A coffee lover’s tour of Helsinki

Johan & Nyström

The search for coffee in Helsinki starts with a fact: the average Finn drinks 5-6 cups of coffee per day. Unfortunately, you quickly realise that the majority of these cups aren’t crazy good as the number for speciality cafés in the capital barely reaches Copenhagen and Stockholm’s quality café overload. I went to Helsinki for a few days leading up to midsummer when the weather was ‘as cold as Christmas’, or so the greeter who showed my mother and I around the city said the Helsingin Sanomat’s headline read. Frequent coffee breaks, kahvitauko, were the perfect excuse to escape the highly changeable, and constantly chilly, weather.

Good Life Coffee

Our coffee tour began at Good Life Coffee in Kallio, Helsinki’s Greenpoint. Our greeter helped us find our way along two trams, winding paths and hills. The space isn’t huge, but has a minimal atmosphere that’s immediately welcoming. You can cuddle up on the long corner bench and place your coffee on a low white table while gazing out the huge window. If you prefer a tall table, there are two on the right side. The one in front seats about four people, the one behind, approximately three. When the sun is shining, you can enjoy one of the tables out front. We ordered a filter coffee, an espresso macchiato — be specific, they also serve latte macchiato — and a croissant. The filter coffee was what you want filter coffee to be like: bright and lemony but not astringent. After stomping around Helsinki, the macchiato’s creamy texture and sweet, milk chocolate flavours was more satisfying than it otherwise would have been. The croissant was buttery, though a touch bready and lacking layers, paired well with the coffee. Good Life Coffee might not be in the centre of Helsinki, but it’s only a short walk from the central train station and art museum — not to mention next door to Hakaniemen Kauappahalli, the modern market hall — making it the perfect excuse to see the city’s residential side.

Kaffa Roastery

Across Helsinki, in a different neighbourhood with a different ambiance, you’ll find Kaffa Roastery, located next a housewares shop. The space, which just-not a basement, is small, cosy. Order your coffee at the till and hop up on a white plastic folding chair situated in front of a bank of windows. Don’t worry, it’s not dark. The windows are just high enough to let light filter in. I chose the house coffee, which was brewed on aeropress. As the barista brought me my coffee a few minutes later, she told me about their current blend, made from a mix of Guatemalan and Indonesian beans. The first sip tasted like red berries with a balanced, sweet acidity like you find when eating cherries or currants. While the flavour was quite intense at first, it gently melted away, leaving a whisper of coffee and no heavy, syrupy aftertaste. I gleefully sipped away at the entire cup while reading My Struggle: Book One with no regard to the fact that it was quickly approaching six pm. That was fine because, around midsummer in Finland, the sky gives few hints that the evening is about to arrive.

Fratello Torrefazione

But arrive it did, as it always must. Not that my body realised that and so, when morning arrived, I was exhausted having barely slept. After dragging myself out of bed and shoving some rye bread topped with kermajuusto cheese into my mouth for what I felt amounted to a Finnish breakfast, I ran to Fratello Torrefazione on Yliopistonkatu 6. Unlike other cafes in the city that serve up light, Nordic-style brews, Fratello Torrefazione is heavily influenced by dark, Italian bars and that’s just describes the décor. The cappuccino I had there was notably darker roasted than the other coffees I had in the city. It was rich and chocolaty with that slightly dull, toasted flavour you can find at any number of Italian cafes across the world. Fortunately though, it did the trick and fuelled me for a stop around Seurasaari Ulkomuseo, Helsinki’s open-air museum that’s hidden in the woods just a short bus ride away from the center.

Johan & Nyström

As everyone knows who drinks coffee, caffeine’s energizing effects soon wear off, especially after climbing around old buildings. After returning from Seurasaari and having lunch at Vanha Kauppahalli, the recently refurbished old market, I walked through the harbour and crossed a bridge to Johan & Nyström. Although I’d previously visited the Swedish roaster’s flagship café in Stockholm, I wanted to visit their Helsinki café because it’s frequently cited in article discussing the capital’s best coffee spots. Located on a pier, the room is large with low lighting and cave-like in the best way possible. There’s a bookshelf dividing the bar from some seats, which displays different coffee-related merchandise such as aeropress, logo-ed mugs and bags Johan & Nyström beans. The seating is varied, with some proper chairs and tables on one side and sofas and chairs elsewhere. What the seating lacked in coherence, the coffee made up for. My macchiato was rich with a blackberry flavor that held the depth of a good, slightly bitter chocolate. It sustained me throughout the afternoon, but fortunately not into the evening. When my five am wake-up call came, early enough to make a nine am flight to Stockholm, I was relatively well-rested.

Although Helsinki might have a ways to go to catch up with the complete saturation of brilliant coffee spots that you find in Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen, the city has an interesting selection of cafes for the coffee-enthusiast. And those were just the ones I visited. Had I planned my trip exclusively around coffee, I would have visited Freese Coffee, which, until recently, was only open at the weekend. If I had more time, I would have visited Kahvila Sävy on Aleksis Kiven Katu, a good tram ride outside of center. Add in some pulla and you’ve got the makings for an unforgettable stay in Helsinki.

 

 

Drinking Coffee in Bergen

Apple cake and cappuccino

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the coffee lover’s Grand Norwegian Tour finishes at Oslo. The journey doesn’t have an obvious next leg. If you had to think of one, you wouldn’t choose Bergen, with its twisting lanes, large cruise ships and hilly landscape. But, should you find yourself in Bergen, you’ll discover there’s a surprising amount of charming cafes to sample in this small coastal city.

Det Lille Kaffekompaniet

Googling ‘best coffee in Bergen’ sends you down a one-way street to Det Lille Kaffekompaniet. One visit and you’ll understand why. Although the café is steps away from the crowded funicular up Mt. Fløibanen, the immediate surrounding area transforms from crowded tourist confusion into coffee oasis. White clapboard houses line the street, flowers bloom spontaneously between cobblestones and some are artfully arranged in window boxes. With the beautiful scenery, and neighboring chaos, it’s easy to walk distractedly past Det Lille Kaffekompaniet. But when you do spot it, you’ll find it impossible to turn away. Not because the interior is attractive; it isn’t. There’s a smattering of tables and chairs with a bar area that is suffocating-ly dark for summer, but acceptable for winter. If it’s a nice day, drink your coffee outside where there are some tables nicely arranged around the door. Fortunately, the two times I stopped by were lovely and I was able to enjoy my cortado and filter coffee outside. The coffee is deeply flavoured but not over powering with a nicely mellow finish that complements the laid back environment. But the stellar slice of apple cake, and cinnamon roll, could have influenced my opinion.

Cortado and cappucino

After getting a taste of less-touristy Bergen, you’ll likely want more. Make your way down a hill to Kaffemisjonen on Korskirkeallmenning. The café is big and surprisingly cosy given its high ceilings, concrete floors and metal tables. When I went on a sunny Wednesday morning in late June, the space was nearly empty except for a few people reading the newspaper and working on computers. My cortado was a touch milkier than I’d prefer and the taste verged on milk chocolate drowned in milk. The cappuccino was a similar milky disappointment. If I went back, I’d choose either a filter coffee or an espresso. They serve plenty of different roasters, enough to make you become a regular without ever having a go-to coffee. But if you’re pressed for time, Kaffemisjonen might the place to miss.

Cortado

Because you won’t want to miss Bastant and nearby Bryggen, the UNESCO world heritage site and reconstruction of medieval Hanseatic trading village which draws cruise ships from all over the world to Bergen. You can wander through alleys, admire the restoration work and gawk at wooden beams all while dithering on whether or not to buy a commemorative reindeer sweater. When you grow weary, wind your way to the middle alley and look for Bastant. Bastant is a proper café, the kind you’d be happy to find in any neighbourhood in any city, not to mention a reconstructed medieval city in Norway. Inside is a dimly lit sanctuary. There’s a bar immediately to the left of the entrance with ample seating scattered through out the café. They serve meals and pastries as well as a hot drinks menu that includes things like hot chocolate and chai in addition to coffee. If you’re eager to immerse yourself in Bryggen’s unique atmosphere, nab one of the tables outside. Even if you want to avoid the crowds with cameras, Bastant’s coffee merits a stop. My cortado — a shot of espresso with regular milk poured in according to my preference— was my favorite of the coffees I had in Bergen. It was rich with hints of blueberry and blackberry that were reminiscent of wine. Had I more than a day in Bergen, I would have returned to try a pour over with a cookie, regardless of whether I could sit outside.

Bastant

Drinking coffee and walking around Bergen reminded me of Bristol and not just because of the hills. The coffee scene is small, but has the kind of cafés at which you’d be happy to be a regular. I’d love to enjoy the streets around Det Lille Kaffekompaniet a few more times. If I went back to Kaffemisjonen, I’d know what to order. When I needed my dose of history, I’d eagerly sip a cortado and nibble on a cookie at Bastant. Bergen might not have Oslo’s reputation for high-profile coffee, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great cups hiding behind a few select corners.

Beyond Tim Wendelboe: Drinking Coffee in Oslo

Tim Wendelboe

Why go to Oslo? The coffee. While Norwegians have historically consumed vast quantities of the brew (nowadays the country drinks approximately 1.13 cups daily per capita), Norwegian coffee culture has only recently received international attention. Much of this attention is thanks to Tim Wendelboe. After being crowned World Barista champion in 2004 and World Tasting Champion in 2005, Wendelboe became known as Oslo’s prime coffee guy. His café in trendy Grünerløkka opened in 2007 to educate people about coffee and serve ethically sourced, carefully crafted drinks. It’s done well. The roastery won the Nordic Roaster Championship for three years in a row, from 2008 to 2010.

Coffee at Time Wendelboe

Fortunately, Oslo’s coffee scene doesn’t stop at Wendelboe. Cafes serving lightly roasted and expertly brewed coffee dot the city. From the commercial centre to residential neighbourhoods, a good cup is never far away in Oslo. And it’s not just because of the city’s small size. There are plenty of good cafés any city would be lucky to have. That’s why I aimed to explore the city’s coffee culture as best I could during my day-and-a-half stay. The caffeine sped up the adventure.

Breakfast at Kaffebrenneriet

My first stop in Oslo was Tim Wendelboe. The café was celebrating their seventh anniversary and all the drinks were a celebratory 1 NOK. Customers streamed in, ordering drinks to go or finding a spot to sit and stay. Some chose coffees brewed on aeropress while others sipped on espresso-based drinks or a special shakerato. The menu, of which there is a single copy by the till, is written in both English and Norwegian. I ordered a cup of the Dumerso (from Ethiopia) and the Finca Tamana (the Colombian coffee which is arguably Wendelboe’s most well known). The flavour and presentation beg you to treat the experience with the ceremony of a tea service as opposed to the mindless gulp of a routine refuelling. The coffee is served in a metal pitcher on a wooden platter with some water on the side. Gently pour a little in the white cup, notice its translucent, reddish hue and drink the delicately pungent brew. I enjoyed the almost mouth-puckering lemon tang of Finca Tamana, but the aromatic fruit and floral notes of the Dumerso kept me going back for one more sip.

Coffee and croissant at Fuglen

The same could be said for Oslo’s coffee culture: after one sip, you crave another. Avoid Kaffebrenneriet, Norway’s answer to Starbucks, and you’ll find Oslo’s coffee culture lives up to its reputation for sophisticated spaces and exotic light roasts. Should Kaffebrenneriet tempt you, walk a few blocks away and you’ll discover another coffee shop. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Fuglen, which has been in business since 1963. This cosy café is a stone’s throw away from the Nasjonalgalleriet and a perfect stop if you’re wearied from fighting the crowds in front of The Scream. Fuglen sources their beans from the city’s well-known roasteries, including: Supreme Roastworks, Kaffa, Solberg & Hansen and Tim Wendelboe. I ordered a Hunkute brewed on aeropress, which was silky and light with delightful cherry tones. Then it was time for another.

Cortado

To work the caffeine out of my system, I sped to Mocca in the lush Frogner district (its sister café, Java in St. Hanshaugen, is also supposed to be good, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit). Whereas Fuglen has a snug, winter atmosphere, Mocca radiates Scandinavian summer light. Large windows, tall ceilings and a simple bar combine for an effortless space. My cortado — a shot of espresso with a splash of un-steamed milk poured— was simple harmony with rich and thick espresso and cold, creamy milk. Unlike some espressos that coat your mouth in chocolate and tobacco, the shot at Mocca was velvety and surprising; on one sip it tasted like berries, the next teased you with almond notes.

Drinking coffee in Oslo is exciting because it’s a highly anticipated that consistently thwarts and surmounts your expectations. Anticipation and normalcy merge in a way you didn’t expect, but are glad to have discovered. One coffee is floral and the next hits you with citrus. You have a milky and dull cortado at Kaffebrenneriet that rivals what you find at Starbucks for boredom. Throughout all the taste and space experiences, you get the sense that Oslo dwellers care about their coffee. Differences emerge, surely everyone doesn’t worship at the altar of Wendelboe, but it’s welcoming cafés, thoughtful food and attention to customer service that make drinking coffee in Oslo a worthy reason to plan a trip.

Addresses mentioned:

Tim Wendelboe, Grünersgate 1, Weekdays from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm, Weekends from 11:00 am – 5:00 pm

Fuglen, Universitetsgaten 2, Weekdays from 7:30 am – 7:00 pm, Weekends from 10 am – 7/6:00 pm

Mocca, Niels Jules Gate 70, Weekdays from 7:30 am – 5:00 pm, Weekends from 9/10:00 am – 5:00 pm

Kaffebrenneriet, locations throughout the city, hours vary by location

On dining with the tourist tattoo

Könstan Mölja

Travel guides and all-in-one holiday packages promote ‘authentic’ experiences because, despite society’s wanderlust, the tourist is a shameful figure. You’re reduced from moving through your city with unconscious aplomb to navigating the unknown with an invisible ‘traveller’ tattoo. This mark changes how you interact with your surroundings. The restaurant transforms from a relaxing indulgence to a stage on which there’s a play for which you don’t have the script.  That’s how I felt as I approached my first Finnish meal: I didn’t know where the director was and I missed rehearsal.

Könstan Mölja is a slightly tourist-ed (though this word is relative in Helsinki) restaurant that serves a buffet of Finnish delicacies for 18 euro. There’s also a fixed price menu, though the last copies were likely thrown out long ago. Entering the restaurant is similar to arriving in Helsinki. Exotic tokens such as language, people and architecture seem to possess easily interpreted meanings. Könstan Mölja’s dark wooden interior could evoke the nautical themed eateries of childhood summers. Yet, the details — people, light and food — make the traveller realise that Finland gives these tokens new significance.

Buffet

Such as Finnish cuisine, which combines familiar ingredients in new preparations, changing your interpretation of them. Salmon ceases to be an elegant dinner and becomes stick-to-your-ribs home cooking. Although karelian pasty, a savoury egg and butter pie with rye crust, may remind you of quiche, Finland’s version is less composed than its French counterpart. These small pies, with their carefully fluted edges, fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. A chewy combination of rice, butter and eggs is piled in the centre and tastes deliciously exotic but blandly sweet. You’ll find it underneath a napkin in a dark wicker basket on a shelf above the warm food, as you might the warm rolls at a theme restaurant in Pennsylvania.

Like an American buffet, Könstan Mölja invites you to try more, so long as you can shift your understanding of ‘more’. The herring is mouth puckering-ly acidic with a can’t-stop sweetness. Salmon is served whole with a pick to flake off large chunks of the surprisingly creamy fish. Mounds of reindeer and beef stew hide inside cafeteria-style steel containers. But go quickly, before the man sitting next to you takes all the reindeer that’s left and tops it with a few spoonfuls of lingonberry jam. If this happens, you can fill your plate with a spoonful of Finnish tortelli, a hunk of roast chicken and a mound of mashed or boiled potatoes. Don’t look for brown gravy in a little pitcher. It’s mushroom gravy and you’ll find it in the container next to the reindeer.

As you begin to eat, forget the worries about ‘authenticity’ that threatened to stop you from dining here. ‘Authentic’ is the misguided keyword of guidebooks, tourist manuals and freebie city maps. Finns likely don’t eat reindeer in July. They probably never chase two karelian pasties with a pile of red cabbage. As a tourist, it’s difficult to verify whether your activities align with local habits. Rather than searching for that imaginary ‘real’, we should seek the experiences we want. It’s ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ if it exists in front of you and you choose to consume it. Whether or not you enjoy it comes from internal, not external factors.

Do you take the airplane meal?

Breakfast at Kaffebrenneriet The airplane meal service is an unexpected return to school days. Business class passengers are private school kids, receiving chef-approved meals with a heated dessert; eager economy travellers are lucky students from good public schools, getting first pick off a limited menu; back row passengers are students from poorly performing schools, left with other’s rejected dishes. We pretend to ignore this stratification. After all, we’re adults. We’ve bought out seats and chosen our fate in a way the schoolchild eating industrial mash for lunch can only dream about. Yet, whereas in school we were limited to an institutional tray, we forget a plastic airplane meal as it slips into the background of a trip. In the tight economy cabin the meal service occurs according to the deliberately vague mini-menu. If ‘tender chicken in a creamy mustard sauce’ isn’t available, nod politely as a flight attendant assures you that ‘beef chilli con carne’ makes an exceptional substitute. Don’t point out that the menu confusingly bills the former as ‘grilled chicken’ and that including ‘beef chilli’ in the name of the latter makes ‘con carne’ redundant. The juxtaposition of name and description parallels Alain de Botton’s description of airplane food in A Week at the Airport: ‘aeroplane food stands at a point of maximum tension between the man-made and the natural, the technological and the organic.’ This tension arises not only in how the food is processed, but also in how the cabin space and airline influence our interpretation of the meal. ‘Beef chilli con carne’ needs repetition to synthetically reinforce the meat’s taste, which is only a vague notion in the dish itself. We shouldn’t question the disparity between ‘grilled chicken’ with ‘creamy mustard sauce’ because the gap manifests our performance of an ordinary act, eating, in an extraordinary location, thirty seven thousand feet above sea level. Yet the plane, with its collapsible trays and electronic monitors, constructs an environment that ignores the remarkable as it attempts to reproduce the normal. This space, like the school cafeteria, isn’t for discovery but for refuelling as we move from one curiosity to another. Near Seurasaari During my last flight I ate ‘fusilli pasta,’ which was described as: ‘spiral shaped pasta in a tasty woodland mushroom sauce. With Italian shaved cheese.’ I decided this would be tastier than chicken with ‘mashed potatoes, leeks and grilled vegetables.’ Pleasingly ‘tasty woodland sauce’ was really ‘macaroni and cheese,’ which the menu could have described as: ‘pasta baked in a creamy Italian cheese emulsion. Studded with mushrooms and aromatic herbs.’ Just like the pasta meals served in school, the noodles melted on your tongue; the vegetables hinted at wholesomeness; and the cheese was dried out on one side. It wasn’t a ‘tasty’ meal, but rather the idea of one. The unexpected bonuses truly make me feel as if I’ve entered an airborne cafeteria. I’m embarrassed like a school kid by the footnote besides ‘pudding’ that informs me that the term means ‘British for dessert’ and not ‘pot of custard’ as my untrained mind erroneously assumes. After learning my cultural translations, I deserve a reward. Or rather, I deserve ‘pure indulgence’ and to ‘let [myself] go.’ Like earning a gold star, the bequeathing of this good thing follows strict rules: you’ll enjoy, you’ll take what’s give to you, refuse or ask for anything else and you’ll get a punishing stare. When in a building full of adolescents, or on a claustrophobic plane, it’s a wise idea to grin and bear it rather than stand out. Croissant from Papadeli Then there are times when receiving such stares feels like the only option. There are times when the thought of a banana pudding over the north Atlantic makes your stomach turn. The eyebrows of your seatmates raise and, for a moment, the plane has eyes just for you. Because even when we want to participate in the communal ‘yum, yum’ of afternoon tea (‘that great British tradition’) sometimes our personal sanity is more important. Other passengers open that cardboard box like a horde of teens foraging for their afternoon snack, but participating in their community becomes irrelevant as the plane descends slowly and the school day winds down. After your brief vacation from the real world, everything takes on new meaning. All you have to do is remember your industrial meal to realise how good you have it on the ground.

The Paradox of the Hostel Breakfast Buffet

Oslo

In the structuralist’s world ‘Oslo’ is the fixed signifier of ‘expensive.’ Or rather, dining in Oslo makes the budget traveller picture a thick pile of kroner flying out the window. Guidebooks and travel blogs agree: Oslo is nice, but be prepared to eat fast food or starve. The city’s central youth hostel understands the money-conscious traveller’s predicament. To satisfy them the hostel offers a free breakfast buffet. That is, if your idea of a bountiful morning meal is a plate flooded with canned pickled herring, cucumber slices and processed cheese.

If hotel breakfasts are expanses of unbridled abundance, hostel breakfasts show corresponding restraint. Reviews of hotels and hostels can easily be divided into those which praise the breakfast buffet, ‘I need 3 pages to compliment the breakfast buffet .… Waffles, donuts, cereal, toast, bagels, fruit, sausage patties … ’ or those that lament it, ‘the offerings were the same everyday even though it states on the web site that the options change.’ In these reviews, abundance inspires good feelings and lack of variety causes disappointment. Since plenty breeds positivity, hostels provide a similar quantity as hotels at a lower quality. Hotel breakfasts don’t occupy space in our minds because they offer good food, but because they offer choice. Choice transposes marks the food, causing the guest to taste it as superior. As Julian Baggini points out, ‘all-you-can-eat plugs into the primitive hunter-gatherer urge to stock up on calories while we can for tomorrow we might starve’ (Baggini, 161). We’re not eating at the breakfast buffet to taste carefully crafted food, but rather to savor primal abundance. Thus, hostels can give you plenty of food that mirrors what you might normally eat at breakfast. After all, abundance in Oslo is priced beyond the hosteller’s reach.

Oslo

The breakfast buffet is a choose-your-own-adventure game: savoury or sweet? Oslo central suggests savoury. Plates of sliced cucumber, tomato and peppers sit under a cooler next to thick pieces of processed meats and cheese. An overflowing bowl of pickled herring and an unidentified meaty terrine rest on the cooler’s side. For those who want a cooked breakfast, there’s a boiler for eggs and a toaster for an oversized loaf of crumbly bread. Two types of crisp breads mark the transition from savoury to sweet (the crisp bread display seems plentiful until you buy lunch at the supermarket and realise that even the smallest grocery store stocks at least five varieties). There are several jams and a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread filled to the brim as if some people thought to take jam, only to dump it back in jar. The same goes for the faux-nutella, though the few trails of chocolate-stickiness on the counter show that someone ate a sweet meal this morning. If none of this excites you, you could choose a bowl of imitation corn flakes, faux-cocoa pops or banana stuffed muesli topped with UHT milk. It may take a few moments to wrap your head around the foods on offer, but when you do, you’ll likely be left wondering: is this a bountiful breakfast buffet?

The sense of scarcity is the hangover after lavish offerings from previous hotels. Gone are the typical hotel indulgences of pastries and bacon causing Oslo’s version of plenty to appear as nothing. Your motivation at previous breakfasts was different from your motivation in overpriced Oslo. In Italy, hostellers and hotel dwellers opt for breakfast to avoid the perpetually sugar coated options at the local cafe. In English hotels, they have the luxury of a cooked breakfast. In America, the hotel breakfast helps them avoid the sausage-egg-pancake diner breakfast. The decision to capitalise upon Oslo’ expensive reputation presents the budget traveller as a figure destined for suffering.

Chicken sandwich

Rather than help them, Oslo’s youth hostel exploits budget travellers and their desire to save a few kroner. From the plate of pizza at reception that’s discreetly advertised for 5 euro to the ban on eating outside the kitchen the hostel insists that Oslo prohibits a frugal traveller from exploring the city through food. The fact that money-conscious tourists continue to arrive and spend indicates that Oslo’s signification oscillates between ‘expensive’ and ‘experience.’ A cheap hostel breakfast is acceptable both because it exploits the traveller’s lack of kroner and because it says: ‘let me give you an experience that you’ll keep talking about.’ It’s true. The bleak pickled herring, inedible muesli and depressing faux-tella made the worst meal I ate in Scandinavia, while Oslo was my favorite city. Yet maybe we ought to be thanking Oslo and their perplexing hostel breakfast. As Tom Haines comments while describing the rise of America’s one-size-fits-all hotel breakfasts, ‘… as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.’ Looking at a breakfast buffet that challenges our expectations forces us to encounter and become comfortable with plurality and new meanings. Oslo doesn’t exist in a structuralist world, but rather one in which it can mean several things at once.

Max Burger, Sweden and Midsummer Dining

Dinner at Max Burger

If the rules are suspended when travelling, they disappear when travelling during a foreign holiday. Although I knew the Swedes celebrated Midsummer primarily at their country homes, I didn’t anticipate their exodus from Stockholm. Without any residents, every store — from the Coop supermarket on Odenplan to the H&M on Drottninggatan — closes for the holiday. The remaining residents and visitors queue up at Skansen to celebrate in a simulated rural environment.

My mother and I didn’t join the others at Skansen and we didn’t join them at the only open restaurant on Birger Jarlsgatan. We slummed at Max Burger, Sweden’s answer fast food of choice since 1968, and, for 138 SEK (about $20), shared two sparkling waters in soda cans; a grilled chicken burger of dubious origin; a fish burger crusted in rice krispies; french fries that resembled potato stix; and a side salad with a single cherry tomato. Included in the price was also a table bolted to the floor, a solid plastic booth and a window with a scenic view over a grey, empty Stockholm. It wasn’t what either of us had in mind for midsummer dinner, but came to symbolise travel’s topsy-turvy nature for us.

Fast food in the 21st century exists on society’s fringes. Although McDonalds has traversed the globe, enter into any restaurant — as McDonald’s prefers to call them — and you enter an ‘other’ space. The rules as they exist outside the sliding door are suspended. From the smell and the music to the furniture and the lingo everything within the fast food outpost is a carefully crafted mirror of reality. If you glance quickly, Max Burger’s plastic chairs could pass for an IKEA-cheap take on Scandinavian style. They’re white with clean lines and none of McDonald’s misguided modern clown colours. If you ignore the pervasive fried aroma, the large windows could indicate a nicer-than-average dining experience. At a distance, Max Burger resembles a 60’s space age fantasy. The white is too shiny; the blue is metallic; and the orange similar to a rocket from a child’s drawing. The tall, slight domed ‘A’ in the logo looks like a rocket, suggesting that a meal at Max Burger will propel you into another universe. Order your meal at the computerised express counter and you transform into a denizen of the Max Burger galaxy. Order you meal at the counter and you enter the traditional fast food realm, complete with photos of your meal and a dizzying number of options.

Södermalm

Eating midsummer dinner at Max Burger was an alternate reality. For a few moments you imagine that you don’t have a ticket to Oslo the next morning. Like the other diners, you’re a Swede, enjoying a nostalgic meal on a special day. Max Burger’s insistence on their Swedish heritage ensures the generic details retain a thrilling exoticism. This isn’t just a fast food burger; it’s a Swedish fast food burger. It’s the burger advertisements declare ‘astonishingly utsökt’ — that is to say it’s Sweden’s tastiest burger. Max Burger’s all-Swedish radio station rattles off songs you’ve never heard of outside of Eurovision. The people around you aren’t chomping down on ridiculed fast food because they chose to, they’re enjoying an ironic meal made acceptable by Max Burger’s image as an alternative: it’s the Swedish answer to McDonalds and the response to the Swedish problem of midsummer dinner.

The numerous jokes my mother and I have made about Max Burger aren’t comments about the food, but about the ridiculous, uncomfortable and ‘other’ situations you encounter when travelling and travel’s ability to excuse judgement lapses. At home you have the knowledge and ability to pick a fast food alternative, when travelling it’s an acceptable first choice. After all, without a childhood spent at Max Burger, it’s unlikely you’ll believe you’re eating Sweden’s tastiest burger. Travel allows you to bypass these questions. Max Burger remains an exotic mistake and an opportunity to indulge in a tantalising what if: if you were born Swedish, Max Burger might be your midsummer tradition the way Chinese food is the American Jew’s supposed Christmas ritual.

DSC03119

Flickr via lin Judy

Whether or not you encounter fish patties coated in rice krispies when travelling, being in a new space allows the ‘other’ to pass from overlooked to thrilling. Bolted down tables and plastic space age chairs are no longer strange reminders that you are in a time-free area where a kid’s play den coexists with 60’s nostalgia. Meanings as you know them cease to exist. Bad meals become cherished memories; mistakes become delightful adventures and a wasted day provides entertainment for weeks to come.