This post continues on from the previous one – about a recent visit to Helsinki & some thoughts about 2 previous trips there also, as seen from the perspective of someone whose own family came from the Baltic region.
Because Finland has always had such long winters, I imagine that this has allowed cultural activities to flourish. The performing arts, literature, as well as arts & crafts are much cherished in the country. Most people seem to play an instrument [or sing]. A traditional instrument is the ‘kantele‘, originally a 5-6 string instrument that is strummed [by matchstick] or plucked.
The above image shows a replica of an instrument that was used in the 1830s by a famous Finnish singer. This replica can be found in the Ateneum in Helsinki. Chords are formed by muting or stopping the strings [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantele]. Modern kanteles are more elaborate, of course – they have many more strings, enabling a larger repertoire. The all girl Finnish group Kardemimmit are good exponents of this instrument [http://www.kardemimmit.fi/]. I have been fortunate to have heard them at our Lotus World Music Festival in Bloomington in the USA – they have visited now on a couple of occasions. Interestingly, variants of these stringed instruments appear all around the Baltic. In Estonia the equivalent is the ‘kannel‘, in Lithuania there is the ‘kankle‘ & Latvia has the ‘kokle‘. I have a kokle, which is back in the USA & I used to be reasonably proficient at playing it.
During my winter visit to Helsinki a couple of years ago, I was invited for Sunday lunch at a friend’s apartment. All the guests came bearing either musical instruments or other material – perfect for a set of impromptu performances after lunch was eaten. As a guest I too was expected to make a cultural contribution – I chose to recite some poetry by one of my favorite Latvian poets [Aleksandrs Čaks] – in Latvian, of course. This was an interesting exercise, as it showed us all the large contrast between Finnish & Latvian – two very different language groups [Finno-Ugric vs Baltic] despite the two countries being near neighbors on the Baltic. Yet, despite the language differences between the two countries, there are many commonalities in culture etc. I say this because when I visit Finland things feel both strange & eerily familiar. Things feel strange because this is a novel language & country. Yet, things feel familiar as some aspects of the culture make me think of me of my elderly Latvian relatives [unfortunately now no longer of this world] & stories that they have told me.
This springtime visit to Helsinki was great because the Ateneum Art Museum had a special temporary exhibit devoted to showcasing Finnish Artists Society art from the late 19th century to the present day. Some of the works were really poignant – here I share with you some of the classic paintings that had the greatest effect on me.
The image above by Albert Edelfelt [1854-1905] is entitled ‘Conveying the Child’s Coffin‘ & was painted in 1879. It depicts the heart-wrenching scene of a family taking a funereal boat journey for the purposes of bringing their young family member to their permanent new place of rest. I stood for a long time in front of this image. It is so skillfully rendered, the light is beautiful & the visible emotion, while understated, visually nevertheless jumps out of the canvas & grabs your heartstrings.
The above image entitled ‘Lemminkäinen’s Mother‘ was painted by Akseli Gallen-Kallela [1865-1933] & depicts a scene from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot, which was first published in 1835 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalevala]. A more recent version was published in 1849 & consists of 22,795 verses, divided into 50 songs! [These epic poems were not unique in the Baltic region: Estonia has Kalevipoeg & Latvia has Lāčplēsis (Bearslayer). In the latter Kalevipoeg also appears. These are just the ones I know of – there may well be others in the surrounding countries.] The Finnish Kalevala has many stories & characters. Lemminkäinen features in a number of them, but the story depicted in the above painting is that of Lemminkäinen’s Mother’s efforts to ‘remake’ his body. He has drowned in the river of Tuonela [in the underworld] while hunting the black swan that lives there. His Mother looks for him everywhere. Finally, she learns of his fate & asks Ilmarinen [a blacksmithing God] to create a copper rake [also seen in the painting]. In the underworld, she rakes up every piece of Lemminkäinen’s body & clothing from the river Tuonela. She sews the parts together & implores the Gods to bring him back to life. The painting depicts this scene.
I was really struck by the emotion on the face of the Mother – it is very intense study in emotion [see close-up at left]. There is a deeply imploring look & at the same time there is also determination & desperation as well. An amazing painting, to put it mildly, on so many levels!
To continue the story of Lemminkäinen: Finally, in desperation, his Mother convinces a bee [also seen in the painting, below the rake] to fly to the Halls of the ‘Ubergod’ Ukko for a drop of honey. This enchanted honey ends up bringing Lemminkäinen back to life.
For those interested in reading further, his story has been translated into English, see http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm]. Thanks to a Finnish friend for sharing this link!
In the exhibition there were many other artworks that were very beautiful & inspiring – portraits, landscapes depicting the various seasons & some snapshots of ephemeral moments in human interactions. The painting below by Hugo Simberg [1873-1917] depicts a beautiful moment where a grandparent strolls along a lake with his grandchild, showing that special bond that these two generations share.
Apparently, Simberg painted his own father & young son in this image. I also like the light here – as a photographer this is my favorite time of the day…
There were so many other interesting & notable works of art to see. Anyone visiting Helsinki should stop in to the Ateneum. The exhibition I saw was a temporary one, but the museum always has works by Finnish artists on display in their galleries. Some of the other classics [that I did not include in this post] I have seen on a previous visit there.
And now to turn to the culinary side of things. Different climatic regions have their own special produce. The northern European countries are no exception in that regard – the relatively mild summers & harsh, cold winters mean that only very hardy plants survive. Lingonberries, bilberries [native to Europe & related to blueberries], gooseberries & red currants are common fruits here. Reindeer steaks are very popular, as are fish such as Baltic herring & salmon [particularly smoked or served in a traditional soup]. The emphasis is very much on seasonal produce. This spring while I was there Baltic herring, morels, false morels, asparagus & rhubarb were in season, so I was able to enjoy these wonderful foods – some on more than one occasion. What are ‘false morels’, I hear you cry? Apparently they are a type of poisonous mushroom that can only be eaten when prepared properly through parboiling when the toxins are reduced & the mushrooms become edible – under no circumstances can they be eaten raw. As I said, the toxins are reduced, but not entirely eliminated even with cooking. Supposedly, the toxins can build up cumulatively in the body, so it is said that it is best to not consume these on a regular basis [for more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyromitra_esculenta]. I have to say, I had ’em in a soup with some reindeer meat mousse on the side & the dish was delicious! The image below shows the soup – a nice mushroomy color.
Thankfully for us all the very capable Chef at Ravintola Töölönranta [http://www.toolonranta.fi/en/front-page/] knew what he/she was doing. Many of us chose to eat the false morel soup & everyone was accounted for at the conference the next day ;). The restaurant is also in a very scenic location on Töölönlahti Bay, although it was a blustery & rainy evening when we went there.
Another excellent place to enjoy Finnish cuisine is the Michelin starred Ravintola Ateljé Finne. The place gets it’s name from the famous Finnish sculptor Gunnar Finne. He designed his working studio & this is where the restaurant is located today. Some of his works still adorn the walls & counters of the place [they can be seen on the restaurant’s website: http://www.ateljefinne.fi/en/].
The restaurant is centrally located in Helsinki. The menu is, of course, seasonal – here is a sample of what was on offer when I visited:
I had the herring starter, the morel/egg/nettle main & the poached rhubarb for dessert. Delicious! The Finns are also extremely fond of liquorice – as indicated by the dessert on offer. My Finnish friend had the crème brûlée & I did get to try some of it. It was really good – but I have to say that I am a really big fan of liquorice…
But back to reality now in Paris… that said I came across lightly smoked Baltic herrings in the local supermarket the other day. What a pleasant surprise that was! Could not resist buying some…