Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Salmiakki jäätelöä

It doesn't take long for a new visitor to Finland to discover salmiakki. That stuff which looks like licorice but with a really strange taste. Watch someone eating a bit for the first time: you may see some dramatic facial expressions, and hear strong vocal reactions such as 'What is that?!?' The fact is, not all Finns like it. Shocking, but true. While some foreigners - prepare to be shocked again - take an immediate liking to it. And even though it's found elsewhere, in places like Sweden, there's no doubt it's very characteristic of Finland. If you somehow wandered into our school and didn't know it was the Finnish School, you'd spot a hefty clue in the fact that a lot of the sweets on sale in our shop are salmiakki in one form or another.

Salmiakki itself is ammonium chloride, which sounds like sodium chloride, and it would, because it is another salt. Hence it's often called salty licorice. I've been caught out by that in the past. Once, I saw some 'salty licorice' on sale at the German market in Manchester, enthusiastically bought some, only to be disappointed to find it was actual salt. Yes, people do eat that as well. Why, I don't know. I found it hard work eating any of it. I believe ammonium chloride was first tried out for medicinal purposes - pause for laughter - however, I'm told by a friend who knows, that these days it's used industrially for treating metal. Something like that. Goodness knows what it would do to our insides if eaten in any quantity. But that sort of question has never stopped a Finn doing something crazy.

And they'll put salmiakki in almost anything. The most popular product is probably chocolate with salmiakki filling. If you want to go hardcore, you'll buy a packet of 'Turkish Pepper'. It's strong, and as the 'pepper' bit suggests, quite fiery; but we're not talking about Vindaloo-type heat. I have no idea why it's 'Turkish'. A few years ago, following the sound culinary principle of combining ingredients with alcohol, someone ground up a load of Turkish Pepper and mixed it with koskenkorva = Finnish vodka. Drinking the resulting near-black liquid is a memorable experience, or it is if you can remember it afterwards. You used to see loads of bottles of it on sale at the airport. Tourists probably buy it as a fun thing to give a friend back home. But it'll be tasted once and then pushed to the back of the bottom shelf of the drinks cabinet. I don't care for it much myself, not so much for the alcohol aspect, but because it's aggressively sweet.

Now I'll undermine what I just said: what I really really like is salmiakki jäätelöä = ice cream. Finns love their ice cream anyway, so you can find not only licorice ice cream, but salmiakki as well. See that picture of the Totally Black ice lolly up above? Eating that, while ambling down the River Aura in Turku one hot summer's day ...was just perfect. I know, it looks like something you'd use to fill potholes in the road, or as grout for tiling. Weirdly enough, I'm not normally an ice cream eater, but this is different. It's delicious.

That was summer. These days I only visit Finland in winter, and ice cream isn't such an obvious thing to look for. Last year I went looking, couldn't find any, and so was forced to try out my foreigner's Finnish on various ice cream counter assistants. In the end I was told at Ingman's Spice Ice, inside Forum in Helsinki, that they did have some in the freezer, and if I came back the next day it would be put out for me. She was as good as her word :) Later in the year I was back again, there was a different girl there but she was similarly able to satisfy my need (see pic!). Sadly, I have to report that Ingman's didn't have any this February. In fact, I didn't see any salmiakki koskenkorva at the airport, and everywhere salmiakki seemed in decline. Was I imagining this? It would be more than sad if Finns were losing their taste for this very special... um... substance. You know, I actually found myself trying to think up a way to bring back some of the ice cream, with some sort of portable mini freezer. Which the airline would almost certainly stop me from transporting. Ah well, it's for the best, isn't it? It just wouldn't be the same, not eating it in Finland.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

There's a Finnish School?!

Moi! No niin...

Here's the Manchester Finnish School's website, newly worked over as a blog, and here's our first post. My name's Mark, I'm English, and I've been coming to the Finnish School for *cough* some years. I figured that while the site needs to provide information on classes and school dates and such, we should really use the blog to celebrate why we're here, to feature all the things, big and small, which we enjoy about Finland. Culture, places, events; after a while there should be the sort of variety of posts here which will tickle your curiosity and maybe spark some interest in this very cool country.

What better way to start than to talk about the Finnish School itself?

My interest began with a Finnish band I got into. I saw them twice in Manchester; they're long since departed. They sang in English, but I encountered the language on a fan forum and was intrigued. When the forum's lady boss explained a bit about it, including such nuggets as there not being a verb 'to have', I went and got the Teach Yourself book, and duly found that that was only a small part of the weirdness and that Finnish truly is a very different kind of language. When I started to listen to some Finnish language bands, I couldn't get over how attractive it sounded. To me, anyway. I went back to the Teach Yourself book, and found in the back of that some internet links. To my amazement, I found there were some actual Finnish schools you could go to, and one of them was in Manchester.

We're in Sale, just off the M60. As you can see from the other pages, the school opens on alternate Saturdays, more or less, seven times in the autumn and ten times between the New Year and early summer. The location is good: the Centre at St Mary's is pleasant, has plenty of parking space, ample space inside with cafe facilities and several meeting rooms. For some while now the school has organised three children's groups and three adult groups. The numbers vary from session to session, but the classes continue to run happily and the central area becomes highly social at break times :) We have extended times for a Christmas party and a Spring party. We often organise a Vappu picnic (rain has not been our friend for that at times!), sometimes a pub lunch, and at least once a year an 'activities day', when instead of normal classes we set up some role play. Special events have included language weekends in the Peak District and historical talks.

Right: Some of the guys who came along to our weekend in Hathersage in May 2010. Yes people, that is what we looked like.

Obviously, the reason for the creation of the Finnish schools is to support the many Finnish people who have settled in England, especially those with young children. Having adult classes is a bonus. So, who comes to them? In my experience, it's a mixture of reasons. Firstly, there are the English partners of Finns who have encouraged (that may be a euphemistic word!) them to come along. Secondly, there are some who expect to be going to Finland for a while, maybe for work or study. Then there are those who have found a liking for some aspect of Finnish culture and find a good point of contact in the Finnish school.

And what are these aspects of Finnish culture? Some are quite distinctive, like metal. Quite right - did you know Finland has more metal bands per head of population than any other country? In the past, an ice hockey world championships in Finland has drawn a few people to the school. More generally, we seem to have people coming who visit Finland for its forests and lakes and snow; for its saunas and skiing. With any luck, there'll be blog posts to come, from members of the school young and old, on all those things and more. There better had be, or it'll be down to me and my own rather special obsessions...

If you've read this far, and you don't know the Manchester school, maybe you'll consider giving us a visit? As you may guess, I've carried on coming way beyond any narrow study of the language. I've made a lot of friends here, I visit Finland each year, and of course coming to the school maintains the continuity. Did you know Finland also has the world's highest per capita consumption of coffee? The school offers that, and some very tasty home baking too. Not to mention a very well stocked shop full of Finnish treats. My only complaint is the weight I've put on with all that cake.