Estonian food may have a way to go yet to reach international renown, but this is something the country’s restaurants are doing their utmost to remedy and with some success – Estonia is attracting increasing numbers of British visitors, particularly to the capital Tallinn and many of them are pleasantly surprised by the national cuisine. With the recent surge in creative culinary innovations, Estonia may soon take its place on the international gastronomy map.
Estonia has attracted many “visitors” throughout history, some of them quite overstaying their welcome by several centuries. The Danes, Swedes, Poles, Germans and Russians all set up home on Estonian soil and each brought some of their own traditions, culinary or otherwise, with them. German nobility ruled Estonia for many centuries and arguably had the greatest influence on Estonian cuisine, introducing dishes such as blood sausage and sauerkraut, still enjoyed in homes and restaurants across the country today.
In days gone by Estonian cooking was closely linked to the seasons; e.g. lamb and veal in spring; plenty of fresh vegetables and herbs in summer; berries, mushrooms and game in autumn; smoked meats and pickles in winter and different types of fish at different times of year. Lovely-sounding in theory, but in reality people would eat what was seasonally available, often rather stodgy peasant fare of meat and two veg, setting people up for hard work and cold winters. Although plenty of such home-cooking still exists, luckily the country has come a long way from these humble beginning. Modern fine Estonian dining has, just like the rest of the country, (re)invented itself very successfully since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
It’s tempting to turn your nose up at traditional dishes such as blood sausage, marinated eel or pig’s head in aspic, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Not all Estonian dishes are easy on the eye, but they do tend to be easier on the palate. Certain old-fashioned dishes can hardly be described as aesthetically pleasing, but the current trend – an influence from their Nordic neighbours – is to make the most of home-grown produce with a touch of international influences from near and far, thus adding more colour and flair to Estonia’s own dishes. This trend is making new Estonian cuisine exceedingly tasty and fresh-looking. Every part of the pig features heavily in most meals from cold-cut starters to bacon, sausages and chops, herrings in different sauces are popular, as are all sorts of dairy products and if you don’t take a liking to the black rye bread, you’ll have a hell of a time avoiding it. Although a bit of an acquired taste, once acquired you might find you’ve developed regular rye bread cravings. It goes very well with the cold cuts, smoked salmon and pickled vegetables you pile on top, making great and colourful open sandwiches.
The staple diet is rather a vegetarian’s worst nightmare and vegans have an even harder time, given Estonians’ love of all things dairy, but there is an increasing awareness of vegetarianism at least in the bigger cities.
Where to eat – Tallinn
Tallinn’s food scene has kept pace with the increasing numbers of visitors, gradually becoming a thriving centre for what’s known as New Estonian cuisine. The heart of Tallinn’s Old Town, Raekoja Plats, has several traditional restaurants, serving up medieval Estonian cuisine, including Olde Hansa (www.oldehansa.org), where the staff wear period costume – rather kitsch – but serve tasty food. In the Old Town, Mekk (www.mekk.ee), epitomises the new trend in restaurants, focusing on New Estonian cooking. Executive chef Rene Uusmees has taken the best of local, organic produce and created interesting taste experiences and seasonal dishes. This is a great place to sample some of the best modern Estonian dishes from the smoked plaice starter, to the venison with parsnip mash and the divine sea-buckthorn cheesecake. Sea-buckthorn incidentally also makes an excellent cordial and there’s a variety of fruit juices for those not wanting to wash down their meals with local beers. Estonia has several good breweries and of course there’s vodka, often enjoyed after a meal. Reasonably new on the Tallinn food scene (but with a long-standing restaurant on Muhu Island in the Baltic Sea), and well worth a visit, is Neh (www.neh.ee). This cosy restaurant just outside the Old Town does some of the finest of traditional Estonian cuisine, with a great variety of dishes. The different types of homemade breads (hazelnut and spelt among others) make an excellent starter, accompanied by beetroot relish and raspberry vinegar, as does the cold-cut platter, served on a rustic wooden chopping board, heaped high with smoked lamb, fish pate, herrings, dried fish, gherkins and much more. In fact after such a starter, a main of cheek of beef and dessert of apple and plum crumble with cardamom milk is sheer greed, but exceedingly tasty. Wash down dessert with the sweet, toffee-like VanaTallinn liqueur and there won’t be room for much else – a great shame, as Tallinn’s Old Town also has gorgeous patisseries, with enticing cakes.
Where to eat – Tallinn surroundings
Vihula Manor, on the outskirts of Lahemaa National Park, about an hour’s drive from Tallinn, is one of several old manor houses that have been restored and opened to the public (www.vihulamanor.com). It’s possible to stay overnight in the 16th century main building and dine at the two excellent restaurants within the complex. There are all of 27 buildings on the property, so Vihula deserves a longer stop than just a quick bite to eat. While there you can visit the spa, shop, tea house, organic farm complete with hen coop, watermill or vodka distillery museum, within easy distance. The two restaurants, La Boheme upstairs in the manor house itself and the more informal Kaval-Ants Tavern in one of the adjacent buildings, both use produce from their own herb garden and farm. La Boheme is a good option for fine dining, while the tavern is more rustic, located in the former old ice cellar of the manor. Vihula is a great base for exploring nearby Lahemaa National Park, the largest and oldest in Estonia, covering the Baltic seashore, as well as the pine forests and rivers inland. The small town of Palmse, within the park itself, has one of the best eateries in this part of the country, Lahemaa Kohvikann (www.kohvikann.ee). It’s run by a German-Russian couple and these guys really know their Estonian food. The aspic of smoked sturgeon (responsibly sourced), veal escalope with fresh chanterelles and potato gratin, followed by blueberry soup with cinnamon parfait proved the perfect ending to my Estonian culinary adventure.
With the current trend towards mixing the best of Estonian with the best of the rest, the country’s cuisine is becoming more palatable to the international visitor, while remaining uniquely Estonian. Younger, often well-travelled, chefs are mixing old favourite with new flavours and although mostly noticeable in Tallinn, this is also happening in other parts of the country. A few years from now, I strongly suspect the cuisine will have got even better – all the ingredients are there and increasingly also the experience, but above all, the energy and creativity. Estonia has reinvented itself over the last 20 years and creating a national cuisine that’s appreciated by visitors as well as Estonians, is all part of a grander scheme.
Estonian Air , Easyjet and Air Baltic fly from the UK to Tallinn.
Places to stay:
Radisson Blu Hotel Tallinn,centrally located 4-star hotel with one of Tallinn’s best views from its 24th floor rooftop bar and open-air terrace, Lounge 24.
Sokos Hotel Viru, an old-style concrete giant, complete with authentic KGB museum on the top floor, where KGB was eavesdropping on foreign guests during the Soviet era.
Vihula Manor beautiful 16th century manor house near Lahemaa National Park.
Schlössle Hotel), boutique hotel in Tallinn’s Old Town.
Anna Maria Espsäter is a London-based, Swedish travel and food writer. She covers worldwide destinations, but often specialises in Latin America, after living in Mexico for several years and travelling extensively throughout the region. She has worked on guidebooks to Mexico, Colombia, Norway, Sweden and South America and also writes food and travel features for UK magazines and newspapers.
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