Sunday, August 19, 2012

A trip to Northern Europe

Chris and I have just returned from an utterly delightful two-week vacation in Finland, Sweden and Estonia. We are fortunate to have friends who live in Helsinki who generously invited us to come and visit them, and we took that opportunity to also see a little of the surrounding areas. All told, we had about a week in Helsinki, four days in Estonia (in and around Tallinn, the capital) and three days in Stockholm, Sweden.

Not only did we see many beautiful places and enjoy the company of our friends, but we also ate very well. Our friends are serious foodies and fed us beautifully in their home (gorgeously prepared whitefish, roast duck breasts, and tiramisu were some of the many highlights) and we also ate in several top-notch restos in Helsinki.

The pinnacle was certainly Olo, a Michelin-starred restaurant where we experienced our first blind tasting menu. Nine courses were served, supplemented with four amuses-bouches and a dessert treat presented with the bill (which itself was spectacular, of course). I won't list off all of what we ate here, and I refused to take photos, preferring to enjoy the experience in the moment, but some of the highlights were a beet and goat cheese dish where the items included beet pannacotta and frozen goat cheese, complemented gorgeously with raspberry meringues. Beets and raspberries - surprisingly perfect partners. We also had an incredible plate of pike-perch cooked two ways (poached and fried) and a meat course that included sweetbreads, veal shin and beef tongue all perfectly cooked. I discovered that I do not care for sweetbreads (for shame, I call myself a foodie?) but my friend was happy to receive my morsel, so all was well.

After Olo, the most interesting meal was our final lunch in Helsinki before leaving - three delightful courses at Gaijin, a pan-Asian spot run by a locally famous chef. I began with two ssam-style lettuce wraps enclosing a morsel of gorgeously braised and glazed pork belly, pickled cucumber, mushroom, scallion and togarashi mayo. I could have eaten ten of those with delight and gusto. However, the main course of roasted and wok-fried eggplant and choi sum in a miso and black vinegar broth won the prize for best thing on anyone's plate that day. The broth was so richly and deeply flavoured and the eggplant so tender and melting that we all kept dipping our spoons into the family-style bowl. Even our friends' pork shoulder and kimchi hot pot paled by comparison. A tiny but rich chocolate cake set off with mandarin sorbet and lime cream was a fantastic end to the meal.

We also had lovely sashimi, gorgeously seared scallops, top-notch tempura and tuna tartare at Domo, on our first night in Helsinki.  Fish was a resounding theme throughout the trip, and one of the most fun things we ate was a plateful of tiny whole vendice fish (like whitebait or sardines) fried in rye flour and eaten outdoors at the waterfront market.

In Stockholm, we ate fairly simply, as prices there are astronomical for the simplest things. However, we did eat some beautifully prepared mussels and frites at Akkurat, a Belgian style pub in Sodermalm, and a terrific Turkish meal including a gorgeous mezes plate at Aya Sofya in SoFo (the hipster 'hood South of Folkungsgatan on Sodermalm island). Our last night in Stockholm we decided to have traditional Swedish food at the "Bakfickan" ("hip pocket", or small side project of a larger resto) of the Opera Bar. Chris got his meatballs with lingonberries, pickled cucumbers and buttery mash, while I enjoyed a plate of cured salmon and dill creamed new potatoes. We shared crayfish toast for a starter and all of it was extremely good.

Estonia was also home to some delicious tidbits. At Kompressor in the old town of Tallinn we had pancakes the size of platters, folded like crepes around fillings of meat and cheese, washed down with excellent local cider. And at the feudal estate of Palmse, near the Baltic coast, we had delicious soups, salmon tartare and chocolate cakes overlooking a duck pond and manicured gardens.

All in all, it was a holiday fit for a gourmand such as myself, and now I am craving salads and vegetables and grilled chicken, but I know that won't last. I shall remember, and build an appetite for when we return to this beautiful and truly interesting part of the world.

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