Aino’s Swede Casserole

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I was asked to rummage through my Christmas smell memories for the Scented Letter this month and in doing so, also rummaged through every old photo album I have here with me in the UK.

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Although I did find a few Christmas photos that weren’t completely humiliating, what I actually ended up spending more time on, were pictures of my maternal grandmother Aino, and of us together.

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Aino grew vegetables, berries and flowers at our summer cottage and she adored flowers in particular.

We had dog rose, jasmine, pansies, lilies, geraniums and many more in abundance in every available spot. It’s no wonder that my first word was “kukka” (Finnish for “flower” – reportedly uttered as I went for Aino’s pansy border).

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As soon as I could manage it, Aino took me along for her walks to gather wild flowers and that became a kind of tradition over the years.
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The teenage me would kill me for posting this.

Aino was a Karelian refugee who came over to Finland at the age of 2 and lived at a time when one had to know how to do everything from scratch. Sometimes we don’t realise how spoiled we are.

She taught me how to make Karelian pasties, sourdough rye bread and many basic Finnish dishes. Many of these lessons took place at the summer cottage where we did not have electricity and the cooking was done on a wood-fired range and the bread was baked in the wood-heated oven at the sauna dressing room. I learned how to light the fires and brush out the coals and how dry birch bark makes the best kindling.

Aino’s cooking and baking wasn’t highly decorative but it was incredibly tasty. The post-war mentality of adding sugar, butter and cream to most things helped quite a bit there.

I still sometimes make the traditional Finnish Christmas dish lanttulaatikko (swede casserole), which used to be one of Aino’s masterpieces. My mother attempted to extract the recipe from her but Aino was not one for writing down instructions so the only way to save the recipe was to follow her and pay attention. Alas, my mother was not a detail person and the recipe she produced as a result of this exercise ended up somewhat chaotic and scribbled (main image). The various annotations in different colour pens are clarifications and dire warnings (“NOT TOO MUCH WATER!”) after years of attempts to get it right.

If you would like to have a go at making Aino’s lanttulaatikko, you’ll need a deep casserole dish and a large saucepan.

Aino’s lanttulaatikko

  • 2 medium swedes
  • A generous tablespoonful of wheat flour (or dried breadcrumbs)
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • 100ml of syrup (the one we used is Dan Sukker golden syrup which is available here from Ocado)
  • 1/2 tsp of allspice
  • 1 egg
  • 100ml of cream
  • 1 tbsp of butter

Chop the swedes and boil until cooked in little water. Add the salt to the cooking water. Mash the swedes in their water (careful not to have too much water). Add the flour and mix well. Then add the syrup and mix well – leave to sweeten for at least two hours (you can get the dish this far the night before and add the remaining ingredients and bake the following day. If you do this, lift the saucepan into the fridge for the  night. This is what I do and the extra sweetening time really helps).

Heat the oven to 150°C.

Add the remaining ingredients just before baking. Pour all of the mixture into the deep casserole dish. You can attempt to make some nice patterns with a fork on the surface if you’re feeling artistic. Bake for approximately two hours.

Goes extremely well with baked ham, roast chicken, sprouts and lingonberry jam.

 

Read this month’s Scented Letter for more: IMG_3094.PNG

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A Moomin interlude

Finland moomins volatile fictionI’ve just had a wonderful two week holiday in my native Finland and returning to the UK after what was, apparently, the best weather for the whole summer has been quite the culture shock. It’s like being inside Tupperware here. Grey and moist. I had a bath yesterday morning, opened the window to ‘let the moisture out’, and the air got wetter.

The first week was gloriously sunny and spent at Villa Eino at Hawkhill Nature (which I can’t recommend enough – though take my recommendation with the disclaimer that these cottages at Nuuksio National Park are owned by my husband’s cousin). The water was warm enough for daily morning swims. We grilled sausage. Picked litres of bilberries (the smaller, purple-fleshed ‘wild blueberry’). Enjoyed many sauna sessions. Then my husband flew back home and I spent another week in Helsinki and Tikkurila meeting family and friends.

The markets and shops are bursting with fresh berries and mushrooms right now. Due to the late arrival of warm weather, we hit the bilberry season head on and the lingonberries should be arriving soon – lots of partially ripe berries everywhere. Lingonberry is not too dissimilar in flavour to the cranberry, but sharper. I really miss them over here (they go wonderfully well with meat and liver dishes, as well as baked into delicious pies). Finnish strawberries are wonderful and still available in abundance. They get the nightless nights of summer and have a muskier flavour (similar to the wild strawberry) than the British and Spanish varieties we eat over here. Chanterelles are another delicacy; my friend made a delicious sauce with chanterelle mushrooms in butter, served with new potatoes. Simple things like that – and the bread, the glorious variety of different kinds of bread – is what I miss most from Finland, food-wise. I also miss some of the junk foods and flavours from my childhood (meat ‘donuts’ filled with rice, onion and minced beef; pear flavour ice cream, Fazer chocolate).

The things to look out for when over there are all things textile design – Marimekko, Vallila and so on – and even normal supermarkets can have a lovely selection of home textiles. There are outlet stores with good discounts so if you get a bit of local guidance, you can make some great discoveries. Then there’s Iittala glass design and wooden jewellery, and Moomins everywhere, of course.

I brought back lots of books and sourdough rye bread and chocolate and they’ll keep me connected to Finland a little while longer. I’m already planning my next trip (which will probably be a family gathering in 2017 – and I might need to do two trips that year, seeing as the Helsinki WorldCon bid was successful!).

Favourite Christmas fragrances

Favourite Christmas scentsWhat are your favourite fragrances to wear this time of the year? Whether you celebrate Christmas, Yule, or nothing in particular, there might be certain scents that just seem right for the season and whatever you get up to. Nostalgia plays a big part for me (and, I’m sure, for many people) when picking out what to wear on Christmas Eve and on the days around it.

Although somewhat assimilated into British culture, I do still hold on to the Finnish custom of having the festive meal on the evening of the 24th, and handing out presents afterwards. In the past I’ve not always been lucky enough to get a long holiday over this period, but this year I have a luxurious two week break during which to see friends and family, and to have a cosy little Christmas in our new home.

I’m not religious, but I do very much admire the beautiful things that have come out of the human endeavours inspired by it (this is not the time of the year to focus on the ugly side); there is wonderful music, art and architecture which one can appreciate without the need to subscribe to the beliefs. Of course Christmas is one of those occasions when many atheists remind us that the holiday was hijacked in the first place, so non-religious people can relax and enjoy the celebration (and perhaps create their own traditions).

Christmas tree inside Salisbury Cathedral

Christmas tree inside Salisbury Cathedral (our least out-of-focus photo of it… the other ones could be pictures of cooked spinach). We visited yesterday, and I recommend it, if only to see the Magna Carta.

One of the things which I can’t get enough of is the smell of incense, or frankincense to be precise (we’re not talking about joss sticks here). It’s almost as though the pious meaning of my name is subconsciously asserting itself. Or maybe just because olibanum simply smells wonderful. Or maybe because it might really have some beneficial properties for the respiratory system. Who can say? Nevertheless, this is the time of the year I crave frankincense most, and the good kind; intoxicating, woody, bright, fruity. It happens to be one of the oils which seems to improve as it ages, so it’s good to smell several samples of it from different sources and of different age to appreciate it properly.

Amouage Gold Woman treats the incense note in a glorious way – my favourite framing of it in fine fragrance to date. I have been wearing it for four days running at the time of writing this, and having clouds of the expensive-smelling, ancient, gilded vapour wafting around you is the closest a human being can come to wearing a halo.

Which is why it can sometimes feels a little too precious, and so I take my heathen self to the perfume wardrobe for something wordly like Shalimar for a change. This would be my favourite vanilla fragrance, were it not for the strong association with my mother (of course that’s why I like it in the first place – but the association stops this from becoming MY perfume, and instead makes me feel like she is following me around in her best red lippie and high heels). I realise this is old news, but I must once again stress just how clever the accord is here; completely over-the-top vanilla, made inedible by the animalic edge, and the animalic edge made pretty by the vanilla.

In some ways I feel that Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle does to a saffron accord what Shalimar does to vanilla – in that a potentially sickly-sweet gourmand is piled as high as it will go; then defused by the addition of a perfect counterbalance, in this case, of dry, woody notes and a savoury, buttery sandalwood accord. DVN is a new addition to my Christmas season scent rotation, and it fits in perfectly. The starchy, overcooked rice note I so dislike in many saffron accords is also happily missing, and the drydown on my skin brings to mind milk chocolate, rice pudding and precious woods.

Shiseido’s Feminite du Bois has been a favourite of mine for years, and I am torn between tearing through the rest of the juice and wishing to preserve it. Its ginger-cloves-cinnamon-cardamom mix sounds heavy on paper, but is made transparent and almost fizzy (with that inevitable cola-aspect that appears when you blend certain spices and fruity notes). There is a hint of gingerbread, too. If I had to pick THE perfect scent for the season, this might be it; managing to reference so many seasonal aromas, yet being so uplifting, refreshing and elegant, rather than stuffy and overwhelming. In some ways, it is the winter mirror to my summer love, Annick Goutal’s Mandragore.

Dzongkha once again features frankincense, but this time it is wrapped in an iris-leather accord and spiced up, so the impression flip-flops between a spice cupboard, single malt whisky and celery. It isn’t the easiest of scents to wear, but when the days get cold and dark, and we begin to wind down (and, in some cases, sip single malt whisky), this is the perfect companion. I wore this to a whisky tasting session with Iain Banks, but the scent has found itself to my Christmas rotation, too, and fits there perfectly.

Timo with whisky

My husband with his early Christmas treats.

The hardest scent for me to wear is Y by YSL (which, until a few years ago had not suffered from reformulations, if any, though I hear has now been changed. My bottle is approximately seven years old). It was the closest my mother had to a signature scent. She wore this for many years almost exclusively, and I have very strong memories of her wafting in from freezing cold temperatures, bringing with her the green floral chypre sillage, along with a trail of sub-zero air. For some reason the scent is particularly fixed to Christmas; perhaps because when I was very little, I would be shipped off to her parent’s house for a few days before she would follow, and getting the frozen waft of Y through the door before she appeared has been forever etched to my memory. This does smell glorious in cold weather, and has that 60s/70s galbanum-cyclamen-hyacinth-aldehyde-soapy thing going on, with a gorgeous dry chypre base. If I am feeling brave, I wear it on Christmas Eve, so it is like having her there with me, even though she died in 2001.

This year we have also bought a real Christmas tree, though I now realise, a little too soon (it is a Norway spruce – the tree traditionally brought indoors a day or two before Christmas in Finland; ours has been here for two weeks and is starting to drop its needles. Oops). The smell of this tree is the ‘correct’ Christmas tree smell for me, and adds to the festive feeling.

If you are interested in chemistry, or fragrance chemistry, or both, do follow Compound Interest who frequently post nifty infographics such as this:

compound interest smell of Christmas treesWhich smells and fragrances really make Christmas special for you?

On Why Brian Griffin Acting Like a Dog is an Excellent Metaphor For Cultural Displacement (and on why setting fires in dry forests is really, really stupid)

It’s our wedding anniversary today. Yay us! Six years and we haven’t killed each other. We’ve grown closer and happier, partly through having been so well-suited to each other in the first place, partly through adversity, partly because of shared interests and definitely because of our mutual roots in Finland.

When you have lived in two countries for pretty much exactly half and half of your life (I am 41 and came to the UK about 20 years ago), you are at risk of developing a sort of bizarre self-aware dual identity. Your cultural and genetic heritage makes you one thing and your surroundings and learned behaviours make you another. At times it feels like an out-of-body experience; I’ll either have my Finnish self smirking at the English self saying *“please” and “would you mind awfully if…” and generally dancing around the real subject of the conversation like any properly polite English person ought to. And making cups of tea. And apologising when someone bumps into me. At other times, it’s the English person rolling her eyes when the Finnish person breaks free and just has to correct someone who is breaking the rules or cut through the flourish and get straight to the point. The latter feels exactly like when Brian Griffin can’t help but act like the dog he is.


Being a Finn, I love forests (the largest forest in Finland is Finland. The whole country is a forest broken up by 155,000 lakes and the odd attempt at civilisation). Forests are sort of sacred to Finns. Not in a religious sense, but seeing as they’re eveywhere, most Finns tend to learn how to behave in them. Forests are a pain in the arse when you have to create arable land but they also provide valuable sustenance and an important economic commodity = wood. Most Finnish kids have gone berry or mushroom picking at some point in their childhood; skiing in the winter or jogging through them in a torturous gym class in school. When you land at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport, glance out of the window and you’ll see that the airport is pretty much a patch of asphalt carved into the middle of a forest.

One of the reasons we moved to Farnham was that there is a wealth of beautiful nature right on our doorstep, including some great forests. Alice Holt was used as a location for Gladiator and it’s a great place for a day out, but possibly a little too popular (although if you want to climb up in treetops like a monkey, there’s Go Ape and if you enjoy outdoor theatre or want to hire bikes for a bit of a ride through nice forest trails, Alice Holt is the place for you). Alas, it is usually packed on weekends and if one wants to emulate a Finnish forest experience, one does not visit a “forest experience”. So Bourne Wood is definitely our favourite out of the two and you can usually walk and climb around for a fair while before even encountering another human being, much less a crowd. It also happens to harbour a little bit of a hidden treasure for us Finns: real bilberies grow there. These are what Finns call blueberries and the variety sold in UK shops is referred to as a bush blueberry.

Today we decided to climb up to our berry spot and check how they’re progressing (still green or nonexistent; the delayed summer may have ruined this year’s harvest). Climbing up further, I suddenly smelled smoke.

Some absolute numpties had not only littered the forest with crisp packets, chocolate wrappers and empty cider bottles, but they’d set a fire around a dried up tree trunk and not put it out properly, so the fire had continued burning in the undergrowth and spread out from their original fire pit right out to the crisp, dry moss and sticks. The tree trunk was still slowly burning, too. A few more hours and the fire would have reached another dry tree or an area with nothing but dried sticks and we would have had a serious local forest fire.


This was like pressing a big Finnish-psyche-ACTIVATE-button. Not only is setting fires in forests illegal (Finns love to monitor that everyone is following the rules, however daft; even though in this case it really is a good rule) – those heathens had desecrated a forest. A forest! Not knowing how to behave in nature is one thing, but nobody messes around with a forest. I could see that the fire wouldn’t go out with what was left of our water bottle so I dialled 999 and called the fire brigade. We had to walk back to the entrance to meet them and direct them to the spot.

Surrey Fire Brigade being heroes

Surrey Fire Brigade being heroes.

When we were driving home, I started giggling: “I feel so smug about that now,” I said, “and the English me is laughing her arse off.” Being on the same wavelength, my husband immediately understood what I was on about and started laughing, too. “Acting like a good citizen and calling in the fire brigade when someone not only broke the law but broke the law in a forest – and saving our forest from a fire in the process – my Finnish self is very pleased with herself and it’s like when Brian Griffin can’t help but act like a dog but is still aware that he’s acting like a dog, and it drives him nuts.”

But seriously. Teach your children how to behave in a forest. I’m not kidding. I have an axe.

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* There is no word for “please” in the Finnish language. The sentiment is expressed by behaviour; by sometimes adding a “thank you” where “please” would go – and generally by either a quick nod or possibly even eye contact. When I visit Finland, the empty hole where “please” would go leaves me gasping for air in hilarious confusion. It makes me feel amusingly uncomfortable not to be able to add it. So I end up saying “thank you” a lot more than expected and staff members in shops and waitresses in restaurants look at me like I’m the woman who fell to Earth. Trying to explain to Brits that the lack of “please” does not make Finns rude; that the language and cultural norms don’t demand it, is a bit like trying to describe a colour that doesn’t exist. It is so deeply ingrained in the culture here that I’ve given up trying to explain it and now use the lack of “please” as a sort of gross-out party trick: “Yes, Finnish people go to the kiosk and just grunt Malrboro Lights… and nothing comes after.” Most people turn a little pale and laugh nervously; it’s way better than a ghost story.

Nostalgic Cosmetics

A selection of nostalgia-inducing cosmetics that are popular in Finland

Lately I’ve been feeling a little home-sick for Finland and nostalgic for childhood summers spent frolicking on fields and swimming in lakes. Ignoring the part where a large proportion of my childhood summer holidays were spent sitting under the shade reading, I did genuinely have a great time at my grandparents’ summer cottage in Jaala. In my late teens it was also a welcome break from my part-time job behind the beauty counter.

There are a few products and brands I remember very fondly from Finland. Even now, in the big wide world, surrounded by all the choice of an over-saturated cosmetics market (or perhaps because of it), I get a lot of joy and comfort from using some things from way back when. I’ve gathered a little selection of products that I use or stock up on when in Finland.

1. My grandmother’s favourite hand cream – Lemon Juice & Glycerine (and that’s pretty much all there is to the formula). It’s inexpensive, widely available in Finnish supermarkets, smells delicious and a little goes a long way. My gran had not just a green thumb but ten green fingers. Her cottage garden was magnificent. She would use this cream after a day’s hard work outdoors and her hands were always soft.

2. Berner’s XZ-shampoos and conditioners are some of the best mass-market products you can get for your hair. The formulas are decent, as are the scents and if I forget to pack shampoo when I travel to Finland (as I did last time), this is the brand I look out for at the supermarket or chemist. I’ve tried a few of them now; the sea buckthorn range was a particular favourite.

3. When did I start using these? Late 80s, I think. The Deborah Hydracolor tinted lip balms are probably my favourite tinted lip balms, ever. I did stop using them when I came to the UK (as they don’t seem to be available here) but I bought four different shades on our last trip to Finland and they are all lovely. The flavour alone takes me back.

4. Louis Widmer, how do I love thee? There’s an interesting element to the Finnish cosmetics market. The Boots-type pharmacy/drugstore doesn’t exist; instead you have very sterile and serious pharmacies in which you can find a (growing) selection of (usually quite) earnest cosmetics. Hypo-allergenic, cosmeseutical; as long as it could be marketed by a man in a white lab coat, it gets in. The self-selection drugstore cosmetics are found in supermarkets, department stores, Anttila stores and standalone cosmetic stores (of which there are now many, many more than 20 years ago).The Swiss Louis Widmer brand has been a staple in Finnish pharmacies for decades. I first tried the products when I was working in one of the first standalone cosmetic stores in Finland and on my last few trips back I’ve been stocking up on the eye cream and vitalising night cream; the textures are rich and soothing (I use them in winter or at night if my skin feels very dry) and the scent is Nivea-like, comforting and old-fashioned.

5.Ô de Lancôme was one of my go-to summer scents 20 years ago. I first learned of it when working in that cosmetics store and I fell hard for that 70s-style cologne and for Givenchy III, a bitter citrus chypre that I couldn’t get enough of. If you think these are odd choices for a teen, it may be comforting to know I also adored Balahe (an oriental spicebomb with a boozy vanilla and eugenol accord), Jardins de Bagatelle (a sugary tuberose garden writ large which could give today’s fruity florals a run for their money) and even Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door. Ô de Lancôme was a great summer scent, though, and smelling it now takes me back to those days.

6. Yves Rocher was and still is popular in Finland. I mentioned the Chevrefeuille products I’ve been using recently and the Hamamelis-range is something we always seemed to have in our bathroom when I was growing up.

7. I wonder if there is a single Finnish cosmetics-using female who doesn’t own at least one Lumene product? A home-grown brand owned and manufactured by a pharmaceutical company, Lumene caters for the needs of Nordic women and uses some interesting local materials from arctic berries to peat. I’ve never visited Finland without buying at least one Lumene lipstick. There are many really flattering shades for pale complexions and the formulas are easy to wear – they don’t tend to feel heavy, drying or sticky.

8. 4711 was one of my gran’s staples along with the lemon hand cream and a touch of face powder. The cologne was more of a summer cottage thing; in town she preferred Arden’s Blue Grass. The smell of 4711 is very nostalgic; I love cologne, full stop – and it’s a great product to carry with you on summer travels. Something to rinse your hands with instead of alcohol gel, or to splash on after a shower. It’s nostalgic but still relevant.

9. I told you Lumene uses peat – here it is in all its glory; a deep-cleansing peat mask. I find this absolutely marvellous for my awkward ageing combination skin. I use this on my t-zone and buy two or three tubes to take home when I visit Finland.

10. Lumene Hydra Drops is a very lightweight foundation made with oatmilk and fluffy clouds. At least that’s how it feels on your skin. It’s one of the few liquid foundations that comes in a shade light enough for my winter skin and doesn’t settle into pores. I tend to prefer powder foundation overall, but when my skin is feeling dry, dehydrated or a bit cranky, this stuff is magic.

A Finnish lake view