First things first: when visiting Kuopio, one should forget about the stereotype of Finns not talking to strangers. Here, everybody can enjoy a community feeling even when just running errands in the city.
“If you go to the market square or the store you can’t avoid people starting to talk to you about almost any subject – or, for example, sharing their gingerbread recipe,” the marketing director at the City of Kuopio, Kirsi Soininen, says with a smile.
To her, curiosity as well as a certain future-mindedness is characteristic for the Savonians living here. The region in itself again has long traditions of agriculture, which combines with an urban city that brings together top-level education, vivid culture and tourism as well as globally recognised knowhow in wellness and health.
The different areas all build on each other creating a positive snowball effect that has been called the “good life” of Kuopio.
“Pure food, clean nature and fresh air are our trump cards – they are in some way ‘the Nokias’ of today and we now just have to share them with others as well,” Ilona Sares, company coordinator at ProAgria North Savo, explains.
Thus, the region is a meeting point for the current trends of food origin and food safety. Local scientific expertise combines with a range of restaurants, enterprises and suppliers that build their businesses on what Finnish nature has to offer.
A growing local scene
Milk, berries and fish in particular have traditionally been a significant presence in the vast expanse of countryside that forms the Kuopio region. In fact, the majority of Finland’s milk production comes from here as well as a significant part of the country’s berry produce.
One of the successful names in the latter is Toripiha, whose expertise in freezing, storing and cleaning berries means that it is expanding to meet the rising demand of its service as Finland’s only enterprise solely focusing on refining others’ produce.
“Our concept means that the customer doesn’t have to invest in any machines or equipment or storing facilities but they can completely focus on the sales,” says Juho Kylmälä, the CEO of Toripiha.
Thanks to one of its biggest customers, an Estonian enterprise with customers in many countries, this Finnish company has taken the berry train to international markets.
Also following this export wave is another type of refinement found in the opposite end of the Lakeland by the Lake Kallavesi. Here Kala Lappi is smoking fish for local and European markets.
These companies, however, are far from alone in the Kuopio pond of gastronomic enterprises.
“Strong traditions are characteristic for the food industry in the region, but there are also quite a lot of small companies with small gourmet style goodies,” describes business advisor at the City of Kuopio, Marja-Leena Laitinen.
The strength of these companies lies in gourmet products that create content for the regional food tourism. The close proximity of abundant fresh wild herbs spice up the local restaurants’ menus while other names include local breweries RPS and Isokallan Panimo – not to forget the local oldie but goldie Lignell & Piispanen.
This family company has been making naturally flavoured and coloured liqueur since before Finland’s independence in 1917. Already having opened some doors to the world, its success story also constitutes a great example for others to follow.
Humble food goes fine dining
Another company with a similar concept of refining Finnish nature with new forms is delicacy store Liepuska, which combines baking and cooking to make its handmade twists on traditional Finnish pastries and food.
The delicacies include the likes of Karelian pies, tartelettes filled with smoked salmon and cinnamon buns. Of course, kalakukko has a special place in Liepuska’s offering, as well as a sweet version of it, made from rye and blueberries.
As a part of the current centennial celebrations, one of the humbler Finnish dishes, meat sauce, has also been brought to new life in a small tartelette that suits fine cocktail parties.
“It couldn’t be more Finnish than this,” says the company’s CEO Timo Turunen. “In some sense, our aim is to bring these non-trendy flavours to high-end restaurants using our own solutions.”
Today Liepuska’s fine dining catering food is distributed around the country as well as to London, where they are about to further expand thanks to a new partnership. Next up are the Nordic countries.
“We want to make the export business profitable,” Turunen emphasises. “We wouldn’t want it to just be solely for Finnish markets.”
Turunen also emphasises the importance of supporting local producers by always buying raw ingredients such as grains, berries and fish from them. By extension this could mean that berries picked by grandmas in North Savo eventually end up in a fine dining cocktail party in London.
Thinking ahead, this is a scenario that might become increasingly common for the region’s companies thanks to its current gastronomic efforts.
Becoming the European Region of Gastronomy
In November this year, the Kuopio region was named the European Region of Gastronomy for 2020, giving its food, culture and tourism Europe-wide visibility. This is the first time any Finnish region takes part in this network.
“The jury called us a pure pearl on the border of Europe and praised our products,” ProAgria’s Sares, who is heading the project, recalls.
As the project resembles the concept of the Culture Capital, the candidature means that the region is required to create new sustainable ways of doing things that go beyond the actual celebration year. This work has already started with, for example, creating new types of festivals that combine culture and gastronomic experiences.
Now, Savonia University of Applied Sciences, ProAgria and the City of Kuopio are working together on how to further use the candidature to support small companies, innovations and the wider sector of culture and tourism.
“We need to be goal-orientated in our support to help companies refine their products instead of exporting raw produce, since this increases the value in many ways,” says Sares.
One example of this is helping companies to further brand their products. Case in point Iltalypsy, which has been encouraged to push ahead with its wild nature products creating the Willimaku (Wild Taste) brand.
“We have found that people are really interested in these products and that is one of the reasons we decided to move forward with it,” entrepreneur Kirsi Tikkanen says.
The family company’s main focus is actually in the restaurant business but now plans are afoot to expand the production of its marmalades and sparkling beverages built on uniquely Finnish tastes such as spruce, meadowsweet, willow herb and dandelion.
Iltalypsy aims to eventually expand abroad even though there currently is much left to do on the domestic market.
“We have sent samples to China, Spain and England and now we are going to a fair in Grunbach, Germany in January,” says Tikkanen. “We don’t yet have sales abroad but the samples are sent, so you never know what that will lead to.”