HELSINKI, Finland — "There is cow's blood in this roll," said our friend, Maija Riihijarvi-Samuel, as she picked up a piece of flat rye bread that strongly resembled Middle Eastern pita.
"In a cold country, it's important to use everything, and blood gives us iron and vitamins to help us survive the harsh winters."
We were having dinner in Helsinki's Finnish Cuisine restaurant, a modern room done in soft blue colors and blond woods that reflected the simplicity and grace of Finnish design.
"For more than 2,000 years Finland has been a marketplace between East and West," said Riihijarvi-Samuel, who is director of the Martha Organization, a society of Finnish women in home economics.
"Our fur trade was always strong. Back in the days of the old Silk Road we had cultural influences from as far away as Indonesia. So Finnish cuisine is a mixture of influences from the East and the West."
Riihijarvi-Samuel also pointed out the seasonal nature of Finnish food. Crayfish, for instance, are eagerly anticipated each July, and turbot, a winter-spawning fish, is devoured with delight in January.
The fall hunting season brings such game as hare, venison, reindeer, elk and bear, and in the summer cauliflower, cabbage, onion, potatoes and turnips flourish, along with salmon, whitefish, rainbow trout, herring and more kinds of wild berries than you can count.
The Finnish Cuisine restaurant specializes in presenting traditional dishes from various regions of Finland.
Sauna-cured bear in pastry and egg butter comes from Karelia, a region in the southeast known for its baked goods, and roast snow grouse with rowanberry sauce is from Lapland in the north.
Cold beet-root soup and juniper-flavored reindeer fillets are also served, and for dessert, there's berry kissel, an 18th-Century dish of stewed, strained berries thickened with potato flour.
A three-course meal costs about 200 Finnish marks (about $53 U.S.) per person, without wine. (The wines served in Finland are mostly French and German, although there are some very pleasant local wines made from currants.)
"The Western influence on Finnish cuisine comes mostly from Sweden, because we were under Swedish rule for 700 years," Riihijarvi-Samuel told us as we left the restaurant. "And the eastern influence comes largely from Russia--we were a Grand Duchy for about 100 years. Russian cuisine, of course, was heavily influenced by the French."
With that in mind, we decided to try the newest--and in our opinion, the best--Russian restaurant in town, Alexander Nevski.
The interior evokes an elegant, turn-of-the-century Russian manor house, with floors of glass-like green marble and pillars. Chef Hariton Ivanovits learned cooking from his mother, who moved to Finland from Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution.
We sat at a formal table set with white linen and a gilt candelabrum and sampled braised mushrooms fragrant with sour cream, pepper and spices served in small silver cups.
For the main course we ordered a Ukrainian dish--cabbage rolls stuffed with veal, cucumber, barley and a little garlic, and cooked in a sour cream sauce.
The waitress brought in huge, steaming clay pots crowned with golden clouds of pastry.
She cut open the tops and the aroma of spices and vegetables escaped into the room; it was a fragrance to whet the most jaded appetite.
The taste was equally satisfying, the flavors of the various ingredients melting into the sour cream sauce without losing their individual character. Dessert was a pastry swan filled with cranberry sherbet and decorated with whipped cream.
Russian tea was served in a glass with raspberry jam. Meals at Alexander Nevski cost about 160 Finnish marks (about $45 U.S.) per person, without wine.
The influences of French cuisine are in such restaurants as the Palace Gourmet, on the ninth floor of the Palace Hotel overlooking Helsinki's harbor.
It's the first, and so far the only restaurant in Finland to have a Michelin star, which was awarded last year. The room has a comfortable, contemporary feel, and the creations of chef Fero Makela are memorable.
We began with a crayfish bisque, intensely flavored, and served with crusty poppy seed rolls.
Next came a salmon that had been lightly smoked, served over forest mushrooms and in a sabayon sauce with juniper berries. The salmon had a delicate, only slightly smoky taste, and the sauce was light.
Dessert was a bavarois of fresh cheese in a raspberry coulis. The bill came to 230 Finnish marks (about $60 U.S.) per person.
The Swedish influence on Finnish cuisine is evident largely in the popularity of the smorgasbord, that long Swedish buffet table that includes never-ending platters of salted fish, cold salads, smoked meats and a selection of hot casseroles, roasted meats, breads and pastries.