Finland, Finland, Finland (the country where I want to be, eating breakfast or dinner)

Among the Nordic capitals, Helsinki had found itself last on my list. This wasn’t some master plan and I certainly didn’t mean it in a “save the best for” sense. To be perfectly honest, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, even Reykjavik seemed like better uses of my time. Helsinki? It’s just a sleepy little outpost tucked into a distant corner of the Baltic Sea — miss your exit and you’ll find yourself in Russia!

“If we get bored quickly, we’ll just hop the ferry to Tallinn,” I promised my fiancée

In what I can only describe as high praise, we never made it to Estonia. That’s because Helsinki was a delight from start to finish. A small city that can easily be criss crossed on foot, it’s overflowing with beautiful architecture and design, friendly people, great food, and it had an unpretentious cosmopolitan air about it.

What’s to love about Helsinki? Here are five things — to my great surprise, none of them involve herring!

Sauna!

For the Finns, it’s a way of life. In a country with 5.5 million people, there are an estimated 3 million saunas! Finns have saunas right in their homes and apartments — or they head to one of the many lakes dotting the vast countryside. Some Finns were even born in the sauna. (Not when it was heated, mind you, but it’s a sterile environment with plentiful clean water.)

Without access to a cabin on a lake, we did the next best thing and headed to Löyly, a sleek new sauna built on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, so named for the steam that emanates when you throw water on the hot stones.

Being newbies to sauna culture, the extreme heat was an immediate shock to the system. “How long are we supposed to stay in here?” I asked.

“Eight minutes?” Elizabeth guessed.

“How long has it been?”

“Ten seconds,” she replied.

Those were a long eight minutes. Upon emerging, we doused ourselves with a bucket of cold water rigged to a rope — in what I’m quite certain was the inspiration for Flashdance. That was refreshing, but when we reentered the sauna it was just as hot as before. I wasn’t sure how we’d survive two more hours of this. So the next time when we got out, I headed down a ramp that led directly to the Gulf of Finland. Did I mention this was late November? I don’t need to tell you it was cold. So. Damn. Cold. Colder than anything I’ve ever experienced. I quickly got out and started to sprint back up to the sauna when Elizabeth, who had only agreed to follow me down the ramp to verify with her own eyes that I was certifiably insane, stopped me in my tracks. “I’m going in the water,” she said.

After Elizabeth took her dip, we hurried back to the sauna — as fast as our numb feet could carry us — where it suddenly didn’t feel hot at all. Our bodies, still in shock from the extreme cold, and now shocked in the other direction by the extreme heat, experienced something cathartic and soothing. It took a few minutes to get a new sweat going, and a few minutes more before our bodies were on fire again, at which point we took another plunge in the Gulf. Back and back, back and forth. It all made sense. That juxtaposition between extreme hot and cold — suddenly we got the sauna! Each successive dip thrilled the senses and awakened our bodies. (There may have been a beer in the middle as well. Because it’s important to stay hydrated.)

Would we do anything different if we visited Finland again? Yes. Hit the sauna every day!

When we were done with the sauna, had showered and gotten dressed, we headed to Löyly’s gleaming bar. Which brings me to my second favorite thing about Helsinki…

The Gin

Who would have thought this little country had such an affinity (see what I did there?) for their gin and tonics. The Helsinki Distilling Company, on the north end of town, is just one of many “award winning” gin producers in Finland. (No matter what gin we tried, we were told it won some kind of award.) Two of our favorites were Napue, from the Kyro Distillery Company, and Arctic Blue, from Nordic Premium Beverages.

Another unique aspect to Finnish gin is that each variety is served with garnishes specific to that gin. The Napue? It’s served with a sprig of rosemary and a sprinkling of lingonberries. Arctic Blue? Why blueberries, of course!

First we sauna. Then we drink gin.

I should mention one other thing about the gin in Finland. It’s smooth. Damn smooth. Two bottles made it home with us… and they’re nearly empty!

Lohikeitto

That’s Finnish salmon soup and I challenge anyone to find something more perfect on those cold winter days — which, let’s face it, stretch from September to June throughout much of Finland.

Our version comes from Story, a cafe with a pair of locations in central Helsinki. Their version is very traditional: a hearty blend of salmon, potatoes, and leeks in a fish stock, with just the right amount of butter and cream for richness, and a sprig of dill for freshness.

At Story, looking down on Helsinki… and a warm bowl of salmon soup.

Next time it snows, I’ll be testing this recipe.

Thanksgiving

Our final night in Helsinki happened to fall on Thanksgiving, though in Helsinki it was simply referred to as Torstai (or “Thursday”). We celebrated at Olo, a small Michelin-starred restaurant near the quay. Dinner was presented in five parts, totaling 20 or so courses, and stretched over four and a half hours. Every moment and every bite was memorable.

As soon as we were seated, we were introduced to our very own sourdough, rising at our table, and invited to get to know it. Have you ever gotten to know a loaf of bread? I mean really gotten to know it? We did the best we could in the limited time we had together, before it was whisked away, baked, and presented as Part 3 of the tasting menu. (I got to know it more intimately the second time around.)

How do you get to know your bread? We poke ours.

After Part 3 came Part 4 and that was the reindeer, presented four ways: reindeer liver pate; reindeer tongue; reindeer sweetbreads; and reindeer sirloin. Reindeer are only in season for two months out of the year and Olo preorders theirs half a year in advance. Well worth the wait.

Ugly (delicious) pastries

Pastries are like children. They’re all beautiful in the eyes of God… or so I believed before I arrived in Helsinki. Kudos to the Finns for creating the korvapuusti — which translates to “a slap on the ear” — and judging by the size of some of these things, it may have been a cow’s ear! A close cousin to the Swedish cinnamon roll, with the telltale pearl sugar on top, what it may lack in aesthetics it more than makes up for with an extra dose of cinnamon.

And because you shouldn’t have a pastry without a cup of Joe, it’s a good thing Finland ranks as the world’s largest consumer of coffee, at more than 25 pounds per person. For the best beans in town, we headed to Johan & Nystrom Oy, a roaster situated along the water, where they prepare coffee in a variety of brewing methods, from espresso to AeroPress. And the korvapuusti ain’t half bad either!

A “slap on the ear”? Of what mammal?

Helsinki was wonderful and we’ll be returning faster than we ever would have imagined.

See you in the Gulf of Finland. Literally!!

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