Friday, December 19, 2014

Fast Food Finland

One part of my life in Finland that would certainly have been different if I had not left the US is my eating habits, especially when it comes to fast food.

We don’t eat a lot of fast food here, not compared to Americans, at least not in my family. Even when our kids were small we avoided going to McDonald's more than once or so a month, if even that. Nowadays, the most I’ll consume any kind of burger-and-fries “combo meal” in Finland is maybe two or three times a year.

I’m not saying that’s typical for Finns. Or that no fast food exists here. It does, but it’s nothing like the take-out cornucopia of North America.

In Finland, you won’t find the junk-food strips so typical of American cities, those long stretches of urban landscape lined with dozens of different franchises, where you can cruise along until you find the hamburger or taco or fried chicken or pizza or whatever quickly prepared meal your heart, or stomach, might desire. That culture doesn’t exist here.

If there’s something Americans do love, no, demand, it is choice and convenience. And nowhere does that seem truer than when eating is involved. Finns, and Europeans in general, haven’t been brought up with the same expectation of cheap and easy food, not until recently at least.

As late as the early 80s, American-style “fast” food was a still new experience for some Finnish folks, especially the older generation.

I remember when my in-laws went to a McDonald's for the first (and certainly the only) time. We were traveling back with them from Switzerland, where we had been visiting my sister-in-law Eeva-Riitta. In Lübeck, West Germany, we decided to make a quick stop for coffee at a McDonald's before catching the ferry back to Helsinki. Now, it’s not unusual for Finns to stop for coffee, not at all, especially on a longish drive. For my in-law’s generation, though, you stop for coffee, none of this driving and drinking from a travel mug, and you stop at a cafe, where they have real ceramic dishware, not paper cups and plastic spoons.

Drinking from paper cups might have been bad enough, but as we started to depart the McDonald's in Lübeck, I really took my mother-in-law by surprise when I rose from the table, took the food tray and dumped our empty cups into the trashcan. It was her first exposure to a “restaurant” where the customers are forced to clear their own tables.

Another example of fast-food culture shock occurred when I was briefly living again in Georgia. Eeva-Riitta had come over for a visit from Switzerland, and we were taking her on a trip to New Orleans. As we started out in the morning on the long drive from Athens to Louisiana, we stopped at a McDonald's for coffee and, probably for me anyway, some Egg McMuffins.

For Eeva-Riitta, who was something of a gourmet, maybe what we’d call a foodie nowadays, it was probably distasteful enough to be stopping for breakfast at a hamburger place. After all, it hadn’t been many years earlier that the first American hamburger joint in Winterthur, where she lived, had been bombed soon after opening, much to general approval of some residents.

But what really shocked her was that we didn’t even get out of the car and had our food handed to us through a window. She’d never realized such a thing as Drive Thru existed. Luckily, the food served in the restaurants we later visited in the Big Easy did meet with her approval, so maybe that made up for the indignity of Drive Thru.

Anyway, like I say, fast food is not unknown in Finland, and I’m not talking about the time-honored tradition of the “nakkikioski”, those steamy sidewalk booths selling water-soaked hot dogs and otherwise greasy fare to the somber folks pausing on a winter’s night on their journey between last call and the last bus home. And I’m not talking about the kebab places that are everywhere. I’m talking about American-style fast food, mainly McDonald’s.

McDonald’s arrived in Finland just two years after I did, opening its first restaurant here in 1984. Now, there are some 80 throughout the country, so the chain seems popular enough with Finns.

But before there was McDonald’s, there was Carrol’s. This American chain that I’d never heard of established itself in Finland in the mid-70s. I didn’t even realize it was originally American; I always assumed it was a purely Finnish imitation. In the early days, I would drop into one now and then and order a “Big Carolina” burger and ranskalaiset (French fries). It made me think of home. Kind of.

Finland does have its own, completely Finnish, hamburger chain, Hesburger. The founder of the chain was even invited to this year’s Independence Day gala at the Presidential Palace. I used to think that Hesburger evolved from the Snacky grilli, another Finnish chain of little fast-food places not much bigger than nakkikioskit. But apparently I’m wrong about that.

I have been to a Hesburger, but I can’t remember when. Sometime long ago. I have heard that they are considered to be better than McDonald’s. Maybe more suited to the local taste. At least, numerically, Hesburger is more successful locally. There are almost 260 stores in Finland, plus outlets in the Baltics, Germany and Russia, even as far afield as Kamchatka in the Russian Far East (only 950 kilometers from US territory!).

Still, nothing matches the worldwide reach of McDonald’s. We have ordered Happy Meals in various countries, ranging from Hungary to Indonesia to New Zealand. The snob in me hates to admit visiting exotic lands, with their own distinctive, mouthwatering cuisine...and then stepping into the familiar, plastic environs of a McDonald’s to order a Big Mac.

The thing is, when you’re traveling to those exotic lands with small kids, you often can’t avoid being drawn into these outposts of American fast food. The hold that McDonald's has on children is simply amazing, a genius of marketing really. Our kids were no less susceptible to the magic of McDonald's (maybe because we normally deprived them of fast food at home), so sometimes we had to give in. And to be fair, often it is obviously the easiest option.

When on a road trip with the kids in the backseat, we had to be careful not to tip our hands if we were even considering stopping at a McDonald’s. Discussing the different places to eat, my wife and I would not dare to actually say the word “McDonald's” aloud, lest we get the kids’ hopes up.

Instead, we took a cue from the world of the theater, where long-held superstition dictates that it’s bad luck to utter the actual name of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth”. In the same way, whenever we were considering stopping at McDonald’s for lunch, my wife and I would talk mysteriously about “the Scottish restaurant”. As far as I know, the kids never suspected that we weren’t in fact thinking of stopping for some haggis.

Other than McDonald’s, American fast-food franchises have been slow to set up shop in Finland. Subway came here some fifteen years ago. Pizza Hut has been here almost twice as long, but still has only six outlets in the entire country, or so I understand.

Starbucks finally arrived a couple of years ago, entering what is presumably the last civilized country on Earth that did not have even one Starbucks.

That’s about it. No Wendy’s. No KFC. No Domino’s Pizza. No Dunkin’ Donuts. No Taco Bell – which is a shame, since even my wife, no fan of fast food by any means, actually likes Taco Bell. (For the record, she doesn’t mind certain items on the McDonald’s menu either, just not the burgers.) And no Burger King – until recently, that is.

Burger King did open a store here late in 1982. I recall that it was located near the railway station in Kaisaniemi, but I’m not sure if I ever went there. It didn’t last long, maybe a year, maybe more, but not much. That was too bad, since I’ve always preferred BK to McDs, though my wife claims she sees no difference whatsoever between a Whopper and a Quarter Pounder.

A bit more than a year ago, however, Burger King finally returned to Finland, opening a small store on Mannerheimintie, in the location of an old photo shop that I still remember visiting (the bronze door handles still bear the word “Fuji”). Apparently, there were long lines outside waiting to get in, even more than week after it opened. Maybe there really is demand here for a bigger variety of hamburgers.

More Burger King stores have now since opened, and when I finally did step into one for a bite a couple of months ago, it was surely the classiest burger joint I’ve been to in Helsinki, maybe the world.

This Burger King occupies a cavernous room in Helsinki’s historic päärautatieasema, voted by the BBC in 2013 as one of the world’s ten most beautiful railway stations. The room was previously a restaurant and, like the rest of the 100-year-old station, was designed by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, before he moved to the United States to work and teach. (His son would go on to design the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.)

Burger King has naturally left the room’s tall windows and Art Nouveau vaulted ceiling untouched. The National Board of Antiquities wouldn’t have it any other way. And at one end, on the wall high above the counters where customer now order pikaruokaa (fast food), is a beautiful fresco of a Finnish landscape completed in 1911 by Eero Järnefelt, one of the county’s best-loved painters.

Not bad. Compared to the places where I’ve usually had myself a quick meal of grilled meat and deep-fried potatoes, not bad at all.

The Art Nouveau ticket office of the Helsinki railway station.
A matching room now houses a spanking new Burger King.
Photo credit:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Other Side of the Coin

The other day I wrote about the Prosperity Index, just one of a slew of international surveys that usually ranks Finland highly in some important aspect of how societies live. These rankings, of course, depend on different criteria and methodology, and to be fair, there is more than one way to size up a country.

One alternative ranking that showed up in my Tweeter feed (or Facebook feed, I forget) is the Happy Planet Index, which focuses on evaluating countries according to “sustainable well-being”.

This survey gives a different perspective on the livability of different countries, with mostly tropical, less prosperous, nations topping the list. These nations, according the Happy Planet Index, are is some sense the “happiest” for people and, as the name implies, for the environment.

The HPI is calculated based on three comparatively simple measurements: life expectancy, perceived well-being, and ecological footprint.

Red-eyed Tree Frog. Presumably, a happy resident of Costa Rica.

After crunching these numbers, the folks behind the HPI ranked Costa Rica as number one in sustainable quality of life, perhaps not a surprise considering the country’s reputation for eco-tourism. Apparently, it also has a decent standard of living for Central America. I’ve understood a number of Americans have chosen it as the place to retire. I probably wouldn't mind living there myself.

Meanwhile, Finland comes in at 70th in the HPI list, in the middle of the 151 countries surveyed. The US is ranked 105th.

While Finland had slightly higher scores than number one Costa Rica in life expectancy (80 years versus 79.3) and well-being (7.4 vs. 7.3), it loses some ground when it comes to its ecological footprint.

The footprint is what sets the Happy Planet Index apart from similar surveys I've seen. It is a commonly used measurement indicating the amount of land required per person given a country’s current level of consumption.

Costa Rica’s footprint of 2.5 means two and a half hectares (six acres) of productive land are needed per resident to maintain the Costa Rican lifestyle. By comparison, each Finn requires 6.2 hectares (15 acres), the 5th highest of the European countries. The footprint of the US is higher still, 7.2 (18 acres), which globally is 7th overall. (Qatar has the highest.)

When it comes to ecological footprints, tropical lands do have a bit of an edge. Humans evolved in the tropics, and though that big brain of ours has allowed us to push into environs that nature alone didn’t prepare us for (like chilly Finland), setting up house in marginal habitats so far from Mother Africa does come with a higher cost.

Also, I think it’s interesting how the HPI highlights the tradeoff between ecological impact and quality of life. Most folks, even the environmentally minded, would appreciate some balance between the two. Let’s face it, countries with the lowest ecological footprints, like Afghanistan, aren’t necessarily great places to live.

Costa Rican coffee plantation. Note the blue sky.
Photo: Dirk van der Made.

Another country comparison that I recently saw reveals the less-attractive sides of EU countries, highlighting the negative characteristics that each country ranks first in.

Some of these “firsts” point to serious problems, such as the UK coming in first in terms of cocaine use. Others are much less dire, like the fact that France has the lowest usage of the English language. I would suspect the French don’t see this as somehow a negative trait. Mais non! 

One of the most revealing of the “negative” distinctions belongs to Denmark, which has the EU’s lowest per capita concentration of, wait for it…Zara clothing stores.

Now, I do realize I’m not the target market for Zara. Believe me, I’ve spent enough time in the painfully alien world of Forever 21 or New Look or similar stores, while my daughter tried on clothes, to know that those places are not trying to draw in any foot traffic at all from guys like me. Just the opposite. So, from my point of view, if a lack of Zaras is the worse that Denmark can throw at you, then life is certifiably bearable there, maybe even as happy as in Costa Rica.

As for Finland, its negative claim to fame is something much less bearable – the EU’s highest rate of depression. 

Of course, people can suffer from depression at any season, but it seems all the more understandable this time of the year. A medically recognized form of depression, seasonal affective disorder (aptly abbreviated SAD), can be a serious problem here in the dark, dark far north, so distant from the tropical sun of our primeval ancestors. The disorder reportedly does affect some 9.5% of folks in the even-darker, northern part of Finland.

And no wonder. The days are already short (only six hours, sunrise to sunset) and, before the coming of the permanent snow, it’s dark and cloudy. Incredibly cloudy

This November, there were only 12.4 hours of actual sunshine in Helsinki, compared to a normal average of 37 for the month. In places, it was worse. Kuopio, in eastern Finland, got a mere 12 minutes (normally, 22 hours) of the sun peeking through the clouds. If you were taking a shower at the wrong moment or stuck in some drab meeting room, you would have missed it completely. And that truly is depressing. 

Luckily for us, the Winter Solstice is almost here. It has to get better after that. It has to.

The Winter Solstice at Stonehenge.
Photo: Mark Grant.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Food Fights

My wife comes from the town of Varkaus in the heart of Järvi-Suomi (the Finnish Lakeland) in eastern Finland. Varkaus, whose name means “theft” in Finnish for some reason, is a small industrial city dominated by a massive paper mill on the shores of a lake that’s part of the sprawling Lake Saimaa system.

When I first got to know the place in the early 1980s, my wife’s parents lived outside of town next to a canal in a house that was part of the pilot’s station that my future father-in-law ran.

This waterway, the Taipale canal, Finland’s first canal employing locks (sulkukanava), was dug in the 1800s, during a period of hard times in the country. It was a boom to the local economy, but came at some heavy costs. Close by are the mass graves of the hundreds of workers who succumbed to disease and poor living conditions during the construction of the half-kilometer-long canal.

Because it links two parts of a vast network of interconnected lakes (the Vuoksi water system, Vuoksen vesistö), the canal allows boats, even sea-going ships, to penetrate deep into the interior of southeastern Finland. Saimaa, the biggest part of that system and fourth largest lake in Europe, is itself connected to the sea by means of the Saimaa Canal, which crosses into modern-day Russia.

Part of my father-in-law Aaro’s job, and that of the other half-dozen or so pilots working there, was to guide Soviet or German cargo ships safely through the local waters to industrial centers like Varkaus and Kuopio.

Living next to the canal is a handy arrangement if you're a lake pilot, having your work close by. I recall that large Soviet ships were sometimes moored there, just a few meters from my wife’s childhood home, waiting for their turn to proceed and unload their cargo of birch logs destined to be turned into paper.

"Sweet Russian Stuff"
 Many of these ships made the same journey regularly, and over the years Aaro got to know their crews well, in fact, well enough that theythe crews of the Soviet ships, at leastwould often give him gifts, such as Russian chocolate and caviar. (In return, they often asked to get spare Finnish plastic shopping bags.) And once they gave a couple of cans of something that was a minor mystery to us.

We, my wife and I, called this canned item “sweet Russian stuff”, because we didn’t have clue what it actually was. The label, with a simple blue and white design, was in Russian, which we couldn’t read. The contents were creamy white, a little like pudding, thick and very sweet.

In fact, it was so sweet, that no one else, my wife or her parents, were especially keen on it, so it was left to me, with my oversized sweet-tooth, to consume it all – not at one go, but gradually, spooning it straight out of the can. I still have fond memories of the stuff.

Those memories resurfaced a year or so ago when I happened to be checking out the “foreign” food aisle in the big grocery store in Tammisto. One end of the aisle is stocked with various American products (Pop-Tarts, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Welch’s Concord Grape Jelly, Betty Crocker Whipped Cream Chocolate Frosting, just to mention a few of the Yankee delicacies there). At the other end are items from other countries, meaning mostly from Russia.

Much to my surprise, there on the shelf in front of me, were, after all these years, cans and cans of Sweet Russian Stuff, just as I’d remembered them.

Motivated by that moment of nostalgia, I decided to find out once and for all what it was, this product that is obviously a staple popular enough with the local Russian expat community to import it to Finland. Using Google Translate, I discovered it’s simply condensed milk, sweetened condensed milk.

Why I didn’t recognize it as such back when I first encountered it, I can’t say. After all, we do have condensed milk in America – though since I’m not a baker in any sense, I’m sure I never crossed paths with it before coming to Varkaus. And it’s somehow practically unknown in Finland.

The fact that I can now find it on a local grocery shelf says something about the closer culinary ties Finland now has with Russia – okay, maybe not a lot, but something.

Despite being close neighbors, it seems that not a lot of Russian food products have make it across the border in past years. Of course, the two countries have a shared history, so there are some foods that are traditional in both. There’s pickled herring (of course), rosolli (винегрет in Russian, and one of my favorites of the de rigueur Finnish Christmas dishes), paskha (па́сха, eaten at Easter, especially in the Orthodox community), kiisseli (кисель, which my mother-in-law often serves as dessert), and blini (блины, the small pancakes eaten with different types of savory toppings).

In my family, we used to make a variation of blini, using a special cast-iron frying pan to cook small pancakes (lettuja) made with regular batter (not the proper yeasty type) and eating them blini-like with chopped pickles, onions and shrimp.

Still, in terms of more modern influences, you’ll find many more Tex-Mex and sushi items in stores here than anything obviously Russian. And, strangely enough, even in these freer, post-Soviet times, there are way more hamburger, kebab and pizzeria restaurants than Russian ресторанов.

"Putin's Cheese", Valio's Oltermanni for the Russian market.
For decades, authentic Russian cuisine was embodied in Helsinki by three iconic restaurants, very lavishly decorated in plush velvet, if I recall correctly, and oozing Slavic atmosphere. I visited them rarely, years ago, and on the company dime since they’re quite pricy. In one, you used to be able to order up a meal of bear meat, and I think you still can.

I’m not that familiar with the restaurant scene in Helsinki nowadays, but my impression is there still aren’t that many Russian restaurants here, though there are now a few blini places scattered around town. Maybe I should check them out sometime.

As uncontroversial as you would think something like food would be, over the last few months it has become an unexpected focal point of somewhat strained Finnish-Russian relations.

In retaliation for growing economic sanctions from the West, the Russian government has imposed its own sanctions that, while intended to punish EU countries, also in some sense targets its own citizens.

In August, Russia decided to ban most foodstuff imported from the West. This had an immediate impact on the Finnish food industry, for which Russia is a hugely important market (worth 430 million euros in 2013). The most conspicuous impact, and the most publicized, was on Valio, a dairy cooperative and the biggest Finnish maker of cheese and milk products.

Russia is an important market for Valio’s products, including its popular Oltermanni cheese, and the abrupt nature of the Russian ban caught the company by surprise. It put Valio in a pickle.

Truckloads of Oltermanni (or, rather, Олтерманни) cheese, intended for the Russian market and already en route, were turned back at the border. Likewise, a large amount of Russian-bound cheese sitting in Valio warehouses and ready for shipment, suddenly had nowhere to go. Because it had already been packaged and labeled in Russian, it could not be sold anywhere else.

About a week after the Russian food ban was announced, the Finnish state stepped in to help food producers like Valio. The government suspended certain regulations concerning food labeling, allowing Valio’s surplus cheese to be sold locally in Finland.

It even made the evening news, which featured scenes of heavily discounted one-kilo packages of Олтерманни сыр being snatched up by eager shoppers in a big grocery store in Kannelmäki in northern Helsinki.

All this cheap cheese flooding the market was immediately dubbed “Putinin juusto” (“Putin’s Cheese”). The tabloid media had a field day with it.

"Molotov Bread Basket"
(RRAB-3 cluster bomb)

As it happens, there’s a much less light-hearted precedent for such a wry nickname.

At the outset of the Winter War, the opening stage of World War II for Finland 75 years ago this week, the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that the Soviet planes dropping incendiary bombs on Finland where in fact humanitarian flights. They were dropping “bread baskets”, he said, for the starving Finnish population. You cannot make this stuff up. Or, rather, maybe you can.

In any case, the Finns promptly christened these lethal cluster bombs “Molotov bread baskets”. Finns also coined the better-known term, “Molotov cocktail”, to refer to the very early improvised explosive devices they used against Soviet tanks. Chances are “Putin’s Cheese” won’t catch on quite as well as "Molotov cocktails".

The morning after Putin’s Cheese went on sale, we were heading out of town, but decided to make a small detour to the Kannelmäki store featured in the previous night’s TV broadcast.

I suspected we were too late to take advantage of the half-priced Oltermanni. I shouldn’t have worried. As we approached the dozen or so shoppers clustered around the cheese bin, store employees were arriving with another pallet loaded with the stuff. The supply was obviously far from exhausted. We bought six packages, for ourselves and to give our sons. It was a bargain hard to pass up, especially since this is the very brand of cheese we eat every day.

That was over two months ago, and the effects of Russia’s counter-sanctions have mostly faded from the news. Putin’s Cheese is all gone now. It was a good deal for shoppers while it lasted.

The Russian ban is still in place. Shortly after it was imposed, an exception was made for lactose-free products, for which Russia seems to have little capacity to produce itself. But the ban was then just as quickly re-imposed on those products as well, at least temporarily.

None of this has been welcome news for the Finnish food industry. Valio surely took a loss on its Russian-labeled products, though being able to sell them domestically must have helped somewhat. The government has estimated that the ban affects 2.6% of the overall Finnish food production. It has already resulted in some job losses.

For Finnish consumers, the impact, for good or ill, has been minimal. The same can’t be said for shoppers the other side of the border, where the sudden lack of western imports, which made up some 40% of Russian consumption in dairy products alone, has reportedly led to a rise in prices. 

The Kremlin has claimed its ban will be an eventual silver lining for the Russian food industry, spurring it to step up and start producing domestic alternatives. We’ll see.

If Russia does start producing cheese for the export market, I’ve got an excellent suggestion for a brand name that’s memorable and pithy. And it has guaranteed worldwide name recognition. Maybe I should trademark it first.