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Salt with Karelian berries: How to save a northern village

In the old times, salt shops were scattered along the White Sea’s shores

Olga Yagodina moved from Moscow to Karelia’s Kuzema three years ago. She dreamed of reviving on the White Sea the Pomors’ traditional occupation - making salt. She rented a piece of land and built a salt shop there. Now, Olga plans attracting tourists to the settlement - this way, she believes, the village could be rescued from disappearing.

Olga’s salt shop is on the Luda Sennukha Peninsula. It will take about nine hours by train to get there from Karelia’s capital. In summer, getting there by car is fine, but in winter the only route is walking on top the White Sea, covered with snow.

Pomor Salt

"When I came here, the locals looked at me like at a crazy, but later on began helping me," Olga said.

In old times, she says, salt shops were scattered along the White Sea’s shores. For ages, they supplied salt to Russia. The well-known Solovki monastery also used to produce salt. Russian tsars even borrowed "salt" money from the monks. "For almost a year I went from one archive to another, to museums to study the topic," she said.

In the past, Olga says, the Pomors made salt in the cold season: from November to April. At that time, the White Sea is covered with ice, and salt concentration in the water jumps to 35%. The Pomors used to dig out pits, lined them with stones, started fire inside, and put a special pan - tsren - on fire to evaporate water. The White Sea salt was called the Pomor salt.

"In October, 2015, we built a salt shop and together with a friend began restoring the salt production technology," she said. "In the beginning, we failed, but later on the process went on fine."

Inside the salt shop - a small house - is a brick stove with a ceramic tsren. Together with Olga’s assistant, a local resident Nikolai Petrovich, we go to the White Sea. There, by a heavy big pole we break the ice and fill the bowl with water to evaporate from it the "white gold."

"Boiling salt is a long process. The biggest boiling lasted for three days," Olga says. "Salt evaporates at the temperature of 60-70 degrees, but the sea water must not boil."

Salt for Tequila

By now, Olga has evaporated from the White Sea water about 100 kilograms of salt. She certified the product and presented it at Russian and foreign exhibitions. She makes the traditional Pomor salt and salt with local, Karelian, wild berries and plants.

"We make salt with juniper, wild berries, and in 2016 we presented it at the Terra Madre conference in Italy’s Turin, and, I hope, this year, we shall be there again," she said. "In 2017, we participated in a food festival in Sweden’s Umea."

Karelia’s salt, she said proudly, is in the catalogue of traditional food products by Slow Food International, which promotes traditional and rich nutrition.

"For example, salt with juniper goes well with meat. Italians enjoyed our salt with wild berries, which combined well with various kinds of cheese," Olga said gladly, filling a cup from a samovar. "One of the Italians said he would be trying the salt made with cloudberry for tequila, as the berry is sour, and he would try a drink without lemon."

Memorial crosses

Making salt is not the only occupation for Olga over there, in Karelia. Jointly with the Pomorye local history museum she is working on preservation of the historical memory. There is a supposition that a prominent monk back in the XVII century erected by the White Sea a wooden memorial cross. The cross is lost now.

"The Pomors used to erect such crosses at places, which were of importance for them," the museum’s director Irina Ustin said. "Those crosses were also like navigation marks."

"In 2015, Olga reconstructed the cross," the director said.

The cross, which now is at the White Sea, was a replica of the cross which till 1934 was on the Solovki Islands, Olga said. Historians have its detailed description. However, the copy is not 9 meters high, as the original, but slightly shorter - six meters.

Next to the local station, Kuzema, used to be a Soviet-time political prison. No memories of the prisoners have survived. The old cemetery is abandoned. Nobody can say how many people were buried there.

"Together with the locals, we have erected at the cemetery a memorial cross," Olga Yagodina said.

Tourist attraction

Olga says, in the very beginning she wanted just to make salt. But later on, she realized the revived old skill and the unique nature around will be attractive for tourists and, hopefully, may help in keeping the village alive.

"The salt shop is a future tourist attraction to Kuzema, where fewer than 300 people live," Olga said. "If we here do not do anything, the settlement will disappear from maps."

She is ready to welcome first tourists during the coming summer. She will offer to them master classes, collecting berries and mushrooms, and fishing. Later on, the attractions would be driving snowmobiles, tours to the regional natural park, which is rich in centuries-old pine trees and rare animals. "A trip from Kuzema to Syrovakta is only 30 kilometers by sea - there is the only place in Karelia, to where white whales come to deliver their little ones."

Besides, Olga continued, more than 5,000 tourists anyway come by Kuzema every summer. They raft along the local roaring rivers or camp on the White Sea shores.

"The territory’s potential is huge, but here you will not find a hostel, a hotel or a cafe, I mean, nothing which could favor tourism," Olga explained. "I would love to find an investor - crazy, caring, who could say: let’s do this, let’s do that. We are speaking not about billions of rubles, here we need the hands, money and a person who is not indifferent."

The money she earns from making salt is sufficient only to make ends meet, she said, but as tourism develops, things could improve. She cannot borrow money to make a hostel - banks’ interest rates are too high, and, besides, her business is considered to be highly risky. As yet, without a hostel, tourists could be accommodated with the locals, at their wooden houses.

While Olga was telling us about the tourism problems, two locals Vasily and Elena came in, saying they buy a used snowmobile. Olga, of course, was on top of joy - now they have transport for winter tours to the White Sea!.