I can’t believe how sunny and nice it is! Easter weekend is turning out pretty well despite a rocky start. Thursday started out a fitting end to a week of little frustrations. A cashier who talked too fast and forced me to ask again in English, getting stuck walking behind people who smoke or spit, forgetting little things and having to backtrack or waste more time, being generally aggravated with myself for feeling under the weather when the actual weather is so nice. And Thursday morning, I was finally five minutes early to my tram instead of having to run for it like I usually do. If you ever see me at 6.30 in the morning, you’ll understand how big a feat that is. But my tram never came, and the next one was ten minutes late. I arrived at Unisport only to find my favourite yoga class had just barely already started and I would have to miss it. This was not a good start to what was already going to be a stressful day.
I had to go to the university library to print out a document because I had forgotten my printing card the day before, but the library didn’t open till 9 and missing my 7.15 yoga class got me bright and early into the city. I got a cappuccino at a local cafe that opens early and tried to relax. I’ve been really stressed about my immigration status, even more than usual, because I’m going through the process of renewing my residence permit. It’s always a complicated story, and everyone’s is slightly different even if you come from the same country. You know that saying If you don’t vote then you can’t complain? I think it applies to immigration as well. If you have never been an immigrant, you can’t know how difficult and stressful and frustrating and terrifying life can be on a daily basis, constantly trying to stay organized and on top of appointments and paperwork, having people question your right to be here.
My immediate fears turned out to be unfounded, and after leaving the Immigration police relatively unscathed, I spent the rest of the day on some much-needed hangout time with some friends and doing Easter preparations. There were a few Finnish Easter specialties I wanted to try. It’s been a while since I’ve tried anything new and weird here; I’ve noticed that the weirdest foods are usually the traditional ones, and usually centered around a holiday or special occasion. Easter happens to include probably the weirdest thing I’ve had yet (weeeellll maybe second-weirdest, if you include Sahti, which I still haven’t forgiven for tasting nothing like bananas).
Last night at the grocery I spotted it: some little pots of mämmi, the infamous, controversial and vulgar-looking malt rye porridge. My first introduction to the idea of mämmi was from one of my favorite webcomics, Scandinavia and the World, which gives a hilarious and very accurate account of the relationships between different countries personified as adorable characters. In the comic, Finland is a gruff, nearly mute (except for swearing), hat-wearing, knife-wielding stoic who offers King European Union some traditional mämmi as a treat and is, understandably, met with horror.
Intrigued, I read up on the controversy and determined that if any food is this polarizing, I have to try it. I read somewhere that it’s supposed to be served cold, with milk or cream, so I tried to get the full experience. I bought the smallest bit I could find in case it turned out horrible. A giant swig of Sahti teaches you so many lessons in life, first and foremost: take small bites.
Pour on some cream, and it’s ready to go! Appropriately, that adorable Easter egg towel in the background was gifted to me by my mammi!
Turns out, mämmi is delicious! It’s made out of rye flour and malted rye, cooked long and slow and then left to set. The texture isn’t as off-putting as I thought it would be–it’s a lot like cookie dough or pecan pie. In fact, the whole flavor profile is solidly in the molasses category, but not too sweet, with an aftertaste of the excellent toasty Finnish rye bread, and with the cream it reminded me strongly of the molasses cookies we made when I was a child, dipped in milk. At about 160 calories per 100g, it’s also a low-fat, high-fiber and really cheap treat; I found it sold in half-kilo boxes for less than three euros. If you like molasses, or rye bread, or malty beer, you’ll like mämmi. And then you can horrify all your friends by eating it!
My next food experiment was something I found while reading a couple of Finnish food blogs: pasha. A traditional Russian Easter dish also called pashka, it’s eaten in Eastern Finland with kulich, the Russian Easter sweet bread. One of the blogs I read called the bread kulitsa in Finnish, and upon Googling, I find pictures of kulich to be mostly tall, mushroom-shaped loaves with icing on top. There is also Pääsiäislimppu, Finnish Easter bread, which is shaped like ruisleipä in large, solid circular rounds. Google images of kulitsa turn up half looking like Pääsiäislimppu; the other half looking like the kulich pictures. Any Finns care to help me out with the terminology?
In any case, I decided to try to make some pasha. How hard could it be? Turns out, not hard at all! Made of maitorahka or quark, cream, butter, egg, lemon, and dried fruits and nuts, it’s traditionally either cooked like a custard or mixed up raw and then formed into a pyramid in a wooden box and left to drain the liquid out for 24 hours. For us Midwesterners, I guess it’s kind of like dessert cheese ball. (Cheese…pyramid?) I made mine with orange zest and chopped dates because I happened to have some on hand, mixed the whole thing up in about ten minutes, and rigged up an ingenious coffee filter-yogurt container drainage system. Clever, I know. That was put to the back of the fridge a bit skeptically, to drain and set until Friday.
On the way home, a few friends and I stopped by Hakaniemi Market Hall to pick up some treats for the weekend. We chomped some cheese samples, browsed the butchers, and made a beeline for the baker. I can never remember the vendors’ names, but it’s the big leipomo back in one of the corners, up a few steps from the rest of the market hall. I split a loaf of Pääsiäislimppu with a friend and we headed home.
There are so many great bakeries in Helsinki–usually you think of France or Italy when you think of great bread, but Finland has its own bread traditions that I’ve really come to love. Finnish bread is hearty and earthy and nutty and incredibly honest, unpretentious. France can keep its croissants and baguettes; I’ve known more than one Finn to scoff at a sandwich made on soft white bread, because “it’s not a meal if it’s made on pulla.”
But oh, the pulla! I might have to go on a city-wide search for the best pastries this summer. Sure, the macarons are lacking (except the ones coming from our Restaurant Day kitchen!), I could use a decent beignet, and you’re definitely not going to find mind-blowing tiramisu around here, but Finnish pastry is like its bread: honest and a little surprising sometimes. I’ve expounded upon the virtues of korvapuusti and lumipulla; the magic of Finnish pastry is really in the dough, which is basically a sweet yeast dough like we would use to make cinnamon rolls in the U.S., heavily scented with cardamom, stuffed with nut and spice paste, pistachio paste, covered in powdered sugar or pearl sugar or glaze, or filled with butter or custard. They also have Runebergintorttu, which is like a baba rum cake, and tippaleipä, a sort of funnel cake, for Vappu in the spring. Yep, living in Finland is carb-tastic.
Back to Easter. My unmolded pasha turned out really well! I should have taken some more time with the orange zest and decorated it with nuts, but I was too impatient to dive into it! Pääsiäislimppu is intentionally sweet and eggy, made with warm milk so it has a delightful springyness and chewyness on the inside, a dark brown crackly crust on the outside, studded with dried fruits and, I was very pleasantly surprised to notice, caraway seed, which gives a nice smoky contrast to the sweetness. It really does make the perfect substrate for a big dollop of pasha, the bitter crunchy crust and tart dried fruits cutting through the richness of the spread, and the crunchy-chewy-creamy satisfyingness of the whole bite makes a perfect after-dinner treat with coffee, or even better, for tea-time.
Easter Sunday for me will be Easter mass at the beautiful Kallio church just down the block, and some coffee and a little celebration with friends in the afternoon. I’ve bought some salmon and vegetables to roast for a humble (and very Nordic) Easter dinner, and hopefully I’ll get to skype with my family. There isn’t much going on in the city on Saturday, so I’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner. Friday afternoon I went to hear Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at the Alppilan Kirkko, a short walk from my flat. The weather is gorgeous–bright and sunny, and I had my window open all weekend. A free concert of early music given by amateurs put the icing on the cake. I think I’ve been conservative in talking about music so far, but it’s really the twin passion to science in my life and I’ve been feeling lately that it’s inevitable that I’ll get into it again, hopefully sooner rather than later, and this is a great place to do it.
I also colored some eggs just using whatever I had around the house. I like to eat boiled eggs for breakfast anyway, so why not get a little festive with it? I really wish more people knew how easy it is to color lovely Easter eggs with natural dyes using whatever you have lying around in the pantry–no poisons, no toxic chemicals, and none of that disgusting stickyness that comes from the paints in the newfangled Paas egg color kits. The eggs that turned out best were rosy red from paprika, sunny yellow from turmeric (which you can also use to dye fabric, and is even washing-machine-safe after it’s set!), and dark lavender-grey from black beans.
Friday evening I was taking a walk and stumbled into the Via Crucis, which they take very seriously around here. Finns think it’s kind of morbidly funny that the English call it Good Friday. Some brief Googling tells me that most countries use some variation on “good,” “holy,” or “sad,” but in typical Finnish dry, pragmatic observation, here it’s called Pitkäperjantai or Long Friday. After watching the Via Crucis, I can see why! It was actually a fantastic performance, with professional lighting, live folk music, fantastic singers, and convincing costumes. It started just at dusk and continued to about an hour after dark, and the combination of natural and artificial light and shadow really helped to set the scene.
I understood some of it (it helps to know the story), but the part that really interests me is at the beginning, when there was a sort of expositional recitation of “four times,” repeating four directions, with four singers. I’m pretty sure that’s not part of the original story, and I can’t find any information about it. I suspect though, that it’s part of the pagan fertility festival that got mixed in. Finnish holidays are nominally Christian, but since Christianity arrived fairly late to Finland, many traditions are holdovers from pagan festivals that tend to line up with Christian holidays. So for Christmas we have Joulupukki and the himmeli which is supposed to bring a good harvest; Juhannus is a celebration of the summer solstice, and Pääsiainen includes the Via Crucis, but also bonfires and little children who dress up as witches carrying twigs of pussy willow, who show up at your door much like trick-or-treaters, and put good spells on you with the willows in exchange for treats or money.
The sun is coming up just after 5am now, and staying light till past 9.30 in the evening. The spring is going by fast. I’ve always thought that spring feels a bit like waking up in the morning, having to turn on the light that’s too bright, and roll out of bed into the cold air to face the world. A lot of things happen in the spring, to build up the energy into summer. It’s my last first season in Finland, and in less than two short months, it’ll be my anniversary of moving here. Time is going so fast, it’s hard to keep track of it.
At the end of May I’ll be traipsing through mainland Europe on my way to my first big conference in Dijon, where I’ll be presenting a poster as first author, representing my research team, bonding with colleagues from Helsinki who will also be there, learning from some of the most inspiring neuroscientists in the world, and catching up with some colleagues who are spread over five different countries.
And let’s be honest, eating a ton of croissants.
In June, I’ll be presenting again, this time in Helsinki, and helping to host our Neurodynamics symposium. By the end of June, I’ll be officially allowed to have my quarter-life crisis, but I won’t care because a close friend who I haven’t seen in probably three years will be here visiting me for Midsummer. Yes, I am going to make her eat all the weird food.
I like that my birthday, Midsummer, and my anniversary of moving to Finland are all around the same time. It feels like an existential solstice for my life, a huge spoke on the wheel of the year. And Easter is really the beginning of that; it’s a renewal, a rejuvenation of everything that has been stagnant over the winter. The Christian Easter story is a metaphor for the pagan spring fertility festivals: it’s all about light, life, growth.
Enjoy the sunshine!