Sunday, 23 June 2013

Soup from Karelia

On a cold lunchtime in Christmas week, I stepped from a train in eastern Finland, into sunshine. Helsinki, three hours westerly, had been cloudy and snowbound all week. This was the first time I had seen sunshine since Bondi Beach, on the day of my flight. Pale, watery, low on the horizon, but definitely sun – I had a shadow again.

I had come to Imatra – playground of empresses and aristos for 300 years – to see a dam. And a church. But first – lunch! I was hungry. Imatra could wait. A cosy table at the Buttenhoff. "Was I cold? Would I like a hot rum toddy before lunch"? Well – yes to both. With the rum under my belt, circulation restored, she came back – there was lunch a la carte, or a set menu of Finnish Yuletide specialties. Well, no brainer - I’ll have the Christmas specials, thank you. It was a wonderful meal. But of all the delicious things I ate that day, the one that stuck with me longest was the mushroom soup. Steaming hot, rich, wonderful, full of mushrooms. I decided on the spot that soup would come from my kitchen, once the weather in Sydney cooled down a bit.

Imatra. The district was an early watering hole for the Russian nobility. Catherine the Great and her court visited in 1772, and tourism has been a major industry ever since; the Imatrankoski Rapids were the draw card. By the turn of the 20th Century, grand hotels lined the river bank above the rapids, and Imatra had become a popular honeymoon destination. These days, besides tourism, the town is dominated by the hydroelectric industry. It even gets into the town’s coat of arms.
The key to understanding all this history and geography lies in the geology. As usual. In a country that is very flat, Imatra lies on one of the major topographic features dominating southern Finland. The Salpausselkä ridge system is a glacial terminal moraine – a ridge of gravel and sand that formed at the edge of the Baltic ice sheet during the last ice age, and was left behind as the glaciers retreated, about 12,000 - 10,000 years ago. The ridge lines are up to 100 m above the surrounding landscape, run for hundreds of kilometres, and have been major migratory routes throughout prehistory.
Today, the modern highway and railway systems follow the high ground of the Salpausselkä ridges, skirting the strew of lakes and mire to the north. From my train, high on the moraine ridge, I had seen out on both sides, over the never-ending forests and frozen lakes of eastern Finland. Only a few rivers breach the ridge line, including the Vuoski River at Imatra, where the ridge line provides head for the impressive rapids, and for the hydroelectric industry.

Modern Imatra had little to show of its interesting past. Like much of eastern Finland, it was devastated by conflict in the early 1940s – the Winter War and Continuation War, as the Finns call WWII. I suspect little was left standing. And as for the dam, and the church? I didn’t see either of them. Imatra is very spread out – from the dam to the church is about 15 km. I hadn’t yet got used to the northern winter’s short days, and by the time I had finished lunch and a short stroll around town, it was almost dark. I’ll just have to come back in summer ...
The church I wanted to see is the Church of Three Crosses, designed by Alvar Aalto, Finland’s leading modernist architect, in 1953. It has his characteristic, highly articulated roof form.
The dam is on the Vuoski River, near the town. Enough for another visit.
So, the mushroom soup. Really simple. I sweated some finely chopped onion and garlic; sautéed a load of finely sliced big mushrooms (“flats” if you can get them – more flavour than baby button mushrooms). I added some dried porcini that I had soaked in boiling water. Simmered in chicken and vegetable stock, and seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon zest, and a dash of lemon juice. A little cream to soften the texture, and my soup was perfect. Dead easy, and perfect on a cold midwinter day. And full of reminiscence about Finland.

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