Monday, 27 February 2017

Fazer Visitor Centre – a visit to chocolate company!

As it was my birthday last week, we celebrated on weekend, and on Saturday my DH and daughter took me to Fazer visitor centre. Fazer is the most well-known chocolate manufacturer in Finland, but the company also makes other sweets, cookies, bread, muesli etc. and has bakeries and cafés in various cities and towns. They opened a new visitor centre just last autumn, and since then, I’ve been looking forward to a visit there!

We’d booked a guided tour, which lasted for about an hour. It started in a small tropical garden where we were shown cocoa trees with cocoa fruit and other tropical plants. On a cold winter day, the warm, humid garden was a particularly lovely spot.

The tour itself didn’t focus much on chocolate making or history of chocolate but rather on Fazer as a company; their history, products etc. The exhibition featured, among other things, a giant bunny made of egg shells:

Old confectionary equipment:

And a great number of old wrappings, boxes and other containers for sweets. These were very beautiful and truly charming!

There were interactive parts in the tour; you could, e.g., smell ingredients used in sweets (cocoa mass, cocoa powder, liquorice powder, spices...) and visit Fazer factories wearing VR headsets.

And of course, visitors were invited to sample some of the products: individually wrapped pieces of chocolate as well as chocolate and liquorice bars. A "chocolate tree":

Although it is every chocoholic’s dream to devour unlimited amounts of chocolate, I was careful and only sampled a bit – we were going to an Indian restaurant afterwards, and it would have been a shame to spoil my appetite! Still, I did get a bite of all my favourites as well as a chance to taste something new, such as these Dumle lime chocolates, which are chocolate covered lime flavoured soft, chewy caramels. I was a little suspicious about the lime thing, but these are actually delicious!

After the tour, visitors were given goodie bags containing some new or limited edition products... and there is a shop in the premises where we bought a big bag full of treats. For the most part, the selection did not differ from what you find in supermarkets and grocery stores, but there were some novelties we haven’t yet spotted anywhere else, such as these chocolate eggs. They are like our favourite chocolate eggs, Mignons: solid almond nougat eggs in real egg shells (and one of Fazer’s oldest products still in the market). These, however, are slightly larger than the normal Mignons and come in brown egg shells. Aren’t they beautiful? These would make a perfect little Easter/spring time gift!

In addition, there is a café where you can sample some of Fazer’s cafeteria products. The cakes looked utterly delicious! Since we had other plans, we didn’t indulge in these treats – but immediately decided to make another visit one day...

Monday, 20 February 2017

A chocolate feast - Valentine's Day 2017

Every year, I prepare a Valentine’s Day dinner for my DH and, these days, also our daughter. I try to pick a different theme each year (although the favourites, such as ancient Rome, have to be repeated occasionally because of popular demand). I’ve previously blogged about our Game of Thrones dinner and our Musketeer party.

This year, the theme was chocolate. This wasn’t simply because I love chocolate but mainly because my daughter once said we should have a meal where we just ate “chocolate foods”… so I decided to plan a menu where all courses included chocolate.

First I wrote a short text about why chocolate is an appropriate choice for Valentine's Day:

The ancient Aztecs regarded cocoa as food of the gods. Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical or divine properties; it was used in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. Cocoa was used to make a drink xocoatl, considered a health elixir, with spices such as cinnamon or hot chili peppers.

The Aztec ruler Montezuma reportedly consumed cocoa elixir before heading off to his harem. He also welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez with a drink of chocolate, having mistaken the conquering invader for a reincarnated deity. Cortez brought cacao beans to the Spanish court where the pepper was replaced with sugar.

By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Rumour has it that Casanova, the legendary lover, was especially fond of chocolate.

Today, the aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate are ascribed to tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in sexual arousal, and phenylethylamine, a stimulant released in the brain when we fall in love. Whether even hard-core chocoholics can consume enough chocolate to cause a significant rise in those chemicals is debatable... but either way, chocolate is sweet and delicious and an ever-popular gift among lovers.

For appetisers, I served white chocolate and olive bruschettas. I chose these because the combination of flavours sounds rather unusual. In addition, I wanted to have at least one dish with white chocolate. You can see the recipe I used for inspiration here. Somewhat surprisingly, this was very good! The white chocolate and mozzarella melted into a delicious, creamy sauce, and while white chocolate is very sweet, olives are salty, and all the flavours just worked together wonderfully. I was told I have to start making these regularly!

The main course was chicken with chocolate mole sauce. I am aware that there are much more authentic recipes, but to save time, I referred to this and this. I have to say that this smelled divine as it cooked! It tasted delicious, too; the chocolate and nuts gave it a robust, earthy flavour. Very different from anything we’ve ever eaten, but we definitely enjoyed it. It was also a surprisingly sturdy, filling dish.

With the chicken, I served fresh bread and a salad with lettuce, oranges and dark chocolate shavings. Oranges and chocolate is a classic combination, after all (although not one I particularly enjoy…). I didn’t use any recipe for this, just tossed those ingredients together.

The dessert was the hardest choice for there were so many things I wanted to make! Finally I decided on cheesecake brownies, because I’ve always wanted to make them and also because it’s been years since I last made a batch of brownies. I used this recipe (in Finnish) and this (in English) and just sort of combined, tweaked, modified, adjusted… I was pretty sure I’d mess up the marble pattern… but it’s also something I’ve always wanted to try. And it wasn’t that difficult after all, or at least it worked out all right this time. Cake still in the pan:

This was pretty much what I expected: very chocolaty, with cake-like edges and a more molten core. My daughter told me it was “the best cake ever!” but then she went on to list just about every cake I’ve made in the past 18 months and they were all also “best cakes ever”, so…clearly, she likes cake.

This was a fun Valentine’s Day and it definitely included a lot of chocolate! Of course, that wasn’t quite enough for us, and once we’d put our daughter to bed, we finished the evening with these (and an episode of House, M.D. – how romantic! 😀).

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Library love story

I remember my first visit to a library. It is one of my earliest memories, if not even the earliest – I was perhaps three years old at the time. My mother took me to this beautiful old building (built in 1900), where the public library of our tiny town used to be (picture from this page).

I remember the hushed halls and the shelves after shelves of books. I was told I could take some books home with me, and when we had read them, we’d return them – and get yet new books to read! I was thrilled: I loved books, I loved listening to stories, and I soon learned to read (I’ve been told I was four or five at the time; I don’t really remember). I got my own library card that day, and since then used it frequently. My mother also sometimes took me to the library for story times for children.

Some years later, a more modern library building was constructed. This new building, which still works as a library today, was also a versatile cultural venue; they organised puppet shows and movie mornings for children (and they still do!). I remember going to those as well, although it was always the books that I loved best. Sometimes I borrowed so many books that as I pushed them forwards on the counter behind which the librarians sat, the librarians couldn’t see me as the tall pile of books hid me from their view. But I needed bags and bags of books when we went to the summer place and stayed there for several weeks (until my mother realised it might be a good idea to get a library card for the library of the closest town).

Since that first visit, I’ve come to know many different libraries: the libraries of every town I’ve lived in, university library (considering the title of this post, I will have to mention that a different kind of love story took place there; the university library was where we often met with my husband, in the early days of our courtship), a couple of public libraries in Vancouver... But then, I’m almost ashamed to admit, there were a few years when I didn’t go to a library at all! I only read books in English – what would I find in a Finnish library? It was the decision to try and write a short story in Finnish that finally lured me back to the library: having read no Finnish fiction in several years, I thought it best to re-familiarise myself with it. 

As it happened, this was the library of my old home town, and since then, I’ve kept going back for more Finnish fiction, non-fiction of various kinds - and I’ve also discovered that they do have a section of English novels! There’s also a children’s play area, where I can leave my daughter for a while and just browse the books and enjoy the quiet (I do love quiet)... and the expectation of finding something good to read.

The beauty of library books is that there is no commitment. I am a little hesitant to buy a book if I’ve never read anything by the author, but if a library book isn’t interesting, I don’t have to read it... and when I return it, it won’t take any space in our already crammed shelves. You can be as adventurous as you like and borrow anything you want. Anything!!! I’m still as immensely excited about that as I was the first time I stepped into a library.

And to ruin an ending I was, for once, happy with… I am aware of the alarming, global trend of closing down libraries. I could have written a different kind of post about how libraries are vital for a community, for they provide people with an equal access to information and knowledge; how they can improve education and preserve art and enrich our lives. But people are not that stupid (yet; however, if we do keep closing down those libraries...) – everyone knows all that. So I did what I so often do and made it personal. This is my library love story. Tell me yours?

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Reading gloves

These are my new reading gloves.

Reading gloves? What's that? Well, now that it's cold and I should keep my hands warm, I intend to wear these while reading. And they're touchscreen gloves - those little patches on the two fingers mean that I can use my Kindle while wearing these!

(The book? It's a graphic novel I found in the library and borrowed just because it said 17th century... I haven't read it yet.)

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne disappears, and her husband, Nick, is suspected of having murdered her... especially when it turns out that he has a young mistress, has accumulated considerable credit card debts, and that their marriage wasn’t a particularly happy one. But it’s impossible to say more about the plot of “Gone Girl” without spoilers, I’ll simply say that things are not what they seem and leave it at that.

“Gone Girl” is not my kind of book at all; it is not historical fiction (not that I’m faithful to only one genre; I like to mix it up), the writing isn’t particularly beautiful, and the characters aren’t the type I could actually, seriously root for. I have even seen the movie, so I knew what was going to happen, yet I kept turning the pages, thinking “one more chapter!”

The sticker on the cover calls the books “smart”, and naturally I’d like to claim that was what hooked me. 😉 The characters are devious, and keeping track of their stories, their lies and deceptions... well, that’s actually not tricky at all. But the structure is a clever one – simple, but clever without being gimmicky. 

Nick and Amy both get a chance to tell their side of the story. Or their version of the story (unreliable narrators, for sure). I found myself feeling something close to sympathy for both in turn, but, even more so, despising and even loathing them both. I suppose this is exactly what the author intended.

I once read a piece of writing advice (unfortunately, I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it) that defined a good character as someone who has skeletons in their closet. This should make readers curious. They should crave a peek at the characters’ most private lives, and an author should oblige and grant them their chance to pry. These two, Nick and Amy, certainly have piles of bones and skulls in their closets. And little by little, all the ugly truths and meanest thoughts are revealed.

While I would call this novel light reading, it is also rather dark and paints a creepy picture of relationships. I’m not sure I could say that I enjoyed it, yet it was oddly addictive.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

It’s the 1930s, and Jacob Jankowski doesn’t quite run away to join a circus – he jumps a freight train and finds himself travelling with one. Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is struggling with financial problems, but since the nearly-vet Jacob has lost everything, he accepts a position as the troupe’s veterinarian. He falls in love with Marlena, a beautiful equestrian performer, whose charming but jealous husband August, superintendent of animals, becomes Jacob’s boss. When the circus acquires an elephant August doesn’t get along with, his cruel, sadistic side emerges and puts everyone in jeopardy.

Yes, I did love circus as a child. I don’t remember actually going but once (or twice?) but I enjoyed watching it on TV. I especially loved the trapeze artists, and among the animals, elephants were my very favourite.

Does that explain why I found “Water for Elephants” so captivating? Maybe; or maybe it was partly that I read it during the holidays when feeling particularly lazy. Reading was all I really wanted to do.

I found the setting fascinating – the 1930’s, a circus, the vagabond life. Creating the dazzling beauty and magic of a short circus act is a lot of sweat and pain and hard work, and the everyday life of performers and workers could be quite harsh.

As for characters, I especially liked the fact that there is a marked contrast and yet certain similarities between the tender-hearted but naïve young Jacob who joins the circus and the old, grumpy Jacob who looks back on his life while in a nursing home. It is Jacob the elder who provides a certain gravity, wisdom and even some heart-break to the story – and some of its funniest moments. Rosie, the elephant, is a lovable character (some of her antics are based on true stories), and I also really liked Walter. Unfortunately, some characters remain a little flat, and I could have hoped for a bit more chemistry between Jacob and Marlena.

The writing is solid, if not extraordinary, and the story... there is love, there is excitement, there is murder and mayhem. I wanted to know what happens next! Not every plot twist and turn seemed entirely realistic (but hey, this is fiction!), and the ending especially could be called a little far-fetched. Yet I would say it was the right ending for this story.

Maybe sometimes we don’t need to know exactly what it is that draws us into a book. I just know I didn’t want to put this one down... and that is always a wonderful feeling.