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Learning the Traditional Foods of Estonia

The PC guide to Estonian cuisine.

It’s fair that most Estonians wouldn’t claim their country is known for its food. My girlfriend won’t eat half of it, and I don’t blame her: blood sausage, a dish made from grains shoved into intestines and congealed with blood, is a Christmas specialty. The Irish call it Black Pudding and it’s a part of every traditional breakfast. It’s not half bad, but I can’t see it inspiring the masses any time soon (who knows, though: people would have laughed at the concept of raw fish thirty years ago, and now it’s all the rage). Another one she won’t eat is sült, a pork dish which begins with the boiling of pig’s feet for their gelatin and flavor, to which is added pork and spices and, after a simmer, is poured into molds to come out as meat jello. Estonia_summer_2006_156 There were a couple highlights, beside, of course, the wonderful breakfast set out every morning by the lovely Laine, Elin’s first cousin once removed, who was the crème de la crème of Estonian cellists for some time, and who also refuses to allow anyone to help or clear plates. One was the appetizer at a café in Tartu, the second largest city after the capital, Tallinn, at a marvelous spot called Café Wilde. It’s named after the writers Oscar Wilde and Edward Vilde, the latter a famous Estonian who lived around the same time as Oscar. Their statue is out front. Cafe_wilde The appetizer was a traditional Estonian dish made from the country’s perfected brown bread recipe, which is rubbed with garlic, deep fried, and served with a very garlicky and refreshing tzatziki-esque cucumber sauce. Estonia_summer_2006_132 At the café downstairs, later, we had their famous cake, Vanaema’s kook, or Grandmother’s Cake. It’s a layer of pastry crust, jam, and some wonderful crumbly topping. We also finagled an iced coffee by ordering espresso with honey, a large milk, and a glass of ice. Perfect. Estonia_summer_2006_157 The other was a meal at a “traditional” Estonian restaurant, Eesti Maja, the irony being that it was opened by an American. The name translates to Estonian House, which was the place in a city where Estonian expatriates gathered to socialize, dance, and eat their good food.  Estonia won its independence after the inspiring Singing Revolution, a  four year long peaceful demonstration beginning in 1987, in which cycles of traditional songs, forbidden by the Soviets, were sung by over 300,000 people in the capital, Tallinn.  Included in this was the Baltic Way human chain, the largest human chain in history (2 million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians). After independance, the Estonian-American decided that he couldn’t go to Estonian itself to eat the food he so loved. This made no sense, so he opened one in the homeland. “Estonian house? I don’t get it,” say the locals, and they’re kind of right, but the food was pretty good. Below are photos of rosolje, the beet/herring/potato salad, a pork and sauerkraut soup (I believe mulgikapsad) which tasted twice as good as that combination sounds, and finally the infamous meat jello, sült . The latter, a strangeness of texture, was quite mild and nice once one got past the idea of it. It’s served with mustard and horseradish and vinegar. Estonia_summer_2006_227 Estonia_summer_2006_228 Estonia_summer_2006_231 My last night there, more extended family gathered for an outdoor feast cooked in the fire pit. Estonia_summer_2006_250 Thick hunks of pork, chicken, and a lamb sausage were seared and smoked over an open fire pit while we passed around fresh salads and a strange soft drink that I believe translates as “bread drink,” and tastes a remarkable amount like liquid rye bread. One of those situations where one food is suddenly in the territory of another (like meat jello), and it takes getting used to. Estonia_summer_2006_244 The seene-salat, a mushroom salad made fresh from the garden that day, is a traditional dish. The other was cucumber-based with green onions, and while I tried to get the recipe out of the chef, Epp (she’s wearing the red stripes above), she could only tell me that she did it by feel. Something to do with mayonnaise and I think vinegar, but I can’t remember. Estonia_summer_2006_249 The meat was spiced very well, and it must be true that all meat tastes better when it’s met an open flame. It’s primitive somehow. Really, it’s because it gets a wonderful sear crust, which seals in all the juices and flavor. Estonia_summer_2006_251 The guard dog, who I charmed immediately by throwing a green rubber ball into the far reaches of the yard repeatedly, did the cleaning. The next morning I was back on a boat to Helsinki, where we went to the market for a pirraka, and I caught a flight back home.