I poisoned myself in Finland. With blueberry soup. Ironic as Finland turned out to be the most gluten free-iendly place imaginable. Arriving on midsummers eve June 2010, we taxied into the glorious harbour city of Helsinki for a week. My two girls (aged 6 & 2) and I were thrilled by the Scandic Grand Marina Hotel with it’s play area in the restaurant and spirited feel, rare in such a big hotel. We strolled into the city after our first white night. Ach, I love travelling and was totally electrified – freewheeling in a foreign land post-childbirth, who would have thought?
Playgrounds and Moomin (Finnish children’s books) were not my only concerns for the trip though and I braced myself at Tourist Information that first morning, searching for the simplest way to explain my dietary requirements for restaurant recommendations. Spoilt by the fact that most Finns speak English, I launched into my spiel only to be interrupted by the young blond information officer ‘Are you a coeliac?’ he asked. I am. ‘So am I’ he said ‘Welcome to Finland – you can eat anywhere!’ Yep. An emotional moment – and he was right.
As if it’s a legal requirement (though it’s not) virtually every eating establishment in Finland provides gluten free meals – usually indicated by the heaven-sent ‘g’ on the menu. From the fancy Kamp Cafe (on “Pohjoisesplanadi”, the main Boulevard in Helsinki), which dispensed with the ‘g’s but assured that they could make anything on their menu gluten free; to McDonalds (We didn’t partake but apparently they have gluten free burgers); to the bistro on the train – can you believe it??? The bistro on the train!!!!! I could eat absolutely anywhere and didn’t have to bother anyone. The trains, I have to add, also have a special carriage for children complete with play area sporting a slide, a mini train (on the train…) and a bookshelf with books for kids to read on their journey. There’s also an enclosed area for feeding and changing young babies; space for people with pets; a designated smoking area; disabled access; an area for prams and another to hang your bike.
How lovely to walk into a cake shop and have 7 choices of cake, none of which looked like a crumbly poor-cousin to the gluten-full options. I love cake! Gluten free bread was baked daily in “Stockmann”, one of the main department stores amongst other places and there was generally not a Finn who hadn’t at least heard of gluten.
Finland as a country has a 2% confirmed coeliac rate. How much of this is due to an increased incidence of the disease versus increased testing is unknown. Certainly compared to surrounding Nordic countries and the rest of the world, Finland is well ahead in it’s gluten free awareness. The coeliac society of Finland (www.keliakialiitto.fi) hosts regular gluten free training courses for the Finnish catering industry which are hugely popular. Interestingly, a whopping 20% of the Finnish population reports some degree of lactose intolerance which is also reflected in their restaurants and supermarkets.
Helsinki centre is easy to explore on foot, the onion domed Uspenski and imposing Lutheran Cathedrals are striking and useful landmarks, though at the end of a long day’s sightseeing, the rattly tram network came in very handy. English is spoken widely in Finland, we did learn Finnish for thank you, ‘kittos’, and our favourite foreign phrase of all time ‘hopi hopi’ often heard now on our school run, it translates roughly as ‘hurry up let’s go!’.
We were lucky enough to have friends who lived about an hour out of Helsinki. Their idyllic pastel coloured wooden house was surrounded by wildflowers and we ate on the perpetually sunlit deck; reindeer with cranberries followed by cloud berry jam with Juustoleipä cheese (like a non-salty but still-squeaky dessert version of halloumi which I can’t find anywhere in Australia). Divine. So exciting to experience totally new foods in a totally new place. I had to consciously stop myself smiling before I went to sleep.
Scandinavia has a reputation for being expensive. I expected the hotels and food to be at least up there with London prices but found it (especially the accommodation) to be much cheaper. Taxis are very expensive but the trams are not and the trains were reasonable. Norway apparently administers the Scandinavian King hit for traveller finances these days.
Ah – but watch the blueberry soup on the breakfast buffet. I assumed it was straight-up blueberry puree but it is thickened with wheat flour. My mistake and it won’t happen again. I will be back to Finland though. Definitely worth a special pilgrimage for the gluten free. A magic land where good design, considered functionality and understated beauty are staple, and it seems everyone is catered for.
Time of Visit: June 2010