Food/Travel 2017 – Day 1, Hämeenlinna/Ahvenisto, Finland

Friday June 9th, 2017 – Hämeenlinna, Finland

We learned quite a lot on our most recent trip to Finland, starting with “just because it’s June, don’t expect it to be warm!” and rounding up to “there is absolutely sod all to do in Hämeenlinna on a Sunday night after 9pm”! It was probably the latter that shocked us most! I mean, it’s less than an hour to Helsinki. It’s hardly in the sticks!

Anyway, the purpose of the visit was to attend one of the two major race meetings being held at Ahvenisto as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, so there wasn’t a great deal of sightseeing – unless you count yomping off into the scenery round the back of the circuit, which I would highly recommend anyone finding themselves there should do. To those who know their race tracks, imagine the Spa-Francorchamps compressed into just under 3km but without losing any of the elevation. Oh, and chuck in a figure of 8 configuration just for good measure. It really is nuts. Oh and if you do go out there, you’ll need robust footwear. It’s damn steep and there are a lot of tree roots and rocks to contend with.

However, I digress. We flew out on the Friday morning after what had been one of the hottest days of the year in the UK, and had a very pleasant journey. Our carrier, Finnair, were taking delivery of some new shiny Airbus aircraft for their long haul routes and we somehow ended up on one of those, so we had the full entertainment package all the way, and were seated in row 54, an unusually high number for a short haul flight. Very nice it was too. Also, although Finnair have also joined the BOB (buy on board) ranks, unlike British airways you still get free tea and coffee, and water – but also blueberry juice. Take a hint, BA, and stop charging for coffee! SAS also provide tea and coffee free.

Hotel Emilia, Hämeenlinna

Duly arrived on the ground, we picked up our hire car, drove round the airport twice (the second time not deliberately) and eventually found ourselves on the road to Hämeenlinna, where we went round the town centre twice, as we tried to locate the car park entrance. You may be sensing a recurring theme here… The Hotel Emilia sponsors the circuit, and was already full of Finnish racing people of various vintages. It was also full of friendly, helpful staff, and we were soon settled in our room at the back of the building, which while it didn’t have much in the way of views, was very, very quiet. After we’d turned the heating off and unpacked it was pretty much time to head back out to get dinner, stopping off at the hotel bar for our “welcome drink” en route.

Restaurant Piparkakkutalo, Hämeenlinna

The hotel has an association with the nearby Restaurant Piparkakkutalo (Restaurant Gingerbread House), and guests can get 10% off their bill. It’s also pretty much the only place in town to be recommended in any of the guides. We went for it. It too turns out to be celebrating an anniversary, this time 30 years, so between that and the country celebrating 100 years of independent existence, it’s a good year to go to Finland.

We walked across the market square, past the pleasant church, and found the restaurant tucked alongside it, looking indeed like a gingerbread house. Next door to it is what used to be a department store, now the Cafe Bar Skogster, one of a good handful of Art Nouveau buildings that dot the town centre. It’s now a bar, but we were intent on dinner so didn’t go in. Instead we made our way into what was a startlingly empty restaurant for a Friday night and were seated by the windows where we had a good view of the goings on outside. These included a woman taking a cat for a walk (on a lead no less), several vintage cars circulating round the square, and a couple of parties that looked to be celebrating the end of the school year. Otherwise it was pretty quiet outside too.

A glass of Champagne seemed like – and was – a good idea.

The restaurant doesn’t do anything flash and modern, preferring instead to stay with old-fashioned Finnish cooking done extremely well. Bread was provided, along with some good butter and then we got the starters, a superb pumpkin soup, rich and creamy, and a lovely shade of orange/yellow, just as it should be. It was dotted with seeds, and decorated with pickled red onion, and a scoop of lamb rillettes, which was the only concession to modernity we were going to get. We were in good hands if the soup was anything to go by.

The other starter was asparagus, even if it felt like spring had barely got going in Finland yet. I was pleased to note we got white AND green asparagus, and it was served with smoked salmon, which always works. In this instance it was a fillet of salmon, smoked, but the principle is the same and it was delicious.

Mains were up next and were also solid, respectable Finnish cooking. We ordered two separate seriously meaty dishes to share between us. The first one was reindeer sirloin and a reindeer croquette, which came with-roasted potatoes, an onion-puree,  shiitake mushrooms and a dark truffle sauce. It felt more like a winter dish than a summer on, which given the weather outside was probably entirely apt. It was beautifully cooked and equally beautifully presented, though it could probably have fed the two of us without the need for a second dish.

The other main was so Finnish that I had to go for it, liver with caramelised onions, mashed potatoes and a dark lingonberry sauce. It might not have been as pretty to look at as the reindeer but it tasted just as good, I can promise you.

We sat for a while feeling stunned and stuffed afterwards, and we were on the brink of refusing a dessert when the waitress sweet-talked us into it with her mention of house-made gingerbread ice cream. It would have taken a tougher woman than me to refuse that. And oh my was this essence of gingerbread, with a crumb-like texture to the ice cream. Fabulous!

Lynne opted for a somewhat more sensible approach and went for a rather more restrained creme brulee, which was just as you would want.

Thereafter we staggered back to the hotel, drew the blinds and curtains as closely as we could to keep the early morning light out, and collapsed in a heap till the alarm went off on Saturday morning.

 

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