Refugees fleeing the revolution left a legacy of classic Russian cuisine in Finland's capital. From pot-roast bear to chicken Kiev, Valerie James samples Helsinki's finest fare.
If you want to eat like a tsar, Helsinki is the place to do it. In the chaos of the Russian revolution, refugees crossed the Baltic from St Petersburg to Helsinki, and since then Finland's capital has boasted a wonderful choice of Russian restaurants. Since the USSR's celebration of the proletariat was not very conducive to fine dining, the Russian aristocratic way of eating was kept alive for many decades in Finland.
Now that the Cold War has ended, this culinary schism causes some controversy; for example over exactly whom is now serving authentic Russian food. "Our dishes are more refined," I was told by the manageress of Romanov, one of Helsinki's best known Russian restaurants, "but the Russians who come here now, disagree. Our blinis, for instance, are thick, as they should be, but after the revolution in Russia they served them thin, because that made the ingredients go further."
Whoever is right, there's no doubt that in aristocratic circles, dining was extremely important. It's prominent at the beginning of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, in the famous restaurant scene when Oblonsky and Levin consume oysters, vegetable soup, turbot, roast beef, capon and stewed fruit, washed down with champagne and Chablis. As historian Orlando Figes recounts in his recent book Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, in the early 19th century one Count Rakhmanov spent his entire inheritance ? said to be in excess of £200,000 ? on eight years of gastronomy. "He fed his poultry with truffles. He kept his crayfish in cream and parmesan instead of water. And he had his favourite fish, a particularly rare specimen which could be caught only in the Sosna River 300km away, delivered live to Moscow every day."
Pre-revolutionary Russia is recreated in style at Romanov, a restaurant decorated with paintings and photographs of ?old' Russia where you dine accompanied by balalaika music. From a classic Russian menu we ate bortsch, the beetroot soup that is such an Eastern European staple; blinis, thick and puffy, with caviar; and a Georgian salad of minced mushrooms and walnuts bound with mayonnaise and sour cream ? this latter from the new Russian cuisine menu. Then salmon coulibiac, which combines rice, dill and salmon in a pastry envelope, served with a crayfish sauce.
Bellevueis the oldest Russian restaurant in Helsinki, dating from 1917. Close to the Uspensky Cathedral, the largest Russian Orthodox church outside Russia with statues and memorials to the tsar and tsarina, this restaurant is highly atmospheric, with old chandeliers and candelabra, Russian music, and the tables arranged in small booths.
Here we ate lamb pelmenies ? small ravioli-like shapes of pasta filled with chunks of lamb and set in a creamy sauce. Then a classic chicken Kiev, and a pot-roast bear.
Bear? Well, yes. Eating bear is like eating a very good, aged beef. Braised in a traditional game stock in a small iron pot, it has flavour, tenderness and is authentically the food of the tsars. It could have been Russian bear or Finnish bear; the Finns maintain a bear population of approximately 850 in their forests, and this means that each autumn they must cull between 70 and 80 bears in just two weeks. The restaurants buy a whole bear and butcher it, freezing it until needed. It is very lean meat, and expensive (betweenE50 and E60 per portion) and it seems particularly popular with parties of visiting businessmen.
For those tasting Russian cuisine for the first time, it is the flavours that will be the most memorable part of the experience. Every sauce, even the soup, has a natural sweetness, and if you finish your meal with Russian tea, you will be served black tea in a silver cradled glass, some shortbreads and spiced biscuits, and a pot of raspberry puree with which to sweeten the tea. A sweet way to end a classic meal.n
Romanov- Yrjonkatu 15, tel 358 9 642 394, email [email protected], www.romanov.fi
Bellevue? Rahapajankatu 3, tel 358 9 179 560, email [email protected]
Saslik- Neitsytpolku 12, tel 358 9 7425 5500, www.saslik.com
Troikka- Caloniuksenkatu 3, tel 358 9 445 229, www.troikka.com
Kazak- Meritullinkatu 13, tel 358 9 135 6288, email [email protected], www.kasakka.fi
Alexander Nevski- Pohjoisesplanadi 17, tel 358 9 639 610
Babuska Ira- Uudenmaankatu 28, tel 358 9 680 1405
Getting there, and staying
BA(ba.com; 0870 850 9850) flies twice daily to Helsinki from London Heathrow. Fares from £112 return, plus approximately £33.80 tax and fees.
One of the most elegant hotels in Helsinki is theHotel Kamp, Pohjoisesplanadi 29, tel 358 9 576 111, www.hotelkamp.fi. Rates from E365 per room, per night, excluding breakfast.