Baking away the darkness

To complement the hordes of articles that seem to be popping up in newspapers and magazines lately about how to deal with the oncoming darkness and not go crazy, I thought I would add my little bit of advice. I have learnt it through a combination of instinct and necessity, and unlike pretty much all of the advice that others seem to be spouting, it doesn’t involve leaving the house. Or even the kitchen. And you eat it.
Oh yes.
I’m talking about baking.

My home town in the middle of November at 3:30pm. On a nice day.

My home town in the middle of November at 3:30pm. On a nice day.

(If you’re reading this from Australia or somewhere else that isn’t currently getting dark by 3.30pm, pretend I am making ice-cream, or whatever else you like that suits weather over 5 degrees.)

It started some time ago, when I realised that this whole making bread thing isn’t as hard as I thought and that if I make bread my partner gets a bit giddy with excitement. I found an amazing recipe that makes bread rolls in about 45 minutes, from start to finish. And they are perfect. I’ve done it three times now and both times there was a sense of a miracle as I took the tray out of the oven. The second time was also the time when I realised that this baking thing was becoming a thing. It was halloween, and as mentioned in that post, I decided to do some traditional, themed baking. There was the Roman dish, soul cakes and the bake that was not quite a cake.

Successful soul cakes!

Successful soul cakes!

It was the first of my recent failures and it stung. A few weeks later I decided to use the scrapings from the halloween pumpkins to make pumpkin bread for book club. It… did not work. We agreed that it made decent slice though, and left it at that. I brought tiny vegemite sandwiches to make up for it.

However I kept going, making another delicious pile of rolls (oh the burgers, oh the joy), and it started to creep up on me that there was a pattern in my behaviour. I’d wake up, do weekend things and somehow find myself in the kitchen, wearing an apron and spraying flour dust around the counter, while outside the sky lowered and rain fell. The oven would be on and though kneading and cries of ‘oh damn, why is it still sticky!’ lay ahead, I knew at the end would be something warm and comforting, and edible achievement that perhaps in some way made up for the cold and inability to picnic.

Bread rolls

Bread rolls

It was around this point that we began to get creative. By now my partner had decided he wanted in on this baking thing, and not just as the happy recipient of baked goods. Prior to my baking revelations he had been the house baker, proud owner of the knowledge of how long to leave the yeast to grow and at what temperature, how elastic the dough should be and how many times to punch it before baking. And he does certainly make very fine bread. So when I said that I was curious about making rye bread he fiddled on his tablet and replied soon after that he might be interested in making barley bread, using ancient recipes. So after a trip to the shops for the correct flour and extra yeast, the bake-off was on.
Except without officially being a competition, because I don’t like competitions. And neither of us are especially graceful losers.

We set to in the kitchen, wearing our respective aprons and were soon thoroughly dusted with flour. There was much kneading, poking, tutting about consistency, watching dishcloths slowly rising and finally carefully putting them in the oven. Both turned out great, especially just baked and slathered in margarine. Most certainly a victory for us both.

Rye bread

Rye bread

This has all been leading, as the best stories do, to a climax. Last weekend we had been invited to dinner by a good friend and I offered to bring dessert. My inspiration, as I leafed through cookbooks and the internet, was chocolate. In the end I found a chocolate cake that was not only egg and milk free, but it had the word epic in the title. After recent cake incidents I wasn’t feeling confident and there were minor details that I could have done better (such as reading all the instructions before getting halfway through) but at the end, when I assembled it at the friend’s house and stood back to consider, I decided it was damn good. You should have tasted it. In fact, there is still some in the fridge now, if you’re quick!

Chocolate cake. Mmmm.

Chocolate cake. Mmmm.

So I suppose what I mean to say is that I’ve found my own personal type of activity/therapy to while away the crawl to the day of least light. It requires practice and concentration, there is always something new to learn and I can pretend that watching The Great British Bake Off is studying. Plus we eat the results. I’d be curious to know what other habits or hobbies others are taking up to keep the darkness at bay. Whatever it is, may it be satisfying and keep you sane.

Advertisements

Island fortress

A long time ago, before even IKEA was created, the boundaries between countries in this area were quite different. Norway and Denmark vied for ownership of the region, and as the lines shifted castles and fortresses were built and attacked and built again. There are the two smallish fortresses now within the city of Göteborg, one up at Marstrand, another along the river and one further inland. I’d heard a bit about this last one and was curious to compare it to the others I’d seen. The chance presented itself a few weeks ago, which was how I found myself attempting to climb Medieval walls and completely failing.

Bohus Fortress

Bohus Fortress

Bohus Fortress lies about 20 minutes out of town by bus, and the first sight I had of it was the tall, round tower that rises above the thick walls. Even at a distance it’s impressive, and as we approached the walls loomed above us. The fortress is set on an island that is reached by two bridges on either end, and though the island had once been covered by the town that surrounded the fortress, the hills and small valley now consist of trees, grass, a bit of wilderness and a visitor’s centre. The fortress is now a museum and would usually have been open for visitors if we had visited in summer. Unfortunately it’s now closed, so our visit was restricted to peering up the walls, attempting a bit of climbing and exploring the island. A small locked door on one side showed an echoing, dripping passageway, still lit by lights from some sort of event.

View over the river

View over the river

Climbing over a fence brought us to scatterings of mushrooms and views over the swampy river and what had once been the town. At all times the walls peered down at us impenetrably, and we decided that once summer returned we’d make another attempt at the defenses.

An elderly lady lays a brief siege

An elderly lady lays a brief siege

I should perhaps mention at this time, for the sake of my mother, that Bohus Fortress was built by Norwegians and was never captured. There are still Norwegian flags at the site in case anyone was at risk of forgetting this.

...though not technically Norwegian now

…though not technically Norwegian now

As clouds began to cover up the brief blue skies, we headed over the bridge that lead to the town of Kungälv which we had never visited before. It turned out to be very lovely, our first few impressions being of narrow cobblestone streets, old-fashioned two storey houses and small, young families walking their dogs/children.

Old street in Kungälv

Old street in Kungälv

A look at a map promised some sort of historical landmark in the centre of town so we followed the old street, beneath the shadow of the hill on the right, past houses, shops and then suddenly a shopping area. By this time, however, we were both feeling quite hungry and so decided to leave the mysterious landmark for now and instead focus on dinner. Although it was only around 16:30 the dark comes quickly way up here and the urge to settle down with a plate of something tasty was growing strong. We decided on an Italian place back where we’d started and so a short bus trip later found us settling down to pasta and pizza, while I hoped that my bright pink gumboots weren’t too conspicuous for a restaurant.
Dinner finished, and gumboots unremarked upon, we arrived at the stop just in time for the next bus to Göteborg, looking forward to the next time we could visit this very nice little town sitting in the shadow of a fortress.

The waiting walls

The waiting walls

A journey up the river

Recently I had an entire day to myself, during a week free of classes and work, and so I escaped the city for a little while. I had an urging to visit a museum, and spend the cloudy coldness absorbed in artifacts and old stories.
Which is how I found myself at a train station, surrounded by fields and chirping birds, in a valley that had once been the centre of Västra Götaland.

Those who have peeped at the history of Göteborg may know that it was officially founded in 1621. Ok, but what about before that time, you may ask, at such a significant point between Denmark and Norway there must have been some sort of settlement, you may point out? There were, seemingly shifted down the river Älv with time as boundaries shifted and kings had great new ideas. The first of these towns on record was Lödöse, located about 40kms up the river from Göteborg. It was here that I went on that day, or to be specific, it was to the museum of Lödöse.

Lödöse as it was

Lödöse as it was

Lödöse has faded somewhat over the years, now boasting a population of around 1300 according to Wikipedia, but in the museum at least you can get a sense of what it must have been like when it was a thriving trading city.

Ancient Lödösians thriving Medievally

Ancient Lödösians thriving Medievally

The museum is full of pot and glass shards from all over Europe, the fragments of a Venetian glass hinting at the wealth that must have been here, as well as signs from everyday life. There were replicas of houses, clothes and a case with rune carvings, and mysterious fragments left from churches and the various inhabitants. I spent a while wandering among these, before climbing up to the second story, where the theme seemed to cover history in a much more general sense.

The head of a saint

The head of a saint

There were artifacts again, but rather than a plaque stating the archaeological equivalent of ‘I donno’, there were cartoons depicting suggestions in a style that didn’t ask to be taken too seriously.

Necklace or tankard ring?

Necklace or tankard ring?

There was a section about evolution, religion and race biology, which certainly didn’t pull any punches in terms of Sweden’s own history of eugenics and the clash between science and religion. Facing it was a slowly rotating globe on which stood figures from the evolution of humans, caught with a fish, a spear or empty handed, leaping from the lands they’d been discovered in.

Humanity

Humanity

There was a cartoon showing previous generations, a queue of women in gradually modernising clothes, at the end of which was a woman with a phone. It made me very much want my own history sketched out, so I can see the faces of the ladies who preceded me.

A generational queue

A generational queue

After a final poke around the rest of the museum, the library and a snack, I headed out to wait for a bus, taking in the suburban modernity that has mostly buried the old town.

Modern Lödöse

Modern Lödöse

Soon the bus arrived and took me on the next leg of the journey: Åmål.

I kid, I got of the bus before it got there. Because Åmål.

After about an hour on the rather comfortable bus, I got off at Vänersborg, and miraculously the weather began to clear. As the name suggests Vänersborg lies next to lake Vänern, near to the starting point of the river Älv. Lake Vänern is the largest lake in Sweden, and the third largest in Europe, so it is no exaggeration to say that it is really very big. I’d seen it once before and marveled at the complete lack of anything within vision on the other side.

The lake in autumn

The lake in autumn

The lake was the main reason I wanted to visit Vänersborg, so after hopping off the bus I headed along the canal to the edge of the lake. As I went past an apparently normal block of flats and cafes I was hit full in the face by a very familiar smell. People who haven’t been to Australia may have been reminded of a brewery or a yeast factory. If you have been to Australia you would have instantly recognised the heady smell of vegemite. As there was no Kraft factory or back-packers in sight, I have to assume that it was from something beer or yeast related. At least until I next get to investigate.

The lake edge was reached through a park, complete with statues, bowing willows, shimmering birches and a fountain. The lake at this point was narrow, but in between the distant hills was empty water. It’s a strange feeling to be inland and feel as though you’re staring out at the sea, imagining continents in the distance.

The endless lake

The endless lake

After turning away from the lake, I headed into town and found freshly cooked pancakes swimming in jam and cream, which I gave a thorough eating. It was then time for the train home, so with a last look around the the town I climbed onto the train and began the journey back into town. It followed the path of the river Älv, including the wide valley where an old trading town had once ruled the region, before the town was pulled as I was to the coast and the future.

The hallowed weekend

Growing up in Australia, Halloween wasn’t a big thing in my life. It seems often to have been associated with sniffs and ‘oh, that’s all a bit Americanised, isn’t it?’ which usually leads straight into a rant about how every year Christmas decorations are out earlier and earlier.
There was neither trick nor treat on my street, pumpkins were left unscathed and costumes were something you got for themed birthday parties.

An uncommon sight in Perth

An uncommon sight in Perth

Here in Sweden there’s a similar sense of not taking it too far, but in addition there’s another tradition underlying the new, and as with Jul it concerns light.

Halloween at our apartment started with a frenzy of baking, in which I decided that festivals are basically about food and on a cold rainy day, fiddling about with an oven and sweet food isn’t a bad way to go.
I started with a basic spiced cake, which didn’t turn out exactly right, and will have to be the subject of another go in future. The less said about it the better really.

Next was an ancient Roman delicacy, the awkwardly named Placenta cake, that originated as a religious offering. I found a great blog with heaps of recipes and did the modernised version and it worked well. As with Carthaginian porridge, there’s something about baked cheese and honey that I really like, and that the Romans apparently enjoyed as well.

An offering to the gods

An offering to the gods

Thirdly Soul cakes, which was what I found when I searched for traditional Halloween cakes. They were originally made to honour the dead, and were handed out door to door, and might possibly relate to the origin of trick or treat. There are certainly tasty and easy to make, and my partner amazed even myself with his ability to make them magically disappear. My lesson from this cake though was not to put the raisins on while baking. Cooked raisins aren’t especially raisiny.

Soul cakes

Soul cakes

Finally I made a pile of rolls for dinner, using a miraculous recipe that only requires 30 minutes from start to finish. All delicious and fluffy and perfect with a homemade burger.

Homemade burgers

Homemade burgers

Before you begin wondering where the normal blog went and why a kitchen-fancier has taken over, let’s leave the kitchen and discover another Halloween tradition. As I mentioned earlier, pumpkins were quite safe from the carving knife while I was growing up, but as part of our new life here in Sweden my partner and I decided to give the tradition a go.
Fortunately there were 3 pumpkins left from the wagon loads earlier in the week when we wandered down to the supermarket on the 31st, and 2 of those looked decent enough for our purposes. Some googling and pondering gave us designs and steps, and so after dinner we sat down with a few episodes of Buffy and began to carve. It was surprisingly easy and we were both pleased with our attempts. There will be more carving next year I am sure.

Our pumpkins

Our pumpkins

The next day was partly spent preparing for the Halloween party that night, during which time we realised how under-prepared we were. In order to use one of my favourite dresses I decided to be a witch, complete with a pouch of rune stones, a bunch of herbs, Freya and other suitable jewelry and my candle-lit pumpkin. My partner chose to become a ghoul, and was quite convincing, especially once he put on the cloak. We both did pretty well, considering it was our first time getting dressed up for Halloween.
The party was a lot of fun, with spooky food, friends, new friends, music and a very wide range of costumes.

Herbs and runes

Herbs and runes

And during all these adventures in and out of traditions, the cemetery below our window filled with flickering candles and wreaths of pine and flowers. All Hallows Eve is celebrated over a series of days here in Sweden, so everyday the candles would spread just a little bit more, and we could see family and friends tending the graves and standing vigil. These lights in the darkness, and the remembrance of the dead are a nice counterpoint to the fun and silliness of Halloween. I can imagine people up and down Sweden dressing up as ghosts, monsters or beasts, and then the next day, with the face paint perhaps lingering behind their ears, they head to the cemetery to light a candle for their grandmother and think about those who have passed, and the thin barrier between life and death.

Lights in the cemetery

Lights in the cemetery