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Rye bread, Karelian pies and reindeer, is this all we can say about Finnish food?

There has been a fantastic response by Finnish chefs to the 2005 attack by Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, who claimed that he had to “endure” Finnish food. This resulted in a wave of Finnish restaurants creating tasty new ways to prepare traditional Finnish food. Though my own experiences at some of these better known Finnish restaurants are generally positive, they are also quite costly. They offer delicacies such as succulent reindeer sirloin, elk sausages and smoked vendace, but they also take foreigners for a ride and charge them for the water. As good as these places are, I for one still want something more home-grown, something from grandma’s kitchen.

Perch with White Sauce

150g perch (ahven)

flour, for coating

0.5-1dl dry white wine

1.5-2dl double cream

½ large pickle, 8cm long julienne

leek, 8cm long julienne

fresh dill chopped

1dl fresh raw shrimps

Flour the perch on both sides and then fry in butter at medium heat. Fry until golden brown on both sides, half cooked, do not cook through. Add the white wine, then the cream, cucumbers, leek and dill. Boil the sauce until it thickens. Add only a dash of white pepper. Finally, add salt and black pepper to taste.

Lay the fish onto a dish and drizzle the sauce over it. Partly cover it with shrimps and garnish with dill and a slice of lemon. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes or rice and vegetables, such as carrots, peas, green beans, broccoli and cauliflower.

The path to grandma’s kitchen has been discovered in good old Kallio, only it turns out to be grandpa’s kitchen. In the gastropub Cella, Ilkka Lehto leads the way as head chef, or perhaps “grandpa”. It is a cosy place to go after a big night out or when in need of a good home-cooked meal. The portions are more than generous and you do not have to break the bank to eat there.

Cella opened its doors in 1969. What was in the 1960s a very modern atmosphere has with the passage of time become warm and rustic, with wall to wall red carpeting and old wooden furniture. Back in the day it used to be a bit of a rough place with a colourful array of characters.

Lehto started in 1998. He turned the place on its head and introduced “good food” to the menu. He also brought his charm and peculiar sense of humour with him. Gradually, more families and working people turned up as word spread that you could get a good meal. The diverse menu, which currently holds 55 meals, does not change much. Perhaps every one or two years a dish might be replaced. Most recently, in April 2009, pekoni-sipulimureke (bacon and onion meatloaf) made its appearance on the menu.

Ilkka Lehto heads Cella like it was a family business.

Food for the people

Olli Ruokonen has worked as a chef at Cella for about four months. Before that he broadened his cooking experience by working in the UK. When asked “What is Finnish food?” his initial suggestions were, as one would expect, meatballs, meatloaf, salmon soup, reindeer, casserole and vorschmack. If he could eat something every day it would be vorschmack. It was also a favourite of Marshal Mannerheim and, as the impressive Marshal is hanging on a wall, it is only fitting that his favourite dish be on the menu. This starter, a mix of minced lamb and beef with herring, anchovies, onion, tomato paste and garlic, is served with baked potatoes, sour cream and a shot of ice-cold vodka.

Nowadays customers are regular working folk and families. A kids’ menu is also available and both menus are available in Finnish and English. The chefs, known to have the nerve to show their faces, often serve their meals personally. Lehto is fondly known as the “crazy chef” for his weird sense of humour. He will often come and offer the right dish with the wrong name. For example, if you have ordered the salmon he will offer “sausages”, but worry not – he always brings out the right dish.

Three things make Cella stand out from the rest. First, the initial feeling you get when you walk in is that it is a family-owned restaurant, even though it actually is not. Lehto is often mistaken as the dad running the place and most of the waiters as his children.

Restaurant Cella
Fleminginkatu 15, Helsinki
Mon - Fri 15-02
Sat & Sun 12-02
Kitchen closes daily at 21:45
www.kantri.fi/cella

Second, as Lehto likes to say, “simple chefs make simple food,” and at Cella they do like to keep things simple. All the meals are prepared from scratch, by hand, with fresh fish and no pre-packaged ingredients. Third, the spice and sauce mixes created by Lehto are kept secret by the chefs, and the spice mix is sprinkled on all the dishes. This Finnish fairy dust is Cella’s magic secret and is what gives the food a unique appetising flavour.

The journey of Finnish cuisine will probably never end as Finnish chefs take on the challenge to come up with more creative ways to present Finnish food. But sometimes, before you can start something new, you need to look back and go to where it all began, in grandma’s kitchen.

Jenny Zukerman
Kristin Ay