01/06/2014 12:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Symmetry in Scandinavia: Finland's Holiday Food Markets

From the moment we got off the train in Helsinki it was dark. Dark and cold. But this Scandinavian country once ruled by the Swedes and the Russians has very little to do with either. At least, as far as I can tell. Russia seems to be as massive and old as India, and as diverse as well. And all my knowledge of Sweden derives from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which features the culinary stylings of boxed pizzas, sandwiches, and coffee... so there's that.
Having established myself as a cultural specialist, allow me to explain what Finland seems to be to me. In one word: design. Think ice, sleek and shiny like steel. Snowflakes, each one perfectly unique in its crystalline lattice. And darkness, the absorption of all light and the undying fashion statement of "artists" around the globe.
To examine the design habitat, let us venture into the holiday market ecosystem, a series of adorable wooden stands strung with simple white lights and peddling weather-appropriate wares to all passersby. Notice the symmetry, the precision of placement. Notice the colors, the contrasts and complements. But mostly, and most of all: notice the food.
Large, thick tranches of salmon are nailed to fragrant wood planks (usually alder, juniper, or apple wood) and set around a blazing fire until they transform from rose to amber to burnt orange, flecked with black.
Other fish-- zander, whitefish, Baltic herring-- are steamed, barbequed and pickled and piled up in great big slippery heaps, dipped in sour cream or smothered in dill and lemon and onions and served on slices of dark bread. Have you ever held in your hands a piece of hearty Finnish bread, smeared with sauce and layered delicately with briny morsels of herring? You would remember if you did, because it is a work of art.
Then there are the sausages, smoked until charred and placed upon a bed of cabbage swimming happily in whole grains of mustard and the ubiquitous mayonnaise. You'll be reminded of Berlin, which has developed its own reputation for design as well.
Next we have sweets, candies of all sorts. Simple exteriors hide surprising interiors with the Finnish snowballs, sugar balls filled with a tart cranberry jam. Gingerbread, perfectly spiced, is shaped into trees and people and sleds, wrapped in clear plastic and done up in ribbons. Squares of fudge are stacked like Lego blocks, inviting sweet tooths everywhere to sink in with one luxurious bite.
A harmony prevails, as one stop at a fish stand leads seamlessly to another for mulled wine, ending finally with spiced bread and candy canes (and honeycakes and plum jam and liquorice and more Finnish snowballs...).
And so we exit our holiday market ecosystem, this habitat for design, and continue on our way in Finland, stomachs as satiated as our eyes and uplifted, for a moment, by the festivity of Finnish design. All photos for this post provided by design aficionado Mickey Du. For more of Mickey's work, follow him on Facebook or LinkedIn.

For more of Sarah's writing, visit her website.