Monday, April 30, 2012

The Magical Elixir of Vappu

Last week my wife started making sima, in preparation for the May Day holiday (or Vappu, in Finnish). Sima is a light, citrusy, slightly alcoholic (0.8%) drink that is considered to be a Finnish variant of mead. It’s a traditional drink for Vappu and is stocked by all groceries this time of the year.

New home-made sima in an old bottle, with tippaleipä 
(funnel cake), 
another Vappu tradition. 
Still, my wife often likes to make up a batch of homemade. She dissolves brown sugar in a big pot of water, adds slices of lemon and brings it to a boil. After it cools, she adds a tiny amount of yeast and lets it set a day or so before bottling it to ferment for a week. It’s a mild potion that even kids can drink.

It’s strange to associate mead with the modern day sima that is consumed during Vappu (to be sure, along with much, much stronger stuff). For me, “mead” evokes instead the dimly remembered past, a legendary age chronicled by Beowulf, the epic poem of the Anglo-Saxons.

It conjures up images of stout Viking types in King Hrothgar’ mead hall downing tankards of the drink just before all hell breaks loose and the monster Grendel lays waste to them all, triggering chaos and confusion and heroic acts (and some not so heroic), all immortalized in tall tales that live on long after the dust has settled.

"Ancient Finnish Hero" from the 1888
English translation of Kalevala.
On second thoughts, maybe the legacy of mead does have a lot in common with your typical night of Vappu partying.

Of course, mead also makes an appearance in the Finns’ own epic poem, Kalevala. A part of Kalevala devoted to preparations for the wedding of Ilmarinen, a godlike blacksmith, also includes the story of how mead was first brewed.

It was a complicated process. Osmotar, creator of beer (mead), knew how to mix barley, hops, and water, but couldn’t get the concoction to ferment. She wondered aloud:

“What will bring the effervescence,
Who will add the needed factor,
That the beer may foam and sparkle,
May ferment and be delightful?” *

Who indeed? That would be Kalevatar, a “magic maiden” who gave a splinter of wood to “the magic virgin” Kapo, who rubbed her hands and knees together to transform the splinter into a snow-white squirrel. Kalevatar sent the squirrel forth to retrieve the cones of a faraway fir tree, which she then dropped into the vat of beer to ferment it. It didn’t work.

But it brought no effervescence,
And the beer was cold and lifeless.

Next, Kalevatar gave a chip of birch wood to Kapo, who once again worked her magic, this time to produce a magic marten. Kalevatar sent this weasel-like creature deep into the mountains, where bears fight, in order to collect some, well, some bear spit.

From their lips the foam was dripping
From their tongues the froth of anger;
This the marten deftly gathered,

Sadly, bear spit didn’t do the trick either, and the beer didn’t ferment. Maybe beer drinkers today – and bears – should be thankful of this fact.

Kalevatar wasn’t about to give up so easily, however. She gave Kapo a pea pod, from which the magic virgin caused a honeybee to emerge. Kalevatar directed the bee to visit a meadow on a distant ocean island, where a young woman slept...

Girdled with a belt of copper
By her side are honey-grasses,
By her lips are fragrant flowers,
Herbs and flowers honey-laden;
Gather there the sweetened juices,
Gather honey on thy winglets,

Honey was the missing ingredient. When it was added, the beer fermented so fast it overflowed the cauldron and soaked into the sand and gravel underneath. It made a powerful brew.

Great indeed the reputation
Of the ancient beer of Kalew,
Said to make the feeble hardy,
Famed to dry the tears of women,
Famed to cheer the broken-hearted,
Make the aged young and supple,
Make the timid brave and mighty,
Make the brave men ever braver,
Fill the heart with joy and gladness,
Fill the mind with wisdom-sayings,
Fill the tongue with ancient legends,
Only makes the fool more foolish.

Our homemade sima, though refreshing and tasty enough, doesn’t pack that kind of punch. Maybe instead of brown sugar from S-Market, next year we should try honey from a faraway island meadow carried on the wings of a magic bee. I’m sure it shouldn’t be too hard to arrange.

* The quotes from Kalevala are from the John Martin Crawford translation of 1888. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Headlands around Hemp

A couple of days ago, on Easter Monday, as my wife and I took a two-hour walk around the woods near our home, she taught me an extremely precise Finnish word, pälvi.  (She claims that she has mentioned this word before, but of course these things we easily forget.)

Pälvet are the patches of ground, usually at the base of a tree, where the snow first starts to melt in spring.  They are the scattered spots on the forest floor where green makes its earliest reappearance, and for many people they are surely a welcome sight after a long winter. 

Finnish is maybe unique in bestowing this hopeful sign of spring its own name – apparently even Swedes, fellow Nordics with their own generous expanses of snowy woods, don't have a word for it. As you can imagine, we don't have a comparable word in English either, though when you type pälvi into Google Translate, you will get an English "equivalent".  

According to Google, these patches of barely thawed forest translate, surprisingly, into "headlands around hemp." Really? I can easily believe that, in order to come up with a translation like that, hemp had to be involved somewhere.      


The challenges of late-season skiing.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Man of War Romney

I’m struck by the kind of small coincidences (and by “small” I mean trivial) that you run across every once and a while. This past week, while two US states and the District of Columbia were holding Republican primaries on Tuesday, I was making slow progress reading Chapter Eight of “The Glorious Cause”, a classic tome on the American Revolution by Robert Middlekauff. (“Tome” is exactly the right word – you could stop a freight train with this massive book.) 

As voters in Wisconsin, Maryland and DC were giving Mitt Romney a clean sweep in the polls, essentially guaranteeing him the Republican nomination and proving that in the end the GOP would not be jumping down the rabbit hole dug for them by the Tea Party, I was reading about the events in Boston in May 1768.

At that time, almost 250 springs ago, the British subjects in North America were in an uproar over taxation (sound familiar?), in particular the recent attempts by Parliament to make them pay duties on some items they had to import from Britain, such as paper, paint, glass and, not least of all, tea. To help enforce these extremely unpopular measures, the Royal Navy sent to Massachusetts a 50-gun man-of-war, HMS Romney. Her presence in Boston Harbor was not appreciated, and soon after arriving, the Romney sparked further outrage by commandeering a ship belonging to the richest man in America.

John Hancock, best known to modern Americans because his name is synonymous with a person's signature, was an extremely wealthy businessman, not unlike future Bostonian Mitt Romney (the man, not the man-of-war). Hancock also may, or may not, have engaged in a practice used by many of his fellow merchants to avoid paying duties, namely smuggling. 

A month before the Romney (the ship) dropped anchor in Boston Harbor, one of John Hancock’s sloops arrived from across the Atlantic with a cargo of Madeira wine. Royal customs officials suspected that Hancock had slipped most of the cargo off the boat without declaring it and paying the required duty. With the arrival of the Romney, they now had the muscle to act on their suspicions. The officials ordered the man-of-war to seize Hancock’s sloop – which was fittingly named Liberty. A riot, as they say, ensued, with the tax officials beaten bloody, but escaping with their lives. One more step on the path to revolution. 

If you are a Tea Party supporter (circa 2012) who, after this week’s primaries, is feeling some resentment over your movement being hijacked by an establish Republican like Mitt Romney, you might see a cruel metaphor in the fact that, back in the original Tea Party era, a ship called Liberty was confiscated by one named Romney. Me, I just find it all an ironic coincidence.  

"The Lost of the Romney", depicting the ship's demise after running aground in 1804.