads, continental meats, cheeses, yoghurt, muesli, smoothies, juices and vat upon vat of fresh coffee.

Coffee is good in this city – there seems to be a degree of national pride in serving a really good cup. The best I found (unfortunately, it’s priced accordingly) was at Fazer, a café and bakers dating from the 1890s on Kluuvikatu. Fazer is great for the kind of light lunch that is typical here – get food from the counter and pay for it, then sit by the window to watch the crowds go by. We found open sandwiches (be aware that when you order a sandwich in Helsinki, it will be an open one) made from the bakery’s own rye bread topped with concoctions like rare roast beef and tzatziki, or smoked salmon, capers and cream cheese. Pastries here are also a winner – I liked the Bebe, a tiny pink-iced oval of hollow pastry piped full of pureed fresh strawberries and whipped cream. When you’ve finished your meal, head over to the other side of the large room to pick up some chocolates, sweets and baked goods to take home with you.

Near Fazer you’ll find Kämp Café at the Kamp Hotel (this is where I’d be staying if I was feeling a bit richer – there’s a library, a glorious sweeping staircase leading up from the lobby and a palpable sense of history). You can sit outside on the Esplanadi in spring and summer – this is one of the nicest spots in the city for people-watching. There’s a thoughtful wine list and excellent raw seafood. We really enjoyed the lime-spiked beef carpaccio, the wild mushroom risotto, a sweetly fresh king prawn and lemon open sandwich and an extraordinarily good club sandwich. Kämp Café is also open in the evenings for supper.

Kappeli, at the harbour end of Esplanadi, is worth a visit just for the building. It’s a belle époque glass conservatory, overlooking the sea and Esplanadi’s lovely avenue of trees. Again, the café is self-service. Try the smoked reindeer open sandwich and the excellent coffee. Desserts here are also good.

We also ate at Café Ekberg on Bulevardi. Ekberg has been serving pastries, salads and sandwiches since the 1850s – but although there is table service here, we found the service slow and rather rude (astonishing for Finland, where everyone is usually as nice as pie), the food…OK…and the prices rather high for what we were given. We went with friends, and my egg and anchovy open sandwich on rye bread was probably the best of the four lunches ordered (a chicken sandwich was, peculiarly, a sea of superheated Coronation Chicken on a slice of white bread). If you’re an anchovy sort of person, anchovies are usually a good bet in Finland and elsewhere in Scandinavia. They’re unlike the ones you can get in the UK and US. Scandinavian anchovies are sweet and delicately spiced, and match wonderfully with hard boiled eggs and rye bread. Ekberg still wins points with me for the profusion of nice old ladies in hats who shared the dining room with us.

I’ll wrap this up now. I am suffering a dreadful craving for coffee.

Full of beans – Part 2

After a night and a day of slow steeping, the cream and yolk mixture I made last night has gone a hazelnut-brown. I strain it to get rid of the beans (the mixture was already thick from the warmed-through yolks, and has been made thicker by the acidic coffee beans), and churn it in my new ice cream maker. (This is almost a complete disaster, when I fail to read the instructions properly and get the turning on/adding liquid in the wrong order. A bit of fierce scraping with a silicone spatula sorts things out.)

Until now, I’ve made ice cream in a plastic box in the freezer, beating it with a fork frequently as it freezes. The ice cream churn results in a much softer, creamier texture.

The sweetness of the mixture is toned down a bit once the ice cream has been frozen. We eat it in happy silence – I wish I’d made more.

Full of beans – Part 1

More friends are coming over tomorrow evening. One, Chris, is a man fuelled entirely by caffeine – his heart does not beat; it percolates. I’ll start on some whole-bean coffee ice-cream this evening, which I’ll churn while we’re eating tomorrow. After a day and a night of steeping, the custard the ice cream is based on will be rich and strong.

Why whole beans? Well, the resulting ice-cream comes out very rich, and very smooth, without an acidic edge. An overnight steep means that the ice-cream still has a strong coffee flavour.

I use a whole bag of dark-roast espresso beans, and pour over a litre of whipping cream. God; this already smells fantastic, and I haven’t even done any cooking yet. The cream and coffee beans go in a thick-bottomed saucepan (mine is a Le Creuset pan); make sure yours is thick so the bottom of the cream doesn’t scorch. I bring the cream and coffee slowly to a simmer, and remove the pan from the heat.

While the cream and coffee are warming up, I beat 225g sugar with six egg yolks using a fork, making sure not to beat in too much air. This will make the custard very sweet, but for some reason, ice-creams usually taste less sweet once frozen, so you need to be quite generous with the sugar. The yolks at this time of year are a beautiful orange.

When the cream has been scalded, it is poured over the yolks and sugar, stirring all the time to avoid scrambling them. When everything is well-mixed, it all goes back in the saucepan on a low heat, and is stirred gently until the yolks thicken the cream.

Now the mixture is put in a mixing bowl, and left on the counter until cool. I’ll put it in the fridge before I go to bed, and leave it there until dinner time tomorrow. The beans are already giving up some colour and lots of flavour to the custard – I’m looking forward to tasting the final mixture tomorrow. This one’s going to be good.