Salmiakki jäätelöä

It doesn't take long for a new visitor to Finland to discover salmiakki. That stuff which looks like licorice but with a really strange taste. Watch someone eating a bit for the first time: you may see some dramatic facial expressions, and hear strong vocal reactions such as 'What is that?!?' The fact is, not all Finns like it. Shocking, but true. While some foreigners - prepare to be shocked again - take an immediate liking to it. And even though it's found elsewhere, in places like Sweden, there's no doubt it's very characteristic of Finland. If you somehow wandered into our school and didn't know it was the Finnish School, you'd spot a hefty clue in the fact that a lot of the sweets on sale in our shop are salmiakki in one form or another.

Salmiakki itself is ammonium chloride, which sounds like sodium chloride, and it would, because it is another salt. Hence it's often called salty licorice. I've been caught out by that in the past. Once, I saw some 'salty licorice' on sale at the German market in Manchester, enthusiastically bought some, only to be disappointed to find it was actual salt. Yes, people do eat that as well. Why, I don't know. I found it hard work eating any of it. I believe ammonium chloride was first tried out for medicinal purposes - pause for laughter - however, I'm told by a friend who knows, that these days it's used industrially for treating metal. Something like that. Goodness knows what it would do to our insides if eaten in any quantity. But that sort of question has never stopped a Finn doing something crazy.

And they'll put salmiakki in almost anything. The most popular product is probably chocolate with salmiakki filling. If you want to go hardcore, you'll buy a packet of 'Turkish Pepper'. It's strong, and as the 'pepper' bit suggests, quite fiery; but we're not talking about Vindaloo-type heat. I have no idea why it's 'Turkish'. A few years ago, following the sound culinary principle of combining ingredients with alcohol, someone ground up a load of Turkish Pepper and mixed it with koskenkorva = Finnish vodka. Drinking the resulting near-black liquid is a memorable experience, or it is if you can remember it afterwards. You used to see loads of bottles of it on sale at the airport. Tourists probably buy it as a fun thing to give a friend back home. But it'll be tasted once and then pushed to the back of the bottom shelf of the drinks cabinet. I don't care for it much myself, not so much for the alcohol aspect, but because it's aggressively sweet.

Now I'll undermine what I just said: what I really really like is salmiakki jäätelöä = ice cream. Finns love their ice cream anyway, so you can find not only licorice ice cream, but salmiakki as well. See that picture of the Totally Black ice lolly up above? Eating that, while ambling down the River Aura in Turku one hot summer's day ...was just perfect. I know, it looks like something you'd use to fill potholes in the road, or as grout for tiling. Weirdly enough, I'm not normally an ice cream eater, but this is different. It's delicious.

That was summer. These days I only visit Finland in winter, and ice cream isn't such an obvious thing to look for. Last year I went looking, couldn't find any, and so was forced to try out my foreigner's Finnish on various ice cream counter assistants. In the end I was told at Ingman's Spice Ice, inside Forum in Helsinki, that they did have some in the freezer, and if I came back the next day it would be put out for me. She was as good as her word :) Later in the year I was back again, there was a different girl there but she was similarly able to satisfy my need (see pic!). Sadly, I have to report that Ingman's didn't have any this February. In fact, I didn't see any salmiakki koskenkorva at the airport, and everywhere salmiakki seemed in decline. Was I imagining this? It would be more than sad if Finns were losing their taste for this very special... um... substance. You know, I actually found myself trying to think up a way to bring back some of the ice cream, with some sort of portable mini freezer. Which the airline would almost certainly stop me from transporting. Ah well, it's for the best, isn't it? It just wouldn't be the same, not eating it in Finland.


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