Monday, February 28, 2011


For much of this month, Helsinki has been sitting at the bottom of a high-pressure cell of air so cold that it had begun to feel oppressive.  We enjoyed two weeks of temperatures around -25 centigrade (-13F) and below, with highs on most days not much above -18C (0F).  Further inland and to the north – far from the moderating effects of the sea (even if it is frozen) the chill has been much deeper.  A seasonal low of almost -42C (-43F) was measured in Lapland on February 18th, right on the eve of the annual “ski holidays”.  This is when schools in Helsinki close for a week and the city empties out as many families head either south to warm spots not known for their skiing, like the Canary Islands or Thailand, or – against all human reason – northward into the heart of coldness to ski in Lapland. 

The upside of the frigid weather we’ve been experiencing is that for a couple of weeks we've had clear, blue skies.  This, along with days that are getting noticeable longer, gives us an abundance of sunshine that many parts of the world take for granted, but that Finns can usually enjoy only in the dead of winter when it’s “too cold to snow”. 

Local ice-climbing spot in Helsinki.
Of course, strictly speaking, it can never be too cold to snow.  But for practical purposes, once the air here gets much below -20, it usually can’t hold enough moisture to form snow or even clouds, allowing us – for a few weeks at least – to live under a dome of blue winter sky, instead of a low ceiling of monotonous gray vapor.  The aridity of the cold air also has a downside for someone like me.  Such extreme lack of humidity turns me into a walking static-electricity generator.  I electrify everything and everyone I touch.  Also, the cold air quickly dries out skin left exposed too long, resulting in me going around most winters with my hands bleeding from countless small cracks.   I managed to avoid that this year -- that is, until a week ago when I shed my gloves for twenty minutes to help someone jump his car off.  

When I first contemplated moving to Finland, I dug out a world map to check the location of my future home.  Upon seeing how far north Finland really lies, my first thought was:  “How in the world does anyone live up there?”  It was a perfectly logical reaction for someone who grew up in the temperate climate of Georgia. 

While my home state does share the same latitude with such scorching places as Morocco, it doesn’t mean we’re unfamiliar with cold weather.  The “Siberian Express” cold fronts that barrel down through the US from Canada almost always reach the northern part of Georgia, giving us a short-lived taste of real winter.  My family’s fishpond would freeze over most winters for a few days, though with ice strong enough to bear the weight of nothing heavier than a cat – a fact that inquisitive minds couldn’t help verifying by luring an unsuspecting pet out onto the ice to test it. 

Very occasionally, temperatures even dipped briefly to zero Fahrenheit, which always was a big deal and could have been a real hardship for us in Georgia if it had ever lasted more than a day or so.  I recall my father getting frostbite once from trying to loosen the frozen water pipes at his dry-cleaning store to keep them from bursting.  In ordinary winters, we managed well enough though, even if our house, like most in the South, was admittedly not built for prolonged cold spells.  We made up for the lack of effective heating (or even any real insulation) by sleeping under thick quilts and electric blankets. 

Still, we could take comfort during the coldest part of winter by looking at the weather map and thinking it could be worse.  We could be those poor bastards in Fargo, North Dakota, which was point-blank in the path of the Arctic blasts coming down from Canada.  There, they had to contend with mind-blending temperatures like 40 below. 

With temperatures like that (and Canada to the north only a mysterious terra incognita on the weather map), it was easy to think that Fargo was at the very northern edge of human habitation.  And, the fact is that when you look at a map of population density in North American, it seems most Canadians live in a band of territory just north of the US border, almost as if huddling next to the US for warmth.  I doubt the Canadians would see it that way, however.

With such preconceptions, we were naturally skeptical of the possibility of life anywhere more than a day’s drive north of the desolate Dakota plains.  By comparison, Helsinki is practically the North Pole.  It’s almost as far north as Whitehorse or Yellowknife or some other forgotten (but apparently colorful) outpost of civilization, where I imagined the few people who somehow ended up there must have struggled to cling to life. 

View from Helsinki's frozen Töölö Bay.
But, that’s continental North America.  Europe is different, thanks to the redistribution of warmth by the Gulf Stream, which begins in the sun-baked straits between Florida and Cuba.  By transporting warm Caribbean water to the far northern Atlantic, the Gulf Stream helps moderate winter weather that would otherwise be as bitter as Saskatoon’s.  This is partly why Portugal, at about the same latitude as Boston, has a pretty enviable climate in January instead of one that gives New England its well-deserved reputation for winter sports.

It’s always been nice to think that warmth from the part of the world where I grew up was helping to make my new home livable.  There have been some worries of late, however, that this flow of heat to Europe might not be as unrelenting as it seems.  Some studies have suggested that the Gulf Stream has slowed in the last couple of years by as much as half.  In October, a meteorologist in Poland predicted that this slowdown would trigger the coldest winter in Europe for a thousand years.  That is truly a frightening thought, raising the specter of a second “Little Ice Age” like the one that disrupted life in Europe beginning in the 1300s. 

The last couple of days have now been near freezing and, despite the two feet of snow still on the ground and the serious deep-freeze we had the last two weeks, there’s a real sense that winter is about to break and the slow change toward spring has started.  Unless things get very ugly very quickly, we can safely say that – at least for this year – the threat of being hit by a frost not seen in a millennium was just very, very bad weather forecasting.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bloody Food

While it wasn't exactly a New Year’s resolution, my family decided to go on a diet of only fish and vegetables for the month of January, mostly as an experiment to see if we can reduce the amount of red meat we eat.  That’s easier for some of us (read my wife) than for others (that would be me).  By the way, this idea is a variation of the practice widely professed by some Finns of swearing off alcohol for at least a month following the festive Christmas season.  There’s even a name for that tea-totaling custom, tipaton tammikuu. 

Our break from meat wasn’t an ironclad prohibition.  My daughter was of course served meat as part of her school lunches, and my son elected to opt out of the whole thing.  That said, for an entire month our family meals – meaning dinner – consisted only of plants and creatures no higher on the evolutionary ladder than a herring. 

Medieval-era herring fishing in neighboring Sweden.
The change of diet wasn’t exactly a huge stretch for us.  Like lots of families in Finland, we already eat fish pretty regularly.  Finns do like their fish, be it fried, baked, boiled, grilled, smoked, raw or even pickled.   (However, they don't seem go for fermenting our gilled, water-breathing friends, as the Swedes do.)  And most grocery stores offer an excellent variety of fish, from large slabs of salmon to  finger-sized muikku.  And, of course, the ubiquitous Baltic herring.  

There’s no prize for guessing the reason the popularity of fish in this country.  Surrounded on two sides by the Baltic Sea and pockmarked with nearly 200,000 freshwater lakes (mostly concentrated in the east where my wife is from), Finland has always enjoyed a bountiful supply of fishy protein close to home. 

Still, my family typically consumes less fish than beef or chicken.  (We’re also not big eaters of the other favorite meat for Finns, pork.)  So it nonetheless took some adjustment to switch temporarily to life without meat.  The biggest hardship for me wasn’t so much being unable to eat the stuff, as it was figuring out what to cook in its place. 

I do most of the cooking in our house during the week, thanks to me currently being a stay-at-home Dad, and sad to say I’m no Jamie Oliver.  I can fry your basic ground beef – essential for our mainstays of pizza, macaroni casserole (makaronilaatikko), burritos, etc. – and chicken for stir-fry dishes.  I can also make a pretty mean hotdog soup, and when it comes to pea soup, I’m able to open a tin can alongside the best of them. 

With meat off the table, however, the limits of my culinary range became as painfully apparent.  I quickly found you can serve fish sticks or salmon soup only so many times during a given month.  And the obvious choice of all-veggie meals – though healthy and appetizing in theory – turned out to be challenging for this accidental chef.  My attempt at a soy and lentil concoction was tasty – well, editable – but its presentation suffered a tab from being indistinguishable from canned cat food.  Cheap canned cat food.  Word of this dish spread even to my daughter’s friends, who had to see for themselves the food so gross that only a cat would consider eating it – if only it contained meat. 

Blood pancakes with lingonberries.
Now that January is behind us, I can breathe a little easier when suppertime approaches, though we’re committed to continue reducing our meat intake and I’m determined to learn how to cook veggie dishes that are not so foul as to make a vegan backslide.  

In the meantime, we’re back to our more normal, easier-to-prepare menu.  Our first meaty meal was my mother-in-law’s meatballs, which I can confidently state are the best in the world.  The other meat-ish dish we allowed ourselves is one we don’t often eat nowadays, verilettu.  This traditional Finnish pancake made with pig blood – that’s right pig’s blood – used to be a staple in our house when the kids were young.  That was back when you could still buy dry blood-pancake mix, which made it easy for busy parents to quickly whip up a batch of verilettu for hungry youngsters.  Just mix with water, fry in a skillet, and serve with lingonberries on top.  Of course, my kids chose to break with traditional and instead smothered the pancakes with, what else, ketchup. 

For some years now, the dried mix has disappeared off the store shelves, why I can’t say.  But, small ready-made blood pancakes, about the size of silver dollars, are still available.  This is what we recently served with supper for the first time in quite a while.  The kids were not enthusiastic.  Obviously, they have lost their taste for this Finnish delicacy, with or without ketchup.  Or, maybe these modern-day mass-produced, overly processed pancakes aren’t quite the same as the ones they remember from their childhood. 

In any case, my wife found them acceptable.  And she remembers a time when verilettu were prepared the old fashion way – that is, with fresh blood.  In those days, people made the pancakes with pig's blood that they bought from the local butcher shop and brought home in buckets.  Buckets of blood.  Picture that for a moment.  If that doesn’t nudge you toward taking a little break from meat yourself, then nothing will.