Monday, 29 July 2013

Hawksmoor Bar, Spitalfields

My love affair with Hawksmoor has been well documented here before, with write-ups of both visits to their Guildhall and Air Street branches. And, although my most recent visit to their revamped Spitalfields subterranean cocktail bar happened at the beginning of the summer, as Jack White so presciently wrote 'I said it once before, but it bears repeating now....'.

It was a chance colliding of good fortune that saw my Aunti Heidi, the Australian Hippy, and I enjoying a cold pint at the Commercial Tavern, directly opposite Hawksmoor's original East London outpost, on a Friday evening half an hour before they opened their doors. After a mammoth trek from Waterloo Bridge, along the South bank, via Borough Market and the Tower of London and through the City, we were both looking for some fancy liquid refreshment, and with the Ewing en route to Liverpool Street to meet up with us, it seemed like fate was calling to us from across the street.

Continuing to ride our luck we managed, at a few minutes after six o'clock, to nab the last three-top in the place, and with no reservations taken, except for the booths for parties of six or more, we soon heard the waiting hordes behind us being told there was a three hour wait for the next free tables. Add an introductory 50% off their new bar food menu, it felt pretty glorious to sink back into their leather stools, feel the air con blowing a breeze down my sunburned neck and enjoy the first gulp of a frosty cocktail.

The drinks, like everything at Hawksmoor, are taken very seriously, but there's also a healthy dose of humour with offerings like the 'fruit-heavy party starter' Nuclear Banana Daiquiri; a potent and tropical blend of overproof rum, yellow Chartreuse, Falernum & lime blended with ripe banana. Bonkers, brilliant and just the ticket for a hot summer's night

During the evening we made our way around most of the drinks menu, enjoying the classic Marmalade Cocktail with gin, Campari, lemon juice, orange bitters & English marmalade, as well as a couple of specials involving various different anise based liqueurs. Keeping with the classics, Aunty Heidi was rather partial to the Green and Red Margarita; an unflashy blend Tequila, lime, lemon & agave syrup served simply over ice. A simple drink that lets the ingredients do the talking.

First up on the food front was a cone of breaded ox cheek nuggets stuffed with a core of molten Ogelshield cheese to nibble on; an unimpeachable combination and surely up there with the very pinnacle of bar snacks. 

To start, the Ewing and I split a fillet 'o' fish with jalepeno tartare sauce and a side of punchy vinegar slaw. The puffy, buttery brioche bun proved the perfect vehicle to get the flaky white fish and poky sauce into our eagerly waiting mouths, while the crisp shredded veg, mined with fresh herbs, felt like it should be doing us some good.

Of course, man cannot live on fish alone and we also divvied up a kinchi burger; a bone marrow augmented patty of sweet, charred beef glazed with Ogelshield cheese and served atop a bed of garlicky Korean pickled vegetables. A brilliant combination, although perhaps not for the faint-hearted, which provided serious smack of umami goodness.

Aunty Heidi made short work of the pulled pork and slaw on a semi sweet brioche bun, while the smacked cucumber and watermelon salad provided a bit of sweet and sour, Asian-inspired, refreshment.

First prize, however, must go to the pigs headtopped poutine, Hawksmoor's even filthier re-imagining of the dirty Canadian favourite of fries topped with fresh cheese curds and gravy. They may as well just replace the word unctuous in the OED with a picture of this; the epitome of sweet, sticky, meaty gloriousness.

The Ewing took this pause in proceedings to contemplate the desert menu over a glass of her favourite, the Full Fat Old Fashioned; a sugar and butter infused bourbon that slips down far more easily than it ought to and is worth every sweet, boozy calorie.

Sprits revived (literally and metaphorically) we hit the sweets. Hawksmoor pudding are of the rib-sticking variety but somehow, no matter how much protein you may have just consumed, there is always just enough room for one.

My rubbly heap of peanut butter shortbread topped with salted caramel ice cream wasn't much of a looker, but remains in a podium place out of of all puddings I have eaten this year. The Ewing went for the chocolate caramel cup, a rival for Hawksmoor's very own hommeade jaffa cake, and filled with layers of caramel and rich ganache. Utterly shameless and completely delicious.

My Aunt chose the sticky toffee sundae, a retro layering of sticky toffee sauce, sticky toffee pudding, clotted cream and ice cream. I'm not sure anyone could mess that combination up, and, despite protests of 'I don't really do puddings', the bottom of the glass was soon being scraped clean.

A fantastic night of great company and impeccable service topped with some of the best food and drink to be had any where in our fair City. Edward Hyde once claimed 'it is not the quantity of the meat, but the cheerfulness of the guests, which makes the feast'. He obviously hadn't eaten at Hawksmoor.

Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, 22 July 2013

Eating Up Estonia

During our recent jaunt to Helsinki we decided to catch the ferry across the Gulf of Finland to spend a couple of days in Tallinn. It proved to be a marvellous place full of contrasts between old and new; not is it only the oldest city in Northern Europe and an UESCO World Heritage Site, but it is also ranked one of the top ten digital cities in the world. I was also looking forward to some serious meat and drink, with Estonia belonging firmly to the beer, vodka, rye bread and pork "belt" of Europe.

After dropping into to our the hotel for a quick shower, in a vain attempt combat the blistering heat and humidity, we made our way to Vanaema Juures, or 'Grandmother's place', in the centre old town, for a highly anticipated late lunch.

Reflecting its name, this is a place is known for it's traditional food and friendly welcome, and we were soon happily ensconced on their patio, happily drinking our Saku beers and watching the world (or, more accurately, guided cruise tours) go by.

Black rye bread accompanies pretty much in Estonia; instead of saying bon appetit before a meal, Estonians will often say j├Ątku leiba (may your bread last). The rye bread found here is typically much stickier, sweeter and darker than the Finnish equivalent, tasting more like a slice of malt loaf, which made it a favourite with the Ewing. At Vanaema Juures the rye bread is served alongside both wholemeal and white bread, meaning all bases are covered.

As we were enjoying our bread and beer out on their wooden decking, the menacing roll of thunder was drawing ever nearer. The Ewing initially scoffed at my assertions it was going to hammer down, but after the first crack of lightning we decided to move down to the cosy, dark depths of the cellar restaurant. It was perfect timing, as minutes later the heavens opened as we sat smugly listening to the rain pelting down on the cobbles.

While our mains came in hulking great portions,they were surprisingly light, with all components nicely balanced. My elk in a tomato and leek sauce came with zingy pickled cucumbers, beetroot and fresh lingonberries, giving a nice piquancy and crunch to the rich meat and fried potatoes.

The Ewing enjoyed her lamb in a blue cheese sauce; a big flavour combo that made a surprisingly good pairing. Accompaniments of lentil stew, vegetables and a scattering of fresh dill lightened the load. And while the Estonians prefer to cook their meat until it loses any vestiges of pink, both dishes featured tender chunks of protein that shredded apart under gentle probing from our forks.

I took the rain still hammering down outside as a sign we should probably stay for pudding, and the Ewing, as full as she was, didn't need too much persuading. My pancakes were great; fluffy, puffy feather-light discs of dough served with plenty of warm berry jam; while the Ewing loved her baked apple stuffed with nuts and raisins and served with a vanilla sauce.

After an eventful evening of continued beer drinking and a bit of sleepwalking the next morning saw the Ewing going for traditional sauna at the hotel while I managed to find an Estonian music channel that played the greatest hits of Milli Vanilli. As fun as it was singing along to soon Girl you Know it's True, our grumbling stomachs sent us back into the heat of the streets.

Our first stop was Maiasmokk, or 'Sweet Tooth', the oldest and most famous cafe in town. Inside is unchanged, with the post-war interior of blood red leather banquettes and fridges full of fancy cakes leading through to a small marzipan museum room and chocolate shop.

As it was a glorious morning we decided to sit on the decking area, giving us a lovely view straight down the charming Pikk street and a prime spot for some people watching.

I tried a pirukad to start, a fried meat-stuffed pastry similar to the ones we sampled at Helsinki's Market Square; a tasty start to my late breakfast, but possibly missing a good dollop of ketchup. To follow was a slice of fresh strawberry and curd cake, on a light sponge base. The Estonians are very fond of their fresh cheese, and it made a lovely foil for the sweet, ripe fruit. The Ewing went with a classic curd pastry; a flaky Danish with a tangy cheese filling liberally sprinkled in powdered sugar.

After paying we took a look around the marzipan museum room. Here you can see them painstakingly hand painting the little sweetmeats as well as admiring some of the fancier examples, including a full Estonian breakfast made from almond paste, and a range of traditional wooden moulds and tools. You can also buy a selection of the finished products, as well as a range of truffles and chocolates.

We couldn't leave without sampling one of their famed marzipan confections. As we had already consumed our fill of cakes, pastries and coffee we elected to take a slice of their layered sponge, filled with cream and coated in almond paste, to eat later. This proved a very welcome snack when I discovered later, slightly squashed, during our walk in the park, even for an avowed marzipan sceptic like myself.

Kalev are also the primary confectionery producers in Estonia.  As well as their many chocolate bars and candies, flavoured with different combinations of nuts, dried fruits and wafer, they also produce a rarther nice chocolate covered marzipan covered flavoured with Vana Tallinn liqueur as well as making the first Soviet chewing gum

The most interesting of all their products was the 'Kama' bar, which isn't really chocolate at all, but a mix of sugar, vegetable fat, and kama flour (a mixture of rye, wheat, pea and barley) flavoured with coffee, cocoa powder and vanilla. First available in the 70s, when a crisis lead to the Soviet Bloc having to create clever substitutes when they couldn't afford certain imported goods, it has now been reintroduced for those whose miss a taste of the past.  It's not only popular with the nostalgic; retro packaging means that it's also a hit with all the cool kids, being the fourth most popular Kalev candy.

Our final lunch on our fleeting visit was at Estonian restaurant Kuldse Notsu Korts, or, in English, the Golden Piglet. Living up to its name the menu features a range of traditional dishes including lots of porky options such as pig's ears, jellied pork terrine, pork knuckle with sauerkraut, and potato and pearl barley porridge with bacon.

We started with a some well needed, local beers - an Alexander light for me and a porter for the Ewing - brewed by, the rather French sounding, A. Le Coq, the oldest continually operating brewery in Estonia.

It's fair to say that this is one place veggies would do best to give a wide berth. Even the bread rolls - served with a lovely, slightly cheesey, whipped butter - came studded with chunks of smoked bacon.

Despite the 30 degree heat and late cake-based breakfast, I, managed to persuade the Ewing to share the 'Estonian Sausage Feast' for Two; a vast platter of assorted pork sausages, oven baked potatoes and sauerkraut, topped with two thick rashers of smoked bacon.

There were five sausages each; two smoked, two fresh and one verivorst, or black pudding, considered to be the national dish of Estonia. The black pudding was great; crumbly and iron-rich, with chunks of sweet fat and pearl barley, and served with the traditional accompaniment of lingonberry jam. The smoked sausages, one thin and one thick, were also, delightful, pairing nicely with some properly poky mustard. The only slight misstep were the pale pink fresh pork offerings which seemed to have been boiled in their skins, giving them a rather strange texture.

Their most famous desert is Tuuliku Kama, a thin, cold porridge made of sour milk and yoghurt mixed with the same kama flour found in the Kamatehvel candy bar, and served with fresh berries. Despite being pretty sure I wasn't going to like it much at all, I couldn't resist ordering it anyway.

Sadly, it lived up to my expectations; after managing a mere a mouthful of the 'sour smoothie' it was left to the Ewing to finish it off. Thankfully she actually seemed to quite enjoy it, especially when combined with the sweet fruit.

Apart from all the medieval history, beautiful buildings and lovely people, Tallinn also has one of the best supermarkets I have visited in a long time. I have quite honestly never seen so many processed meat products in one place. From endless strings of sausages to smoked pork knuckles, and from fridges full of cured saucisson to piles of packaged sliced meats. The deli counter stretched across the back of the whole store and I couldn't help but be tempted by a couple of, heavily smoked, reindeer salamis and a 'Tallin salami', which was rather like a juicy garlic sausage, to take back home.

We also stocked up on bottles of fresh sea buckthorn juice; little squares of fresh curd snack - which were rather like chocolate covered cheesecake bites; packets of pork jerky; chubs of smoked cheese and brightly iced slices of jam filled cake.

The Estonians are also rather famous for their prodigious alcohol consumption. Add that to the fact that all the day trippers on the ferry back to Finland seemed to be laden down with slabs of cheap beer and Lonkero, and multi packs of vodka and it will come as no surprise to hear the alcohol aisle was a sight to behold. The vodka section alone took up three huge bays, before you even consider all the shrink wrapped crates piled up in the middle of the floor.

With the local brand, Viru Valge, reduced to only 10 Euros a litre it would have been rude not to,and we soon stocked up on some standard 40% vodka, as well as a bottle of the barberry flavoured clear spirit. Of course their had to be a space for a bottle of Vana Tallinn, the legendary sweet liqueur, and we soon added bottles of cloudberry, sea buckthorn and alpine strawberry liqueurs to the ever expanding trolley. 

In the end we bought back no less than nine different types of spirits, as well as some cactus and lemon flavoured 'long drinks' (gin with mixer) and, most curiously, a bottle of Ukrainian 'Soviet champagne'. The Ukrainians have a long history of viticulture, and while the fizz proved a little sweet for my tastes, it certainly made an interesting match for our reindeer pizza when we arrived back in Helsinki.


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Stealth's Strawberry Cake

Alliteration and cake, what’s not to love?

It’s often said that bakers are born not made, and while I spent a childhood happily licking cake mixture from wooden spoons and knocking up all manner of brownies, cookies, fudge and flapjacks, my rebellious nature soon came to the fore and I quickly moved on to things that would be more forgiving if you happened to forget a small ingredient or two. (Who knew baking powder was that important, or what would happen if you didn't line the cake tin properly....)

I'm now am lucky enough to live with a baker extraordinaire, and while do occasionally get the hankering to knock up a cake or pud, I mostly leave it to the expert and just enjoy eating the results.

Sometimes, though it’s nice to make something a bit fancy to really impress, with last weekend being the perfect case in point - the Ewing had been working late most evenings and was feeling rather frazzled, and my dear friend Stealth, whose birthday it is this month, was coming to visit.

As it was Wimbledon Finals weekend and the height of summer, I wanted my cake to contain copious amounts of strawberries and cream and possibly some meringue for good measure. I also wanted it to tower over other cakes, with multiple layers of squidgy, sticky goodness. And with the temperatures topping 30c, I didn't fancy being chained to the oven much either....

A lot to ask perhaps, but the lovely Nigella came to the rescue with her strawberry meringue cake from Forever Summer (a versatile little number which also turns up in Feast, this time sandwiched together with lemon curd).

My main problem with fancy bakes is what is known in our house as the ‘aeroplane cake’ effect - deserts which resemble the cakes you used to get on planes in a bygone age, that look charming but taste of nothing. Often they will contain ridiculous numbers of different components; mousses, icings, coulis, sponges, meringues etc. but yet look boringly like any other cake when they've finally been assembled. Even worse, they go wrong on assembly - as they invariably do when you've got as little patience and work top space as me - and resemble something sad and squashed, rather than something to present with a flourish.

This cake is the antithesis of everything above, while still retaining that wow factor. An all-in-one egg yolk sponge is simply topped with whipped egg whites and sugar and all baked together, before being sandwiched with heaps of fruit and cream. It also gave me the perfect opportunity to use the Finnish strawberry liqueur purchased on our latest trip to Helsinki before it gets a chance to languish at the back of the cupboard under the stairs.

Scandanavian Summer Strawberry Cake

125g softened butter
4 large eggs (separated)
300g caster sugar
100g plain flour
25g cornflour/potato flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp lemon juice
4 tsp milk
½ teaspoon cream of tartar/white wine vinegar

150 ml double cream (or whipping cream)
1 punnet strawberries, sliced
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp strawberry/raspberry liqueur (optional)
Icing sugar to finish

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Line and butter two 21cm sandwich tins.
Mix the egg yolks, 100g of the sugar, the butter, flour, cornflour, baking powder, bicarb, and vanilla in a food processor. Add the lemon juice and milk and process again.
Divide the mixture between the prepared tins.
Whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar/vinegar in a clean bowl until peaks form and then slowly whisk in 200g of sugar. Divide the whisked whites between the two sponge-filled tins, spreading the meringue straight on top of the cake batter.
Sprinkle almonds over the meringue. Put the tins into the oven for 25-35 minutes. (cover the cakes with foil if the almonds are burning)
Use a skewert o check the sponge is cooked through through. (It will have risen now but will fall back flattish later.) No sponge mixture should stick to the skewer. Remove both cakes to a wire rack and let cool completely in the tins.
Mix the sliced strawberries with 1 tbsp of sugar and the liqueur if using and leave to marinade.
To serve, place one cake on a cake stand/large plate meringue side down.
Whisk the double cream until thick but not stiff and spread the cream onto the sponge cake. Place the strawberries on top.
Finish with the remaining cake, meringue uppermost, and plenty of icing sugar.




Thursday, 11 July 2013

Coffee and Candy, Finnish Style


Finnish food has been much maligned, most notably by the charming Silvio Berlusconi who claimed, 'The Finns don't even know what Parma ham is' and that the country had the worst food in Europe (with Britain's grub apparently deserving of second place in the inedible stakes).

While it's true that Finland has long and harsh winters - meaning fruit and vegetables were only freely available in the short summer months and leading to a reliance on grains, fermented milk products, smoked and salted food - this simplicity and lack of choice has also seen a fresh, local (imports that competed with local products were banned before they joined the EU) and simple cuisine develop.

With a variety of Swedish, Russian and German influences and ingredients such as rye, dairy, fish mushrooms, berries and game all featuring heavily, it may be simple but it's far from boring. 

With over 180,000 lakes and an extensive coastline, it is no surprise that fish is to be found on many menus in Finland. And where better to find some than at Ravintola Salve, a sailors' tavern originally set up to sell beer and cigarettes, that has been serving sailors at Helsinki's West harbour for over 120 years.

Although there maybe a distinct lack of seafarers making up their clientele now days, they still sell herrings, salmon and pike perch, alongside rib sticking meaty fare, such as steak stuffed with cheese and smoked reindeer, and Salve's stir fry, an old sailor favourite of breaded pork, fried egg, sausage and potatoes.

I chose the famous Baltic herrings, a whole shoal of fried fished atop a mound of buttery mashed potatoes. Baltic herrings are smaller and less fatty than their Atlantic cousins, and can be eaten whole, bones and all. These were delicious, hot and crisp and, mindful of the predatory gulls swooping about and not wanting to share, I soon woolfed them down.

The Ewing's rye covered perch fillets came with yet more buttery mash, and a Pepto Bismol-hued beetroot hollandaise. Despite its rather alarming pink colour, the earthy, creamy notes matched well with the clean sweet fillets. During our trip we ate several rye breaded fish dishes and the nutty, slightly sour grains made a crisp and greaseless coating.

The Finns are, by some distance, the world's largest consumers of coffee, drinking over 12kg per person a year. Pulla (or buns), are a common accompaniment to go with their caffeine kick, with Korvapuusti (or 'slapped elephant ears'), a cinnamon and cardamom spiked pastry; voisilm├Ąpulla (butter buns), with their spiced dough and sugary topping; and Weinerbrod (Vienna bread, the Scandinavian name for what we know as Danish pastries) being the most common.

They also enjoy Karelian pasties, a crimped rye dough filled with a rice pudding, or sometimes potato, and served warm with  a mixture chopped hard boiled eggs and butter. Although rather beautiful to look at, the Ewing was far from impressed by the rather dry pastry and stodgy filling and, while we did eat ours cold and sans butter, I have to agree they may be an acquired taste I haven't yet developed.

Finding the, utterly charming, Cafe Regatta felt a bit like being in a film where the hopelessly lost and bedraggled adventurers are minutes from perishing, when the mist finally lifts and they can see the way home right in front of them. That may sound like my typical melodrama, but after hours of tramping through woods and graveyards (on the plus side, we did see a red squirrel) with the only stops being to soak our blistered feet in the lake, both of us were about ready to chuck in the towel.

Pursading the Ewing that we were too near the Sibellius monument to turn back, and knowing there was a coffee and bun stop near by, we limped on through a small piece of grassland. There, as if by magic, not only did we see the monument glinting in the late afternoon sun but, just across the water, stood cafe Regatta. 

If you find yourself in Finland then a visit to this place is a must. It really is like something from a fairytale. Inside is tiny, dark and cosy, the perfect place to hole up on those famous Finnish winters, but for a bright summer's afternoon the only place to be was out by the water.

As well as offering stunning viewsthere is also a wood fired barbecue pit available to use, with logs provided to burn, and sausages and bread available from the cafe. And, unusually for most places here, it's open almost everyday for your bun and coffee fix.

With the sweet and spicy smells floating from the kitchen and over the water I was powerless to resist their freshly baked  Korvapuusti, This was one of the best, if not the best, cinnamon buns I have had the pleasure of eating. It may had something to do with the beautiful view, it may have been the laid back Nordic charm, but sitting there eating the flaky, buttery pastry washed down with strong black coffee was one of the most pleasurable things I can remember for a long time.

The Ewing chose the blueberry pie, which she was initially too grumpy to even try, telling me to eat it and wrap up the cinnamon bun to take back home. My reaction after the first bite caused her to quickly reconsider, and after trying some for herself I didn't get a chance to eat a second forkful. Just like the bun this was a masterful piece of baking; a rich almond-scented sponge studded with inky sweet/sour berries. Cream was on offer, but this was just perfect unadorned.

With our hunger sated and finally feeling relaxed, we walked across the grass to check out the Sibelius monument; a hulking mass of hollow steel tubes - to appease the purists there is also a effigy of the composer himself next to the main piece - designed by sculptor Eila Hiltunen, and intended to represent the pipes of an organ. It looked really rather lovely, sparkling in the light of the slowly setting sun.  

Karl Fazer is the forefather of Finnish confectionery; with his wife he originally opened a French-Russian inspired cafe in Helsinki, and later expanded to open a chocolate and candy factory that now makes some of the Finns most loved sweets.

The cafe, opened in 1891, is still in its original spot on Kluuvikatu, a wide, paved street right in the heart of the city. Having survived for at least an hour or so without sustenance, the Ewing and I decided to visit for some civilised afternoon cakes and coffee.

Inside is a sweet-toothed dream. A large, mirrored picture of Mr Fazer himself looks out over huge bins of colourful sweets and chocolates, while boxes of jellies, cakes and sweet morsels are stacked up on huge marble tables. The right hand side features a shop with home baked bread, chocolate truffles and fancy gateaux; while the right hand side is a cafe offering soup, salads sandwiches, cakes, coffee and ice cream sundaes.

We tried a couple of majestic looking slices of cake with our coffee, a multi layered strawberry and cream gateaux, coated in a layer of green marzipan; and an incredible chocolate and passionfruit sponge, topped with layers of sweet mousse and sharp jelly, encased in a rich, bitter ganache. One of the finest sweet treats I have enjoyed in a while. 

I also went rather overboard stocking up on various chocolate bars and candies to sample. As well as the iconic 'Fazerin Sininen', or Fazer Blue milk chocolate bar, we tried, among others, the famous Marianne mint boiled sweets with a chocolate filling; slabs of Fazer chocolate with both liquorice comfits and pear and almonds; Moomin truffle bars with a strawberry yoghurt; the De Capo, the first bar made by Fazer and originally comprising of mis-shapen chocolates that had been remoulded (the name means start again) with added rum; Jim, with its chocolate covered 'marmalade foam' centre; the classic Fazermint chcolate creams; the wafer based bars Suffeli and Kissmet; and the nutty praline fillings of Geisha and Fami.

As well as the Fazer bars we also tried the famous Tupla Maxi, made by Leaf, a kind of Finnish Mars Bar with almond pieces; and the Brudberg Risi, with its chocolate covered puffed rice. I was particularly taken by the colours of the different bars, with a mixture of unusual pastel pinks, browns and oranges vying with the more familiar black, reds and golds.

I couldn't write about Finish sweets without mentioning their most famous candy; salmiakki, or salty liquorice. The liquorice is flavoured with ammonium chloride, which gives it an astringent and tongue numbing quality which is rather an acquired taste.

Although recently I have been making steps with anise flavours, and have even been able to eat liquorice without wincing, this stuff is hardcore. Not only do you get the regular salty varieties, there are also Tyrkisk Peber boiled sweets with a spicy edge, terva salmiakki with the addition of tar (yes, the stuff used on the roads, and really rather odd tasting) and super slamiakki, when regular strength just isn't overwhelming enough.

Despite not being accustomed to the flavour of the 'stingy' sweets, I was enchanted by the packaging. The Fazer salmiakki comes in a black and white chequer board design (salmiakki means diamond) with touches of red, the super salmiakki has a great, retro 60s look and the panterri (or panther) sugar-coated gummis are decorated with green and yellow pictures of the eponymous big cats.

If you want a drink with a view then Ateljee Bar, Helsinki s best known and most dramatic drinking spot, is based on the roof of the Hotel Torni is the place to head. Originally founded in 1951, and spruced up a few years ago, this is the best place in town to enjoy a sundowner or late night tipple.

A warning for those unsteady on their pins or scared of heights, the lift only goes as as far as the 12th floor, and the remaining two floors must be scaled via a narrow and winding spiral staircase, but, if you can, getting up there is well worth it. The rooftop terrace offers panoramic views of Helsinki and beyond and the day we visited was blessed with crystal clear skies that allowed us to see out for miles.

After sinking our first round of frozen strawberry tequila, and elderflower and gin cocktails, we chose a duo of ice cold mojitos to follow. I had the classic, heavy on the mint and zingy with fresh lime wile the Ewing chose the shocking pink and very refreshing raspberry version.

Drinks aren't quite as expensive as you might fear, at around 10-15 Euros for a cocktail, and the quality and flavours are spot on. If you're not in the mood for alcohol, then coffee and soft drinks can be ordered all day, too. With a typically chilled Nordic atmosphere and unbeatable views it's certainly worth trying to make it up here for at least one bevvy if you're in town.

No shopping trip to Helsinki would be complete without a visit to the flagship Stockmann department store, the biggest in Scandinavia. This Finnish company, started by a German, celebrated 150 years in 2012 and now has shops in 15 countries.

While the shop spreads over eight floors, taking up a whole block in the city centre, we headed straight down to Stockmannin Herkku, their famed food and drink hall located in the basement.

A foodies heaven, Stockmanns is like a Nordic Selfridges or Harrods, with the prices to match. While I was impressed by one of the best stocked (and smelliest) cheese counters, with samples from all over Europe, and could have stayed all day browsing the imported teas and coffees, I was really here for the local produce.

From the piles of baby new potatoes and fronds of fresh dill, yellow cherry tomatoes and bright stalks of rhubarb in the entrance, past the cardamom scented pastries being house made in the bakery and the fridges full of Villi (a 'strechy' milk desert) and Arctic yogurt, finally ending up at the biggest fish counter I have ever seen, with huge sides of salmon piled on ice, heaps of various different multicoloured fish roes and whole smoked fish the colour of leather; this is a Finnish food paradise.


Of course, even at this far North, a branch of the ubiquitous Mc Donlads is only just around the corner. After a beer or two I couldn't help being lured in by the idea of a ruis burger (a McTasty on a rye bread bun) and a liquorice Mcflurry. I enjoyed the burger, although most of the filling seemed to end up in my lap, but the Ewing had to finish the Finnish McFlurry as, sadly, I wasn't really lovin' it.


In retort to Berlusconi's jibes and showing their Finnish sense of humour pizza chain Kotipizza named their award-winning smoked reindeer and chanterelle mushroom pizza after the Italian prime minister.

Of course, I had to try it and managed to drag a surprisingly compliant Ewing to the nearest branch to our apartment. Along with the Berlusconi, with a 'healthy' rye base, we also braved their burger pizza, complete with a topping of iceberg and special sauce. 

Although it wasn't classy, the burger-topped effort was actually rather good; while the idea of hot lettuce seemed a bit grim, it managed to stay fresh and crunchy, and best of all processed cheese replaced the mozzarella, giving it that authentic, gooey finishing touch. The Berlusconi was also good, albeit far more traditional; the slightly gamey meat and woody mushrooms working well with the nuttiness of the rye base.

A trip to Finland wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Alko. The Finns are known for their love of a beverage and, like the other Scandinavian nations except Denmark, they have to buy any alcoholic beverage above 4.8% from a state operated off license. Unlike the image the name may conjure up, these Alkos are sleek and modern, looking rather like an airport duty free.

In keeping with their reputation for being a bit different, the choice of booze on offer goes much further than just beer and wine.  While internationally they are renowned for Finalndia vodka, in Finland the most common clear spirit is Koskenkorva Viina; a clear grain spirit with a small amount of added sugar. A favourite beverage with the younger crowd is Koskenkorva with added salmiakki liquorice candy, a potent sounding combination. Minttu, a peppermint flavoured schnapps 'from the Finnish Himalayas', is also popular as a frozen shot or as an addition to hot chocolate in the winter.

Something we saw many people drinking was the lonkero, or long drink. Literally translating as 'tentacle', this premixed gin and grapefruit cocktail was introduced during the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. Fearing foreign alcohol imports, the Finnish government relaxed their strict rules for all the visitors to the country. They proved so popular that liberalisation of liquor laws soon followed, and you can now find them in many different flavours everywhere you go.

Of course, beer still reigns supreme, with popular brands being Lapin Kuta, from the Arctic Circle, Koff, Karhu and Olvi. A cold can of the latter's export lager being the perfect accompaniment for our sunny picnic on the sea fortress island of Suomenlinna. A nice brew with a fantastic view.

After all that beer there is no where better than Helsinki's legendary Jaskan Grilli, a tiny metal hut  behind the Finnish parliament building that has even made it into the pages of the NY Times. Here, in this anonymous little square, you can find a who's who of famous Finns queuing up for their grease-laden snacks late into the night. Here is the place to see fights, romance and Finnish fast food, all washed down with litres of ice cold milk.

The menu is beautifully written in calligraphy script, and was, unsurprisingly, completely in Finnish. The only two words that looked remotely familiar are the famous 'Kannibal' and 'hot dog'. We ordered one each from the, rather stern looking, lady inside, who looked like she was well used to dealing with all comers at any time of the day or night, and watched her move about deftly in the cramped kitchen, preparing our food while avoiding the two giant squeezy bottles of ketchup and mustard that swung from the tin roof.

After the excitement of their preparation we retreated to the rusted and makeshift tables and chairs next door to sample our 'snacks', the queue of middle aged, and mostly sober, men growing by the minute behind us, despite the relatively early hour.

The Kannibal was certainly a sight to behold; a behemoth of sliced ham, ground beef, a burger patty, two huge pieces of spam-like meat and a fried egg, buried underneath every topping conceivable, including crumbled blue cheese, pineapple, gherkins and fried onions, and all stuffed in a folded bun roughly the size of a dustbin lid. 

The regular hot dog somewhat paled in comparison, although that too was groaning under the weight of assorted extras, including gallons of condiments and a thick drift of mini cheese cubes. It certainly wasn't subtle, but it was fun.


Walking over the Rakkauden Silta (or Bridge of Love, complete with the padlocks of many amorous couples) and basking in the rays of the late afternoon sun, I couldn't have felt happier. Finland is a fascinating, beautiful and friendly place where you'll find some of the safest, healthiest and best educated people in the world. Just remember to say no to that salty liquorice....