Before I embarked on my career break trip, I heard that Finland, my first stop of many, was a fairly gluten free friendly country. I only had three days to explore Helsinki, but it was enough to determine that everything I had heard was correct – eating gluten free in Helsinki was heaven!
Nearly every restaurant I passed had a menu posted out front. And nearly every one had menu items labeled with a G, L and/or V – for gluten free, lactose free or vegetarian. So not only was Helsinki friendly for those who are gluten intolerant but it seems they cater fairly well to other special dietary needs as well.
However, because I was in Helsinki on a fairly tight budget, most of my eating took place elsewhere – outside of the sit-down restaurants.
On my first day, I wandered through Market Square around lunchtime. Vendors sold a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables (great to stock up if you are staying some place with a refrigerator!). Another section of the market featured a row of tents offering roasted vegetables, potatoes and various forms of reindeer meat. I stopped at one and the man behind the counter suggested I try reindeer meatballs. Skeptical that they would be safe, I explained to him that I was allergic to gluten and asked what was in the meatballs. Before I even finished my sentence, he shook his head and said “no, they are made with breadcrumbs, you cannot eat them.” Given the number of times I have mentioned the word “gluten” back home and get a blank stare, I was relieved that he easily understood. I went on to order just the vegetables and potatoes, which were delicious and a pretty good bargain for just 5 Euros.
Later that day, I headed into a supermarket in the center of Helsinki to buy food to make breakfast the next few mornings in my hostel. I reached the cereal aisle first and right away a box of corn flakes with the word “gluteeniton” across the front jumped out at me. Gluten free corn flakes! Hoping to find something a little more substantial, though, I kept going and smiled when I reached the bread aisle and saw Schar’s gluten free bread on the shelf – and for cheaper than gluten free bread usually costs in the United States! I grabbed some “American style peanut butter” and a few apples as well and I was in good shape.
I have to confess, the thing I anticipated the most in Helsinki was going to McDonald’s. I heard they had gluten free hamburger buns and according to the Finnish McDonald’s website, their French fries do not contain any gluten (unlike American McDonald’s). I admit, I was a bit nervous waiting in line to order. Luckily, my nerves proved to be for nothing. When it was my turn, I asked politely if they had gluten free buns and the girl behind the counter gave me this look that sort of said “duh, of course we do.” I ordered a quarter pounder with cheese meal for 6.20 Euros and as she gave me my fries and drink, she told me they would bring out the burger as it would take a few minutes extra.
I had barely started enjoying my fries (and oh how I have missed McDonald’s fries!!), when another girl brought out my quarter pounder. The outside of the package had a “gluteeniton” sticker on it and the receipt fastened to it also indicated it was gluten free. However, when I opened the package, it didn’t look all that different from a regular quarter pounder. It was even covered with sesame seeds! But, as I picked it up, it was heavier than a typical burger would be and as soon as I took a bite, I knew it was different. Unlike a lot of gluten free breads, which can be crumbly, McDonald’s gluten free bun was heavy and chewy – almost too chewy. Not that I’m complaining – considering how long it had been since I had eaten a McDonald’s hamburger, I was thrilled.
My final gluten free encounter came as I was walking along Mannerheimvagen, a main street in central Helsinki. I passed a café with a sign outside that was entirely in Finnish but included the word “gluteeniton.” As I walked inside, the café clearly served mostly pastries so I was excited at the chance to try out a gluten free pastry. Sure enough, at the counter they had on display both a gluten free quiche and a gluten free raspberry Tosca cake. It was mid-afternoon so I went for the cake, covered in a raspberry sauce and topped with sliced almonds. It was a bit flaky, but delicious.
Overall, I could not have been more impressed with how gluten free friendly Helsinki was – I only wish the USA would follow suit!