Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Butterscotch cake – men’s favourite

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Or so they say. I can’t exactly say that the way to my man’s stomach was this cake, but I do remember that quite a few of his male friends used to praise this cake whenever they had a piece at my place, telling my then boyfriend (now husband) that I was a keeper.

I cut the recipe from a women’s magazine decades ago because it sounded good. Since then it has been “my signature cake”. Whenever there is a special occasion, I usually bake one. Especially if it’s to do with hubby’s special celebrations. The combination of hazelnuts and dark chocolate in the cake mixture is simply heavenly with the soft butterscotch topping. It’s actually so yummy and morish that hubby often hides some, to have more for himself before others eat it all up.

Hubby celebrated a special birthday just last weekend

Hubby celebrated a special birthday just last weekend

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 eggs
  • 2 1/2 dl sugar
  • 150 g butter
  • 3 dl ordinary wheat flour (not self-raising)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 75 g hazelnuts
  • 75 g dark chocolate

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THIS IS WHAT YOU DO

  • Beat the eggs and sugar until fluffy.
  • In a separate bowl beat the butter until light.
  • Combine the two mixtures.
  • Crush the hazelnuts (or buy a packet of ready-made crush) and chop the chocolate into small pieces
  • Mix together the flour, baking powder, nuts and chocolate. Add to the mix.
  • Grease a low, preferably a springform, round cake tin. Pour in the mixture.
  • Bake at low temperature, 150° Celsius, for about 40-50 minutes.

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FOR THE TOPPING

  • 2 dl full whipping cream
  • 2 dl sugar
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • chocolate sprinkles

Now this is the tricky part of this cake. Getting the butterscotch just right takes some practise and experience. I have failed in so many ways over the year. Either I cooked it too little, which results in a too liquid consistency that is immediately soaked in by the cake, and results in no topping at all. Or, trying to avoid the previous scenario, I cooked it too long, and ended getting it thick, grainy and horribly hard. I’ve also managed to produce a sticky, chewy consistence that almost breaks your teeth, just as the worst type of toffee! Anything is possible unless you know exactly what temperature to use on your cooker, and what the correct consistency is. Don’t lose heart, though – you may be a natural with this, or then, at least through trial and error you will get it right.

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Put the cream and the sugar in a saucepan and start cooking at medium heat. On my present induction cooker, I tend to have the temperature at 3.5-4 (out of 9). Keep cooking, stirring it quite often, so it won’t stick to the bottom. Make sure it’s bubbling a little all the time, but not too much! Just small bubbles like in the picture above. For me, the cooking time tends to be a minimum of 30 minutes, sometimes even more. Towards the end, the mixture starts thickening up and darkens in colour. A test that all the recipes advise is to put a drop of the mixture into a glass of cold water. If it dissolves at all into the water, it’s not ready yet. It’s supposed to form a nice, solid drop on the bottom of the glass. I usually always keep testing one drop after another, and never really know if it’s right or not. Nowadays, having baked this cake so many times, I just use my intuition (and still sometimes get it wrong!).

Anyway, once the butterscotch is ready (or you think it is), take the pan off the heat, add the butter, and let it settle for a while. Then pour it on top of the cake that you have removed from the baking tin. Start from the middle and keep moving towards the sides. The butterscotch is supposed to trickle down the sides of the cakes. You can help it with a knife if needed.

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Decorate with some chocolate sprinkles, and voilà, ready to be devoured!

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To serve the cake, a bunch of green grapes look nice, and go very well with the taste as well. The cake keeps quite well for several days, and stays nice and moist. If kept in the fridge, the butterscotch tends to lose its shine a little.

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ENJOY ON ITS OWN, OR WITH A CUP OF GOOD COFFEE!

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Hong Kong dim sum

Last summer (2015) we had the chance to visit Hong Kong for the first time on our way to Taiwan to visit our daughter and her boyfriend, who also flew over to HK for the weekend to join us. As we only had 3 days to look around, I tried to do some online research on must places to see and things to join advance. One find on an online Time magazine article was a tea house serving traditional dim sum breakfast. Even though dim sum, as such, was not new to us, having tried it before in Malaysia, China and Singapore, and the youngsters, of course, in Taiwan, we wanted to try the HK flavour as we’d always liked it so much before. Another reason for choosing this place was that it was at a walking distance from our hotel. So off we went early on a sunny Saturday morning, after arriving the afternoon before. We loved the walk along the narrow streets and lanes of SoHo, up and down hills and stairs, and past colourful markets and stalls. Unable to read or understand any of the Cantonese signs around, I was brimming with excitement. It finally sank in that we were really far away from home.

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Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington street, Central, Hong Kong

Described, rather unflatteringly, as the “Dim Sum Warzone” by a Singaporean food blogger, we found the Lin Heung delightfully eccentric. Most of the waiters seemed to be ancient, and a little bit grumpy – made me wonder how long people kept working in Hong Kong. Service worked quite efficiently, though, although it took us some time to find a free table in the totally packed place, even that early in the morning. In fact, as we entered there was such a hullabaloo going on that we had our doubts first whether we’d manage to get any breakfast at all. We’d been warned about this by several web sources, but in the end, we were quite comfortable even having to share the table with total strangers. It just came with the territory and added to the novel experience.

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No sooner had we managed to sit down than a pot of really dark brown, steaming pu erh tea appeared in front of us. Later on, we got bolder and went to order a few other teas among the several choices on offer. But what to do to get our food? Just had to look around and observe for a while, to get the hang of it. The waiters kept coming round with their trolleys stacked with bamboo containers and plates, howling loudly in Cantonese – possibly the names of all the dishes on offer. All you had to do was to go to them and get the ones you wanted. Mind you, not so easy for us poor foreigners who didn’t understand a word, and had to try and get the waiters to open the containers to see what was inside. They weren’t too happy about this, rushing around the slightly too narrow aisles between the tables. Another piece of advice: don’t be polite and wait for your turn, like any descent Finn would. You’ll never manage to get a bite! You’ll have to be fast, or all the dishes you’d like will be snatched by somebody else right in front of your eyes! Once we learned the ropes, we got to try all sorts, the savoury seafood and meat dumplings, as well as the sweet buns and more familiar spring rolls.  All very good, I must say.

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The noise around got louder and louder while more water was constantly poured into the cute, round-bellied tea pots, and ever more exciting dim sum choices kept appearing on the trolleys. Soon enough, our eyes started being bigger than our belly, and we realised that we were already too full. But what a great experience on our first morning in Hong Kong! A bit chaotic perhaps but in a positive, intriguing way. Certainly a welcome change to quiet and organised Finland. Happy and well nourished, we were ready to hit the streets and explore the new city for the day.

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One interesting observation: as the clientele seemed to be mostly middle-aged or above, hardly any smart gizmos were in sight, but instead, like in the good old days, people read real newspapers! How quaint! As far as we could gather, most of the customers seemed local rather than tourists, which is always preferable to us. Whenever we can, we try to get small glimpses into the everyday lives and culture of the local people in the foreign places we visit, to see and try something that we would never come across at home.

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I would definitely recommend a visit to this tea house to Hong Kong visitors. An extra bonus: in an otherwise fairly pricey metropolis, at least by Asian standards, this was easily affordable. No Michelin star quality, and very old-fashioned for sure, but good value. I would have been prepared to pay extra for the entertainingly fascinating ambience alone!


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Finnish pancake

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First off, I need to explain that here in Finland ‘pancake‘ (Finnish ‘pannukakku‘ – literally a direct translation of the English word) is prepared as one big square on a baking tray in the oven. This is then cut into small square pieces for serving. The mixture is the same as for ‘crèpes’ that are round, thin and fried individually on a frying pan. We do make crèpes, too, but sometimes it’s easier and quicker to just prepare the whole lot in one go in the oven. This sometimes gets confusing with English speakers who have a very different concept of what ‘a pancake’ should look like. My British husband, for example, would say the Finnish pancake is more like their Yorkshire pudding although, of course, we would not eat our pancake with main course meat. As for the American pancakes, I would rather call them ‘thick crèpes’ – crazy Finns, right? It makes sense, though, when you know that the Finnish words for ‘crèpes’ (‘letut‘, ‘lätyt‘, ‘ohukkaat‘) all somehow refer to their thinness above all.

Both the pancake and crèpes are common summer cottage fare over here. Finnish cottages tend to be rather basic and rustic, often without a lot of mod cons. That’s why, we Finns usually want to keep cooking there as simple as possible. An oven pancake or crèpes are ideal as they require very few ingredients. I’ve sometimes seen crèpes fried on a pan on a small camping gas bottle at a cottage.

A pancake is nice and homely comfort food that everybody usually enjoys, children especially. It is usually served as a dessert after a soup, for example. In fact, the Finnish conscript army has given us the tradition of having pea soup and pancake on the menu on Thursdays (I really don’t know why that weekend was chosen!). This tradition is often followed for in school canteens during the school year. In our family, a pancake used to be an evening snack when our daughter was small. And if there are any leftovers, they taste just as good cold for breakfast the next morning!

We prefer our pancake with strawberry jam but it works just as well with fresh berries, and even added whipped cream if you like. I must say that I much prefer the fancier toppings for crèpes, though. The American favorite, maple syrup, is not commonly used here in Finland. Instead, some Finns just like their piece of pancake with only a bit of sprinkled sugar on top.

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INGREDIENTS (for one baking tray, c. 20 pieces)

  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 l milk
  • 5 1/2 – 6 dl ordinary wheat flour (not self-raising)
  • 1/2-1 dl melted butter

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THIS IS WHAT YOU DO

  • in a bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and salt
  • add the milk
  • add the flour little by little
  • to finish with, add the melted butter
  • let the mixture stand for 30 minutes
  • line the baking tray with a grease-proof baking sheet
  • pour the mixture on the tray
  • bake at 225° Celsius for 15 minutes first, then lower the temperature to 200-175° Celsius and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the top and bottom are beautifully brown
  • cut into pieces and enjoy with a topping of your choice

SIMPLY DELICIOUS!

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Pure enough

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For me, the first connotation with ‘pure’ is to do with food. Here in Finland many people have never stopped cooking from scratch, preferably with local ingredients. This give our cooking a refreshing seasonal variation, due to our climate, with long, cold winters and very short growing seasons in summer. You get used to having certain ingredients and dishes only at certain times of the year. Also, in recent years, so-called ‘pure’ restaurants have sprung up, which typically serve ‘raw food’, salads or raw cakes, for example. I tend to associate ‘pure food’ with organic, local ingredients and home-cooking, not necessarily raw. The most important thing for me is that I know where the produce comes from, can trust the producer, and cooking it myself, I know exactly what goes into it. This for me equals ‘pure’.

Home-grown summer vegetables would be really nice but in our tiny town patio “garden”, in front of our home, we can’t obviously grow a lot. One thing that thrives there, though, is rhubarb. It’s always reliable and grows beautiful, thick stems every year, no matter what the previous winter was like. And a definite plus is that it is as organic as you can expect, being surrounded by urban air. At least, no pesticides, no fertilisers, nothing chemical is ever added to the soil it grows in.

There is just enough to either bake a few delicious rhubarb pies or crumbles, or as in the last few years, make my own fresh rhubarb juice. Spicing it with a cinnamon and vanilla stick in the boiling water, makes it a delightful early summer drink that won’t stay long in our fridge before it’s all enjoyed by thirsty family and guests.

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Weekly photo challenge – PURE.


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Do the math

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A factory chimney with random numbers, glowing in the dark. Or maybe they are not random at all. Connect the dots, and you will be amazed. Unless you already know this sequence, you may be able to start working the sequence – 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5 and so on. Each number is the sum of the two previous numbers in the sequence. Logical, and could be continued infinitely.

These illuminated numbers, however, are a neon light art piece by Italian artist Mario Merzi, which he placed on the chimney of Turku Energy, the energy company of my hometown in Finland in 1994. Since then, these red numbers have been a landmark along the riverside.

The work of art is called: Fibonacci Sequence 1-55. Mr Merzi was fascinated by mathematics all through his career, so it’s no wonder that he chose his fellow Italian mathematician’s sequence for this piece.

Fibonacci, in turn, was a genius 13th-century mathematician. The Fibonacci numbers are not in the least random but form the basis of many natural phenomena, such as the spirals of shells or the way sunflower seeds grow. This sequence has also been called the western definition of beauty, since the “golden ratio”, widely used in art for centuries, comes straight from the ratio of these numbers. Fascinating how math is not just numbers and calculating mechanical equations but relates to everything around us! I wonder how much this “other stuff” is touched on in today’s math lessons? I’ve only learned all this long after leaving school.

Weekly photo challenge – NUMBERS.


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Chasing high mountain Oolong tea in Taiwan

There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. – Lin Yutang

Coffee really is “my cup of tea”. But, being married to a Brit has taught me to appreciate tea, too. In fact, in our home, the kettle is put on dozens of times a day, and cups of tea are constantly on offer. Bad day at work, dear – never mind, have a cuppa, the universal remedy. In recent years, we have moved more and more into Chinese green teas, and latterly Taiwanese Oolong since our daughter moved there two years ago. No mugs of sweet, milky Indian black teas in our household!

Last summer we had the wonderful chance of visiting our daughter in Taiwan for two weeks. One of the musts was a visit to a tea plantation on the mountains as I’d always dreamed of seeing how tea grows. Taiwan is renowned for its teas – black, Oolong and green. Apparently, the conditions in Taiwan are ideal (temperature, humidity, altitude), which makes Taiwanese teas highly sought after by real tea connoisseurs.

THE JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN

Quite the journey it was. Starting off from the southern city of Kaohsiung, we (that is four of us: I, hubby, daughter and boyfriend) first took the train to Chiayi city, from where we continued by bus up the Alishan mountain (literally Ali mountain – ‘shan’ meaning mountain in Chinese). Little did we expect how high the mountain really was, and we didn’t even reach the highest point of it! Our destination was only at an elevation of some 1,400 m, while the highest peak would have been over 2,000 m. Once we started the ascent, it felt almost like being on an aeroplane taking off. With totally blocked ears, we oohed and aahed the scenery and, higher up, spotted the first small tea plantations on the slopes. How delightful! At times I had to close my eyes out of fear, though, when the steep mountain sides seemed far too close on the twisty and turny roads. More and more mist appeared, the higher we got, and the air got cooler and cooler, which was actually quite nice, after struggling with the humid heat of June on lower ground.

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We had booked our B&B accommodation through booking.com, and the owners kindly offered to pick us up at a certain bus stop. Waiting for our ride, in the middle of the late afternoon mist, we were lucky to have a pick-up truck stop by, with tea picking ladies with their signature bamboo hats and special bamboo baskets, happily travelling on the open back. I’d read about the physically hard and meticulous job of these ladies, carefully hand picking each tea leaf, to ensure premium quality. It was a pity that the best picking season wasn’t until a month after our visit, so I didn’t manage to see any of these ladies in action.

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Soon enough, the son of our B&B owner arrived to get us, but wanted to take us to Fenchichu Old Street for dinner first because he said they didn’t have any provisions for evening meals at their place. At first we felt a little disappointed as we were quite ready to settle in for the night but the evening turned out quite good in the end. Lovely little village style setting on the slopes of the mountain, but also quite crowded and touristy.

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Strolling around the little streets and alleys, we found a nice-looking little tea shop that also offered tasting. In we went, of course! Our first taste of the genuine Alishan high mountain Oolong. Surprisingly mild, beautifully yellow in colour, and somehow curiously reminding me of the taste and faint smell of raw peas. Very smooth, with no hint of the slight bitterness of many green teas. In the traditional fashion, it was served from teeny, tiny cups, and the lady serving had quite an arsenal of little implements in front of her, to prepare the brew. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, nothing like the rigid and ritualistic tea ceremonies in Japan, for example. The hostess kept filling the kettle again and again, and pouring us more and more of the tea. It really was good, and we left with a few packets of it in our bags.

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For dinner, we tried the local speciality, ‘lunchbox’.  In the old days, when Fenchichu was an important half-way refuel stop along the Alishan Forest Railway, somebody came up with the idea of selling train travellers a quick lunch in a box (made of wood, bamboo or iron) that was considerably lighter and easier to carry to the train platform than the previous noodle bowls. The lunchbox tradition is still kept alive in some restaurants. The food itself was not exactly to our liking – rice with some vegetables, a piece of chicken leg and chewy pork – but it was very cheap. To wash down the rather greasy taste of the dinner, I just had to buy a selection of Taiwanese mochi. They are sticky rice paste balls with different fillings, such as peanut butter, black bean paste, or various fruit pastes. I adore the consistency and taste – one of my all-time favourite Asian desserts!

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It was a nice surprise for us that Fenchichu is actually one of the stops of the famous Alishan Forest Railway. We were really happy to get return tickets on it for the next day – something we had wanted to do anyway! Finally, at the end of the day, we were driven to our B&B in complete darkness through almost impenetrable fog. We had no idea where we’d arrived as visibility was almost zero. Luckily we weren’t the drivers on the tiny mountain roads!

B&B ALISHAN YUN MIN GI                                                                                                                          No.4 Shizhuo, Zhonghe Village, Zhuqi Town, Chiayi County 604, Taiwan

We had chosen our inn based on the fact that it had its own tea plantation. As we only had very limited time, staying on Alishan only for one night, we had to make sure that we’d at least see one plantation. After all, that was the main reason of our visit in the area.

We all stayed in one huge room, which was lovely, and tastefully furnished, with big windows in two directions, a spacious bathroom and a balcony, too. Everything in the inn was perfectly tidy and clean. Late at night, with the fog and darkness, we couldn’t see a thing outside. We were hoping to catch the rising sun early in the morning, though, and set our alarms, keeping our fingers crossed for the fog to disappear by then. Most Alishan visitors travel to a special spot, either by car or the Forest Railway to admire the sun rising from behind the peaks but, as we were unsure about the weather, we opted to stay at the inn and hope for the best. After a quick tasting of the inn-keepers’ own Oolong tea downstairs, on a magnificent wooden table, special the the mountain area, (and buying some more packets of tea!) finally, tired and with excited anticipation, we fell asleep in our comfortable beds.

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Between 4 and 5 am, we were woken up by excited cries from our daughter: “Come and see, the sun is rising!” The night before, none of us could have anticipated the spectacle that unfolded in front of our eyes. Gradually, the mountain peaks around, and the valley below started to take shape and get in focus. The colourscape kept changing until the fabulous, sharp panorama revealed itself in all its glory, in brilliant sunshine. In addition to all the visual splendour, the silence was almost deafening, especially after the bustle of busy Taiwanese cities. And all this, from the best possible vantage point, right there on our own balcony – how awesome is that!

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We took a short walk around the inn before breakfast, to finally get an idea we were had come to. For me, the new modern wing of the inn, where we stayed, looked a little bit out of place in that natural setting but, I must say, it served its purpose well. Tea grew all around, and the rounded rows of it could be seen through all the windows inside as well. In fact, the windows were like landscape paintings, depicting the surrounding beauty of the area. After a nice breakfast, it was time to go for walks in and around the many tea plantations.

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WHERE OOLONG GROWS

At last I had the chance to walk in between the rows of tea, touch the waxy leaves and try to get the very faint scent. It was easy to walk up and down the nice wooden stairs, provided on the slopes. You could even go for a hike in a bamboo forest nearby. And wherever you turned, there was yet another spectacular view. We were in heaven! One word of warning, though, for anyone going on Alishan: the cool mountain air is very deceptive – I ended up totally burning my arms (through the silly holes of my sleeves!), not feeling the heat of the sun in the mountain breeze. I should have seen it coming!

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While our youngsters preferred to do several hikes, we found another tea plantation down the hill, went to have a look, and ended up having one more Oolong tasting session around a wonderfully carved wooden table. More and more people kept coming in, and eventually it looked like we had the whole family tasting tea with us. It transpired that these people were actually related to our inn owners if we understood it correctly through the few broken English words our Taiwanese hosts tried to say. No common language but still we shared a fun time together. Just the sort of impromptu meeting that we so enjoy during our travels. And off we went, with more packets of tea to take back home.

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THE ALISHAN FOREST RAILWAY

Once the only way to get up and down the mountain, the cute red engines still chug along the steep mountain sides. Unfortunately, according to Focus Taiwan, after serious typhoon damage in 2009 and more just last autumn, the whole 70 odd km stretch has still not been repaired to this day. Opened in the early 20th century for timber transportation, the railway was turned mostly touristic in the 1960s. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, with the completion of the Alishan Highway, cheaper and faster buses started to take customers away from the trains. Today, it’s mostly diesel engines instead of the old steam ones but, nonetheless, it’s definitely an experience not to miss. The technology required to run a train on those steep slopes is amazing! Waiting for departure on the platform, there was an elated ambience of setting off on a grand adventure – and that’s what it truly was.

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The two-hour return journey down the mountain took us through bamboo forests, and more tea plantations on the slopes, dramatic mountain scenery and unbelievably lush greenery. The tiny carriages were cosy, and I noticed that the regular clickety clack of the train made several passengers nod off at some point. What a way to end our brief, but unforgettable, glimpse of mighty Alishan.

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And now, a year on, I still vividly recall all these memories and sentiments, the views, the sounds and the smells, every time I’m enjoying a cup of fragrant Oolong from Alishan.


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A night in a lighthouse

The sun came up over the sea and shadows and colours began to appear. The island began to take shape and draw in its claws. Everything began to shine, and the chalk-white gulls circled over the point. … But right across the island lay the shadow of the lighthouse like a broad dark ribbon stretching down to the beach where the boat was.

That was an extract from the Finnish children’s book Moominpappa at sea by our beloved author Tove Jansson. It’s a wonderfully emotional story of the Moomin family starting a new life in a lighthouse on a remote island.

In recent years, visiting lighthouses around our coastline has become widely popular. We are lucky to have quite a few that are open to the public, some even with accommodation facilities. It is already three years since I and hubby spent one night at Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse on the western coast of Finland, off the lovely little town of Rauma.

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The lighthouse is easy to reach from the Poroholma camping site in Rauma from where comfortable water buses transport visitors to some of the islands and islets off the coast daily in the summer months. A return ticket only costs around €30 per person for the 1-hour-long crossing. In good weather, the best place to sit is on the sunny upper deck, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the sea, and watching the lighthouse getting closer and closer in the horizon.

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Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse was constructed in 1952, and in its time had as many as 12 pilots working on the islet. Coast guard operations have since been discontinued, and today the whole islet is only for tourism. There are 13 rooms in the actual tower, a restaurant downstairs, a summer café and a souvenir shop, as well as sauna facilities, so no need to bring your own provisions unless you want to. One night in a double room costs around €130.

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In the good Finnish way, it is all perfunctory – simple and rustic but with nice little marine touches in the decor. For example, our room was called ‘Sarastus‘ (meaning ‘first light of dawn‘ in English). The restaurant serves an archipelago style menu, with various fish dishes, of course. I’d recommend sleeping with the room window open, to be soothingly lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and the sea wind. Another thing worth experiencing is getting up at night to look at the lighthouse light go round in the darkness. Well, this depends on which part of summer you visit. In June, with the almost “nightless night”, it would probably be less spectacular. We went in August when the nights are already getting dark, and thoroughly enjoyed the strangely eerie sight of the rotating light.

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What’s there to do then? Not that much. It’s a quiet place for appreciating the natural environment on one of the outermost islets before the open sea towards Sweden. It’s very sparse, with not a lot growing there. I must say I couldn’t imagine living in a place like this for long. Hats off to the tough, persistent folk who still do! Winters especially must be an ordeal, let alone getting through storms. There must be regular strong winds, judging by the small conifers all bent in one direction – good reminder of the forces of nature.

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There is one plant, however, that seems to thrive in the archipelago: the sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). During our visit, the thorny shrubs were heavy with their orange berries, which have many health benefits. They are used to make juice or jam, rich in vitamin C, in particular. The oil extracted from the seeds is also said to efficiently lower cholesterol levels. Quite a super berry, in fact!

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Once you get tired of soaking in the surrounding views, or admiring the wider panorama from your high-up room window, you can hike around the whole islet. It is quite a challenge on slippery rocks and boulders, without any proper paths, but well worth the effort in the end. During birds’ nesting times you need to be extra careful, though, as the future bird parents tend to defend their eggs and young rather aggressively. We saw quite a lot of seagulls and Canada geese, and even managed catch a brief glimpse of a sea eagle in the evening sky (no luck with a picture of it, unfortunately!). If you are adventurous enough, you can, of course, go swimming. Hubby ventured for a dip between the rocks, I chickened out. Bracing and exhilarating, according to him. I wouldn’t be so sure!

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What surprised me, however, was how quickly the restless, urban mind starts to calm down, and you get the idea of the whole experience: spending some down time in the lap of Mother Nature, in absolute, respectful awe. Your senses wake up, and you start noticing the tiny, miraculous details around you – how centuries, after centuries of waves, winds and all kinds of weather have shaped the environment. It’s as though suddenly time stands still, and there you are, an insignificantly small human being in the midst of natural history.

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During this lighthouse visit, I realised what great inspiration artists can find in such an environment, and why, for example, author Tove Jansson must have loved spending long periods of time in the Finnish archipelago. Sit or stand on the rocks to watch the day become night, the changing light transform all the colours and the scenery around you, eternity and infinity right there in front of your eyes! Breathtakingly beautiful! And then, in the morning, it all starts over again.

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He came to the edge of the water and stood watching the breakers. There was the sea – his sea – going past, wave after wave, foaming recklessly, raging furiously, but, somehow, tranquil at the same time. All Moominpappa’s thoughts and speculations vanished. He felt completely alive from the tips of his ears to the tip of his tail. This was a moment to live to the full.

When he turned to look at the island – his island –  he saw a beam of light shining on the sea, moving out towards the horizon and then coming back towards the shore in long, even waves.

The lighthouse was working.

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For those interested but unable to visit, why not check their live webcam.


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Semantics

As a non-native English teacher, I love discussing the different meanings and connotations of words. For me, the first association of ‘spare‘ is in collocations, such as ‘spare time‘, ‘spare key‘, ‘spare parts‘ or perhaps ‘spare tyre‘. I’m also very familiar with its use as a verb, e.g. ‘I don’t have a moment to spare‘ or ‘spare me the details‘. I must say, though, that the use of ‘spare‘ to mean the same as ‘sparse‘ was totally new to me. I’m wondering if this is a more American usage as I’m more at home with good old British English? A good reminder, how you will never be finished with learning any language, even your own! This lifelong learning aspect is also an essential part of the beauty of learning languages, which I keep reminding my students of.

As for the picture I chose, I’m going with the meaning I know here. Sunday lunch time, at one of the most popular little restaurants in town, we were lucky to find a table spare without an advance booking. Or, actually, a convenient, spare slot in the busy booking schedule.

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Weekly photo challenge – SPARE.


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#weekendcoffeeshare: May 27, 2016

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If we were having coffee today, I would take you to one of the riverside cafés, with tables out on the pedestrian street. It’s a beautifully sunny day, and together we would bask in the warmth, and talk about the wonders of spring and the beginning summer. Here in the north, this is a time of being almost overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of our nature. While sipping our frothy cappuccinos, I want to show you the procession from spring to summer through my nature photos.

Starting in April, quite suddenly, after the snow has melted, and with the first warmer days, the little yellow “suns” appear by the roadsides. Interestingly, coltsfoot is called “widow’s leaf” in Finnish – but, please, don’t ask me about the etymology behind the name, I have no clue. These first spring flowers are small, low and quite modest but as they usually grow in groups, they will soon create bright patches of colour on the otherwise sepia ground, and revive our tired winter eyes.

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Not long after this, there will be the first glimpses of blue in the woods behind our house. ‘Anemone hepatica’, with its furry stem, starts opening its petals. In Finnish we call it the “blue” hepatica although I find the colour more towards mauve or purple, especially in sunlight. Lovely, aren’t they?

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Towards the end of April, it will be the gorgeous whites and pinks of the cherry blossoms. So fragile, shivering in the wind, and so fleeting – you hardly have time to adore them before they are gone. A powerful reminder to seize every precious moment of our lives!

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By Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May in Finland), the woods will have usually changed into white, with countless ‘Anemone nemorosa’. It’s a common flower to be picked by children to give to their mothers on that special day. One of my all-time spring favourites.

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Later in May then, while many people I know will be busy stocking up with all possible poisons to kill them off, my eyes will feast in the fields coloured bright yellow with dandelions. Why would you want to kill them off? Yellow makes us humans happier!

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What’s more, killing off dandelions will also deprive bees of their vital pollen. As declining bee populations are a major catastrophe in more and more areas of the world, it is essential to protect them. Luckily, apple blossoms can always be counted on to keep the bees busy. This year, apple trees were especially heavy with blooms. I find them very romantic, and they make me think of white lace, tulle and weddings, for some reason.

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Last but definitely not least, in the cavalcade of some of my favourite spring flowers, comes the Finnish national flower, lily of the valley. The anemones have by now given way to these white beauties. The whole wood behind our house is now full of their intoxicating scent. I just couldn’t resist picking a few to put in a vase at home.

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The wonderful flower season will continue all through the summer, and it brings me enormous joy every year. Hope you enjoyed my flowphotos! Now let me get another cappuccino for you, so you can tell me about your favourite blooms in your part of the world.