OlutExpo 2017 does it right

From the time you pick up the lanyard with credit card attached to the time you drop it off and get reimbursed for the balance left on it, you know these guys have done it right. It’s pro, it’s efficient, the queues are shorter at the entrance and you leave knowing that nobody’s tried to rip you off, you got what you paid for. If you so wish, you could muster up an even warmer fuzzier sense of goodness when you leave the balance to one of the charities they support.

Fat Lizard Brewery from Finland

A whole string of local micro breweries have come up with selections of beer that speak of real craftsmanship, each one with its own specific punch line and story. Fat Lizard has a sense of humour as in their ‘No crap on tap’ slogan. Topi Kairenius, brewmaster, explains their take on what makes them stand out,“We like American style APAs and IPAs and use mostly American hops. Except for Rib Tickler which contains New Zeland hops.”Their products come in funky cans and are all of a lighter, drinkable style, a hint of their own laid-back approach to life.

The intrepid couple from Pien

 Pien meaning ‘small’ deserves a mention. This couple are bold if nothing else. They have two small shops: one behind Ateneum Art Museum on Ateneumkuja and another one in Iso Omena Shopping Centre. Their products are hand-and heart-selected and they’re selling some unique beers and other goodies from their stores. Because of the monopoly Alko, they have to stick to anything under 4.7% alcohol but whatever they have to sacrifice is made up for by big flavours and choice ingredients. They’re the exclusive importer of Brewski, an outfit in Helsingborg, Sweden, that bottle in small sizes using labels designed by a kick-ass artist. The contents are pretty good too.

Pekka Montin, importer and veteran of the beer scene

From Estonia comes Tanker Brewery. Everything’s unfiltered and only American hops is used since 50% of the business belongs to Graham Suske, American himself and the other half by Jaanis Tammela. The Ketser will creep into the corners of your gob and squinch up your cheeks with the sourness it brings with it while Pretty Hard has a touch of raspberry to soften the blow. The latter’s label is pink with a speech bubble for the lady, ‘ It’s so hard to be pretty’. At 7% you’re likely to forget the make-up and get the party started.

Cider has its place at this festival and it’s the elegance of the logo of Kuura Cider that catches my eye. They’re from the little town of Fiskars, about a 60 minute drive from Helsinki. With a still and a sparkling product, their focus is on ripe, local, cooking apples rather than cider ones. Minimum intervention leaves it unfiltered but with an elegance and complexity that put it in a class of its own.

Also from the famous artist/artisan town of Fiskars is Ägräs Distillery. Infused with nettles and fennel is their greenish coloured Long Drink, the freshest hit of herbal delight you can possibly imagine with no hint of sugar but pleasantly accessible. Their Akvavit is also made from foraged nettles and wild herbs and is aged in American oak, a smooth, golden-coloured, velvety drink that caresses your tongue as it slides around the furthest recesses of your mouth.

Food is the focus at Malmgård Brewery where they use their own spelt, wheat, grains to make their products including bread. They’re located in the countryside near Loviisa at a manor house owned by a count.

From the far-flung island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides, the whisky that comes from there is user-friendly. No heavy peat, no heavy smoke just something easy to drink, terribly enjoyable and made for the market. Their 16 year-old Jura Diurachs’ Own is the whisky of choice for the islanders and you know why when your taste buds get a hint of apricot, marmalade and toffee, a mouthful of rounded goodness.

End your taste tour at Helsinki Distilling Company where their brand new rye whiskey comes with a kick but no aggression. Applejack can only be described as light Calvados, a pleasant apéritif or a less powerful digestif.

In the spite of the archaic alcohol laws in Finland, OlutExpo has managed to put together a thought-through, well organised event, represented by both local and international brands without a single moment of unruly behaviour and plenty of class and luxury in which to spoil yourself.

It’s Sustainable, it’s Australian and it’s Wine

Let’s talk about eye-openers, those you look forward to with great excitement before the drop and the palate have said hello. Here in Helsinki, we’re rubbing our palms together, salivating at the thought, allowing our minds to run wild with what they’ve come up with this time. It’s the Australian Wine Tasting Event with a Master Class lead by Mark Davidson and the subject is Sustainability.

Vine of the Riesling

Call it trendy, call it hip but don’t you ever call it a passing fad because we all know where we’re heading as far as this planet is concerned. The numbers are too scary for words: species die out between 1000 and 10 000 times higher than their natural rate; CO2 levels are rising consistently; the planet’s average surface temperature has increased by 1.1° C turning 2016 into the warmest year ever recorded.

What happens to wine in this bad-case scenario and how do winemakers get those labels with that magic word ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic’ printed on them? Strange as it may sound, hard-earned capital leads the way: money is what it takes to use methods that are minimal and money is what is required to get official authorisation. And not just a one-off payment but a year-by-year commitment to stick to your principles no matter what. The maze of organisations out there with recognised authenticity to declare a winery sustainable is in itself a hard task to sift through. But when you’ve got it, you make the best of it even when the odds are stacked against you.

Organically grown and treated Rieslings from Australia

Pewsey Vale ‘The Contours’ Eden Valley Riesling 2011 is one such wine. Louisa Rose and her crew went biodynamic in 2011 and even through it was a wet, cold, challenging period they pushed on, risked failure and came up with this superb example of Riesling. It tingles on the tongue, mingles toasty brioche with citrus fruit and leaves you with a long, lemongrass flavour for pure savouring or cutting the grease in a leg of roast duck.

Grenache in a blend, Grenache on its own – organic and purely delightful

Drought makes us all sit up and place bricks in our toilet cisterns. Australia reminds its citizens every day of conservation and recycling of this valuable asset, a commodity the wine industry cannot do without. When aquifers are used, they are kept at replenishable levels. Mulching is common practice on organic farms and grey water is pumped for irrigation. Grenache is the most widely planted red wine grape in the world. It’s hardy, it’s not too thirsty and it outperforms its siblings on yields. Australians have recognised these facts and made good use of this versatile varietal. John Duval’s Annexus 2015 is a new venture with a delightful floral character and savoury spice. Tannins caress your tongue in the finish with long brush strokes of velvet.

New innovations

Where do they go from here? The thing is, Australian winemakers are already pushing the envelope with the varietals that we all expect from them so why not fool around with a Touriga Nacional for instance, or a Graciano, so popular in Spanish blends? The latter used on its own is the edgy path Paxton McLaren Vale Graciano 2016 follows. It presents you with a plate of nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices with a touch of oak to keep those flavours lingering.

Organic or biodynamic, irrigated or dry, Australian winemakers who chase the elusive star of purity without sacrificing taste, are on a trail-blazing track to that point of excellence.

Hieta Restaurant – history in the making

If you want to follow a hard act, leave it in the hands of the pros. Royal Restaurants have taken over this historic spot overlooking the old shipyard and handed over the reins to Jani Hiltunen, manager, and Ali Toppinen, head chef, to reconstruct an age-old tradition.

Jani Hiltiunen and Ali Toppinen, Ravintola Hieta, avajaiset. Photo: ATTE KAJOVA

Dating back to 1897 when stevedores and workers called the then-named Salve their ‘local’, these walls have seen it all including billows of cigarette smoke, countless millions of litres of beer and Finnish hooch called Koskenkorva being consumed. Today we walk in there and the gasps of airy delight spring from the daylight shining in on the white walls. I ask whether there were always floor-to-ceiling windows and the answer is ‘yes, but they were half covered in stickers and huge ventilation boxes’.

Fried Baltic herring and craft beer

Jani and Ali are on the same page – they really don’t want to destroy that trademark history of good, homemade large portions of food at reasonable prices but they also realise that we’re living in a different age and that a modern twist is vital. Hence, smoked Baltic Herring still comes crispy but the salty cucumber is a crunchy mix of pickles with good acidity to cut the grease. Wiener Schnitzel is a slab that fills the plate with a dollop of parsley butter and not enough lemon to give you that hit of freshness. But you can ask for more and the super amazing staff are only ready to lay it on. Pancakes are the Finns’ favourite dessert and crispier I have yet to come across.

‘HIETA’ had to fit the boots of its predecessor ‘Salve’ in size and historic importance.

Enough of the food, let’s get down to the drink and then you know these guys have got it sussed. Their own blend of Stuvari ale comes from Donut Island craft brewery just down the road and is a refreshing balance of malt and hops with a twist of citrus to make it your favourite drink of choice this summer. But if brews are not your best, top quality Jacquart Brut Mosaïque champagne is available for an affordable €10,80/glass. All of this, with a view of the water and musings of times gone by, from the terrace of Hieta which will be opening as soon as the restaurant does, on Wednesday 26 April 2017.

Watch this space for links…

Sandro Restaurants – Helsinki

Sandro Kallio – no nonsense dining

THE PLACE 8/10: Neighbourhood restaurants in three spots in Helsinki, these joints concentrate on Moroccan/Lebanese cuisine in healthy portions. Marrakesh Madness brunch is served on Sundays while vegans and vegetarians and the rest of us can eat their hearts out on Saturdays.

THE FOOD 7/10: Lots of exotic flavours, spices, freshness and contrasts of textures are present in every dish but if spice is not your thing, there’s a huge selection for every age and finnicky eater.

THE DRINKS 7/10: Some pretty good appetite awakeners come as alcoholic and non-alcoholic and the wine menu is neatly curated to suit every pocket.

THE SERVICE (7/10): Usually good and always friendly since the staff is mostly from abroad bringing their own brand of personality to the table.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): Can get dreadfully noisy since the acoustics ring out loud and clear especially when the ladies at the next table screech out their pure pleasure at each others’ jokes.

THE PRICE (7/10): Looks a bit pricey since everything’s around €25 but there are no starters and those come on the main course plate which is huge and includes the whole shebang.

OVERALL RATING (7/10): Easy dining for both families and couples and a fun way of spending some hours together.

Pulled duck burger with crispy sweet potato fries

Links:

Sandro Restaurants

Farang Restaurant, Helsinki

Amuse bouche of green shell mussel in turmeric curry

THE PLACE 8/10: Just under street level in a beautiful pink period building which also houses an art museum, this restaurant is understated in its elegance luring you to focus on the beautifully presented food.

THE FOOD 8/10: South-East Asia is their thing with lots of nuts (be careful if you’re allergic), creamy coconut and curry spices. It’s a fantasy ride of chillies, never too much, umami, smoke and musk. Crunch contrasts with cream and soft bites of succulent pork and lamb.

Succulent pork ribs with plenty of coconut and coriander

THE DRINKS 6/10: The Hügel Sylvaner from Wittmann Winery works well with its blend of melon and pears but the red from Spain just doesn’t. However, the dessert wine is superbly light, a bit like brandy, and matches the Mekong River dessert exceptionally well.

Light dessert wine of Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon

THE SERVICE (7/10): Very good with the timing of dishes arriving in paced succession. Some of the waiting staff are a little inexperienced and just parrot what you can already read on the menu but it’s not a big deal. They’re all friendly.

THE AMBIENCE (7/10): Even though it’s minimalistic, it does have a feel of relaxation. The thin ‘curtains’ that divide the large area, blow softly in the breeze of the aircon, a cool feeling with all that spice.

THE PRICE (7/10): Around €100/head including the wine recommendations.

OVERALL RATING (8/10): Fantastic flavours to transport you to the East served with charm and delicacy.

Links:

Farang Restaurant

Panorama Restaurant – Hotel Sky Ounasvaara, Rovaniemi, Lapland

I realise this is not exactly a Helsinki Restaurant but you can easily fit it in in a limited space of time if you take an overnight train on Friday, spend a day visiting Santa Claus, go for dinner and take a night train back (see below for a booking link). Worth every euro.

Reindeer tartare served on a wooden slab

THE PLACE 8/10: In a hotel that’s in need of a face lift, Panorama Restaurant is simple but elegant and has floor-to-ceiling windows on three out of four sides with spectacular views over the forest inviting nature in.

THE FOOD 9/10: Local, local, local are the innovative ingredients including spruce, reindeer and forest mushrooms. Dishes are works of art arranged on bespoke crockery designed by Anu Pentik while flavours and textures are rich in contrast. Every mouthful is a taste sensation.

THE DRINKS 8/10: Well-curated including subterranean Lappish water (no bottles used to protect the environment). Wines are perfectly paired with dishes albeit that many of them are also at Alko, a slight minus in my book. Non-alcoholic drinks are of high quality.

THE SERVICE (10/10): Waiting staff read you like a book. They tell stories about wines and ingredients when they see you’re interested, and if you’re not, a description of the food suffices. They check every glass, serve you with black gloves and bring each course at a leisurely pace, just enough time to digest the previous one.

THE AMBIENCE (8/10): Children are welcome and there’s a special menu for them. While the interior is plain, the focus is on the magnificent food set before you.

THE PRICE (8/10): 5-course tasting menu €59, wine pairing €44. Best value for money in Finland for fine dining at its best.

OVERALL RATING (9/10): No aurora borealis in the night sky (boo hoo). The rest is pure magic.

Arctic Char with leak cooked in three different ways

Links: Sky Hotel Ounasvaara Panorama Restaurant Closed from 9 April – 1 June 2017.

Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, Lapland

VR – trains from Helsinki to Rovaniemi

Colour, Coffee and Art

It’s bright pink, purple, yellow and orange that catches your eye when walking by the supermarket shelves dedicated to coffee. This one’s Paulig’s Presidentti Special Blend 2017 made with coffee beans from Sumatra. To make it even more intriguing, there’s an art exhibition to go with it in the deli at Stockmann Department Store with pictures of Presidents of Finland done in WPAP style by Indonesian artist Arif Wicaksonon. You may well ask about the connection…

President Tarja Halonen in WPAP style

Every year Paulig produces a special blend that celebrates a different taste from a different country and always an exotic one. This year, it’s Sumatra’s turn to shine and this balanced yet striking mouthful of liquid is quite unusual. The edges are soft but the flavour is wild and together with a macaroon it’s a perfect afternoon break enhancer.

Six Presidents, the sixth year of Presidentti Special Blend. And how were they selected? Easy, they all have a coffee story to tell. President Tarja Halonen only started drinking coffee at the age of 18 but fell passionately in love with the brew and has a favourite spot at Hakaniemi Market Hall where she partakes of it with relish. President Kekkonen on the other hand, was alive and well and even had a hand in roasting the first blend at the then new Paulig roastery in Vuosaari where the head office is currently located. He was also known to take Presidentti with him on his travels.

President Kekkonen loved Presidentti coffee

The WPAP art was developed by Indonesian Wedha Abdul Rasyid and stands for Wedha’s Pop Art Portrait. This highly colourful, geometric style has spread outside of his home country and to other parts, now to be seen at Stockmann’s (city centre 28-5.3 and Tapiola 15 – 19.3) and at Narinkka Square at Kamppi Shopping Centre (16 – 19.3). More importantly, the coffee is for sale in every major supermarket in Finland.

Challenges facing South African Tourism

Described as a ‘world in one country’, South Africa is a highly favoured tourist destination. There are few places in the world where you get beaches, mountains, wild life, great food and wine, spectacular scenery all thrown in one. And the prices are good even though the South Africans themselves complain that they’re rising all the time.

Hout Bay at sunset

But there are some serious issues, some of them easily solved. Here are a few that I noticed on my Christmas 2016 trip.

 

  • Getting through Oliver Tambo International Airport – it took 3 hours for a passenger like me with hand luggage only to get through passport control and pick up a car at Avis/Budget. For those of us with electronic passports, well, there just aren’t any facilities. Every person is screened, photographed, finger-printed by a truly glum, unfriendly controller. Car rental with all your information online, was reduced to filling in pen and ink forms manually all over again and while the staff were friendly and chatty, all of us would have preferred them just to get on with their jobs.
  • Toll roads – please make sure you have South African money if you’re coming from abroad. I was really caught between a rock and a hard place when I got to the first toll road where the toll sensor supplied by Avis/Budget didn’t work and no foreign credit cards were accepted. I had not had a chance to get SA money and was planning on drawing some at the first gas station where you can usually find ATM’s. A kind driver in the truck behind me, paid for my toll and I followed him to the next money withdrawal machine. An angel, to say the least since the chance he took could have cost him!
  • Service – Waitrons as they are called, lack training. When it takes you 30 minutes to get an order of 3 uncomplicated drinks, you know there’s something wrong. Gin and tonic has to be the most common of traditional mixes but for some reason, it took 3 waitrons to make sure that they understood what we wanted. Then it arrived with no ice and no slice of lemon. It’s as if they make their own lives complicated too. As you walk by, pick up the plates, notice the new patrons, take their orders, remember what they said…. There’s no sense of what the term ‘good service’ means. Smiling is not enough.
  • Wifi – If you’re staying with family, it seems that most homes don’t have it and if they do, it’s capped and runs out very quickly. Even the Airbnb cottage I rented in Clarens for no less than €75/night, had no wifi at all. Airtime and data ‘bundles’ are separated and you have to make sure you have both if you’d like to use your iPhone the way it should be. Why so complicated? Why can’t it just be an all-in-one package? Getting wifi is also not guaranteed even if you’ve set up your system to work. It’s slow and unreliable.
  • ATM’s – talk about complicated, there seems to be a different ATM for every bank in SA. You’re spoilt for choice but how unnecessary and what a waste of money to set up all those different stations.
  • Toilets – these have to be the most awful I have come across bar China. At rest stops the sewage system has problems coping with the number of people passing through and blocked toilets are common. Even though the staff work hard to keep it clean, there’s little they can do when the infrastructure breaks down.
  • Potholes – toll roads are fine, you should jolly well hope so! But veer off on a road less travelled and you’re at risk of breaking the entire car chassis and believe me, you wouldn’t want to do that on a lonely thoroughfare.
  • Driving behaviour – Overtaking on the left in a country where you drive on the left, happens more frequently than you would like it to. Breaking speed limits is common place while indicators are considered useless little protruding sticks with no real function. You need hair on your teeth to drive in South Africa. In DecemberJanuary 2016 alone, there were close on 2000 deaths caused by traffic accidents related to incompetent and drunk driving.
  • Crime – figures for ‘contact crimes’ which include murder have risen and every house, building and farm is behind a security fence or is armed with plenty of dogs. Security at car parks and at beaches is good and you don’t feel threatened. However, make sure you check not only the driver’s door when you use your remote control. A phenomenon called lock jamming is growing which means that when you think your car is safe and sound, the other doors are remotely controlled to be open.

If this sounds like a rant, it’s not meant to be. I still think that SA is one of the most desirable countries on earth to visit and when you compare quality and price, it puts a smile on your face every time. But lock your doors and keep your windows up i.e. get an air conditioned hire car and look around you when you get out and in. Don’t get too drunk and keep your wits about you. Stay in built-up areas especially at night time. Keep your belongings close and just use common sense.

Line Up at The Roster – a modern eatery run by a hip crowd

With a view of some of Helsinki’s stunning period architecture, The Roster stands out as a trendy place to have your lunch, drink a cocktail or indulge in their version of a Sunday roast. Brainchild of Kari Aihinen, executive chef of the exclusive Savoy Restaurant, this one’s not a ‘baby Savoy’. His love of ice hockey speaks for itself in the name and he runs this kitchen as well as the more upmarket one, like he would a hockey team. The right hand knows what the left is doing and the result is a winner.

Trout, spinach purée and lobster sauce

My trout on a spinach purée with lobster sauce melts in the mouth with umami, freshness and creaminess all intermingled. The salad that comes as a side looks dull since it’s just a bunch of leaves but my oh my, that truffle dressing is enough to stop you in your tracks. I feel like a red wine with all of this and the recommendation of a Pinot Meunier from the house of Friedrich Becker from the Pfalz region in Germany, is earthy, with hints of truffle and terroir that just brings this whole meal together.

All of this doesn’t come cheap but you wouldn’t expect it to. You get the feeling that every ingredient is hand-picked and that the food is prepared with the utmost care. Service is friendly, funny and full of personality. I think they like working here and if they don’t, they’re damn good actors. Go for the slapshot, fork out €40 and knock yourself out with a great plate of nosh.

Links:

The Roster Helsinki

What a Kombo

Sini was invited to a party in Madrid, Christian was too. Serendipity played its role in the meeting of this Finnish woman with this Spanish man and olé, it worked! Dovetailing their talents, they now have the cutest eatery in Sörnäinen, a tram ride away from the heart of Helsinki.

The buzz at Kombo starts at around 7pm and by 7.30 every table is taken. Grant it, it’s not big with covers for around 25 -30 people but for a place that spends zero on advertising, word of mouth has done its job and customers come from far and wide.

Christian is down on his haunches at the table, explaining the food on offer which basically consists of a variety of tapas that comes in 4 sizes from a snack to a hearty portion. The wine is palate-picked ranging from lighter red to heavy-duty stuff. And of course there’s white and cava too but on a miserable winter’s night, it’s the red that pulls and what a combo (sic!) with the food.

dsc05489It’s the Grenache Noir of La Fontaine des Loups from Languedoc that takes my fancy and delivers well when it comes to the winter salad, duck rillettes and Spanish omelette on my plate. Every mouthful is a treat with the pomegranate popping in my mouth, speaking to the black currant and plum flavours of the wine.

dsc05494The generous cheese plate arrives and my choice is the Artigazo’s blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that gives you that nice, toasty feeling and leaves a trace of balsamic behind. The aged Manchega cheese has a partner in the form of red capsicum jam, a first for me.

Kombo is all about matching combinations. While Christian handles front of house, Sini does her thing in the kitchen and they both do their job with aplomb. The food hits the spot and the wine just takes it to another level. They’ve thought this through carefully and come up with a winner and even your wallet survives the experience.

For bookings: http://www.kombowinebar.fi/Kombo.html