Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Macaroni madness in Hanko

Finnish summer is wonderful. But unfortunately it is also short. And somewhat fickle, too. Heat waves and record-breaking temperatures are over before the ink on the headlines (much like the Brits, we Finns are obsessed with weather) promising them has even dried. As I make my way to the beach in my bikini, I pack a cardi. You know, just in case. In the morning as I head to the office, I never know whether I'll be trawling back home 8 hours later in a hurricane or sunshine.

So, summer has a way of making people slightly psychotic. One has to do, see, travel and remember as much as is humanly possibe to squeeze in those few weeks. There are events, festivals and theme days for just about every day of the long-awaited summer.

I've not been safe from the voice stubbornly screaming at the back of my head either, telling me to go do some culture. So, spurred on by that Vegetarian and Tzatziki Champion and I packed the car and headed to Hanko with the latest addition to our circle: a 4-month-old bichon frisé Rocco. I'm not going to tell you who he was named after. But I'm not going to say it didn't have anything to do with certain Italian adult film star either.

The suggestion of a girls' road trip was greeted with squeals of enthusiasm. Though I think something might have gotten lost in translation. "Macaron factory! Is it even legal to drive under the influence of that much sugar?" As I explained that this was a macaroni factory, poor girls thought I'd actually arranged a tour of a pasta plant to ease my longing for proper Italian food.

And though they do in fact make their own pasta here, Hanko macaroni factory (Hangon makaronitehdas in Finnish) is first and foremost a restaurant. And what a restaurant it is...

In addition to pasta that they create with such passion and dedication the restaurant is specialized in quality wines and Champagne. The most eagle-eyed ones probably already picked up on which Champagne house they collaborate with... And I didn't complain - it's not often this yellow favourite of ours is available by the glass, so we kicked the lunch off in rather festive spirits.

Many things sounded interesting on the starter menu but the ones that found their way to our table were Carpaccio and Vitello Tonnato. Carpaccio was excellent. Vitello Tonnato was too, though the outset wasn't too encouraging: Tzatziki Champion, a closeted Italian also makes the best tonnato I've ever had. In this tonnato the vinegary edginess did cut through the rich oiliness of the tuna, but with such intensity that it was a tad too much. So it has to settle for second place in the ranking. Being in Top 2 is not a bad thing by any means. Unless you're Andy Murray, of course.

With the mains things got even trickier. Neither one of the companions feast on carbs. Which left me browsing through pasta menu, trying to choose which one to settle for with increasing exasperation. So many choices! Only one stomach! Everything in the menu sounded so inviting I simply couldn't choose. I was breaking sweat and ready to call in Ban Ki-Moon to mediate. Luckily by the time I found myself reasoning that Hanko is a 2-hour drive away so I wouldn't be back any time soon so I'd better make the most of this trip even if meant eating 3 pasta dishes all by myself the help came in the form of restaurant's wonderful and kind staff.

Children's half-portion is available for every pasta on the menu so they offered to make me those. I could practically hear the clouds parting and the angelic choir stepping through, surrounded by the divine rays and blasting out Halleluja.

And so I happily settled for not having to settle for just one and feasted on Fungi, Agnello and Sausage pasta.

Fungi "fragrantly creamy funnel chantarelle - porchini pasta") was indeed so fragrant that Vegetarian couldn't take her eyes off my plate. Wonderful, gently comforting dish. Personally I might have added a drop or two of truffle oil to give the mushroominess just a bit more depth.

I was excited about the next one as it was the most popular dish on the menu: Agnello (chunks of lamb fillet marinated in basil and garlic oil"). For this one too I was left longing for a bit more punch (my own palate is clearly to blame, being used to stronger flavours) and garlickiness. Basil wasn't very prominent, but the pots of herb they have at every table provided a quirky first aid kit. The lamb itself was so succulent I couldn't have asked for more.

In spite of the "doing things from the scratch and sourcing ingredients locally"- spirit the lamb was not from the West Coast, famous for their lamb. It came from New Zealand as the restaurant manager explained that while the Finnish counterpart does meet the quality standards, the availability and price unfortunately don't. Too bad, that. But unfortunately not the first time I've encountered this. Makes you wonder though. I knew that Finnish produce was expensive but that is just insane. How on earth can it be cheaper to fly in meat from literally across the planet than buy it a couple of kilometres away?!

And their pasta? I fear I just might like mine a tad overcooked and limp to a point it would send Sergios into fits of rage. The bucatini in this dish made me promise I'd mend my ways. Bucatini is my favourite and this one, made from the scratch and cooked to perfection was just... well, perfect.

My personal favourite was yet to arrive though. I have already before waxed lyrical about my love of sausage and earlier in the spring I even tried to sign up for a (sold out) "make your own sausage"- workshop.  So naturally I just had to have Sausage pasta ("home-made country sausage in tomato sauce gently spiced with chili"). And I'm glad I did. Personally I might have liked the sauce with a little bit more chilli, but the sausage, bursting with chilli and fennel was every bit as rustic as it could.

By now hunger was the last thing in my mind. But seeing how they don't yet have a branch in Helsinki (they're scouting the perfect location) and how Hanko is 2 hours away and how it's better to be safe than sorry and how 3 is an odd number which surely means bad luck (irrational? Crazy? Greedy? Moi?)...

Three is (a good) company

... so naturally I had to have something fishy too, right? You know, for a balanced view? So Frutti ("mussels and octopus braised in saffron- infused lobster stock") got the honour of serving as my pudding. And a good pudding it was. This pasta didn't swim in the sauce either, but the lobster stock (home-made!) packed so much flavour my shellfish stock was left doing the dishes.

Ice cream isn't made on site, but comes from Caminito in Kouvola. It was superb though. The mint on the other hand is grown in their own garden. I had limoncello instead. Surely it has some digestive superfood effects...?

The decor in this restaurant, housed in one of the old warehouses by the harbour is casual and comfortable. The only thing we didn't particuarly warm to was music- it was more suited for happy hour at a trendy cocktail bar than it was for a leiurely Saturday lunch. Or perhaps I have become that dreaded old fart.

Customer service warrants its own entry: they have that. Bucket-loads. With smile.

Prices for the pasta are a little shy of €20. You can also buy their home-made pasta to take home with you, but cheap it ain't. I bought 2 portions of bucatini (made only minutes before - it doesn't get much fresher than this!) which set me back €6/ portion. But I dare you to find better in Finland. The pricetag for my lunch, consisting of 2 full-size portions of pasta, a large glass of wine and limoncello, came to €72. Was it worthy? Oh yeah. Virginia Woolf, whose quote " one cannot think well or love well if one hasn't dined well" greets diners at the door really needn't worry.

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