Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Savoy Restaurant, Helskini

Work is concluded, and my host makes arrangements for us to dine at Savoy, a restaurant located just off of Esplanade Park. An elevator whisks us up to the eighth floor where we emerge on a wood and glass dining room of smooth lines and contours created by the noted designer Alvar Aalto. There is a wrap-around picture window that overlooks Helsinki, with brilliant views of the ocean and Helsinki Cathedral reaching into the sky.

My host has advised me that August is crayfish season and with any luck, we may witness a crayfish party, a traditional summer festivity in Finland. Sure enough, there is a group of approximately 20 people seated on the terrace all wearing cloth crayfish bibs, digging into platters of crustaceans, gulping vodka and singing Finnish drinking songs.

There is something deeply appealing about a communal celebration of the bounty of the sea, and we must participate in this late summer ritual. We order a tasting platter of five crayfish each, and my host graciously instructs me in proper use of the knife, and the appropriate method for dismembering and eating the little creatures.

The plump crayfish are dazzling neon-red, speckled with hints of gold. The shells are delightfully soft and they taste briny, sweet and fresh, as if they’d been scooped from the ocean just moments ago. The traditional preparation is uncomplicated, accenting the inherent beauty of the dish. My host explains that crayfish are simmered in water seasoned with salt, sugar and dill. I can taste the tangy essence of the dill in the succulent flesh. The crayfish are presented with a large shock of dill at the center of the platter. You use the small nail-file shaped knife to remove the flesh from the claws and tail. You can even scoop out a tender morsel from the shell called crayfish butter. The juicy morsels are piled on top of buttered toast sprinkled with chopped dill and then consumed. The more adventurous diners wash down the nautical delicacy with ice-cold vodka. Our friends on the terrace have been at it for some time, and their host is getting their attention with a cow bell and leading them in rousing renditions of Finnish drinking songs - all this against the back drop of sunset on the Helsinki skyline. The entire spectacle is a feast for the eyes, and the crayfish literally dance on the palate.

My host is a native of Helsinki, and shares much delightful conversation with me about the culture and history of the capital city. My entrée continues the theme of traditional Nordic fare. I am treated to Reindeer T-bone steak, dressed in a delicate béarnaise sauce and red wine reduction. The steak is thick, rich, tender and earthy with a wild and exotic finish.

The end of the summer is also berry season in Finland, and our feast is capped by bowls filled with fresh strawberries, juicy blueberries and tart red and white currants that have been soaked in summer sunshine. They are topped with a flourish of creamy vanilla ice cream and a perfect violet blossom.

It is a deeply satisfying meal, rich in the culture and heritage of the people of Finland and their abundant resources.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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