“Meet you under the clock…” is a standard phrase in Helsinki, one local inhabitants have used for decades, since the imposing Stockmanns Department Store was erected in the city center in the 1930’s. Come 5 p.m. in the afternoon when, in winter it is already dark, and in summer light-filled hours stretch ahead, there is a crowd there, jostling and talkative, everyone waiting for their appointment. Like any good Helsinki native, we began our tour of the city there too.
Leea Lappalainen was our guide. Her passion is history, and she recounted how Stockmanns is one of the oldest department stores in Europe, established in 1862 and a novelty since it had elevators and indoor heating, luxury items available to the public, and servers to show people around. Today it has all those attributes too, and more because there is an amazing supermarket in the downstairs area, with a bakery that sends wafts of cinnamon and cardamom into the air.
Johan Ludvig Runeberg
Leea’s delectation is culinary specialties, so after a quick visit to Stockmann’s pastry shop, she knew right where to take us. Our first stop was the statue of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg. We passed by ice-blue tigers on the way, a nod to the Year of the Tiger, and waded our way through newly fallen snow…or should I say still falling snow, to Esplanadi Park where the statue stands tall, the poet frozen in a stance that makes it seem he will begin momentarily to expound. Which he did often during his life, only in Swedish because that was his only language. Which isn’t as strange as it sounds, since Finland was part of Sweden for 700 years.
It is always fascinating to learn of individuals beloved by their country, but that wasn’t necessarily why we were chilling our boots in the park. Leea wanted us to taste a beloved pastry linked to M. Runeberg, called the “Runeberg Cake”. During the poet’s lifetime his wife prepared this cake for the poet’s breakfast each morning, by reaching into her pantry and using what she found there.
The Finnish Pantry
“We tend to make cakes like this ourselves using what we’ve got in our pantries,” Leea said, which told me a lot about the Finnish pantry that, apparently, includes almond flour and cardamom, dried breadcrumbs or crackers, butter, raspberry jam ,and fresh cream. I’m going to copy the Finns and make sure I always have those things in MY pantry.
Because, sooner or later I’m going to try my hand at a Runeberg cake, one of the most tender, delicately flavored, rich tasting cakes I’ve had in a long time. First step, find the mold, which I hope will be a cinch, because there is no better way to kindle a memory than through a flavorful bite.
Stay tuned for more of our Helsinki/Finland tour!