Sinikka's snippets

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


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A walk in the woods

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I am lucky. I live in a country where over 70 % of the surface area is covered with forests. They used to be called “the green gold of Finland”. Maybe not so much any more in the changed circumstances of the modern information age. Yet, for us Finns, the forest or wood is still an important source of peace of mind. Feeling stressed out? Just half an hour in a forest, and you will start to calm down, and feel your energy levels going up. Suffer from hypertension? Easy cure – according to Finnish research, only a 20-minute walk in a forest will significantly lower your blood pressure. What’s more, in those 20 minutes any bad mood will disappear, and your general alertness will improve. Only two hours in a forest will boost your body’s immunity system. The message is clear: go and walk in the woods!

And most of us do. If asked, the majority of Finns label themselves as “nature lovers”. Why is it then that we seem to do our best to destroy and disrupt our environment? Especially in urban areas, the beginning of spring is marked by the sound of chain saws when Finns go into a frenzy of cutting down as many trees as they possibly can. Just a few weeks back, on Earth Day of all days (April 22), one neighbour cut down two magnificent, old white willows in their yard. Not only did they look gorgeous in summer but they also efficiently worked as a buffer to the noise and pollution coming from the busy street in front. The audacity to get rid of them on Earth Day – not that these people would be aware of such global, environmental movements! A friend of ours, a British gardener, is appalled at the rate that Finns are destroying the diversity of the environment. The Finnish tradition of “tidiness” totally clashes with the natural world around us. Having so many forests makes us blindly take them for granted, and cut and fell with abandon. It’s as though the urban concrete jungles make people into mindless controllers of nature.

But I digress. I was going to write about the beauty of spring in Finnish forests. It’s Mother’s Day today when white anemones are usually in bloom, and cover the forest floor like thick, white and green blankets. It has been our family tradition for generations to pick a bunch of these anemones for mum on this day. Sadly, my daughter is still overseas, so I had to go to the woods behind our house to pick them myself. I wasn’t too upset about it, though, as I got my daily dose of “tree hugging” therapy at the same time, and realised once again how much I love this earth I live on.

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My take on this week’s photo challenge: EARTH.


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Underneath the cherry trees

 

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Look at the cherry blossoms!

Their color and scent fall with them,

Are gone forever,

Yet mindless

The spring comes again.

– Ikkyu –

The magical rebirth, and breathtaking beauty of spring is unfolding in front of my eyes. Here in the north, spring usually sweeps past in a heartbeat. We won’t even know what’s happened until it’s turned into full-blown summer once again. Every second, every precious moment of this season is worth admiration. I’m breathing it in with my body and soul! Hats off – I and the natural world around me made it through another long and dark winter!

This is my take on this week’s photo challenge: ADMIRATION.

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Sometimes it snows in April

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Pretty abstract this morning, looking out of the bedroom window! Had to rub my sleepy eyes a few times as, last night, we’d gone to bed with greenish grass, spotted with blue scilla that have been in bloom for about a week. And now this! Back to black & white. Darn Finnish weather – you must be joking! The only good thing about this is that it gave me a picture for this week’s photo challenge.

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last

I actually pinched the title for this post from the recently passed away iconic star, Prince and his song by the same name. Maybe this weather is his last good-bye to earth, from the edge of a cloud.

Well, at least there was humour in my Facebook feed all through the day. I guess that’s the best way to deal with this misery. “Finnish spring – so near and yet so far away.” read the status of one friend. “Finnish summer is short but not very snowy.” joked another. “In April we celebrate this holiday called ‘Spring is cancelled’ in Finland.” “Finnish spring – or spring finished?”  “Have to start skating to school.” was a remark from a colleague.

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Finnish bun variation 1: Shrove Tuesday

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February is still a fully winter month in Finland. Minus temperature, especially at night, and usually quite a bit of snow, too. But, the darkest period is gradually passing, and there are glimpses of hope, with longer and longer daylight hours, and bright sunny days. Shrove Tuesday brings a nice, happy change to the winter drudgery. It is celebrated annually in February, with wintry outdoor activities, such as sledging, skating or skiing.

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What’s more, there are, of course, special foods and treats associated with this day. Lunch or dinner may consist of pea soup with pancake for dessert, for example. However, an absolute must, after doing some sport out in the cold, is to warm yourself up with a hot drink and a special “Shrove Tuesday bun”.

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I can still remember my university days when my best girlfriends and I always used to skip afternoon lectures on this Tuesday, go skating and then to a certain café in town to treat ourselves to coffee and these buns. The café in questions used to be popular among elderly ladies, who would typically come early in the day, to avoid the crowds. Our girly giggles and chatter sometimes got on their nerves so much that we even got asked to leave once if we couldn’t keep the volume down. Oh, those were the days!

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Each bakery has their own Shrove Tuesday buns, all slightly different. But, being biased I guess, I just think that nothing beats the home-baked ones.  They are really easy to bake, too. All you need to add to my basic bun recipe, is almond paste (a bit softer and less sweet than marzipan) and whipped cream.

Bake the buns as usual. Let them cool down well. Then simply cut “the hat” off, make a hole in the middle (just eat the surplus piece of bun!) and fill it with the almond paste. Whip the cream, adding a little bit of sugar and vanilla, and put a good dollop on top of the almond filling. Then put “the hat” back on, and voilà. Heavenly with a cup of coffee, or a mug of steaming hot chocolate! IMG_8660 IMG_8662 IMG_8663

The only problem is how to eat the bun without making a total mess of whipped cream all over your face and clothes. Easy, just take “the hat” off and eat it first!

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Some people insist on replacing the almond paste with strawberry or raspberry jam. Bakeries, cafés and supermarkets usually sell both varieties. Personally, I prefer the almond paste, but each to their own. For comparison, underneath is a picture of  the more uniform, shop-bought jam-filled buns.

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Mum’s buns

IMG_8658“Kahvi ja pulla” (coffee and a bun), there is hardly anything more quintessentially Finnish! For us, it’s the equivalent to my British hubby’s “a cup of tea and a biscuit”, or across the Atlantic “as American as apple pie”. In Finland, the coffee is always brewing, whatever the occasion. In fact, Finns are known to be one of the top coffee drinking nations in the whole world. As for the bun, they come in many shapes and varieties, and the art of baking ‘pulla’ is traditionally passed on from mother to daughter.

My sweetest memories from childhood are coming home from school when grandmother was visiting, and she would have baked ‘pulla’ during the day, and the deliciously tempting smell filled the staircase the moment you entered through the front door. As kids, we used to enjoy our ‘pulla’ with a glass of cold milk or a mug of hot chocolate, though. Saturdays were my mum’s ‘pulla’ baking days – almost weekly. She really was the ‘pulla’ master! In my family, the most important ingredient was cardamom, which my mum invariably added to the dough. Some people leave it out but for me a ‘pulla’ without it is simply bland and not the real thing. Luckily I got to learn my mum’s recipe phase by phase with her, carefully writing everything down. And now it’s my turn to teach this tradition to my daughter. All through my life, the smell of freshly baked buns has equalled ‘home sweet home’, and it still does.

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INGREDIENTS (to make c. 20-25 basic buns)

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 dl ordinary granulated sugar
  • 3 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 5 dl milk
  • 50 g fresh yeast
  • c. 17-20 dl ordinary wheat flower (not self-raising!)
  • 200 g melted butter
  • 1 egg for glazing
  • coarse decorating sugar

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THIS IS WHAT YOU DO

  • mix the eggs, sugar, cardamom and salt with a whisk
  • warm the milk till it’s hand temperature (I always test it with my finger as it shouldn’t be too hot!)
  • add the milk into the egg mixture
  • mix in the fresh yeast, and make sure it totally dissolves into the warm liquid (in Finland, you can buy small blocks of fresh yeast, which my mum always used, but dried yeast works as well)
  • start adding the flour, little by little, beating it with the whisk first, to get air into the dough
  • when the dough gets too thick for the whisk, continued kneading by hand, and adding enough flour to get a nice consistency (you will learn the right consistency with time, and trial and error!)
  • towards the end of the kneading, add the melted and cooled down butter, and continue kneading till the dough is elastic enough not to stick to your fingers or the sides of the bowl anymore
  • cover the bowl with a baking cloth, and let it rise in a warm place for at least 30 minutes, till it has doubled in size

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  • cut the dough, and work it into round buns (cup your hand, and use enough pressure to make a smooth surface)
  • place the buns on baking trays, covered with grease-proof sheets
  • cover with the cloth, and them rise further for a while (they are ready, when a dent pressed with a finger into a bun springs up straight away)
  • brush the buns with a beaten egg and sprinkle the decorating sugar on top
  • bake at 225 degrees Celsius for about 10-15 minutes

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If you ask me, the buns taste the best when still warm and fresh, straight from the oven. Luckily, they can also be easily frozen, and then warmed up one by one, whenever desired. So just get the coffee going, and enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures, the best comfort treat ever!

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Runeberg’s cakes

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February. Still winter but finally, days are getting noticeably longer, and brighter on sunny days like today. The bare birch trees, with their white trunks against the winter blue sky, made me feel very Finnish today – blue and white being the colours of our national flag. A good day to feel slightly patriotic, too, as February 5th is celebrated as Runeberg’s day, commemorating the birthday of our national poet, Johan Ludwig Runeberg. Today, it’s 212 years since his birth in 1804.

We Finns are keen on signature pastries and baked goodies for special occasions. And so there is the “Runeberg cake” to enjoy today. Legend has it that it was Runeberg’s wife, a talented baker, who invented this cake for her husband.

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Bakeries and supermarkets start selling these small cupcake-like delicacies the moment the Christmas season is over. There is such a variety to choose from that you really have to know what you prefer. The main differences are the size, and whether they are “dry”, or moistened with some punch, or liqueur. Personally, I am for the dry version but hubby wants his drizzled with a spoonful of Swedish punch. Most years I bake my own, using a recipe passed down by my mum, another talented baker. Mine look more like cupcakes, compared to the more “tower like” commercially baked versions.

INGREDIENTS (for about 8 big ones, or 16 smaller ones)

  • 200 g butter
  • 2 dl sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 dl crushed almonds
  • 2 dl bread crumbs
  • 1 dl wheat flour
  • 1 ts baking powder
  • punch (if desired)
  • raspberry marmalade
  • icing

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THIS IS WHAT YOU DO

  • cream the butter and sugar
  • add the eggs, one at the time
  • mix all the dry ingredients and add them to the mixture
  • spoon the mix into cupcake or muffin pans or moods (paper or other)
  • set the oven at 200 degrees Celcius, and bake for about 15 minutes
  • if you like, drizzle one tablespoonful of punch over the warm cakes
  • decorate with a spoonful of raspberry marmalade, with a ring of icing around it

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I’m a great fan of seasonal food and baking. Whatever you eat or drink only once a year never gets boring, and tastes extra delicious!

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February is also the time for colourful tulips. So here’s a bunch to wish “Happy Birthday Mr. Runeberg”!


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The Swedes just do it better

Summer holiday is a good time to check out all the new (and old favourite) cafés in town. Lunch restaurant Hus Lindman has opened a café on the other side of the street.

FIKA café (Piispankatu 14) www.fika.fi (website still under construction!)

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‘Fika’ is a very important concept in Sweden. You can’t even translate the word into other languages. It means having convivial quality time with others over a cup of coffee and some delicious sweet cakes or buns, or possibly sandwiches. For Swedes ‘fika’ is an essential part of socialising and enjoying the good things in life together, and I guess it’s the same for Finland’s Swedish-speaking population.

The new FIKA café is an excellent place to get acquainted with this Swedish tradition. The cute little yellow house in the historical “Bishop’s street” right behind the Cathedral serves excellent coffee and tea with a wide variety of goods, all baked and prepared on the premises. A lot of attention is paid to quality and taste, and there is always something new and tempting on offer. In June you could get a refreshing cold summer drink mixed with home-made rhubarb juice and Rooibos tea. It was heavenly! And if you felt adventurous, you could even have some vodka in it.

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What I especially appreciate is having old traditional Finnish recipes on offer, such as the simple and delicious Brita summer cake I devoured there today. Any type of special coffees are served but I usually go for the very good value presso coffee and cake offer. You get 2 definitely fresh cups of coffee out of the small glass presso pot.

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It is quite a luxury to get proper brewed tea instead of the eternal tea bags here in Finland. I just love Fika’s little tea pots. Another recommendation – the warm hummus open sandwiches are to die for! I am still to try their soup and salad lunches one day.

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The café is sparsely furnished, and coloured in calm and muted tones in typical Scandinavian style, all crisp and clean. The outside tables are popular on nice days. What is it that makes coffee and tea taste even better outdoors? You are always welcomed with a smile, and service is excellent and super friendly. Without a doubt Fika is my number one café this summer. Definitely worth a visit!

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Coffee by the sea

Anyone visiting Turku, the old capital of Finland, in summer should spend some time on Ruissalo island, our recreational hiking, swimming, nature admiring oasis. Whether by bus (line 8 from the market square in the centre of town), car, cycling or walking, it’s always a delight but especially so on warm, sunny summer days.

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Quite a few cafés can be found in various locations, and the latest addition this summer is:

Villa Kuuva (Kuuvantie 198, Turku, Finland)

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Ruissalo island is famous for its wooden “lace villas”, so-called for their special latticed balconies and windows. These villas were built in the 19th century to serve as summer houses for wealthy merchant families. Most of them have changed owners many times, and in recent years, some have been converted into B&B’s or cafés.

Villa Kuuva is wonderfully located right by the sea, with a luscious garden all around it. I can imagine it being lovely any time of the year. There are apple trees, which must be gorgeous in spring, while lots of summer flowers bring colour and an enticing scent in July. Come autumn, and I’m sure the various deciduous trees will bring a different, vibrant colouring. What a place for all the seasons!

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And indeed, I read that the owners are planning to have seasonal events around the year, including live fires and Christmas trees for the end of the year festivities.  At the moment, the café is open during the summer season, later on in the year possibly only at weekends. But it is also available for private functions any time.

You should definitely go and experience the unique ambience of this bright yellow villa. Sitting inside is quite intimate, as if you were a guest in a friend’s house. The decor and all the little knick-knacks make it homely and cosy. A lot of the things are sea-related as you would expect in an island summer house.

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Not to mention the views! Take in the intensely green summer scenery through the veranda windows, or go and have your coffee outside and breathe the fresh sea air, while different motor vessels and sailing boats glide past on the glittering waves of the Baltic Sea. Archipelago summer couldn’t feel much better!

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Where Villa Kuuva comes short, in my opinion, is the rather unadventurous menu. The salads, quiches and wraps are very ordinary – something I would easily prepare at home. Not even any of the cakes or cookies stood out, unfortunately. Mind you, it’s early days, and I’m hoping they will come up with new, unusual ideas in the kitchen! For the time being, though, I’m happy to pay the 2€ for a cup of coffee just for the privilege of being a guest in this lovely place.

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Want some cake in Turku, Finland?

Gaggui (Humalistonkatu 15, www.gaggui.com)

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Many of my female friends had been praising this new café for some time but it was reading the story behind it that finally got me to give it a try. Two identical twins, one a biologist, the other one an artist, joined forces to create this café, and change their careers at the same time. A brave move but apparently successful! It all started as one of the sisters wanted to create the perfect cake for her wedding. After lots of experiments, she had accumulated an interesting collection of different recipes, which the two of them then sold on one of the so-called “Restaurant days”. The cakes of these two sisters turned out to be so popular that they then ventured into business together.

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What I really like about this small café is that it’s really a local Turku place through and through. Their coffee is rosted locally, and a small tea shop up the road provides their teas. What’s more, they use our local dialect in all their signs. Even the name of the place “Gaggui” is a Turku variation of ‘kakkuja’ (‘cakes’). And cakes are definitely the speciality here, one more decadent than the other! Needless to say, all the cakes are their own original recipes and creations. How does “heaven on örth” (‘heaven on earth’ written in Finnish phonetics) sound to you? I can assure you, the cake really lives up to its name!

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This café is small and intimate, basically just one room. The decor is quirky, with nice little touches of originality, even in the restroom. If you visit around midday on a weekday, the place tends to be full of groups of mothers with their kids, and even dogs. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for inclusion, and everybody’s right to go out to socialise. But if you are not accustomed to the Scandinavian lifestyle of public breastfeeding, and toddlers running around screaming, maybe you’d want to choose a time later in the afternoon or early evening to enjoy your coffee and cakes.

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Romantic mini-break in the south

For couples of any age, a romantic weekend getaway every now and then is a must, in order to relax and have some carefree time together. Working weeks are busy, with often so many chores and duties to attend to that by the evening, you just crash into bed, exhausted. Conversation gets reduced to quick ‘how are you’s’ and a few rushed daily anecdotes or fixing schedules and car sharing. You know, how it is – running your daily life is almost like an extreme sport, as one Finnish columnist wrote the other day.

Somebody (Mr Google or Facebook?) must have guessed my thoughts, and sent the offer of a weekend mini-break for two to my news feed. I literally jumped at the chance! Even better that hubby had never been to Hanko, the southernmost town of Finland.

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The deal included one night at a hotel, breakfast included, and a bottle of bubbly waiting in the room, plus a 3-course meal at a seaside fish restaurant. Continuing the evening at a local pub with live music was also recommended.

And so, off we jolly well went last Saturday morning, full of anticipation. It was only a 1.5-hour drive, along quiet country roads. To boost our enthusiasm, even the sun was out, although the lovely early spring weather of earlier in the week had changed back to chilly wintry winds.

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THE TOWN

Hanko is a small seaside town with just under 10,000 inhabitants, about half of whom speak Finnish and the other half Swedish, making the town truly bilingual. It’s a summer town, really, so even at the weekend in late March, the streets were quiet, and the atmosphere idyllically sleepy. The town is best known for its history as a swinging spa resort in the late 19th – early 20th century. The many picturesque wooden villas in all their pastel colours and lacy decorations date from around the same period, and give an oldey-worldey, nicely nostalgic, feel to the place even today. It’s easy to imagine summer visitors – among them prominent political figures, wealthy Russians, the Finnish elite, and artists – flocking these streets in the past. We were sorry to see some of the magnificent villas deserted, at different stages of decay. Hope somebody will be able to afford to restore them soon!

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First and foremost, it’s the sea and, for Finland quite rare, sandy beaches that give the town its character. Being the southernmost tip of the country has made Hanko a strategic military area all through the history of our country. Interestingly, it was also from Hanko port that some quarter of a million aspiring Finns left, on steam ships, for a better life in America, Canada or Australia at the turn of the 20th century. During our stay, the beaches were still deserted, the water cold and the rocks covered in wintertime green moss. Nevertheless, the gorgeous glitter on the blue sea in the spring sunshine made me giddy with dreams of summer. Should perhaps come back then, to see all the sailing boats and yachts in the harbour and the open-air terraces of the cafés and restaurants.

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Worth mentioning is also the very professionally designed Hanko website, which provides a wealth of useful info also in English.

HOTEL BULEVARD

We were accommodated at Hotel Bulevard, only a few steps from the seafront. We only found out on the day of arrival that it is actually a converted old police station! Quite funny as we’d stayed in a converted prison hotel in Helsinki just last year.

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Some rooms were in the actual cells of the old station but ours was upstairs, possibly one that used be an office. A nice detail is that most of the rooms are named after famous Finnish designers, and the interiors get their inspiration from each artist’s work. Our spacious room was dedicated to designer Birger Kaipiainen, who had designed the wallpaper, with his signature style birds on it. In addition to the bedroom, our abode had a small separate ante-room plus a bathroom with a shower. Quite a retro feel in the whole place, and very quiet and peaceful all through the weekend.

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The buffet breakfast was typically Scandinavian, quite alright. However, it was the bowler hat light fitments in the breakfast room, aptly named ‘The Commissar’, that especially took my interest.

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A big plus was the friendly and personal service, in particular for the chance of having a “private” sauna heated for us in the afternoon. It really was a lovely addition to a romantic couple’s weekend, in particular as we were quite frozen after walking around exploring the town in the icy sea wind.

Can fully recommend this hotel. It’s interesting, clean, good value, centrally located – and they even rent bikes in summer, which would be ideal for getting around in such a small town.

PUB GRÖNAN

Not far from our hotel, in the same street, we spotted the evening venue, Pub Grönan, during our afternoon walk. Couldn’t resist checking it out straight away. Quite special, Anglo-American ambience welcomed us inside. Must say, the black leather sofa in front of the music stage looked especially inviting! Later found out on their website that the inspiration for the pub had struck two Finnish guys during their road trip in the US, crossing the Rattlesnake River somewhere in Arizona. No wonder then! There would have been a Swedish troubadour performing that night but the fresh sea air must have taken the better of us, and we had to forego the night out in the pub.

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RESTAURANT ‘PÅ KROKEN’

In the evening, it was time for dinner in the restaurant ‘På Kroken’, which is Swedish and means ‘on the hook’. It is a cosy little fish and seafood restaurant right by the sea, on the other side of the railway tracks, in Hanko village. Our hotel landlord kindly offered us a lift there, and we arrived just in time to enjoy the pinkish hues of the sunset in the horizon.

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Most of the fish served is local, and smoked on the premises. The abundant archipelago buffet is served in a boat in the middle of the room, and consists of one delicacy after another. Hubby’s absolute favourite was the pastrami spiced smoked salmon.

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I opted for ‘blinis’ as a starter. They are Russian-style yeasted pancakes made of buckwheat flour. At ‘På Kroken’ they were served with a variety of fish roes, chopped onion, sour cream, mushroom salad, and gherkins. Unbelievably scrumptious!

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Super service all through the evening, delicious food, great atmosphere, good selection of wines and beers and interesting, rustic decor! We enjoyed all the dishes so much that could hardly manage dessert at all.  Their menu is definitely worth checking out! Apart from the restaurant, there is also a fish shop, and a café that serves, for example, their popular salmon soup with the special, dark, malty archipelago bread. Hmm, a revisit in summer is getting even more tempting!

GREAT STAY

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How about the romance then? In the words of very wise Bridget Jones: “a mini-break means true love”. A weekend away is really worth it! It even got us, after being married 25 years, bold enough to walk barefoot on the empty, sandy beach, holding hands like teenagers. What a giggle, though, as otherwise we still had to wear winter gear! Was it the bubbly, or the sea wind and the spring sun? No matter, probably a combo of everything.  Yet, all in all, having pampered ourselves, and devoted some undivided attention and quality time to being together, we came home happy, rested and relaxed.

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