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17 April 2014

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Finnish in style

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Where better to try Finlandia Vodka than in its country of origin – and what better occasion than a party celebrating the Midnight Sun? Anthea Gerrie takes it all in


finlandia midnight sun - Finlandia_for_web.jpgFor kids, it’s Santa Claus and his reindeer. But for adults the lure of Lapland is bound up with a different kind of magic: the miracle of 24-hour light that comes to the northern tip of Scandinavia with the summer solstice.

An energetic Midnight Sun party is something every Finn looks forward to. And scores of such celebrations take place on the shores of Lapland’s lakes or on the edges of its green forests. There is always a bonfire; there will be salmon from the polar seas or reindeer to chew on; and the traditional celebration with vodka. But only a privileged few, who are official friends of Finlandia Vodka, get to enjoy what must be the Midnight Sun party to beat them all.

Why does the Midnight Sun hold such significance for Finlandia Vodka? For 73 days every summer the never-setting sun provides constant growing conditions for the six-row barley, one of the key ingredients in the vodka. The six-row barley used in Finlandia contains very low amounts of oils, which results in a crisp, clean taste and texture. It soaks up the pure water and air and draws nourishment from the untainted soils on which it is grown. Together with state-of-the-art distillation and crystal-clear glacial spring water, this prime six-row barley makes Finlandia one of the purest vodkas in the world.

I knew this was going to be no ordinary jaunt when I discovered Finlandia had sent a personal bartender to accompany our group to Lapland. Of course, Giles is no ordinary bartender: he’s one half of Soulshakers, the mixmaster duo which has been devising bespoke cocktails for years at A-list venues. Soulshakers also run a special ‘Finnishing’ school for Finlandia, which teaches bartenders how to shake the perfect bloody Mary and other vodka-based drinks.

Our first stop en route to the land of the Midnight Sun was for a mixology session in Helsinki, where we learnt that the bloody Mary demands a shot of dry sherry and that every decent cocktail requires a great deal more ice than you could imagine. But the sun doesn’t quite shine at midnight this far south, so the next day we fly a thousand miles north to Kittilä, inside the Arctic Circle.

At first glance Lapland turns out to look surprisingly like Sussex in midsummer. A great sea of green woodland is broken up by half-hidden lakes. At the end of a magical woodland walk we emerged by one such lake: a very special place called Taivaanvalkeat. In front of us was a large patch of ice, across which stood a pleasingly primitive footbridge to the celebration site.

And what a site it was, with a huge circular ice bar sculpted in its midst from which vodka-based cocktails were being dispensed by Finlandia bartenders. But better still were the little huts in which bottles of Finlandia and all the extras were stored so that guests could make up their own cocktail.

This is where Giles came into his own, making us his own special version of a martini or a screwdriver or similar throughout the evening. It never got cold, but as the hours wore on, it was comforting to be able to nip into the teepee set up on the ice-bank near the entrance, from which delicious hot toddies were being handed out.

fire show finlandia midnight sun - Fire_show.jpgIt wasn’t all about vodka, though. The food was great too, starting with an amazingly energising green soup made from angelica root. We were then treated to salmon smoked over cedarwood on an open fire and roast reindeer with lingonberry sauce. Later we barbecued reindeer sausages over a deep firepit.
The Finnish males among the crowd scorned such tourist activities in favour of the temporary sauna set up by the lake. For those of us too shy to brave the sauna, too guilty to stroke the pet reindeer whose cousins we had just consumed and too self-conscious to bop to live rock bands, there were the fortune-tellers. As well as reading palms, they explained the ancient spells that have been practised by Lapps on this magical midsummer night for centuries. It’s said true love and happiness are easier to invoke when the sun is at its strongest.

Shining the palest gold, through a blanket of fluffy clouds, the appearance of the sun at midnight was indeed magical. There was a distinctly spiritual quality to the 10 minutes’ silence we were invited to share, urged to bid farewell to negative feelings and make room for positive vibes which were to empower us for the coming year.

It was nigh on impossible to sleep for a few hours before our homeward flight, despite the comfort of our rustic lodge; the body clock fights any notion of turning consciousness off without the prompt of darkness. But it was no hardship to wander in the woods in the small hours until it was time to regroup for a hearty Finnish breakfast and then head home to the land of the midnight rain.


Originally published in Square Meal Summer 2009

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