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A Tale of Two (or more) Christmases

I have always loved Christmas! Childhood Christmas was often spent in Ireland. After the trepidation (and sometimes sheer terror) of the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire ferry, came the joy of family. Enveloped by my Granny’s love in her house in Terenure with the hampers and multilayered chocolate boxes delivered as thanks from business contacts, Mrs. Ward’s Porter cake in the pantry under the stairs, Bewley’s mince pies and the “bouncy sprouts” if my mum got her way by not obliterating the veggies on Christmas Day.


The real thrill of those holidays was my cousins. As an only child until I was 11, I revelled in the times that I was part of a brood, even temporarily. The Christmas we painstakingly drew paper dolls and kitted them out with full Mallory Towers uniforms including sports kit, lacrosse sticks and tuck box, the trip to the Peppermint Palace with our aunt Claire for ice cream soda floats that made us feel like film stars and the St Stephen’s Day thrill of Funderland with Pa and Jass (and the hand knitted dolls she had made for us all).


Then there was the year one of us got a tape recorder as our main present, and we secretly recorded the adults and their conversations in auntie Maunie’s kitchen in the hope that we would uncover great gossip and grown up wisdom. We didn’t! That was also the year of “Breakfast around the World” where we recorded a series of interviews with families (us) in different countries whilst they enjoyed their culturally appropriate breakfast. I’m not sure we got further than toast, croissant, confiture and knockwurst, but they were possibly my awakening to different food traditions.


At home, the Christmas meal was a feast that was honed over years and took influences from travel, friends and recipes torn out from the Sunday colour supplements and carefully stored in between the pages of cookbooks. Velvety, rich, salty Stilton soup, roast turkey and mustard glazed ham studded with cloves, roast parsnips tossed in parmesan, morello cherry and chestnut stuffing, proper wine gravy; it wasn’t for the faint hearted! My brother, Eoin and I happily lived on the left overs for days and topped them up with great slabs of Christmas cake, mince pies and slices of pear, almond and walnut tart, all made from scratch by Mum.


At the turn of the millennium Christmas food traditions began to change. Dad’s death left a massive hole that we are reminded of each December. We replaced the Stilton soup with the lighter smoked salmon, turned our back on turkey as the majority of us became pescatarians (to this day the I miss the memory of the Christmas ham and no meat substitute has come close) and a mince pie loaded with brandy butter just wasn’t the same without him.

 


Terry had moved in with myself and Kai in London and the three of us started to create our own traditions. The ones that came first were of the sweet variety. We were instantly smitten by all things Fazer; Geisha, weiner nougat, Dumle, liqueur fills, the jewel-like globes of Finlandia fruit jellies. We loved them all!

 



(The Fazer cafe Christmas window, Helsinki 2019)

 

I discovered a recipe for Nordic gingerbread in a Finnish cookbook by Beatrice Ojakangas which opened my eyes to a new range of spices and started my obsession with scouring the shelves of Finnish shops and supermarkets for ingredients I had never seen before, to experiment with back home in England.




(At the Finnish Christmas Fair, Suomen Merimieskirkko 2022)

 

 













 It also ushered in the tradition of the gingerbread decorating by Kai and Terry.


I make the dough and bake the biscuits (pigs, flowers, Moomins and moose figures most years) and they choose the theme and decorate. After the gingerbread came the joulutorttu (Christmas tarts or ninja stars as Kai calls them) flaky pastry folded over a blob of prune jam and baked until golden brown.


Nordic countries celebrate on Christmas Eve, which has long been my favourite day of the festive period. The anticipation of what is to come and the food preparation are the best bits! The aromas that start to waft around the warm kitchen as Christmas music plays evoking memories of years and loved ones’ past. The only thing better than Christmas Eve is, two Christmas Eves. We now have Finnish Christmas on 24th December and English/Irish Christmas on 25th December. Double the fun, double the leftovers!

 

My first introduction to the Finnish Christmas table was definitely a bit of a culture shock. Baked ham (I still ate meat back then, so happily tucked into this) served with a variety of pureed vegetable bakes, rosolli (a beetroot, carrot, apple, onion and gherkin salad topped with beetroot cream) and cold peas. It was not at all familiar and opened up a whole new way of enjoying Christmas.

 


(Christmas bakes, at Terry's mum's, Kouvola 2014)








As per my childhood Christmases, we have taken elements of dishes and traditions and made them our own. We top fluffy blinis with sour cream or smetana and smoked salmon, gherkins or sautéed mushrooms all dusted liberally with fronds of dill.




The ham has been replaced with a side of salmon, seasoned with cinnamon, garlic, orange zest and honey and topped with almonds and I’ve finally mastered the vegetable bakes (porkkanalaatikko, lanttulaatikko, and imelletty perunasoselaatikko or carrot bake, swede bake and sweetened potato bake) after many attempts, recipes and hints from Finnish family members. They are a definite highlight of my Christmas meal. The rosolli is still hit and miss for me (beetroot must always be approached with extreme caution) and the cold peas have quietly disappeared from the plate over the years.


December is often heralded in our house with the first bottle of mulled wine. We have tried to make it ourselves to many recipes (including glögi) but it is the one item where we tend to rely on shop bought varieties. We toast the season using one of the many mulled wine mugs in our collection, purchased during our visits to the Christmas markets of Northern Germany. Not content with coming from the true home of Father Christmas, Terry's sister Virpi, and her husband Miska now live in the country with some of the finest festive markets, so we have been lucky to experience these over the past twenty years too.


(Bochum Weihnachtsmakt)


Add lebkuchen and stollen into the mix of a Christmas tradition? It would be rude not to! (On a side note, I now know what is eaten in Germany for breakfast and it isn’t always knockwurst)

 










 

As we approach the Christmas week, I am looking forward to spending some time with a couple of my beloved cousins as they are visiting us in Leeds. We will no doubt reminisce over shared memories and make new ones for the future. We’ll remember family members no longer with us, and be happy for the times, and meals, we enjoyed together.


On Saturday 16th December, the Koivu menu is a further twist on the Finnish Christmas meal; a homemade honey-baked egg cheese served with a carrot and sea buckthorn chutney followed by salmon fillet with cinnamon and almond, a slice of carrot bake and an accompaniment of apples, carrots and beetroot pickled with winter spices, dill and spruce shoot syrup (the beetroot is served separately!)


Since we started Koivu in September, Terry and I have been overwhelmed by the support of family and friends. We have loved meeting our new customers and sharing our versions of Nordic foods. We will be taking a break for a couple of weeks after the 23rd December to enjoy our blended ‘traditional’ Christmas and to get ready for our January menu.




(Ylläs, 2014)



hyvää joulua!, god Jul!, glædelig jul!


Rachel Koivunen, 10th December 2023

 

 

 

 

 

 

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