Who ate all the elk?

There's only one thing worse than British cuisine, according to Jacques Chirac, and that's food from Finland. His G8 colleague Silvio Berlusconi agrees. Just how bad can Finnish be? Ed Caesar finds out for himself...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Doesn't he know that 20 out of the top 100 restaurants in the world are right here, in Britain? That we boast the world's best restaurant? That London has been voted the world's greatest gastronomic city? Yes, in the austere post-war years we may have been something of a culinary desert, but now, look at us, we have Michelin stars; we have nitrogen-frozen souffles; we have Gordon Ramsay. But spare a thought, amid this brouhaha, for the other innocent bystander of Chirac's bile. If we are baulking at our rating as the second worse cuisine in the world, imagine how Finland is feeling.

What have Finland's cooks done to deserve such derision? Seppo Kimanen, director of the Finnish Institute in London, says: "I doubt Chirac's ever even tasted Finnish food. In my opinion, he's just imitating a comment that Silvio Berlusconi made a while back. Or, if he has tasted Finnish food, maybe he's not used to the pure taste, and doesn't understand it."

So, what is Finnish food like? "Finnish people are very close to nature and we respect the natural tastes of food," enthuses Kimanen. "I suppose we're very like the Japanese in that we like to serve our food with a minimal amount added to it. Elk meat, for instance, is extremely pure and natural. The animal is raised organically and its meat is superior to many other farm animals that Europeans eat.

"Maybe this kind of world is strange to Mr Chirac. But I would never eat a salmon in Paris. It would be six days old when it was on my plate. In Finland, we don't eat anything past one day old."

Finnish food sounds great, but laying your hands on any in London, Kimanen tells me, is nigh on impossible. Kimanen advises me to try Lundum's in South Kensington, a Danish establishment which serves dishes very similar to Finnish cuisine, and, as the only family-run Scandinavian restaurant in London, a meeting point for the capital's Finns. Unwilling to venture into the culinary unknown alone, I take Henry Harris, "a committed Francophile" and the English owner of Racine, in Knightsbridge, the recent winner of a prize for the best French restaurant in London.

When we arrive at Lundum's I am nervous about the impending gastronomic experience. What's going to be on the menu? Elk? Herring? It wasn't exactly what I had had in mind for lunch. Harris tries to put me at ease. "One of my sous-chefs is Swedish", says Harris. "It's thanks to him that I've learnt how to do all sorts of things. The Swedish way of doing herring is delicious. There's a lot of subtle spices, a lot of dill. It's very different to a herring you'd get in Notting Hill."

As the food starts to arrive, I realise my anxiety has been misplaced. Traditional Scandinavian "open sandwiches" come to the table, piled high with gravadlax and beef. It is beautifully arranged, and finished with the kind of delicate flourish you would find in any top London restaurant. Harris approves. "The way Chirac was talking, you'd have thought you'd get a better meal in a refugee camp in Darfur than in Finland, but look at this!"

The early good impression is redoubled when the eating starts. "God, that's delicious", says Harris tucking into a healthy portion of thinly cut beef. It is hard not to agree. The ingredients, the mâitre d' tells us, are extremely fresh. It shows. In between delicious mouthfuls, Harris, an expert on Anglo-French gastronomy, sounds off about the boneheadedness of Chirac's statement.

"You know, I love French food," he says. "But you have a far better chance of walking into a good restaurant in England than you do in France. I had two days with my family in Paris last month - it was hard work trying to find suitable restaurants for my whole family. Ten years ago in France, you could walk down a street and pick a restaurant at random, and have an excellent, reasonably-priced meal. You struggle to do that now."

He continues: "Comparing two capital cities, London and Paris, London is streets ahead. It's partly because we have lots of disparate immigrant communities coming into the capital, which is enriching the diversity and breadth of foreign cuisine.

"There are, also, so many more food writers now, who are writing about food from around the world, and coming back with these wonderful stories and recipes. And it's all coming back to London. Twenty years ago, there were one or two Thai restaurants in London. Now every pub sells Thai food. The days of soggy vegetable layer bake that has been sitting under the counter all day are gone."

The rest of our meal arrives, and we try two more open dishes, with a mini-turret of prawns and two pan-fried plaice. "Those prawns," coos Harris. "They're almost sweet." The plaice, too, is simple but delicious.

"This is refined, confident cooking with elegant presentation," Harris says. "It's restrained and flavourful. You used to find in old-fashioned French food that they often put too many flavours on the plate - it was just too much. So it's taken outside influences for French chefs to refine that tendency - restaurants such as Le Gavroche and Gordon Ramsay have really perfected that simplified French cuisine."

We're finished, and the nightmare lunch that Chirac had conjured in my mind had failed to materialise. But Harris isn't finished yet - he wants me, for a point of comparison, to try Chirac's favourite French dish, calves' brains, back at his restaurant. "You know the impudence of the man! To have a pop at Haggis, when he has already stated that his favourite meal is calves' brains. They're such similar entities, and it's all about how you serve them."

As it turns out, calves' brains are among Racine's signature dishes, and Harris' kitchen lovingly prepare one. It looks unremarkable, benign even, smothered beneath a covering of onions. The thought of tasting it, though, makes my stomach turn. "I am passionate about this food," says Harris. I can't let him down now, so I hold my nose and go for it. It tastes good, but maybe that's just the sauce? "Keep chewing, that's good," says Harris, and I start to feel better. "It's the texture that's so special," continues Harris. "The brains are really soft."

But how would passers-by react to such unusual fare? It is difficult to convince anyone to even stop and look at our collection of brain canapés, and the enthusiastic sell of "it's Jacques Chirac's favourite food," doesn't seem to cut any ice. If we'd had open prawn sandwiches or Scandinavian plaice, I sincerely doubt we'd have this much trouble. Finally, one game old lady, Ann Lamb, takes the plunge. "Chirac's favourite food", she says. "Oh that's very funny." She tries it, and smiles. "Mmmm, delicious. He is a bit of fool, though, isn't he?"

You would not find many dissenting voices in Finland, where Chirac's comments have been received spectacularly badly.

"Most people have been really annoyed about this old man in France, who has said that our food is bad," inveighs Johanna Mannila, a foreign correspondent for Finland's Helsingin Sanomat daily newspaper.

"What does he know? But people tell us at the newspaper that he's a little bit crazy anyway. This Italian prime minister, who started it all, is maybe even worse. Some people are talking about boycotting Italian wine or something like that. And Finns normally like Italians! It's just that Finland doesn't have a bad reputation for cooking. These politicians in Italy and France, they don't know what Finnish cuisine is - because if they did they'd know that it's just like lots of other Scandinavian food, and some Russian. Most people think our food is delicious."

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Elk balls in elk sauce
Meatballs in a fruity elk gravy
Blood sausage , served with lingonberry jam and mashed turnip (below)
Air-dried white fish
Malt porridge flavoured with spices


Toad in the hole
Sausages cooked in batter (below)
Mushy peas
Marrowfat peas with bicarbonate of soda
Sheep's stomach stuffed with entrails
Spotted dick in custard
Suet pudding with raisins


Frogs' legs
Fried amphibian appendages
Pate de foie gras
Extra-fattened goose liver with extra fat
Tête de veau
Calf's brain (Chirac's favourite, below)
Tripe sausage
Vieux Boulogne
The world's smelliest cheese