Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

That's the Finnish

From Russia we arrive in a country where we recognise the alphabet, even if we haven't a clue what the words mean. Finnish has a surplus of vowels, doubling up and sometimes using all five in one word. Playing scrabble here must be the only place in the world where you are thrilled to have four of the letter 'u' to use.  Finland and Croatia could engage in a vowels for consonants swap. 

I am excited to return to Helsinki after 36 years and find the old downtown part substantially the same, but with lots more tourists and an abundance of cruise ships (the last bit is not so exciting). When here in 1980 I fell in love with Finnish glassware and bought four iitala (there's those extra vowels) wine glasses and four schnapps glasses and, rather amazingly, carried them in my backpack through the rest of Scandinavia and back to London. Even more surprisingly, only one wine glass has broken over the years - and that was in an earthquake. Yet more astoundingly I find a replacement in the iitala shop in their 'classic' section. There's longevity of design for you. 

One of the things that brought me back is the monument honouring the Finnish composer Johan Sibelius. For 36 years this has been one of my most enduring travel memories. No, I'm not a fan of his music, but I am a fan of the sculptor's work. This is a stunning, stunning piece, and while the popular belief is that it resembles an organ the sculptor, Eila Hiltunen, was inspired by nature and the forest (as was Sibelius). 

from below

Except for getting to the 300 islands that form part of the city, Helsinki is very walkable - as long as you have a raincoat and umbrella.  Fortunately we took a boat trip the afternoon we arrived, for it rained most of the next four days (though luckily it was a fine afternoon to visit Sibelius).  

From Sibelius Park we walked around the coast. There's a lot of coast and a lot of boats which the hunter-gatherer has to stop and look at. Imagine my delight as we find marina after marina. What is far more interesting is a rug washing station. 

The Finn's tend to the pine floor with rugs style of interior design and wall to wall carpet is rare.  Rather than hire a rug cleaner, in Summer Finns gather up their rugs and eco friendly carpet shampoo and head to the beach.  Oh yeah, I kid you not. This is a very old tradition. We must've been too early in the season in mid June as the h-g had free rein on the wringer and there was only one rug hanging out.
The h-g ready to wring out 

one is the loneliest number 
 But these photos I took in July 1980 show locals hard out rug scrubbing. It really is a thing. 

After an energetic day scrubbing there is nothing like good meal of reindeer.  And although we did no scrubbing, Rudolph wasn't safe from us. We went to a Lapp restaurant which we were assured served traditional food but was heavy on the tourist trap aspect (as the prices in Euro rather than Finnish marks would suggest) .  

As long time readers of this blog know, I have a particular aversion to fruit and meat in combination so it will come as no surprise the menu below caused me some angst. Berries and berry sauce all over the place. 

We settled on the Lappish Game Selection - roasted elk, reindeer sausage, and braised reindeer. Clearly a very meaty meal, but there was nothing special about either the food or the presentation. Being lean meat it is prone to dry out and that was the case. While the h-g liked them, I could have done without the berries on the side!

Lappish game selection - tasted a bit better than it looks!
Our favourite food was found in the market that runs daily in the square by the harbour - more deep fried little fishes, rather less elegantly presented than the walnut crumbed smelt with gazpacho sauce we had in St Petersburg at the fancy restaurant, but just as delicious. 

lunch - twice (looks redder than it is because of the colour of the tent)

It's not just all this scrubbing and reindeer that makes the Finns one of the happiest countries, it's also the social policies. Although I am sure no-one is too thrilled about paying an average of 54% tax, I'm sure they are more excited about the generous health, education, pension, parental, child care, and annual leave provisions.  Total social protection expenditure relative to GDP is higher in Finland than any other country in the UE. 

And so we move on, taking the overnight floating duty free store from Helsinki to Stockholm - but that's the next instalment. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

Russia - I'll be back

I didn't really sum up my thoughts about our time in Russia but for what they are worth, here goes.

St Basil's Cathedral, now a museum, on the edge of Red Square
(which isn't red at all) 
Obtaining visas at first seemed an incredible obstacle, but that was a view formed by dealing with ill informed travel agents. Although it is an administrative pain in the neck, it is really quite straightforward to get a visa, just make sure you've got all your paperwork as stated on the Russian Embassy website.

We arrived with too many preconceptions: there'll be issues at immigration; we won't understand anything so we'll get ripped off; people will be suspicious; it will be difficult to get around; we'll be stopped and asked for our identification; it will be grubby and disorganised and nothing will run on time.

We breezed through immigration in record time. A short delay in arrivals while we waited for our pre-booked shuttle to arrive. Our driver looked exactly like an Eastern European gangster in a James Bond film. Far from being ripped off, when we arrived at the hotel we were informed they had changed shuttle providers and the cost was half what we'd been quoted.

We found Moscow and St Petersburg to be pristine, modern, vibrant cities and they are both easy to navigate.  As mentioned in a previous blogknowing the Cyrillic alphabet before you go really does help. The trains are frequent, fast, and efficient - in Moscow there's a train every two minutes, and at the end of the platform a clock ticks down from 2 minutes so you know exactly how long before the next one.

There seems to be a deep concern for preserving heritage and history, both the good and the bad. The good is obvious. Beautiful palaces, museums, stunning churches, extensive gardens, galleries overflowing with centuries of international art. 

You see the double headed eagle, symbol of the Romanov dynasty on everything from bridges and monuments to porcelain and furniture. Though one of our guides tells us some refer to it as the Chernobyl Chicken! 

Chernobyl Chicken
On the canals in St Petersburg

The bad depends on your viewpoint. The Tsars lived off the backs of the people, but come the revolution, the Bolsheviks didn't destroy the palaces but rather re purposed them. For example, the Winter Palace became the Palace of the Arts.  The separation of Church and State meant the Churches didn't fare so well: some were destroyed, others, such as St Basil's in Moscow and the extremely beautiful St Isaac's in St Petersburg, were turned into museums.

At the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg we found one of the prisons where the Cheka imprisoned anti Bolshevik activists. The information panels don't shy away from detailing the imprisoning without charges, executions without trial, mass executions and burials in the forests.

Guides are invaluable, particularly in St Petersburg where everything you want to visit is on the hit list of the literally thousands of people flooding off cruise ships every day. We used Moscow Private Tours and their offshoot St Pete Private Tours. In Moscow we organised a half day around the main sites to orient ourselves. 

In St Petersburg we organised a half day just at the Hermitage and then another day a trip out of town to Peterhof Summer Palace. This is a stunning palace, designed by an architect who never met a surface he didn't want to gild, with extensive gardens and lots of fountains, both elaborate and also a few trick fountains for the unwary - as if it wasn't a wet enough day! 
Inside Peterhof (oops - no photos!)

Some of the fountains at Peterhof Palace
Aside from their excellent English and wealth of knowledge about the subject matter, guides posses a priceless skill - queue jumping tour groups and very sharp elbows.  They also are a match for the Soviet era hatchet faced room guards who are constantly harassing you to keep moving! no photos! no touch!  And all three guides we employed had great personalities and a good sense of humour. 

The entrance foyer for the Winter Palace
Probably the most difficult thing to comes to grips with in Russia, especially for open and friendly Westerners, is the distance Russians naturally keep in interactions. This is quite difficult to explain, but I'll try. It is summed up in  the word фамилъярность which translates as familiarity, or acting as if you are better friends with someone than you really are. Now you may think my Russian has come on in leaps and bounds - no. I lucked onto a column written by a Moscow based translator and interpreter who explained that no matter how long your acquaintance, for example with a work colleague, you would never ask about their parter or spouse, or their state of health.  It seems to be about maintaining a distance, not letting people too close, and here's another of my amateur theories - I think it stems from the days when you lived a very private and circumspect life, didn't discuss your politics or beliefs, and didn't tell anyone anything. You never knew if it would lead to a late night knock at the door.  

While providing all amenities and perfect comfort and even our hotels were discreet. Easily missed, just a door like any other. 
Veliy Hotel, Moscow. Five minutes from the Kremlin

Casa Leto Hotel, St Petersburg

Final observation - all our guides and lots of the hotel staff were aged 25 or 26 - I think there was a lot of celebrating around 1990. Check your history for a clue.

White Nights - about 10pm in St Petersburg