My wife Mirja and I have a cabin on her family's land in the Northern Savonia region of Eastern Finland. We visited for Christmas. Here's a little about our trip, part 2.
Oh my, are we full. We hit our little town of Varkaus at 5:30 in the afternoon, not so fresh from the U.S. and firmly in darkness. Up at the farmhouse there were plates and plates of Christmas food, rossoli, ham and sinappi, Finnish mustard.
Pirrika (a kind of potato bread staple) and egg butter. Karelian stew (the pan gravy is just outstanding). Sieni salatti, which is a salty mushroom salad picked in the late fall, pickled in a brine with onion, finely chopped and mixed with a touch of cream. Pickles homegrown and homemade by Risto. Potato and bacon casserole.
Risto has taken a cooking class and much of the food is his, wielded with flourishes of the chef, like whole peppercorns. Tomorrow holds the promise of pancakes (whole milk, not 2%) and homegrown berries. And it’s not even Christmas.
The ride up from the airport at Helsinki can be done in 3-1/2 hours in summer in the sunshine, but it took over four this time. Mirja’s brother Markku did us the honors, whisking us away from the arrivals hall.
Down at the very south of Finland there was snow in the (dark) fields, but not much. The top of the grass poked through. Roads were dry and clear and it was effectively dark at 3:45, so it was hard to feel like it was mid-afternoon.
Markku was patient with Radio Suomi (Sumoi is Finnish for Finland), but a song with the lyrics, literally, “dee dee dum” in call and response, finally did it. On another channel YLE, the Finnish government broadcaster, has an English newscast now and then. When they say it, it sounds like “Wily English news.”
Road signs indicated things like “beware of moose, next 14 kilometers.” The particular type of halogen they use on roadsides combined with the low clouds to cast orange patches of light just off the highway, just far enough away so you couldn’t see why they were there. The orange color somehow felt warming.
We stopped halfway so Markku could have coffee and a pastry. I didn’t envy him. It was dark and he’d already driven all the way down earlier in the day. And I’m afraid I wasn’t the champion companion, either. Mirja did that duty. They sat up front and caught up in Finnish, and I lay down in the back (as much as you can in a Kia) and slept.
Finns have a well-developed roadhouse culture. Maybe it’s because the highways are monotonous tunnels of darkness. At intervals, oases of services perch by the exit, all together in one complex. There will be fast food and sit-down cafeteria-style grills, newsstands, groceries and ABC stores, toilets and gasoline.
This rest stop had a grocery called Ako, so we went to get odds and ends, things like the licorice flavored candy called salmiakki that Mirja loves. It was disorienting here under halogen in the dark in the snow in the middle of nowhere, seeing everybody so busy – people of all ages, the parking lot and the store and the restaurant all full, families with children sharing a meal, young men smoking and hurrying by, people coming and going. It seemed like the middle of the night, but it was the middle of the afternoon.
And see previous posts in this series: 1