Practicalities

Doing life right, at home and away

Category: Tradition

Of Himmeli-tradition coming to life in Leipzig

“You have reveled my joys and mourned my sorrows, and you have always been there quiet and delicate, when I have needed to contemplate.” 

– Jalmari Sauli / Himmeli: Tales about the nature and children of nature (1928)

I’ve held two of my Himmeli-workshops now and it’s been an absolute wonder. I’m so happy and grateful for the heaps of people interested in Himmelis and Finnish crafts tradition. I did not expect it to be so well received. Furthermore, I’m absolutely impressed by the craft skills my students have had: crafts are definitely not dead! 🙂

And to any new readers: oh, what am I even talking about – what is a Himmeli? Why, it’s a traditional Finnish hanging mobilé ornament and holiday decoration, of course!

Himmelis are tokens, symbols and charms to ensure happiness, riches and a good harvest for the follow year. They were often hung above the dining table before Christmas and stayed out on display until Midsummer and even throughout the year.

Though the name of the ornament is of Germanic origin – in both Swedish and German “himmel” means “sky” or “heaven” – the Himmeli is undoubtedly considered the quintessential traditional Finnish Christmas (Yule) & holiday decoration. However, Himmelis are not strictly tied to any specific event or celebration, and the ornaments were also popular at wedding celebrations (hung above the head of the bride, a ”bride’s crown”), housewarming gifts, as well as decorating many a Midsummer. Last, but by no means least, they also hung above cribs to bless and soothe small children.

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Of Himmeli Workshops in 2018!

Hey y’all! Hallo zusammen! Anybody there interested in crafts? ;

(unter auf Deutsch)

Are you famliar with Finnish Himmelis?

For the new readers in this blog, I’m a Finnish tradition blogger and I’m having two Himmeli-workshops beginning of the next year. I’m so excited!

I’ve teamed up with the awesome Villa Hasenholz and I’ll be doing a little demoing at their Christmas Market this weekend 09.-10.12.

A Himmeli is a traditional Finnish ornament, which incorporate many beliefs, magic and history in Finnish culture. For hundreds of years, Himmelis have decorated the Finnish homes, hoping to bring its’ owners happiness, riches and a good harvest for the next year. 

The modern Himmeli has many forms and styles, but a Himmeli casting it’s silent, moving shadow on the ceiling, is one of the most impressive examples of Finnish craft heritage. The delicate Himmeli in it’s silent dignity is unparalleled. 

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Of making a traditional German Rumtopf

This year, I am finally making a Rumtopf – or a Rumpot, in English. Rommiruukku, in Finnish.

It’s a traditional German fruit preserve/beverage and there are as many variations as there are makers of it. Because you can vary the recipe in so many ways, consider these just overall guidelines.

The Rumtopf has been a culinary classic in the past, but become unfortunately untrendy in the last 10-15 years, though I am hoping for it to make a comeback.

Where did this all begin? Rum imports began in the 18th century. Close to the Danish border, Flensburg was where the West Indies fleet offloaded it’s boozy cargo and, from there, it was transported around Europe. The legend has it, that the rum importing sailors accidentally dropped some fruit into a barrel of rum which quickly developed into a way of transporting exotic fruit back to Europe – and a tradition was born.

Ye Olde way of making this starts in late spring when the first fresh fruit is in season and ends in autumn when the fruit season is ending – typically with pears, or apples or plums and such. However, these days you can probably make it all at once sometime in the middle of summer, when the fruit season is peaking and the ripe fruit times are overlapping. I’m making mine in two steps: I’m still going to add pears later in autumn.

To make a Rumtopf, you will need a large-ish container, depending on how many people you intend to feed with it. Mine is 4 liters and it’s definitely quite large. You can also use a couple of smaller jars, if you don’t want to opt for a big one.

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Of sima and fermenting drinks

Yay! It’s May and it’s time to make some mead! This beautiful fermented nectar – sima (pronounced for English speakers like see-mah) – is traditional to the Finnish 1st of May bacchanals.

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One of the BIG FOUR Finnish celebrations in the calendar year, the 1st of May celebration – Vappu (pronounced kinda as vah-poo) – celebrates the spring, Saint Walburg (along the lines of Walburgsnacht) and whathaveyou. Labour movements as well as university students have all alike appropriated this beautiful spring party day.

In Finland, sima  – this often home-made, low-alcohol lemon mead – is one of the most prolific signs of Vappu. It is an important part of my favourite Vappu tradition: the big, even lavish picnics, especially popular in Helsinki.

Other typical things related to Vappu are: carnival-style festivities, all imaginable varieties of alcohol and drinking them aplenty.

While Vappu/Walburgsnacht is of religious origin – for centuries if not millenias have pagan prehistoric Finns been chucking down pints of sima and dancing the night away in the gleaming light of spring bonfires.

While a strong and potent alcoholic beverage in the past, sima of today is kind of a party drink for the whole family due to its low alcohol content. This is my mother’s recipe, that we have used for years and tweaked it a bit to our taste.

Here, I’m going to tell you how to make it – it’s super easy and so tasty!

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Of having yourself a very merry Christmas time

I love Christmas – and yes, what a wonderful time it is. I’m not in my core this positive, optimistic person but, during Christmas, for a brief moment, I become one.

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Our house was full for the whole holidays – of both people and joy, but also Christmas music, singing, chatter, several languages, laughter and animals running around in circles, like crazy.

I don’t get to see my family all that often and, of course, the same goes for W. We’ve been alternating holidays every year: last year, in the UK with his family and, this year, my family came to Leipzig.

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Our Christmas menu was faithful to the Finnish traditions. I had prepared the pickled herrings almost a week earlier and my family brought the gravlax with them from Finland. Heaps of waxy potatoes were boiled. Spirits were bright CLEAR. (That’s the tradition – vodkas or equivalent with the fish starters.)

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Of autumn hobbies and picking mushrooms

All mushrooms are edible. But some, you can only eat once.

– Old Finnish proverb

I’ve been holding on to this post for quite a while but somehow struggled to get it finished. Today I went out with Musti and found such a nice mushroom harvest, I knew I had found the last pieces to this puzzle. I had to finish it.

So, I go to the forest quite often.

Some nice green forest in Leipzig

I don’t actually consider going to the forest exceptionally calming per se – I just like it that there are no other people there. I like the feeling of temporary, fleeting isolation. If you go deep enough, you can almost not hear the motorways.

I go all year round, but autumn is my favourite time – there are no longer so many mosquitos, it’s not that hot – the air has that crisp autumn smell – and, if you are lucky, you can find mushrooms.

Sara in the forest with Musti dog

Top Samuji (2015) // Jeans H&M (2015)

Picking mushrooms is in Finland like a national hobby: when autumn arrives, every social media channel fills with pictures of mushrooms, foods made with mushrooms and a lot – I mean A LOT – of the conversation with people revolves around these special fruits of the forest!

Chanterelles on a wooden chopping board

Plus, mushroom hunting is incredibly fun! The joy of the discovery, the warm satisfaction of feeling so capable and self-reliant is almost intoxicating. Here we are back in Finland, a few years ago, when we found so many black trumpets, we still eat them to this day! The smiles tell it all.

Apparently mushroom hunting is not as common elsewhere as it is in Finland. Ever since I moved abroad, I have not found a single mushroom hunting buddy! I’ve found that a lot of people are, first of all, confused about identifying mushrooms but also not sure what to make of them and how to really get started. So, I’ll gently take your hand and hold it through the basics of mushroom picking: presenting 3 + 1 of the easiest mushrooms to pick in central Europe and a couple of nice easy recipes to complete your first foraging adventure!

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Of gingerbread, gingerbread

In Finland, it’s quite common to make your own gingerbread every Christmas, young and old alike. Somehow I’ve gotten the impression it’s not such a popular tradition elsewhere. That does not mean that it should not be endorsed, however.

gingerbread ingredients

I don’t like the readymade gingerbread cookies sold in shops. They are almost always sickly sweet and hardly taste of anything else than sugar. So, if you are like me but don’t know how to go about making your own gingerbread cookies, I can assure you my recipe is great, tried and tested!

I would point out that this recipe requires some knowledge of spices – the ingredient spreads are indicative. Apart from citrus zest and cinnamon and maybe black pepper, I think the spices should be of equal amounts so they don’t overpower each other. I would also be quite careful with the black pepper – while some like spicier cookies, the pepper should complement the treacle and the sweetness, not taste strong and hot. If you are unfamiliar with mixing the spices in question, I would recommend sticking to smaller amounts. If ,however, you are into some spicier gingerbread, they can quite well be adjusted to taste.

Gingerbread!!!

It’s not the world’s simplest recipe, but every step is very straightforward. The dough is mixed from four parts which are first assembled separately: the butter-sugar mix, the treacle-spices mix, the sour cream-bicarbonate mix and the egg-sugar mix.

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pickled herring from above

Of pickled herring

It had never occurred to me that pickled herring was somewhat of a thing of “an acquired taste” – until I well, met other people for the first time.

My family is very, very fond of pickled herring and I love them more than it is sane. It’s something about all the tastes meeting the right way: it’s always wonderfully salty but also sweet, it’s vinegary and tangy but smooth.

So anyway, pickled herring is also a Finnish Christmas classic. Some of my friends have eaten my herrings before and I know that at least a couple have grown equally fond of them. Without further ado, may I present: glassblower Tefke’s herring  – for my foreign friends!

Glassblower Tefke’s pickled herring

May I start by saying that when it comes to pickled herring – anticipation is a virtue. Gold. I almost never remember/bother to make the herrings properly in time. They are always all good and swell and tasty, but the leftovers eaten a couple of weeks after Christmas, are always the real-er deal, the way the herring is really, truly supposed to taste. So consider entertaining the idea of anticipation. Maybe YOU have got what it takes to make the herrings early enough? Maybe YOU won’t find excuses and procrastinate when it comes to pickling your herring? When the push comes to shove, can YOU grab the bull by its horns, and pickle your herring early?

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making a clay pot

Of clay pots and curing them

Today, we are going to learn about clay pots and curing one! (And I’ve also compiled a list of my dream pots and how I’d cure those.) As you may know, I’m extremely fond of clay pots and I recently got a new one from my favourite shop in Strasbourg. (I would highly recommend for you to read that post first!)

Clay pot cooking has a long and storied history, with many different traditions around the world. I find it fascinating that clay pot cooking is apparently so intuitive that it has been separately invented and practised in so many different cultures.

Interestingly, there seem to be as many ways to cure and season pots as there are to cook in them, featuring a multitude of ingredients ranging from spinach to buttermilk to mustard oil. Some curing rituals seem a little on the superstitious side, but there’s also plenty of “science” in there. The general purpose of curing and seasoning is three-fold: to strengthen the clay against thermal shock, help store moisture in the  porous material, as well as helping to enhance the flavours.

Overall, why would you pick clay? Well, it retains heat but doesn’t transfer heat well, meaning that your delicious foods won’t burn. The inside is essentially cooked with steam as the lid seals tightly – you don’t lose any moisture and everything comes out tender and flavourful. The heat radiating from the sides also cooks the food in a different way and slower than in a cast iron pot.

Some pots have a shinier finish, meaning they have been burnished to reduce the porosity of the final product. They do not require to be soaked each time before use – just once when they are cured the first time. Some pots have a recognisable matte-finish and require soaked for about 15–45 minutes in water, every time, before use (such as the German Römertopf).

So, before I can start cooking with my new toy, it needs a little fixing up. As the pot I got is an Alsatian “Baeckehof”, it shall be seasoned as one.

Let’s get to it!

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  1. Fill the pot with full fat milk. No exceptions – full fat! The whole point of curing is that the fat in the milk will go in the pores of the pot.
  2. Put the pot in a cold oven. Turn on the oven and let the milk reach its boiling point. It’s important that the pot & the milk heat up with the oven to avoid any abrupt changes in temperature.
  3. Take the pot out, but be careful where you put it: ceramic pots are sensitive to thermic shocks. You don’t want the pot to crack before you even get to use it! Let the pot rest and cool down for a few minutes.
  4. Take off the lid (carefully! if the milk has boiled a lot, the lid may be a bit stuck) and brush the milk around the lid and the parts that are not covered with milk. Now, I’ve never really found out how long you are supposed to do this. I usually do it for 5-10 minutes, depending on how quickly I get bored.
  5. Let the pot cool down quite a bit, so you can comfortably handle it. Throw out the milk and gently wash the pot with lukewarm water. Don’t use a brush or anything abrasive and don’t use soap: only your hands or a sponge will do.
  6. Dry with a soft tea towel, or let air dry.
  7. Your pot is ready to be used!

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There is nothing like a roast or a stew – or anything, for that matter – made in a clay pot. I’m generally a fond roaster and most of my signature dishes are now made in clay pots.

What fascinates me about clay pot cooking is that it’s almost as old as cooking itself: ever since pottery making was invented in the Upper-Paleolithic period, humans have put foods in clay pots and placed them on hot coals or above fires.

Unfortunately, clay pots are big and heavy and my slightly nomadic life style combined with small studios, shared apartments and inexistent kitchens has prevented me from acquiring more of them. So far. If I had all the room in the world, here are a few examples from around the world that might secure some space in my kitchen:

1. La Chamba (Colombia)

La Chamba is a traditional Colombian pot, especially for cooking beans but also many other foods. To cure, in the traditional way, immerse your pot in water and soak it for 2 hours. Rub the pot with a clove of cut garlic and fill it 3/4 full with water. Place the pot in the oven and turn it on to 225 degrees. Bring the pot up to temperature and leave it in the oven for 2 to 3 hours. Turn the oven off and leave the pot in the oven until its cool. Your pot is now ready to use.

2. Römertopf (Germany)

Always begin with soaking the pot in cool water for 10 to 15 minutes. Bake at high temperatures (200+C) to turn all of that moisture into steam.

If you cook fish or any other strong-flavoured ingredients, you may need to give your pot an extra soaking afterwards because the flavours will be absorbed into unfinished, the porous clay. For a serious cleaning of the Romertopf, put the lid upside down in the bottom or the bottom upside down in the lid – depending on the size – and fill bottom and lid with water and a cup of white vinegar. Put them in the oven for about an hour at 180°F to clear out the pores. The water will turn brown and your Romertopf will be cleansed!

3. Tagine (Morocco)

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How long have a longed and dreamt of owning my own tagine. It’s a pot and a delicious Moroccan stew, made especially delicious by the smooth and even distribution of tagine heat. Meats melt, sauces cling and coat, and vegetables remain shapely and nutritious. A few traditional combinations include chicken with preserved lemons and olives, meat with dried fruit, and mixed many vege variations.

4. Sand pot, shāguo, bàozai (China)

The most popular sand pot dishes in Cantonese cuisine revolve around rice: clay pots cook slowly and gently, allowing liquids to gradually evaporate and infuse into the rice. Those delicious juices have nowhere to escape. The pots are made with a clay with a high sand content and have a slightly rough exterior and a hard glazed interior.  The pot exterior is almost always the natural unglazed off white colour with a blackish or brown glazed interior. Sometimes, there’s one long handle and sometimes two short.

To cure, traditionally, you would soak the whole pot and lid in water overnight, then leave to air dry. Next, it up with water and boil for half hour on medium heat. Cool, empty, dry.

5. Donabe (Japan)

Donabe can be used to cook a variety of hot pot dishes on the dining room tabletop with family and/or friends. It’s equally useful for stewing or braising. Because Iga clay has a higher heat-resistance, you can even cook with it over gas range or in the oven. Yes, you can’t do that with most earthenware or stoneware – thanks, 4-million-year-old clay layers which used to be the bottom of Lake Biwa! They’re special pots and they, of course, have their own special curing technique.

Pour water to about 2/3 of the donabe, and add some cooked rice. Not too much, not too little – perhaps 1/3 of the water. Stir the water and rice thoroughly. Cover the pot and bring to a simmer on the stove (approximately after 20-30 minutes for a medium-size donabe), uncover and keep the heat low (the mixture should never boil). Continue to cook until the mixture becomes a paste. Stir occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn’t stick. Turn off the heat and let it cool. Remove the rice mixture from the donabe, rinse and leave to dry completely.

Whichever pot you choose and whichever way you choose to cure it, I hope you enjoy your adventure into the world of cooking in clay.

Poterie d'Alsace shop window

Of my favourite shop in Strasbourg

There are many things to write about when writing about Strasbourg, but this post is exclusively dedicated to a topic dear to me, as well as my favourite shop: Poterie d’Alsace – Alsatian Pottery.

It’s right in the centre of the Old Town, at 3 rue des Frères, right behind the big cathedral. If you want to know more about things in general, check out my post about the city and eating in Strasbourg.

A friend of mine, Iris, told me about this shop a year ago when I was first visiting Strasbourg. I’ve been getting into clay pot cooking ever since I moved to Karlsruhe and was looking for my first “proper” clay pot. I was mesmerised by the shop and its ceramics – from the floor to the ceiling, all bright colours, the beautifully simple and delicate decorations and everything covered in the smooth, glossy glaze.

Alsace has a thousand year long tradition in pottery and a large portion of the area has specialised in pottery making. In 1850, thirty villages in the Lower-Rhein area were in the business of making pottery – however nowadays, only two most important nodes remain: Betschdorf and Soufflenheim. Around twenty family run artisanal potteries still exist in these towns. I have been dreaming of taking a pottery tour in Soufflenheim, but so far I’ve had to settle for visiting this little shop.

I also quite like the “story” behind the pottery region: back in 1165, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of France granted the villages the right – or privilege – to extract clay from the surrounding forests. And this right is exercised by the pottery villages still today!

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