Hello from Helsinki!  It took about twelve solid hours for Emi and me to get from New Hampshire to our little apartment on Helsinginkatu Street, and once we had some much-needed shut-eye, we headed out for supplies.

We began at the open-air Hakaniemi Market, about a 10-minute walk away; markets like these are scattered throughout the city and are generally open at least a couple times a week. A few stalls are creperies and cafes, a few sell knick-knacks and souvenirs, and the rest sell bread, cheese, and the most delightful produce.

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My first discovery, which you can see here nestled between berries and sugar snap peas, is that my favorite mushroom, the chanterelle, is considered the national mushroom of Finland. The wonderfully mild and delicate chanterelle can be foraged from New Hampshire forests, but they are rare–I still remember the one time I found a tiny cluster while hiking in North Sandwich near my friend Holly’s cabin. Hadn’t seen them in the wild before, haven’t seen them since.

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So I usually forage for chanterelles from my favorite mushroom hunters at the NH Mushroom Company when I get up to the farmer’s market in Tamworth, and their rarity means they tend to go for more than $20 a pound. In Finland they cost half that, and they’re EVERYWHERE. Even better, I discovered that research is underway at Aalto University in Helsinki to cultivate chanterelles, a feat previously considered impossible! NH Mushroom Co., will you please try next?

It was when I checked out the S-Market grocery store without the consult of my linguist daughter, that imagesmy illiteracy in Finnish took its toll. Buying produce, bread, and cheese is fairly straightforward; what you see is what you get. Walking the aisles of the S-Market, there was a smattering of English, but more often I was relegated to deciphering the pictures on the package or the etymology of the words, with limited success. As my linguist daughter could tell you, this has much to do with the fact that, unlike English, Finnish is neither Germanic nor Latinate so there’s not a lot of overlap. Here’s the start of my market basket:

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I started off easy: the puddings were English, the salad container had pictures of cuke slices, and I picked out the word risotto on the middle package, so I figured I’d be okay. And with the exception of the risotto also containing lemon and chicken (thankfully I’m not veg) and the cuke salad being pickled rather than fresh, I was okay. With the below items however, I went slightly awry.

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The top left package has a tasty picture of what I thought was some version of pad thai–rice noodles, peas, and little chunks of tofu in what I imagined would be a savory fusion-type tomato sauce. However, the box contained only tofu chunks, with some kind of Italian-based seasoning as far as I could tell. Emi figured the picture was a suggestion of what one could make with the little basil-infused tofu bits.

And no, the bottom left package is not butter, but some butter-type product, which, if I hadn’t been so jet-lagged, I might have known due to the fact that butter does not have those healthy Omegas, just good ole butterfat, which is why I like it. Actually, though, it’s pretty tasty–much better than any margarine I’ve had. Any guesses for bottom right? Pita bread? WRONG. It is fried cheese with a tiny container of cloudberry jam, which I might have suspected since I did buy it from the cold case, though the cold case was directly across from the bread! So close and yet so far away!

For the rest of our stay, whether in the grocery or the cafe, I plan to cultivate a healthy anticipation for the unknown and play Finnish Food Roulette. Just this morning, Emi and I had breakfast at the Cafe Cardemumma where the only word on the menu I recognized was latte (other than cardemumma, of course, which I sincerely hope is cardemom). So I ordered a latte, then pointed to one of the three specials, not quite brave enough to sound anything out.

WP_20130606_004“Oh, I’m sorry,” the barista said, brilliantly intuiting I spoke no Finnish, “we’re all out of the porridge.” Ah, porridge, I thought, that’s what that was. I pointed to the next special on the list. “Omelette?” she said. “With?” “Ham?” I said, “cheese?” “Both?” she asked, and I panicked. Was it improper to order more than one filling for an omelette in Finland? Was I over the top? “Yes?” I said meekly. “Okay then,” she answered, then took Emi’s order of salmon quiche (quiche is quiche is quiche no matter what language you speak apparently).

Our breakfast was delicious, the latte the best I’ve ever had, in part due to my gratefulness at the barista’s kindness and complete lack of condescension at my ignorant American helplessness. Emboldened by the wonderful food and invigorating latte, I tried out my first Finnish word on her when we left. “Kiitos,” I said. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

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