Sunday, 27 June 2010

Smoking in Finland

I have come to the conclusion that Finns have a great affinity with smoke.  I suppose it must be to do with the vast amount of wood that there is in the country with over two thirds of the land covered by forests. They are beautiful forests too with a mixture of various pines, larches and the ubiquitous silver birch.  Along with the forests and scattered liberally across the landscape, are more than 100,000 lakes. The land is not high but is undulating, sloping to the southwest where the lakes become inlets of the Baltic sea and the forest covered hills become peninsulas and islands that drift into the Gulf of Bothnia. The archipelago around Turku is made up of hundreds and hundreds of rocky islets each with a summer cottage.

We have been privileged to stay at Soili and Matti's summer cottage in the hinterland on one of the many lakes and in a few weeks we will have a couple of nights in a summer cottage in the islands off Turku.  Along with this is the wonderful Finnish hospitality which features a lot of smoke.  It began last week in Rantasalmi where we were participating in a week long Fatherheart School. The centre we stayed in is famous for its smoke sauna. Sauna is something of a national institution in Finland. Everyone seems to have  one in their home. We even had a short boat trip around the lake at Savonlinna and the boat had one too. Why any one would want to have a sauna on a small pleasure boat that sails on hourly trips around the lake beats me. I can imagine all these people jumping in the lake after the sauna only to find the boat steaming away into the distance.

Sauna is taken very seriously in Finland. There is a ritual element to the whole process. The extremes of temperature in the sauna and the total contrast of jumping naked into a freezing lake seems to have in some way shaped the Finnish psyche. Persuading visitors to participate in these rituals amounts to a national pastime. At Rantasalmi they boasted one of the finest smoke saunas in the land.  The hut used is very old and blackened inside and out. The fire takes about 6 hours to build the temperatures to a scorching 90c. When finally it is ready the hut is entered and the participants sit in a dark attic like area amid the gloom. It is supposed to be the ultimate sauna experience. Well it was certainly memorable. Mercifully we were spared the bunch of birch sticks that often accompany the event and are used for stimulating the circulation, which is Finnish code for beating your visitors black and blue!!

Following the smoke sauna the evening progressed to the smoke hut. This was a round hut with a wood fire in the centre and a central roof hole to let the smoke out. We all crammed into this hut, fully clothed by this time, enjoyed the rest of the evening eating sausages and pancakes cooked over the fire, and listening to Finnish folk songs. We emerged around midnight, it was still daylight, we smelt like a bonfire and our eyes smarted from the smoke. There seemed to be as much smoke wafting around outside the hut as there was inside but this smoke didn't drift it was full of evil intention. I'm not getting melodramatic here but the clouds of dark swirling malevolence turned out to be multitudes of mosquitoes searching for their supper. Their targets were exposed flesh. I was so glad the mandatory lake plunge after the sauna was over as it could have been an assault on my senses of a totally different type.

The other aspect of smoke and the Finns that I really appreciate was what they do to salmon with smoke. Oh it was wonderful! At our friend's summer cottage by a stunning lake surrounded by forests, we feasted on smoked salmon of various types. There was the usual raw smoked salmon for breakfast with scrambled egg but there was also the most delicious whole, wood smoked, salmon that had been done the day before perfectly accompanied by a creamy horseradish sauce, new potatoes and salad. What a feast! 

One last sauna, no smoke this time, followed by an icy plunge, which was actually very invigorating and it was time to go back to Norway.

2 comments:

  1. Smoke, sauna's and mossies....sounds like a fascinating trip to the Northern Hemishpere. Really like the sound of all the smoked salmon...yummmmmm.... Vicki

    ReplyDelete