New cities are full of possibilities. My first night in Helsinki, I spent several hours traipsing around the narrow historic streets and the broad tree-lined esplanades, getting a feel for this unfamiliar and exhilarating territory. Exploring a cityscape in search of quirky sights and unexpected urban landmarks to write a treasure hunt game often occupies my brain for hours until I realize that it’s gotten dark and it’s way past time for dinner. But that brings me to the best part about traveling to new places – finding the most delicious and exciting local food to eat. And I was luckily enough to stumble upon the warm and inviting shopfront of Eat&Joy Maatilatori right by the central train station.
Eat&Joy Maatilatori is a fantastic place that should exist in every urban space – it’s essentially a farmer’s market in a shop that sources local foods from all over Finland to bring to city consumers. Offerings range from the very fresh (cheese and yogurt from nearby dairy farms, just-baked rye bread, fruits and vegetables) to the canned, jarred, and otherwise long-lasting (jams, jellies, chocolates, mustards, and more) as well as lots of baskets. Apparently Finland is big on baskets.
Chatting with the man at the counter, I learned that Eat&Joy opened for a trial period beginning in June and after a successful three month stint, would be opening as a permanent location just the next day. The shop owners are dedicated to showcasing the best of small Finnish producers – some who might not otherwise reach a large consumer base – and apparently the public has responded with enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about Finnish riispiirakka, a palm-sized rye pastry filled with just-barely- sweet rice pudding?
Especially when they’re place on beautifully designed Finnish tea towels. As a brief segue…the graphic and textile design in Finland is, unsurprisingly, spectacular. I covet every single item in the Marimekko store and hope that someday my kitchen will be decked out in extremely expensive but oh-so-gorgeous tea towels and oven mitts and cloth napkins and tablecloths and I will be an enviable domestic goddess with pastries in the oven, decked out in a spotless Marimekko apron. Well, actually that’s not true. I want to have a real, bustling, happy, full-of-life-and-love-and-food-probably-a-little-(lot)-of-mess kitchen. I don’t really want to live in the polished and gleaming perfection of the Marimekko store….
…or maybe I do.
Besides the rice pudding-pastry-pie thingamajig with multiple double vowels that I had to ask the very patient blond lady at the counter to repeat several times and then finally write down on the corner of my paper bag to even get a bare understanding of what she was saying, I also bought a large container of some incredible Finnish yogurt. The nice blond lady said it was ‘very unique and very Finnish,’ which clearly she could have said about any item in the store and I would have no idea. But I totally bought it (figuratively and literally) and I’m so happy I did. The cloudberry flavor in the apricot colored container was light and fruity, cold and creamy, with a pureness of taste that so many yogurts fail to achieve. Or rather, a pureness that most yogurts never even attempt, having been created with a whole boatload of chemicals designed to make them sugar-free or fat-free and generally taste-free and enjoyment-free. This yogurt tasted like what yogurt in its essence should taste like. And I am the cloudberry’s biggest new fan.
Eat&Joy featured several cases of fresh baked breads, apparently from the bakery of some American guy who has been perfecting his recipes for over 20 years. The shop also features massive coolers of plastic wrapped meats, from sausages to cured meats to steaks of all kinds. There’s a huge wall of specialty flours and grains, a shelf of bags of granolas to mix and match, and a stack of farm-fresh eggs for the taking. I spent a lot of time perusing the sweets section as well – adorable individual portions of toffee, local Finnish chocolate, and this delightfully colored array of what I assume to be a form of caramel, unless karamelli means something totally different (with Finnish you never know!)
I also found myself drawn to the large refrigerator full of Finnish alcohol. Eat&Joy also has an excellent selection of locally produced beers, wines, and ciders. To top off my purchase of completely foreign items, I also bought a bottle of lingonberry cider – tart, sweet, and as I found out later, surprisingly alcoholic.
But I didn’t notice one of my favorite little touches about Eat&Joy until my third visit (yes, I went back three times in four days and yes, it was just as exciting each time). Standing in front of the cheese cooler and telling myself that it did not make sense to buy a large brick of Finnish cheese or a tube of Finnish butter the length of my arm right before getting on a plane, I noticed a photo album hanging from the refrigerator door. I picked it up and paged through what looked to be a family photo album – if your family included a number of smiling blond children, a herd of goats, several immensely large cows, and a smattering of assorted poultry. The photo below, under previously mentioned butter tube and cheese brick, might be the most joyful and bizarre family+cow portrait ever taken.
Although I couldn’t read a word written in the album, the cheese labels placed next to various photos of animals suggested that this idyllic rural farm was the location of the cheese and butter production. Judging by the lush green pastures, the expansive countryside, and the relaxed and contented expressions of both the children and the animals, this farm looks to be a happy place. It looks like a real farm, not a production facility or factory where the animals are shoved into pens and made to eat disgusting feed and treated like expendable cogs in an industrial meat-processing machine. Of course it’s not all sunshine and rainbows on farms – the animals are killed and then eaten and I’m sure it’s not a pleasant sight (having never seen the process before but hoping to at some point)- but I do believe that the lives of these animals up until their death for our benefit should be as content and natural and painless as possible. It may be an advertising creation of the cheese industry, but I agree that happy cows make better cheese. And I don’t have any scientific evidence for this, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that unhappy cows do not pose for family portraits.
Alas, I decided that a two-foot long cylinder of Finnish butter would not be coming home with me on the plane. All the more reason to return to Helsinki…