As a fan of our Minnesota Orchestra, I proudly wear my “I Heart Osmo” button, honoring its Finnish maestro, Osmo Vänskä. And now, after a visit to the music director’s beloved homeland, I Heart Finland, too. And I Heart Sibelius, the land’s fanatically revered composer, after tracing his roots. He lived his life for music, fueled by two other loves: his emerging nation (Finland was ruled first by Sweden, then Russia, not winning independence until 1917) and Finland’s extravagant natural beauty.
Touring the countryside (Finland is 60 percent forest), it’s clear to see why, when emigrating, Finns chose Minnesota. Same landscape: birch, pine, lake; birch, pine, lake. Friendly? Sure. But few braggarts live here. Modesty prevails. (Joke: When a Finn talks to you, he looks at his shoes. An extrovert? He looks at your shoes.) At Michelin-starred restaurants, patrons arrive in jeans. And in the sauna, naked. Proof of madness: After poaching themselves in that beloved wooden box, they plunge into a frigid lake (yes, I leapt in, too).
Finns have won world championships, from hockey to wife-carrying and phone-throwing, but it doesn’t go to their heads; it’s all about nature, not notoriety. For Sibelius, whose wife raised and home-schooled six kids without running water (the pipes were too noisy for the composer’s sensibilities), it was the birch-pine-lake of the country’s Aulanko Park that inspired his iconic “Finlandia.” I’m humming it as we tramp through the forest.
Then off to his nearby birthplace, Hameenlinna, to tour the home where his widowed mama raised him to be a lawyer (sorry, didn’t work out), and view his piano—later transported via rowboat on his honeymoon. The city park bears his statue, and the Sibelius Center is flush with mementoes (CDs to paper dolls). Nearby, the Gingerbread House café is known for its salmon, his—and many a Nordic’s—favorite dish.
Circling Lake Tuusula by bike, we brake for the Jarvenpaa Art Museum’s exhibit dedicated to Aino, the Renaissance woman he married, highlighting Aino’s own music, a novel she wrote, handicrafts she executed, the garden she adored, the sauna she designed.
Pedal on to the town’s Knitting Café for a cuppa and conversation with the locals and shopping ops. Hop back on bikes to Ainola, the couple’s forest home, and gravesite. Today it’s also base for a festival helmed by young maverick violinist Pekka Kuusisto, a current partner of our own St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. We tour the self-designed 1902 home and studio of their nature-painting neighbor, Pekka Halonen, open to the public, then celebrate another Nordic menu (homemade sausages, herring and cabbage casserole in starring roles) at Krapi Estates—its dairy barn-turned-homey hotel, after a torrid smoke-sauna followed by another icy plunge.
Then off to Helsinki, Finland’s capital city, hemmed by 200 islands bobbing in the Baltic Sea. At the luxe Hotel Kamp, in the lounge where the composer imbibed and puffed cigars for a week at a time (poor Aino), we meet his granddaughter, Aino Porra, herself a musician with the National Opera. For her, he was simply a playful grandpa. “I didn’t understand he was special. Most important: the love of nature I learned from him.”
We visit his memorial sculpture, a controversial cluster of steel pipes anchoring a city park, where tourists line up for selfies. We lunch, as he did, at see-and-be-seen Kappeli, a sweet café anchoring the convivial, parklike Boulevard Esplanadi that acts as Helsinki’s outdoor living room. On the boulevard’s bandstand, a lively group of seniors is singing “That’s Amore” in Finnish.
Oh, the Esplanadi! Here stand the flagship shops of Finnish design: Marimekko outfits and fabrics, Iittala crystal, and Artek, architect Alvar Aalto’s contempo furniture company. Venture off the avenue to discover the cache of indie boutiques that constitute the Design District, lush with bold, bright and whimsical interpretations in housewares, jewelry and knits. Helsinki’s Design Museum celebrates this sensibility via collections of ordinary household objects (Fiskars scissors, Nokia phones), decade by decade. Upstairs, amble through the Golden Age of Fashion (’60s to ’80s), when Jackie Kennedy “discovered” Marimekko dresses and purchased nine.
Meanwhile, crane your neck for fashion of another sort—the Art Nouveau buildings of the early 1900s (called Romantic Style by Finns), flaunting curvy balconies and motifs from nature—here a bear, there a pinecone. Then along came the country’s star-chitects, Alvar Aalto (Finlandia Hall) and Eliel Saarinen (Helsinki’s magnificent train station, plus the St. Louis Arch, Des Moines Art Museum and our own Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis). Saarinen also designed the castle-like National Museum, recounting Finnish history from the Stone Age through Viking times and foreign rule (gawk at the gold-and-velvet throne)—from church art (carvings of St. Olaf, St. Knut) to homespun objects of Forest Finns (birchbark knapsacks, gaily painted horse collars and ironing boards). The story climaxes at Kiasma Contemporary Museum with its displays of modern painting, sculpture and photography.
Now to the most ecstatic art form—food. Does Helsinki represent dining nirvana? “Hel Yeah,” according to the slogan of a local ad campaign, which delivers on its promise. “New Nordic” cuisine is flourishing, and without the impossible price tags and waits for a table like the Copenhagen chefs who think they own the label. It employs the endearing mantra of local-and-seasonal: traditional fare but embellished as Granny never imagined. Olo earned its Michelin star with menus starring carrot slices with sorrel sorbet and housemade feta cheese; cabbage wrapping pork and barley dumplings afloat in chicken broth; pike sided with new potatoes, cucumbers and pea puree; then Apple Jack ice cream paired with gooseberry mousse and spruce shoots. Hel, Yeah!
Spis, tiny as a closet, was awarded Restaurant of the Year in 2016 for its forward prix-fixe menu: starters of turnip, malt and kohlrabi, cubed tinier than a fingernail, and a mini Finnish doughnut with garlic and potato mayo. Next, red cabbage paired with sauerkraut under a drizzle of mustard; cukes with cottage cheese and garlic mustard sprouts in cucumber foam; and carrots three ways: fermented, sweet/sour crumbles, and puree. Then a warm dish: salmon with carrot and parsley root aside a pesto-potato salad, an intermezzo sorbet of spruce tips and pollen, followed by chicken atop wheat-tarragon risotto and pickled hempseed. Finally, rhubarb!
Nokka, housed in a converted seaside warehouse, starts its prix-fixe menu with asparagus aside mushrooms and spruce sprouts, followed by Finnish beef with goat cheese, black currant sauce and beets. Fish comes dressed with nettles and smoked perch roe, preceding a birch sorbet with elderberry flowers, and finally, carrot parfait with white chocolate mousse. At Juuri, sapas—Finnish tapas—are the way to eat. After a starter of spring onion soup, I chose asparagus pudding topped with creamy gouda cheese, then cabbage stuffed with barley in a smoked mustard dressing, and finally goose—both liver pâté and sausage in raspberry and sunflower-seed sauce. Dessert? Again, rhubarb! Come in your jeans, rest your elbows on the table and dig in as the locals do.
But Old Nordic cooking hasn’t been discarded—it’s simply been refined. At Kuu Kuu (a recent Helsinki Menu contest winner), I feasted on creamy salmon soup, followed by meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce. Café Ekberg, looking like nothing has changed since the ’20s, delivered a warm salmon sandwich topped with fried egg, cucumbers and lots of dill, delivered by a pert waitress with a half-shaven scalp and blue curls. And don’t forget about breakfast: hotel buffet spreads that just don’t quit (herring at 9 a.m. is easy to get used to).
Then hike along the busy harbor or jump aboard a tour boat for a spin to the nearby islands. Peek into the bright, white-domed cathedral a block inland—called the “Russian” Cathedral in homage to its architectural style—where concerts often are held. Or just take a seat on its broad steps, amid moms pushing strollers and kids on bikes, to watch the world go by.