As Baltic-bound ferries chug through Helsinki’s South Harbour, the doors of the city’s portside food market open as they have most days since 1889. Plump gulls circle overheard eyeing scraps of food as traders unload vans and lug boxes of fish, bread and coffee beans from the dockside towards the filigree-framed doors of the low-slung market hall.
The Vanha Kauppahalli building’s long history has mirrored Finland’s own. Through Russian rule, war, independence and upheaval – scarcity and prosperity – the traders here have furnished Finnish tables with produce for more than 120 years. In February 2013, however, the doors of the old hall closed as the city reinstated the then shabby shell to its former glory. A €15m, year-and-a-half revamp later and the neo-renaissance pile in Helsinki’s administrative heart is once more the focal point of a community – as well as becoming an embassy for Finland’s increasingly exciting culinary offerings.
Inside, intricate pinewood stalls house 24 independent businesses. Many of the traders have occupied pitches here for decades but, because of the hiatus prompted by renovations to the building, others have left for good. This has made room for new entrepreneurs to fill their spaces and create competition as well as a lively atmosphere.
Anna Härö is a poster girl for the new generation of traders. Having worked in a nearby stall for six years, the 26-year-old took a loan from her father to secure a vacant shop in time for the market’s reopening this June.
“Opening up a store here is a huge opportunity,” Härö tells monocle over the counter of Annan Villiliha, her butcher’s shop. “When I found out, there were 25 companies competing for the free spot and it was less than a month before it was due to open. But I knew it was now or never.” As she talks, a steady stream of locals queue for seasonal game, eyeing tender cuts of moose or cold-smoked reindeer as well as the free-range poultry, beef and tender lamb on show.
The market’s narrow walkways meet in a high-ceilinged central atrium, which opens to reveal rafters, a corrugated roof and large windows that frame the passing ferries outside. The Story coffee shop opened here in June. Through a hatch behind its service counter, busy chefs in smart aprons can be seen adding the finishing touches to a procession of dishes that range from traditional kermainen lohikeitto (creamy salmon soup) to tasty clams destined for tables nearby.
Co-founded by restaurateur Anders Westerholm, the owner of a nearby wine bar and a local sushi spot, the space adds an airy modern touch to the otherwise traditional interiors. Here friends clink wine glasses at sturdy wooden tables beneath up-cycled katiska (fish trap) lampshades and polished pendant lamps.
“New stall holders such as Story are bringing a younger generation of customers to the hall,” says Timo Taulavuori, the managing director of the city’s wholesale food market department. “Before the renovation the market was a bit tired.” For many visitors, the market is the first taste of the Nordic nation’s storied, but not always savoured, cuisine. A few hundred metres from its door is the jetty, where holidaymakers come ashore in search of dishes fabled for their unusualness; bear pâté and smoked herring are demanded in accents from across the globe.
Although rustic delicacies can be found here, the market presents an altogether more sophisticated take on Finnish food today. Near its northern entrance is Merja Valo, a fruit-and-vegetable shop whose eponymous owner has been here since 2009. Valo rises at 03.00 each morning to scour the wholesale market for plump aubergines, colourful radishes and fragrant dill to pile high in rows beside her cloudberry and fig preserves and Finnish honey. “I love the business and I love working here,” she says. Although Valo is not the only grocer under the market’s roof, she is up first to catch the early trade and not a customer passes without catching her eye and a singsong greeting of “Moi ”.
Fishmonger and longtime stall holder E Eriksson has added a small seven-seat bistro and raw bar to its existing pitch. Under the long glass-fronted fish counter are the mouthwatering reasons for the fifth-generation company’s longevity. Delectable tranches of salt-and-sugar-cured gravlax sit next to smoked herring and peppercorn-strewn whitefish. On Thursdays, oysters arrive from France, along with shrimp from Sweden and condiments that range from strong Finnish etikka (vinegar) to flaked Swedish rock salt flavoured with chilli, lemon or wild garlic.
A quick survey of the remaining stalls reveals the market’s variety. Banh mi buns and spicy Vietnamese soups compete with colourful smoothies for passing trade. Karelian pastries (made with potato or brown rice) cool at Hongiston Leipomo bakery, as the smell of fresh rye bread tempts passing tourists.
Although the new and resettled stallholders are taking the headlines, the facelift wouldn’t have been possible without funds from city administrators. And Vanha Kauppahalli’s rebirth isn’t an isolated project: the painstaking renovation of the city’s markets will continue with Hakaniemen Halli.
“They are the heart of the city. We have sellers who have kept their stalls for generations,” says Ritva Viljanen, Helsinki’s deputy mayor, from the city’s Town Hall opposite the market. “It’s important to keep them while encouraging new ones.” It sounds straightforward enough but it’s the careful touch with which the city is honouring its culinary past that is whetting our appetite for its future.