You may not know it, but you can already hum the Finnish National Hymn. Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia” is performed by orchestras, featured in movie soundtracks and serves as the music for the beloved hymn, “Be Still My Soul.” Written as a song of protest, “Finlandia” masqueraded as Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring, and A Scandinavian Choral March to avoid Russian censorship. Written as a tonal poem to celebrate the beauty and strength of Finland and her people, it’s well worth a listen.
We’ve cultivated a love for all things Finnish since Erik served there for two years as a missionary in 1988-1990. In March, we visited one of Erik’s favorite missionary companions, Harri Aho and his beautiful family.
Thirty years is a long time. Harry and Kaisa visited us in Utah 22 years ago– still, that’s a pile of years between visits.
And all those years compressed into a blink as we laughed and talked and explored Helsinki together.
Harri picked us up at the airport and I asked if we could stop at the Helsinki Temple since I could see it was on the way to his home. He happily drove us and narrated experiences from the building, dedication and use of the temple (you can read one of my favorite stories right here). We knew the temple was closed for cleaning and minor renovations, but just walking on the grounds of a temple, just seeing it poised on the hill is balm for the soul. We had wanted to attend the temple open house in 2006 but we had a houseful of darling babies.
After we posed in front of the doors for a photo, Erik turned and– like a five year old– cupped his hands and looked through the glass door. The door swung open, and the kindest man, dressed all in white invited us inside.
“The temple is closed,” he apologized, “but come on in. You need to see the temple.”
He proceeded to usher us through the lobby, the baptistry, the offices and waiting rooms, he pointed out favorite paintings, carvings of Finnish trees and flowers, the beautiful carpets and chandeliers. He apologized that the building was closed. “You should have called ahead! I would have set something up. We had a wedding this morning.”
For my friends who attend the temple, you know how unusual this was. When temples are open and you have a recommend, they are open hearted and welcoming. But when they are closed; they are CLOSED. A Utah temple would never open for someone to look around or to accommodate a wedding. Those rules make sense– there are just too many members in Utah and we would overwhelm the temples.
Still, I choose to believe God’s house is like the temple in Helsinki. If you are peeking through the window, one of the angels will throw open the door and pour blessings on your head
Have you read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce? A fable about the divorce between heaven and hell, it’s one of my favorite books about the grace of God. In the book, people from hell are welcome to enter heaven and walk through it’s meadows and mountains until they reach God. Many choose the easier, more familiar bus ride back to hell.
The Helsinki Temple– it reminded me of those angels welcoming everyone, dressed in jeans or white robes, saints and sinners, on the path to heaven.
We were treated just as kindly at the Aho’s beautiful home. No, this is not a Scandinavian magazine– it’s where they actually live.
Kaisa made us a traditional Mustikkapiirakka (blueberry tart). I came home and baked one for my family. It’s so easy and delicious– you definitely need the recipe:
For the crust:
- 100 g (¼ cup + 3 tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature*
- 100 g (⅓ cup + 1 Tbsp) cane or granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 100 g (⅔ cup) rye flour
- 100 g (⅔ cup) all purpose flour (just use all-purpose if you don’t have rye)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Pinch of cardamom
It’s a soft dough and must be pressed and spread in the tart pan with your hands, then pricked with a fork and pre-baked, empty, for 10 minutes.
For the filling:
- 250 g (1 heaping cup) fresh blueberries
- 250 g (1 cup) sour cream
- 1 egg
- ¼ tsp cardamom
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 4 Tbsp cane sugar
Next, the fresh blueberries go on top of the par-baked crust.
Mix the filling, then pour over and around the berries and spread gently with a spatula until the crust is filled evenly. Return to the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the edges are browned and the middle is set, but not too dry and firm. It will dense up as it cools down. Leave it in the pan to cool for 40 minutes.
Serve plain or with ice cream. I promise you’ll love it!
We spent an hour in their basement sauna before bed. Yes, everyone in Finland has a sauna. They nestle in every private home, apartment building, even in homeless shelters. And almost everyone in Finland owns a mökki: a summer home or cabin. And everyone, EVERYONE, tells winter visitors, “You need to come back in the summer.”
We spent hours walking through Helsinki. Admiring the architecture and wondering at the frozen ocean. Erik and Harri told story after story from their missionary days (they actually spent much of their mission in Estonia) and we bought lunch at a quintessential Finnish restaurant– a giant restaurant with private saunas where Finns dipped into the freezing ocean. We would have done the same- I promise!- but the saunas were booked all day long.
I did eat an extraordinary Fish Stew with black bread and whipped butter and successfully replicated the recipe at home for you.
Lohikeitto (Finnish Salmon Soup)
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 leek, trimmed and sliced (about 2 cups)
- 4 cups fish stock or fish stock cubes (vegetable stock works just fine too)
- 1 pound potatoes, cubed (2 to 3 cups)
- 1 carrot, sliced (about 1½ cups)
- 1 pound salmon, cut into large pieces
- 1 cup 35% cream
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Chopped dill, for serving
- In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and cook, stirring, for 5 to 6 minutes, until wilted.
- Add the stock, potatoes, and carrots. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until softened and fork-tender, depending on the size of the vegetables.
- Add the salmon and cream and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, until the salmon is cooked through; season with salt and pepper.
- Divide the soup among bowls. Top with the dill.
I doubled the recipe for 12 of us and I should have tripled it!
At church on Sunday, we were greeted like minor celebrities. A surprising number of people remembered Erik from his days as a missionary. I had an excellent translator through sacrament meeting, then sat through Sunday School without understanding a single word.
You may have heard Finnish is the hardest language in the world to learn. It has 16 cases and nary a cognate. I know Erik felt like his brain literally expanded on his mission from the effort of learning the language. I wonder if that challenging language explains why Finns are pioneers in technology and education? Every Finn I met spoke beautiful English, but I wish I’d learned more Finnish beyond please and thank you.
While we were there, much of the conversation with the Aho’s and at church centered around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At church they were collecting supplies and providing housing for many refugees. We saw hundreds of Russian refugees in the city. Finland has been invaded and subjugated by its giant neighbor so many times throughout history. Fear of the future permeated the city; yet also pride for their beautiful, tiny, strange-tongued, half-frozen, beautiful country.
We’ll come back when it’s green. We’ll come back.
*I wrote this draft a week ago, but just this morning Finland’s leaders called for NATO membership without delay despite Russia’s threat that it would be considered an act of war.