As a food writer, I do strike it lucky once in a while. One of the highlights of this year’s invitations was that from the Finnish Embassy to attend their ‘Fancy Finnish Food’ Dinner held at the home of the Finnish Honorary Consul Philip Palmgren. The aim of the event was to communicate to South Africans what Finnish cuisine and spirits are all about.
My friend Gary Peterson joined me for this exciting event, which was attended by 26 guests seated at one long table. We knew no one else, but I did know of Chef Dion Vengatass, a former Chef at the Mount Nelson Hotel.
We were warmly welcomed on arrival, meeting Masego Polo, who did the Covid procedure, and who invited me. We also met the Agricultural Head of the Embassy, not getting her name, as well as the Finnish Ambassador Mrs Anne Lammila, based in Pretoria, who flew down for the event. She represents the Southern African countries of Lesotho and Botswana as well. We were offered a glass of local sparkling wine from Steenberg.
We were shown a video about Finnish Food, and the key message it communicated was that Finnish food stands for authenticity, purity, safety, and is linked to the Midnight Sun. It is found by foraging in forests, mainly mushrooms and berries. Smoking fish and salmon is a Finnish food preparation method, which we were to taste later, the Finns proudly saying that their smoked salmon is better than that of the Norwegians. For Finns sharing food with others is important, having a good time together, and we experienced this ourselves. Finnish cuisine is a marriage between Swedish and Russian cuisine, using the best of both worlds. Dill is one of the most commonly used herbs.
We were informed about Finnish spirits, Kyrö Distillery’s Gin, Vodka, and Whisky made from Finnish rye by skillful distillers, used to make delicious cocktails at the event, which we could try. We were told that Finnish Gin is known as being the best for making G & Ts. I tried a wee drop of the Kyrö whisky neat, and then in a Boulavadier, an orange-dominant cocktail with rye whiskey, marmalade, and Campari, the latter dominating the taste. The botanicals were a lovely colourful touch on the cocktail table, including berries, orange slices and zest, and herbs. Cocktails were made by French Mixologist Chay Davis, whom I met some years ago when she had a cocktail bar in the HQ building.
There were two chefs present in the kitchen. Chef Jade Claassen is the Chef at the Finnish Embassy in Pretoria, and her task was to create the Harvest Table, including smoking the Salmon for it, and the Dessert. Chef Jade is from Pretoria, and flew down to Cape Town for the event with the Ambassador.
The Harvest Table (Alkurnoka) was set up outside, with trays of beautiful breads, including Nordic seed loaf, potato flatbread cooked in a pizza oven, cured salmon with lemon, salmon smoked on pinewood in an open fire, pickled dill cucumber, whipped Crème Fraîche infused with dill and fresh lemon zest, egg butter, and herb butter. For Gary and I this course was the best of all, one being invited to create one’s own starter sandwich, utilising the wonderful breads, adding a butter, the salmon, and topping with the Crème Fraîche and cucumber, absolutely delicious.
I went to chat with Chef Dion Vengatass, now running his own Violet catering service, and having worked with the Finnish Embassy previously, participating in a Cook-Off. He was responsible for the Starter and Main Course. He stated that a Finnish Food is light and delicate, including foraged mushrooms and wild herbs.
We loved the decoration of the long dinner table, with a Christmas touch and replicating the finds in a Finnish forest when foraging, with pine needles, mushrooms, and wood, small and long candles added. Each of us had a place setting, a personalised menu indicating where we were seated, the menu inviting us to ‘Hyvää ruokahalua!’, to enjoy our meal.
We were invited to sit down, received the water of our choice and a sommelier offering us a glass of Steenberg Semillon to pair with the vegetarian Demonstration Course (Näytösruoka). Steenberg wines were chosen as they are the closest vineyard to the home of the Finnish Honorary Consul. Chef Dion set up a table outside, close to where we were sitting, and he smoked the root vegetables for the pot au feu dish while explaining what he was doing: the celeriac was hay smoked, and then a bowl of mushroom noodles, onion purée, and elder pickled onions, with sorrel garnish and a spray of Finnish gin, was brought to the table, with a mushroom broth added at the table. It was a light introduction to the rest of the meal.
The main course was also prepared by Chef Dion, and was pan-roasted quail breast (Pääruoko), consisting of potato hash, confit quail leg, crispy bacon and black pudding, lightly picked turnip purée, and wild foraged herb salad. It was a heavily salted dish. This course was paired with Steenberg Nobbiolo.
Chef Jade prepared the Dessert (Iälkiruoka), describing it as a walk through the forest, where one would find wild berries, there being 52 varieties in Finland. It consisted of a tuile cone with a whipped berry semolina porridge filling, dusted with bilberry and lingonberry powder, and sprinkled with smoked nut and seed granola, an interesting combination of ingredients and a real Christmas dessert.
Honorary Philip Palmgren thanked the guests for attending, and shared that his Villa Nordic house was built in South Africa using sustainable materials of 20 Finnish suppliers, the emphasis being on creating winter warmth, windows and doors being double or triple glazed.
During the dinner it was decided that each of the 26 guests should introduce themselves, given that the attendees were a mix of Finns and Locals. I was the only writer present, with a number of local chefs, of whom I only knew Vusi Ndlovu, who is to to open a restaurant off Bree Street in March. One had to say one’s name, share what one does, and tell a fun fact of oneself, the last question leading to lots of laughter, attendees getting bolder and bolder in their stories. Sharing that I am the most controversial restaurant reviewer in our country brought the house down!
It was a fun end to the evening, further cocktails and tea and coffee offered in closing. We left with new acquaintances made, happy memories of a very special evening, a bottle of water for the drive home, and a little gift bag with sweets and a pen-shaped sanitiser branded with the Embassy of Finland. Kiitos to the Embassy for the invitation and the lovely evening.
Embassy of Finland, Pretoria. wwwfinlandabroad.fi/southafrica Instagram @finlandinsouthafrica Twitter @FinEmbPretoria #FancyFinnishFood #FoodfromFinland #YeboFinland.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.whaletalesblog.com www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein, My Cape Town Guide/Mein Kapstadt Guide Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein @MyCapeTownGuide