Thursday, July 31, 2014

Four whisk-er bits

At a recent family reunion, I learned from Finnish relatives (maybe third cousins) a technique in freezing vihtas. Their trick is to slide an absorbent paper, like a coffee filter, between layers of branches. Then place the vihta in a ziplock plastic bag and squeeze all the air out and flatten the bag. Voilait's ready for the freezer, where they last a long time!

He also taught me how to pronounce vihta, but I’m not very good at it.

Another third cousin told me that vihtas can be purchased at many shops in Finland you dont have to go find the right trees at the right time. He also said that, harvested in spring when the leaves are strongly attached to the branch, the vihta will last a long time.

That brings me to the third third-cousin story. She told me about taking saunas with her grandmother, and hitting each other with vihtas. Which is a lot for some kids to process, but she did it handily. And late in life, her grandmother counted out a row of vihtas dried and ready for use. That will be enough to last me, she said.

The fourth third cousin also remembered taking saunas with her grandma (not the same one), who would kiss her eyes when soap got in them. Awww. 

With all these third cousins from Finland, Canada, California and Georgia and my usual first and second cousins telling stories, you KNOW it was a wonderful reunion!


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Finn Fest extra

Jack Rajala, my first cousin, will be one of Saturday’s featured speakers at FinnFest. His talk is titled "The Tale of Two Forests." 

Jack recalled that many years ago our grandfather, Ivar Rajala, visited Finland, accompanied by Jack’s parents and another aunt and uncle. Among the sights they took in were the managed forests in Finland. Grandpa Ivar was impressed with how attractive and robustly healthy they appeared. When he looked at Minnesota forests, which were a jumble of weedy undergrowth and fallen dead trees, he said, "What a mess!"

So go listen to Jack’s presentation and others, shop, enjoy music, crafts-- So much to do, so little time.

Finnfest is August 7-10 in Minneapolis.
Saturday and Sunday are Family Days. Children ages 16 and under get in free.  Adult tickets are $35 for one day, $60 for any two days, $80 for all four days.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Technology improves the whisk-er

What could be better than a nice soft birch switch?

About 15 years ago, I talked to Tom, then a young student at Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minnesota, discovered the Ely Steam Bath*, a public sauna with its own long heritage. Hed thought the experience might be similar to “sannas” he’d taken in motels. Boy was he surprised to find instead a rich social tradition with older Finns, Scandanavians and Yugoslavians.

An old-timer who’d been a logger taught him about using a vihta/vasta, explaining that it increased circulation. Others there no longer used whisks, though they had at one time. The logger had used alder leaves, and even showed Tom how to make one. But, the logger said, they only last a month or so.

Then he showed off his upgraded whisk — which Tom described as “a plastic pompom thing on a stick.”

Sometime later, I purchased one of my own, intending to try it out. It’s been decorating the sauna for quite a few years, but now I’ll change its status to “working.”

I’ll compare my pompom to the leafy whisk I made out of ash branches and report back — inquiring minds need to know.


* For the rest of the story on the Ely Steam Bath, see chapter 27 of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories. It’s been in (almost) business continuously since 1915, though it changed hands when the original family owner died a few years back. They don’t have a website but can be found on Facebook.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How to whisk?

What exactly is the procedure?

I have read that its not supposed to hurt, but it should make your skin tingle. Splash, whisk, flick as lightly or heartily as feels right.

Each bather gets their own vihta/vasta. This whisk can assist in washing up add a bit of soap to warm water in a basin, whip it up to a foam, whisk the soapy water on your legs, arms, torso and back.

A good one will last several saunas, depending on how vigorously or how often it is used.

Im stalling...


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Useful tidbits about whisk-ers

The Finnish Sauna Society, which maintains six saunas, allows the use of  sauna whisk-ers in three of them. They ask sauna-goers to collect any leaves that have fallen from the whisk and put them in the waste bin, not to leave the used whisk in the pail on the sauna bench when they have finished bathing and to replace the pail in its right place and take the whisk to the hatch in the washroom reserved for this purpose (the whisker can be used later as tinder for lighting the sauna stove the next time). 
Many years ago, the owners of the Kangas Sauna, a lovely public sauna in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, provided leafy whisks for their guests, but picking up afterwards became a chore. At that time, their cleaners needed too much time to sweep away the broken-off leaf bits, so the service was discontinued. 

My take-away — they’re messy. 
A vihta/vasta made of plant materials should be taken out of the sauna when people go out for their cooling dip.

To save vihtas or vastas  for other seasons, they can be frozen or dried (!?). If frozen or dried, they should either be thawed or or softened in warm water beforehand. Or it can be placed on hot stones for a moment so the leafy smell permeates the sauna.

Pretty soon I’ll get my nerve up.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Make your own whisk-er

Traditionally a vihta/vasta is made of birch twigs. But any broad leaf tree branches with a fresh delicate aroma (and some softness?) could be used. That might include alder, aspen, eucalyptus, hazel, maple, mountain ash and oak.

My dad used cedar branches to make his vihta/vasta because they were handy and lasted longer.They were available in spring and fall as well. 

Select young tender branches with many leaves to make the slapping softer. Gather your choice of branches during the early summer to ensure that these whisks have supple leaves firmly attached to flexible stems.

You’ll need to cut at least 10 or so leafy branches about 20 inches long. Crisscross the branches placing the shiny side of the leaves out. Tie your bundle with string or twine.

Oh good, a project I can do.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Nestor’s Chronicle — on sauna whisk-ers

In an earlier post (on War and Peace and the sauna), I mentioned Nestor’s Chronicle, written by a Russian monk describing the years 850 to 1100 or so.

Nestor recounts the process of whisking during the sauna. While it was a part of ordinary life, he doesn’t sound convinced: “In the country of Slavs I saw wooden spas, very much warmed up, where people took their clothes off, poured leaven on themselves, took some brooms or some sticks, and were whipping themselves” (from the K.J. Erben translation, 1867).

A different translation says “naked people lashed themselves with twigs from a tree, only to douse themselves with cold water at the end. Voluntarily they torment themselves, acquiring pain instead of cleanliness.

This does not encourage me. I vacillate.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Can the sauna be improved?

A sauna is a pleasure and there are a few things which can intensify the experience. One, apparently, is the use of a birch switch.

Ouch. A switch made of twigs brings punishment to mind. But this whisk-er is not bare whippy twigs — it’s made of soft leaves.

In English, its also called a whisk or whisker (which sounds less harsh to me!). Finns in western Finland say vihta while in eastern Finland, its a vasta.
Those who use a vihta/vasta say it stimulates the blood circulating near the skin. Some find it speeds up perspiration, others say it helps the dirt come out of the open pores, cleaning the skin like nothing else. It is said to feel akin to scrubbing or massaging. Another plus its birchy aroma.

When I first researched for my book, the Finnish Sauna Society said that a sauna bath without a birch whisk is like food without salt. Since then, they’ve eased up — now they say:
Some people like it very much to increase the pleasure of sauna session by beating themselves with birch whisks and some don’t. Just to respect others privacy and opinion, in some of the saunas birch whisks are not allowed. Generally speaking the whisk is an essential part of the Finnish sauna tradition. The birch whisks’ smell and effect on one’s skin and body are well accepted in saunas all over the country.
Once a person’s skin is thoroughly softened from a round of löyly (which, you may have forgotten, is the Finnish word for “sauna steam), true sauna fans or is that fanatics? use a whisk to swat themselves, either gently or briskly, from head to foot.

Sigh. Did I say for sure I would do this?

Of course more research will be needed. Stay tuned...