Finland is known for its triple “s” – sisu (resilience), sauna and Sibelius. But for centuries there has also been a more subtle fourth “s”: Sima, a fermented drink made with water, sugar, lemon and yeast. Today, the effervescent and virtually alcohol-free sima is enjoyed across the country, most often consumed by children and adults as a special drink to celebrate Vappu, or May 1, a time when Finns flood the outdoors. to embrace the arrival of spring.
Sima roots come from the ancient alcoholic drink mead
I first tasted sima maison, its sweet sparkling bubbles under the spring sun, 35 years ago in my friend’s garden in the Finnish town of Pieksämäki. It was Vappu’s day before, and the sweet acidity of the drink left a memory in my brain that has remained with me to this day. As it was also my fourth birthday, it took a while for me to realize that the celebratory refreshment had nothing to do with my special day, but rather part of a rich piece of history. Finnish that dates back centuries.
Sima’s roots come from the ancient alcoholic beverage mead, or honey wine, which was widely drunk during the early Bronze Age in Europe. Mead, which in its simplest form is fermented honey and water, was not specific to Europe – it is also mentioned, for example, in Rigveda in India, an ancient collection of hymns Vedic Sanskrit. But, perhaps due to television series such as Game of Thrones and The Vikings, modern mead fame rests on the shoulders of 8th century Vikings, who enjoyed a highly alcoholic blend of water, honey, and honey. grasses such as meadowsweet and harrow. For them, mead was a drink of the gods that gave people the strength to win battles. In fact, the Vikings held mead in such high esteem that budding chefs would build their own mead bars to earn the respect of their followers.
Nevertheless, the citrus mead that looks more like today’s sima did not land on Finnish coasts such as those of the seaside town of Turku until the 16th century, imported from the Hanseatic towns of northern Europe. in what is now Germany and Latvia. This 16th-century drink – which, unlike today’s low-alcohol sima, contained up to 17% alcohol due to a longer fermentation process – was a more sought-after drink in Finland than beer.
One of the busiest Finnish importers of the 16th century was the astute merchant and shipowner Valpuri Erkintytär Innamaa, a volunteer woman who helped make sima the iconic Finnish drink Vappu that it is today.
During Innamaa’s time, Turku was still part of Sweden. When Gustav I was crowned king in 1523, he recognized the city’s strategic importance, renovated his dilapidated castle and visited occasionally. While in town, he enjoys Turku sima, which makes it a popular drink among the bourgeoisie. According to Seija Irmeli Kulmala, author of the Sima cookbook – a festive drink made with ingredients from nature, “King Gustav I of Sweden loved the sima he tasted in Turku. He created a sima boom, ”she said. “Sima has been imported [from Riga and Lubeck] in large quantities and its popularity is growing. “
Innamaa’s first husband had received a royal appointment warrant from the Swedish court residing at Turku Castle to supply goods he had imported. When he died in 1563, Innamaa resumed the trade, becoming Turku’s richest merchant with the city’s largest fleet of ships. Spurred on by the sima craze that Gustav I had created in Turku, Innamaa began importing more of the increasingly popular drink from Baltic ports, spreading it at least as far as Stockholm. In the Swedish capital at the time, sima was almost as expensive as wine.
Innamaa’s success in business has been remarkable, as her late husband’s inheritance would traditionally have passed to her new spouse. Instead, she took control of the business herself – even after getting married three more times. Its success made it an easy target during the political turmoil of the 1560s following the death of Gustav I, and it was attacked and looted more than once. Yet, according to Kristiina Vuori, author of the historical novel Western Winds based on the life of Innamaa, Innamaa was not afraid of enemies. “She even went to Stockholm to talk to the king himself about the injustices she suffered,” Vuori said. “Despite being a woman, [Innamaa] would not be silenced. “
You might also be interested in:
• How Finns survive without gossip
• The Swedish chef who cooks only on fire
• The distant island of Norway with a Viking spirit
It took more than two centuries for sima to drip from the tumblers of high society to the glasses of the working class in Finnish homes. In Innamaa’s time, sima remained an expensive upper-class drink because the two main ingredients of the drink, honey and lemon, were still scarce in the region. “Because of the honey, the sima was very expensive and only the richest bourgeois and the court of Turku Castle could afford it,” Vuori said.
By the 18th century, sugar had replaced honey, but was also a scarce commodity, dependent on imported sugar cane until Europe began producing sugar from beets. After Finland’s first sugar refinery was established in Turku in the 1750s, increasing numbers of Finns were able to manufacture and afford luxury goods like sima. Meanwhile, working class people could sample sima at special events like the spring gatherings at the local rectory. Decades later that changed and people were able to enjoy it more often, “when the ingredients in sima – sugar and lemon – became more readily available in the 19th century,” Kulmala said.
In the 1880s, Finland also began to produce yeast commercially, which made the sima even easier to manufacture on a large scale. Local businesses could suddenly produce the drink with more consistency, and it was sold at kiosks and cafes across Finland. At the start of the 20th century, sima, now virtually alcohol-free, became the go-to drink of Vappu, the festival to celebrate the arrival of spring.
According to Tiina Kiiskinen, curator at the Helsinki Hotel and Restaurant Museum, the connection with Vappu arose thanks to the Finnish temperance movement, which first gained popularity in the late 19th century and grew to becoming an ideological social crusade which resulted in a full ban on alcohol between 1919 and 1932. “At the turn of the 20th century, there was a strong desire to find a non-alcoholic alternative to drinking during celebrations,” Kiiskinen said. “Sima was popular because it was cheap and resembled sparkling wine. The advertisement further strengthened sima’s status as a May 1 drink.”
Over 100 years later, the temperance movement has lost momentum, but sima remains an essential part of Finnish Vappu. The annual celebrations run from April 30 to May 1 or 2, during which the market squares fill up with stalls selling food and balloons, people dress up in quirky costumes like colorful wigs and fake red noses. , and young and old alike come together to sip a sima and enjoy a spring day with friends.
The scope of sima also extends beyond the festivities. Young pupils learn to ferment sima in schools; restaurants offer sima on their Vappu menus alongside herring, potato salad and sweet pastries; and the big breweries bottle and sell their own versions of the drink. Every spring, store shelves fill with varieties of sima, and newspapers review the best brands. Plus, artisanal food culture has turned homemade sima into a trend, with creative home brewers experimenting with new flavors ranging from spruce and cucumber to rhubarb.
I too have tried to create my own. Following Kulmala’s sima recipe from his book, I added pineapple and orange to the traditional lemon peel and juice, mixed everything with sugar, then poured over almost water. boiling, adding a pinch of yeast when the water has cooled a little. After waiting eight hours, I filtered the sima into bottles and each topped with a few raisins. Once a day for almost a week, I opened the bottles to let the pressure escape, and once the raisins rose to the surface, I knew the fermentation process was over.
This spring, while tracing the sima’s path from the Viking drink to a Finnish spring drink, I ventured to Turku with a bottle of my house sima. In the cobbled courtyard of Turku Castle, I imagined being back in the days of Innamaa, when barrels of sima would be transported into the castle and enjoyed by the courtyard. I popped the cork, my fingers sticking out as the lightly squeezed drink sparkled on my hands. A scent of lemon surrounded me and brought me back to childhood. I took the first sip of sima of the year, let the citric sweetness roll over my tongue, and toast Finland’s rich history.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly newsletter of bbc.com features called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.