For a lot of European people, Finnish food first came to their attention in 2005 when two politicians made critical statements in public. French President Jacques Chirac was of the opinion that the food in Finland was the worst in the world (worse even than the grub in Britain, which usually bears the brunt of Gallic gastronomic disdain), and Berlusconi of Italy also made disparaging (and typically daft or untrue) statements, such as claiming that Finns didn't even know what 'parma ham' was, and that they ate smoked reindeer.
The first is an outright lie, Finns appreciate a good ham even when it has come from Italy, and the second is thankfully correct, smoked reindeer is absolutely delicious! However, the Italian was probably guilty of sour grapes, and was responding to the initial decision of the European Commission to establish the European Food Safety Authority in Helsinki. Following these public criticisms, numerous food writers around the world (including the food critic of French newspaper 'Le Figaro') came to Finland's defence stating that the fare in Finnish restaurants was as good as anywhere else in the world.
Finland's cuisine is a mixture of traditional country fare and haute cuisine combined with modern continental cooking methods, but the very basis for the subtle flavours found in their locally produced ingredients is Finland itself. Finland is blessed with a pure environment, and its soil, waters and air are the cleanest in Europe, enhancing the natural taste of the ingredients. The northern climate permits farmers to use far less chemical pesticides than do their counterparts in other countries further south (like Italy and France!). Geography also plays a great part in determining Finland's cuisine; with almost 90% of Finland being forest, and so much of the rest of the country being lakes and rivers, not to mention the long coastline with the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Bothnia it is hardly surprising that fish and game dishes feature alongside the usual meats, or that berries and mushrooms are so popular as garnishes and side dishes.
Finns also eat a lot of dairy, and are fortunate that Finnish cows milk is the cleanest milk in Europe. Finland also produces its own beef, pork, chicken, turkey and lamb, and in Lapland reindeer husbandry is common. In addition some wild boar, wisent (European bison) and ostrich are farmed in Finland. The forests, fells, mires and coastal wetlands provide a wide variety of game, such as elk, hare, venison, duck, pheasant, grouse, partridge, and capercailies. You can also find bear on the menu of some of the more expensive restaurants, it tends to stand out by its price tag alone.
There are over a dozen edible wild berries in Finland, many of which are used as garnishes; cloudberry is a particular favourite and often accompanies reindeer or elk dishes. Others include sea buckthorn, lingonberry, arctic bramble and cranberry.
There are over 200 varieties of mushroom that grow in Finland, many of which make it to the plate. The most commonly cultivated mushroom species are champignon or button mushrooms, shiitake and oyster mushroom, and these are usually produced organically. Of the wild mushrooms, golden and trumpet chanterelles, boletes, sheep polypore and milk-caps are often part of meals during autumn. Other types of available mushrooms that are edible include the gypsy mushroom, horn of plenty, arched woodwax, false morel and some species of Russula.
The history of beer in Finland dates back to the Middle Ages, although the first licensed brewery, Sinebrychoff, wasn't founded until 1819. Finns celebrate their love for beer on October 13th, Finnish Beer Day or Suomalaisen Oluen Päivä, which commemorates that foundation. Today, the largest Finnish breweries are Sinebrychoff, Hartwall and Olvi, although of these only Olvi remains as Finnish owned. Mainly, the beers produced in Finland are pale lagers.
The beers produced in Finland are considered to be among the best in the world, their quality attributed to the purity of the ingredients and water, and Finnish know-how. Most of the beers brewed in Finland are pale lagers, although you can also find dark beers and some stouts or porters. The best selling beers in Finland, and therefore the ones most likely to be found in the country's bars and pubs, are Sandels, Olvi, Karhu, Koff, Karjala, and Lapin Kulta. Beers are classified, and priced, by their alcohol content: III is 3.7-4.7%, IVA is 4.8-5.2%, and IVB is 5.2-8.0%.
Finland is one of just two countries in the world to brew traditional juniper beers, known here as Sahti. The beer is brewed from rye malts usually, although sometimes oat malts, and then filtered through juniper twigs and straw. The late English writer Michael Jackson, better known as the beerhunter, claimed that this is by far the oldest continuing tradition of beer making, and was directly linked to the methods used by the ancient Babylonians.
Finland also has a number of fine microbreweries which follow the traditional method of using Finnish malt, yeast and hops diligently, and may also produce their own ciders. These microbreweries usually operate a restaurant, allowing customers to savour the unique flavours of their creations with wholesome, traditional Finnish meals. The Finnish microbreweries are: Lammin Sahti in Lammi, the oldest of them all; Panimoravintola in Savonlinna, Tampere, Turku, and three locations in Helsinki - one of which is on the island fortress of Suomenlinna; Hollolan Hirvi in Hollola; Panimo & Tislaamo in Lahti; and Ålands Bryggeri in Godby in the Åland Archipelago.
Visitors to Finland are invariably surprised to discover that there are at least 32 wineries in the country, most of which have sprung up since alcohol production laws in Finland changed in 1995. These wineries prepare wines, liqueurs and other alcoholic drinks from the abundance of berries and fruits whose flavour and aromas have benefited from the intense northern daylight and clean Finnish soil.
The wineries of Finland are found across the country, from Levi in the north to the Åland archipelago in the south. Thanks to their locations in the idyllic Finnish countryside, wineries are popular with tourists, visited by tens of thousands every year. Wineries are usually close to other attractions such as national parks, nature trails and adventure parks, and nearby activities like lake cruises, smoke saunas, fishing and water sports can be incorporated into your visit. All encourage visits, and provide tastings, often with home cooked food, as well as offering their wines and liqueurs for sale. Some provide overnight parking space for caravans.
The choices for diners in Finland is extensive, with a wide range of restaurants serving ethnic and local cuisine. Visitors can also enjoy meals in the elegant surroundings of manor houses or while enjoying a relaxing cruise through the coastal archipelagos or around the beautiful lakes. To fully enjoy the natural flavours of Finland be sure to check out any of the restaurants with the Taste of Finland's 'Fork of Plenty' symbol.
It is a little known fact that Finns drink more coffee per capita than any other nation in the world, consuming an astonishing average of almost 10kg per person annually. As a result, café culture plays a prominent role in Finnish society and wherever you go in the country you'll be sure to find a cosy café.
The word bar in Finland is somewhat of a generic term for all types of premises that serve alcohol, including pubs and clubs. Just about every centre of population in Finland, no matter how small, will have a bar, even if it doesn't have a post office. In the larger population centres bars proliferate, and come in every shape, size and type.
Nightclubs in Finland are a varied lot, with many clubs specialising in a particular style of music or catering to a specific age group or type of clientele. Of course, this is most noticeable in the large cities like Helsinki, Turku and Tampere, and the smaller the town the less choice will be available. However, no matter how small the town you happen to be visiting, you will be able to find somewhere to go to continue the night.