Lapping it up

Food - Bee Wilson eats reindeer in Helsinki

Did you know that Finnish people drink on average nine cups of coffee a day? On average! Think what this means. Some must drink less, so there must be a substantial contingent of this blond, intelligent, introspective nation who drink even more coffee than this - ten, 11, 12, 20 cups a day, going silently mad as the days get ever shorter, darker and colder. No wonder they also eat so many cakes, to stem the flow of caffeine in their blood. Blueberry cakes, lingonberry cakes, spice cakes, weird cream-cheese cakes flavoured with cardamom and, above all, the ubiquitous cinnamon rolls, or korvapuustit - all these and more punctuate the Finnish day.

For those of us who drink fewer than nine cups of coffee a day, much of the food of Finland tastes deeply peculiar, often agreeably so. They use dill as often as we might use parsley, in pasta and sandwiches as well as fish soup or fishballs. Another acquired taste is kalakukko, a thick pocket of fish, maybe perch, encased in pork fat and rye bread dough and baked. A variant, which you can buy at the admirable indoor market in Helsinki (a place smelling strongly of dill and cinnamon), is a small amount of fish, just enough for one person, cooked on to a circle of the same substantial rye dough. Smoked salmon treated thus is excellent when eaten warm, once you get over the strangeness. They also sell the same rye patties decorated with rows of little oily fish, the size of small sprats, called vendace.

But perhaps the oddest of all, to Finns as well as to us, is food from Lapland, the Arctic home of Sami nomads, Father Christmas and reindeer. The most accessible place to sample Lappish delights is not in Lapland, but at a restaurant in central Helsinki, praised in every guidebook, called Lappi. Everything here is very "authentic". The ceilings are made to look like a log cabin, and the beautiful, high-cheekboned, waitress dresses like Pippi Longstocking. The rough-hewn wooden tables are filled with authentic French and English tourists and authentic businessmen having authentically ghastly conversations over authentic glasses of Jacob's Creek on their authentically Finnish Nokia mobile phones.

The food is real enough, though. Like almost everyone else in the restaurant, we ordered the Lappish plate for two (180 mk, about £20). The plate was wooden. On it were: two little shot glasses filled with sour cream, onion and two different kinds of salty orange caviar (one was vendace roe and the other was whitefish roe), a heap of raw diced shark meat called shark tartare, a few smoked vendace with their eyes peeping out at you, a pile of wild pickled mushrooms in sour cream, some slices of Lappish cheese (a bit like mozzarella, only harder), cranberries and cloudberries (tart fruit that look like yellow raspberries, so highly prized by Scandinavians that they fight diplomatic battles over them) and then, the most Lappish thing of all, slices of smoked and air-dried reindeer. All of this was served with warm pieces of delicious wholewheat flatbread.

The fish things were all extremely more-ish. Particularly good were the two fish roes (Finns are much keener on all kinds of roe than we are, relishing trout, salmon and herring roe almost as much as genuine sturgeon caviar). The smoked vendace were as rich and dark as the shark was light and fresh. The mushrooms were tasty, too, similar to the pickled mushroom salads served in Russia after the autumnal mushroom harvest. Even the smoked reindeer was pleasant: tender, dark red like venison, and salty. It was the air-dried reindeer that got to us. It just didn't taste as if it were intended for human consumption. Chewy, tough and with a faint odour of blanket, it didn't repay the amount of sheer mastication required to get it down the gullet.

We could have followed our Lappish plate with reindeer sweetbreads ("Oooh, succulent!" pronounced a telecommunications guy at a nearby table) or reindeer tongue, but instead chose sauteed reindeer meat with buttery, lumpy mashed potato, a very traditional combination. The reindeer comes chopped and well done. I feel sure that the chef at Lappi did full justice to the potential of the dish. It's just that sauteed reindeer will never be one of the world's culinary masterpieces. We had to picture ourselves living in an isolated wooden Lappish hut, during an especially cold winter, before we could summon up the requisite gratitude to finish what was on our plates. Out of desperation, we finished our meal with wooden cups of "Lappish coffee", firewater mixed with yet more caffeine.

A cultural encyclopaedia of Finland refers to reindeer meat as very "useful provender". Provender is a good word, conveying neither pleasure nor civilisation. When eating Lappish food, one is reminded that no great cuisine ever came out of a subsistence economy. Lappi is probably about as good as a Lappish restaurant could possibly be. Whether this is a recommendation or not, I will leave for you to decide.

Lappi is open for lunch and dinner, Annankatu 22, Helsinki

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?