07 October 2012

The 270th Annual Helsinki Baltic Herring Fair

"Is that this week?  There are so many happening in Helsinki, it is hard to keep up." - the woman who runs our hostel.  The Helsinki Baltic Herring Fair certainly IS happening this week, all week, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a happening that would get us as excited as a 270 year old annual festival dedicated to herring.  As Merlin recently waxed poetic about in Sweden, we both think herring is a small, simple dose of perfection.  Luckily, there were plenty of other people who were well aware of the Herring Fair.   And on Opening Day, the crowds at the Port of Helsinki were thick.  The excitement was palpable. 
The fishing boats had been arriving all weekend and Sunday morning, they officially opened up shop.  The Fair has been held at the beginning of October every year, without fail, since 1743.  That's 70 years before this even became capital of Finland.  In the beginning, Helsinki was just a port town that was easily reached by the nearby islands and the Åland archipelago.  So, it was the entry point for Baltic herring to the mainland and the annual fair would determine herring prices for that year throughout the country.  The participating vessels needed to show proof that all the fish on board had been caught and processed by that fishing boat and its owner.  It's a rule that still applies today.
Back in the day, the fierce competition would drive fishermen to unsavory behavior.  Things are more friendly today.  Still, I wondered, all day long, how people chose which back-of-the-boat they'd buy their herring and bread from.  The pickled, marinated and salted fish on hand were almost identical from place to place.  There were probably some people who are from the same town or island as the vendor.  Others may have been drawn by the decorations or the free samples.  But mostly, people matched up as you'd expect them to.  Nice older ladies went to nice older ladies.  Gruffer guys went to gruffer guys.  Families went to boats that had their own little tykes helping out. 
The Herring Fair used to mark the end of the fishing season.  Harvest Time.  It's that time of year that you begin to think about your cupboard and in the first two centuries of the Fair, it was especially important for folks on the mainland to stock up on protein reserves for the long winter ahead.  The cold Autumn water would bring in a wealth of herring and sprats, which needed to be caught, canned and sold before ice made any trips in or out of the harbor impossible.   Today, the herring at the fest isn't just seen as sustenance.  The offerings are creative, colorful (and, in some cases, perishable).  The can has mostly given way to the more visually enticing plastic tub, in which rowanberry, mustard, pepper, garlic, sliced carrot and beets are all locked away with the silver fish
Two stages were set up, a Mainstage and a Small Stage, and the Opening Day entertainment was decidedly fishy.  Finnish celebrity chefs Sami Garam & Janne Pekkala ran back and forth between the stages, handling the schedule of events mostly by themselves.  At a kitchen set up, they'd cook up herring recipes and banter with each other and the crowd.  Up on the Mainstage, they introduced Duo Timjan who sang "songs of the sea in the spirit of Helsinki."  On the small stage, they ran the Herring Filleting Competition, duking it out themselves and then bringing two laymen onstage to get their hands bloody.  (They say that the Baltic herring is particularly hard to fillet, with a spine smaller than its Atlantic cousin.)  The two men also moderated a panel of discerning tasters who took their Market Food Jury duties very seriously.   Other competitions included "The Most Beautiful Fishingboat Competition" and the, probably most important, "Herring Product Competition."  That judging was kept a little more private. 
Like any great fair or food festival, there was a plethora of eating options.  This wasn't the type of fair with easily handheld food or generic treats.  Nor was it one where the smell of sweet or fried (or sweet and fried) things eclipsed all other odors.  October and ocean weren't buried under waffle and fry.  Stalls filled the main and market squares and dozens of picnic tables allowed for unhurried savoring.  While herring wasn't the piece de resistance of the prepared foods scene at the fair, we managed to find some excellent Baltic herring soup, served with an already split and buttered piece of Åland bread.  It was just about as good as you can get on an October afternoon (as was the non-alcoholic glogg and heart-shaped spice cookie we followed it up with).
There was a hot dog van tucked away and a few strips of bacon on one of the giant skillets, but it was essentially meat-free.  See? Not your typical fair to say the least.  The best part was the Finnish-ness of it all.  The Helsinki Baltic Herring Fair has grown from its roots in some modern directions, but none that feel disingenuous or that make this fair indistinguishable for others.  Sure, there was a crepe griddle and a waffle press at work, but they were specks in a sea of Finnish pastries like karjalanpiirakat.  These huge paella pans fried up heaping portions of crispy little muikko, (a smelt sized whitefish specific to the Baltic).  Instead of french fries, fingerling potatoes and veggies were fried up alongside in bulk.   There was smoked salmon on rye, fried salmon with crumbled blue cheese, salmon soup, salmon, salmon, salmon. 
The salmon darn near stole the show with theatrics like this drool-inducing smoker/flame roaster.  A red-faced husband and wife duo kept this baby going all afternoon long.  She threw more wood on the fire.  He fetched a slab when it was done  and carved at it or sold it whole.  Where there weren't flames and smoke, there was grease and sizzle.  Then, there were the herb crusted logs of salami, that were actually salmon and the golden brown, cinnamon bun spirals that were - you guessed it, rolls of salmon.  Herring was the star, but salmon was its shape-shifting side kick.  It was the beef of this particular outdoor get together, the marbled lunch meat, greasy steaks,  and flame broiled crowd favorite.
The Helsinki Baltic Herring Fest was refreshingly free of schlock.  One guy sold balloons, but otherwise, the non-food items for purchase were steeped in 270 year tradition.  A bulk of the fishermen at the fair have always come in from the Åland Islands.  The vessels  would arrive with fish, still alive and kept so by men who would stay up through the night rocking the boat back and forth to allow water to slosh in and keep the fish from dying.  On board would also be black Åland bread and knitwear made from island sheep wool.  Today, round loaves of Åland black bread are as plentiful as the herring and hand-knit socks hang from booms.  We ran into the Albanus, which we'd seen filled with apples back on the archipelago.  Here, the crates were unloaded and the fruit sold, alongside Åland applejuice.  It was like seeing an old friend again.  Perhaps the real reason the people of Helsinki have held onto their Herring Fest for so long is that it's a yearly meeting between mainlanders and islanders.  It is the time-honored tradition of welcoming fellow Finns in from days, lives out on the sea.
Just a little video compilation of Opening Day at the 270th Annual Helsinki Baltic Herring Fest.  Some groovy tunes, beautiful boats, spattering salmon oil, herring filleting competition footage, a panel of tasting jurors and people stuffing their faces with delicious food.  Enjoy.

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