Finland is not exactly known for its delectable cuisine. In fact, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Bersculoni complained that “The Finns don’t even know what Parma ham is,” and in July 2005 French President Jacques Chirac said, “After Finland, Britain is the country with the worst food.”
I was curious as to what I was in for; I knew the cuisine was a world unknown to spoiled New York me, but I tend to stay pretty open-minded when it comes to trying new things. With jet lag sucking the life out of me, I didn’t feel like venturing too far, so I played it safe and just opted for a sports bar my first night there (traditional Finnish restaurants were actually pretty limited in Rovaniemi).
I grabbed a bite to eat at Bill’s Bar and Grill, a pretty typical sports bar with burgers and beer. I wanted a beer so I went up to see what’s on draft, and ordered a “Lonkero.” Well, I figured anything on draft was a beer, but I was sadly mistaken. Lonkero turned out to be an infamous Finnish mixed cocktail (on draft)! I saw the color of it when the bartender poured it, but trying to be a respectful tourist and appearing to not be an idiot, I didn’t say anything and thought to try it. I paid and took a sip, and nope! Not for me. I suffered through about half of it before returning to the bar to grab a beer and a burger.
The burger was cooked to absolute death, the bread was toasted to the point that it was questionable if it was stale, but the onion jam and bacon on the burger was pretty damn delicious. I tried to eat it with my hands but eventually had to knife and fork it, though. Those FRENCH FRIES, though.. woof. They were in a little boat shape and perfect for dipping; perfectly crisp on the outside and extra soft on the inside. I was off to believe that the Finns knew how to cook their potatoes (and that rang true throughout my trip).
That night I wanted to check out the Finnish nightlife. According to the 2016 consensus, Finland is the seventh country on the list of alcohol consumption per capita. This was absolutely no joke, these people like to DRINK.
I went to Roy Club, and as soon as I walked in (about midnight), I got a sense of the atmosphere and how much these people liked to party. No one was sitting down, everyone was dancing, there was a man singing Finnish karaoke (despite the language barrier, I was positive he was slurring every word), and groups of men typically clinking glasses together. I was not even a little buzzed so I had two options; sit back, sip on a beer and observe, or catch up and join the party. I chose the first option. I grabbed a beer (this time, a real beer), took a seat at the bar and just watched these drunk fools have a great time. I was on maybe sip two of my beer when a group of about six men hovered over me. There were men on either side of me, and the best way I could describe their demeanor is Russian mafia. They were all bald with beards, wearing muscle-t’s covered in tattoos, and speaking Finnish loudly and once again, legitimately clinking glasses, at one point, directly over my face! I was completely surrounded and clutched my bag a little tighter and made sure to watch my beer like a hawk. I watched one (the one directly next to me) say something to the bartender (which I could not understand), to which the bartender looked at me, looked back at him, and replied. That was enough for me to get out of there. I chugged my beer and peaced out. Perhaps nothing was going to happen, but better safe than sorry.
I walked through the grocery store to see if there was anything delectable, and, well…there wasn’t.
The next morning (and every morning, actually), I headed to Monterose, the restaurant in my hotel which offered free breakfast until 10am to all guests (perks to hotels!). The breakfast consisted of an array of meats and cheeses (something I’ve noticed to be incredibly popular for breakfast in European cultures), a pastry called karelian (think open-faced empanada filled with mashed potatoes), lihapyorykoita (Finnish meatballs), cloudberry and lingonberry jams, cheeses, and 7-minute eggs.
I found spreading lingonberry jam onto this sweet piece of bread and topped with sharp cheese to be my absolute favorite thing! The meatballs were a little greasy but had great flavor, and the karalien was absolutely delectable. Also, do you like my one piece of sad lettuce on the plate in an attempt to get some freshness on there?! We were also offered coffee and berry juice.
Later in the evening, I headed to Restaurant Nili, which is allegedly the best restaurant in Rovaniemi. I don’t usually go for places too expensive, but to be honest, nothing in Finland was necessarily cheap, and I wanted a good meal since my time here was limited, so I decided to go all out for one, and eat cheap the rest of the time.
As soon as I sat down, I was asked if I’d like to try the house specialty drink for the day, a gin/rosemary/cranberry cocktail, and I said “Sure!” (my mistake, when someone offers me something like that off the bat I foolishly assume it is complimentary; it was not! Always ask!). I was then given a little cracker with a fresh salmon spread (DELICIOUS, probably the best thing I ate in Finland). I ordered king crab soup, reindeer two ways, and a glass of Spanish red wine.
The crab soup was creamy and full of chunks of fresh crab meat. It was topped with this delicious rye bread that I later learned is a traditional Finnish bread called ruisleipä (I am obsessed with this bread and wanted to bring loaves of it home; super nutty and flavorful!).
The reindeer came out shortly after the soup and I was incredibly curious as to what it was going to taste like. The reindeer was prepared two ways; one slow-roasted overnight (think braised short rib), the other cooked to a medium-rare on the grill. The reindeer honestly tasted like a much leaner steak. It was good for sure, but I don’t have the desire to try it again. I’m honestly not a huge meat lover. In fact, I was a vegetarian for three years, but gave it up once I started traveling more frequently. To me, it is difficult to bring your own personal beliefs that aren’t religious into a new culture; obviously in more civilized cities, vegetarian and vegan food are widely available, but it would be a little ridiculous to go to, let’s say, Japan, and demand no meat. You would pretty much be stuck eating only rice the entire time. I decided to broaden my horizons once my passport started to fill up, however, at home, I try to stay more veggie-focused as that is what I personally believe is how we should eat.
I paid my bill (and realized that gin cocktail wasn’t exactly complimentary) which was a whopping 76 euros, and headed back to my room for some sleep.
The following night, I decided to give Monterose a chance for dinner. I was feeling tired from going dog-sledding earlier in the day and just wanted to chill in my hotel. I decided to try some Arctic Salmon and cloudberry liqueur. To my surprise, they started me off with a plate of that delicious bread I had the day prior in my crab soup (ruisleipä), best to be described as a rye bread. I gobbled it up and almost asked for seconds.
The salmon came with a warm potato salad and a crayfish sauce. It was elegantly plated and was very simple but well-executed. The cloudberry liqueur which is a Finnish original tasted like honey with a bite! It was dangerously delicious. I imagine in a hot toddy that bad boy goes down pretty smoothly.
The next day I went to Hostel Koti and was pleased to find an all-you-can-eat brunch bar, filled to the max with fresh veggies, fruits, and vegan options (a few meats as well). There were watercress salads with quinoa and chickpeas, a lovely tofu, black bean and potato mix, quiche with smoked reindeer and potatoes, beetroot and goat cheese salads, and a warm apple crisp for dessert. It was a beautiful display of food and it was only 19 euro, totally worth it, especially after a few meat-heavy days! Also, there was an adorable French Bulldog roaming around begging for scraps!
Late on my last night there, I had read that a chain in Finland, called Koti Pizza won an international pizza competition held in New York City, and as revenge to the Italian Prime Minister who had previously criticized Finland’s below average cuisine, they named their signature dish Pizza Bersculoni. I decided to run over and try it simply out of curiosity. The signature pizza had smoked reindeer, wild mushrooms, and sweet onions.
Well, I have to say…the Italians were right! The sauce was bitter, the dough was whole wheat leaving it to be soggy, and there were three giant mushrooms on there. Maybe I’m spoiled because I’m used to New York pizza but…oh man, it was rough.
Overall, the Finnish food definitely surprised me, at the very least, but was forgettable in taste. I am incredibly grateful to have had the chance to try some new funky dishes and to have indulged in their culture (they had a McDonald’s, at one point I was tempted to eat there for the rest of the time!). I would say my biggest complaint on the food was the price; it was incredibly difficult to find something both on-the-go, affordable, and healthy. If you are headed to Finland, stick with the basics! Their bread, fruits, cheese, and beers are easily enough to keep you full and satisfied throughout your trip!