Finnish foodies know all about the superlative Nordic produce grown, reared and foraged here. The squeaky clean elements combine to offer treats spanning sustainable game and fish through to the wild herbs, berries and mushrooms found in the area’s enchanting forests.
Locals here love food so much they fill the fleeting warmer months (May to August) with foodie festivals. Strawberry carnival anyone? If your tummy helps you decide where to travel, it’ll thank you for a trip to Kuopio.
It doesn’t get much more mindful than walking through a misty Savonian forest, looking for berries and mushrooms, getting on your knees to find a girthy chanterelle or porcini between the lichen.
Make sure to wear wellies if you’re after the cranberries, cloudberries and blueberries that bejewel the swampy ground around lakes. All work wonderfully as a garnish in a Finnish G&T; your spirit of choice? Locally made Gustav Metsä ‘Nordic Forest’ gin, naturally.
While most of Finland’s forests are privately owned, ‘everyman’s rights’ entitle the general public to roam, forage and fish with a line and rod in nature. But only experienced foragers will know where to go and which of nature’s bounty is edible, so make sure to head out with an experienced guide.
Foraging is at its best around Jyrkkä; once an ironworks, it's now a charming lakeside village, dotted with smart Scandi cabins for rent. Local hero Henri Jauhiainen and his two black labradors will look after you. He might even shoot a wild duck to pop on an open-fire grill that same evening.
You might also like: Search for your supper: where to go foraging in Europe
Traditional Finnish open-fire cooking
You’ll return from a day of forest frolicking with a healthy appetite; time to hole up in a traditional Finnish grill house for dinner. These low, octagonal cosies have windows all the way round for a panoramic vista, and a central open-fire grill where the Nordic magic happens.
Henri’s menu kicks off with wild, super-lean duck ‘ceviche’ (imagine ruby-red strips of filet-mignon), delicately cleaved from the bone and served on a waxed tranche of aspen.
Heavily salted duck breasts are then thrown on the sweet-smelling birch-wood grill. They’re accompanied by imposing porcini mushrooms; stewed, slicked and sweetened with onions, cream and thyme. A real ‘game’ changer – if you’ll pardon the pun.
Punctuating things with a cloudberry and whitecurrant liqueur will give you pause to contemplate the bucket-list meal you’ve just had. Still got space? Some traditional blueberry crumble pie might just fill it.
The local speciality
Kalakukko, or ‘fish rooster’, is Kuopio’s undisputed speciality. Nordic food of the gods, it’s a sort of rye pain pavé (square-shaped serving), hollowed then filled with vendace fish and pork, slathered in butter, then cooked low and slow.
It divides opinion, but make up your own mind at one of the many independent vendors permanently stationed in Kuopio’s Market Hall. Its art nouveau curves are easy to spot in middle of the city’s central market square. If you ask with a smile – and maybe buy a cup of fresh, sweet-meadow tea – one of the neighbouring cafes will give you a knife and plate to sit and enjoy it properly.
Fine Finnish food
On a hill in the middle of the yet another of Kuopio’s surrounding forests is Puijo Tower, one of the country’s best-known landmarks. Besides presenting the best views in town, there is now also a brand new restaurant at the top of the tower offering high-end Finnish dining.
Sit down to the likes of local poached pike perch with browned butter, sautéed carrots and whipped celeriac purée, and enjoy an ever-changing vista – the whole restaurant takes one hour to do a 360° rotation.
In the colder months, guests might see the Northern Lights; in mid-summer you’re guaranteed magic evenings of midnight sun.
Back on the ground, there’s Restaurant Urban where chef and owner Anssi Kantelinen – winner of Finland’s Top Chef Suomi TV competition, no less – serves up fancy, democratically priced dishes.
Twelve euro gets you an elegant plate of Finnish fare – slow-cooked red deer pasta, say – with a dessert, and the menu changes every day. In 2020, the restaurant will be open all summer for lunch for the first time.
Anssi’s favourite dish? Anything that involves the simple spud. “New potatoes come in June. I cook them with local dill, milk, butter and onions. People get very excited about that.”
Visit the smallest restaurant in the world
If you’re travelling as a couple, you could book into Kuappi, the world’s smallest restaurant. The wooden shack, found lakeside in the small town of Iisalmi, measures a teeny 8 sq metres and is only licensed for two people.
Keep things Finnish when choosing from the menu: crispy rye-breaded vendace, with pickled cucumber (the Finns love to pickle), marinated red onions and mashed potatoes.
Pre-booking – which must be done two days in advance – is obligatory and can done through neighbouring restaurant Olutmestari, open May to August.
Best events in Kuopio for the European Region of Gastronomy 2020
A series of themed foodie weeks will take place from June throughout the summer. The focus will change each week – wild berries and freshwater fish to name a few – and guests can expect expert-led workshops and secret dining experiences hosted by top chefs. A full programme will be released in January 2020. In the meantime, check out these events:
1. Satoa Goes Wild, 12-13 June: The first food festival of the summer season, focusing on – you guessed it – wild food. Look out for Nordic berries, mushrooms and herbs. Hosted in several locations around Kuopio town
2. Kuopio Dance Festival, 12-13 June: On the same weekend, Kuopio hosts Finland’s biggest dance festival. Eat to your heart’s content, then burn it off with a boogie in and outdoors around Kuopio town
3. Strawberry Carnival, 17-19 July: The nearby town of Suonenjoki is famous for its strawberries and hosts a carnival dedicated the red gems every year. Expect live music and pop-up restaurants
4. Cheese and Wine Festival, 1 August: Based in Lapinlahti, this Savonian institution gathers the best local cheeses and curates a complementary wine list to match them
5. SATOA Kuopio Food Festival, 28 July-19 August: Another of next summer's marquee events celebrates the traditional harvest season with street food and performances from musicians and artists around Kuopio Market Square
6. Anti Contemporary Art Festival, 8-13 September: The festival’s theme for 2020 will be ‘food & gastronomy’. Programme released in November. The Fish Market Weekend is on at the same time with workshops and picnics for all
7. Kuopio European Christmas Market, 2-20 December: One of the best-known in the country, it focuses on local produce with experts on hand to guide you through tastings. Open Wednesday to Sunday
Damien travelled to Kuopio with the support of Visit Finland. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.