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. 


  1. Reminds me a bit of the kvass, my Russian mother used to make:

  2. Well,I'll have to try some sima. Sounds simple enough to even make!

  3. You can put a couple of raisins in each bottle. Sima is ready once they rise on the surface.