Helsinki's traditional Baltic Herring Fair is in full swing again
By Esa Juntunen
The annual Baltic Herring Fair at Helsinki’s Market Square opened early on Sunday morning.
At 05:00, the last partygoing nighthawks are still clearing their heads in the bracing breeze at the Market Square, when the alarm goes off aboard a nearby boat.
Waking up this early is not fit for human beings, swears fisherman Tage Gustafsson at his alarm clock.
One has to get up, however, as the fish are waiting.
06:14. Hanko resident Gustafsson is staring at the foggy marketplace, trying to figure out what made him come to Helsinki for the 26th time to sell hundreds of kilos of Baltic herring to Helsinki residents.
”When I was a young man and cleaned nets, while my friends all left in order to go to some place, I used to think that I would never start fishing”, Gustafsson contemplates.
Gustafsson inherited the skill to handle fish from his father, and working on a trawler and in the kitchen of a ship as a young man encouraged him in his choice of careers. Neither is there anything that could beat the feeling one gets when eating whitefish that has been baked on the campfire of a fisherman’s cottage.
”One forgets everything when one goes to sea. That cannot be explained”, says Gustafsson absorbed in his memories. ”Oh heck, I have to start selling”, he exclaims.
07:05. ”God morgon (”Good morning”)”, someone shouts when Eeva Gustafsson is wiping the steamy herring tins. Tage Gustafsson piles them on a counter at the prow of his boat the Cinderella. No customers show up. In the past, it was better when the fair started at 10:00, the Gustafssons reflect on the situation.
The first buyer is seen at another counter. She buys four tins of Baltic herring, slipping them into her bag.
”For a hangover”, Eeva Pärnänen snorts.
”I will take these to my husband and his friends as souvenirs. They had a party last night in Billnäs”, she adds.
Billnäs is located some 80 kilometres west of Helsinki.
08:01. The rising sun drives off the fog, but a song on the Market Square tells something else.
”When the night comes tumbling down...”, sings Raimo Rönkkö loudly, playing his accordion with numb fingers.
Rönkkö’s first fan in the morning is a homeless man who starts jamming while holding a loaf of traditional dark bread from the Finnish archipelago in his hand.
Customers will turn up later, Rönkkö believes.
”Some come from as far as Savo. They buy Baltic herring for all relatives at the same time”, Rönkkö notes.
08:32. Before the Savo people come the organisers, who collect samples for a herring product competition that is always arranged in two series: the Pickled Fish of the Year and the Baltic Herring Surprise of the Year.
The Gustafssons have repeatedly been successful in the competition. The couple has picked up so many trophies at various fairs that some of them threaten to get rusty.
”A couple of years ago we got five trophies. Last year I thought that we would not get any, but we got six”, Tage Gustafsson grins.
09:05. It is the turn of vendace tents to be erected. All vendace sellers shout that they are the best in Finland, says Sami Salonen with some amusement, while scoffing some fish paella with his spouse behind the Old Market Hall next to the Market Square.
”This is rather heavy for breakfast, but we wanted to come early so that it would be easier to move around with a pram”, Salonen explains.
It was a smart move, as the tourists start to turn up en masse at 9:00.
Aboard the Cinderella, the Gustafssons make more coffee. They have to remain active and alert, as the crowds of customers are expected to show up at 10:00.
This year, Tage Gustafsson was the winner in the Baltic Herring Surprise of the Year category and the runner-up in the Pickled Fish of the Year category.
FACTFILE: Fish products sold over four centuries
Stadin Silakkamarkkinat, Helsinki’s annual Baltic Herring Fair, which was opened on Sunday, is the oldest traditional event in Helsinki. The fair has been arranged in the capital every autumn since 1743.
The Baltic Herring Fair is open daily until next Saturday. Baltic herring (Clupea harengus membras) is being sold from various booths and boats at Kolera-allas (”the Cholera Basin”) from 07:00 to 19:00 from Monday to Friday and from 07:00 to 16:00 on the final day, Saturday.
The name Cholera basin originates from the herring market in 1893, when a shipsman from Nauvo died of cholera aboard his ship, which is why the entire basin was put in quarantine.
After the incident, the colloquial name of the patch of water in the South Harbour was forever established in the public mind as Kolera-allas - the Cholera Basin.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.10.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Helsinki´s annual Baltic Herring Fair gets under way (8.10.2007)
Baltic Herring (Wikipedia)
Helsinki Baltic Herring Fair 3-9 October 2010 at the Market Square
ESA JUNTUNEN / Helsingin Sanomat