There is no such thing as free lunch, but there are various ways to get pretty darn close. However, a lot of us might have never thought about them.
“There’s so much free superfood everywhere, and people just don’t know it,” says Pauliina Toivanen, co-founder of Helsinki Wildfoods. “So many plants are generally just considered weed, when in reality they make for tasty spices, sauces and all sorts of food.”
Even in and around central Helsinki, there are spots where any passer-by can pick up nettles, goutweed, dandelions, yarrow or angelica leaves, all of which can be turned into foods and beverages without any special equipment or skills. Initially, Helsinki Wildfoods wanted to introduce tourists to the wild food sheds in the green Finnish capital, but then it turned out that locals weren’t aware of the tasty opportunities around them either.
Now, the company’s foraging walks and workshops are aimed at absolutely everyone with an interest in the environment, food and sustainable lifestyle.
“Eating wild food from nearby nature is as eco-friendly as it gets, because it’s got no carbon footprint whatsoever,” Toivanen explains. “And it’s really tasty, too!”
Flavours come first
The story of Helsinki Wildfoods in its current form actually started from taste. Toivanen and Anna Nyman, another co-founder, had started giving foraging tours in Helsinki and its neighbouring Espoo, and Annika Hannus happened to take part in one.
At the end of each tour, homemade nettle pesto was served. Hannus insisted it was so delicious it should be sold in supermarkets. Shortly after, a large Finnish retail chain agreed.
Long story short: with Hannus as its CEO, Helsinki Wildfoods offers a range of products known as Just Add. The company has created different mixes of wild plants that can be used in everyday cooking simply by adding water, oil, crème fraiche or whatever is necessary for the flavour in question, referring to the product range as “the Finnish herb revolution”.
As sustainability is one of the main driving forces behind the company, Just Add products with their lengthy shelf life are precisely in line with its philosophy.
“We all hate mouldy pesto leftovers in the fridge,” Toivanen notes. “With Just Add, you really can make only as much as you need at once, which reduces food waste without compromising on taste.”
Health for the body and the mind
Helsinki Wildfoods organises a few dozen courses in and near Helsinki every season. As the northern climate doesn’t really support all-year green-picking, the treats being available in supermarkets is a good complement to the company’s offering.
On top of serving Finns and tourists locally in Finland, Just Add products are available in Happy Food Stores in Sweden and other retailers in Germany, Denmark, Italy and Norway, and all over Europe through Helsinki Wildfoods’ online store. Further internationalisation is on the way, but some obstacles are yet to be overcome: For example, selling food by mail has proven more than slightly tricky.
“The legislation varies hugely between countries, and even in Finland and Sweden the law doesn’t treat wild herbs in the same way,” Toivanen says. “As we’re learning ways to take our products to new markets, we’re becoming leading experts in foreign food safety regulations as well!”
The letter of the law might be a hindrance, but it by no means is putting the entrepreneurs off. There are plans to localise the website for different markets and test the waters in the lucrative Asian market in co-operation with other Finnish natural food brands.
Be it home or abroad, Helsinki Wildfoods’ core ideology lies in looking after the urban wilderness and the environment in general. Toivanen hopes to see more and more people open their eyes to the free gardens around them.
“Foraging is a great hobby, too, offering exercise, relaxation and stress reduction, all at once.”
In addition to offering taste, price and physical and mental health benefits, Helsinki Wildfoods wants to serve as a reminder to other firms, particularly large corporations.
“If we can do it sustainably, big ones can do the same. We want to promote value-based entrepreneurship and transparency by setting a good example.”