Quite simply, Tallinn is a wonderful city for food lovers. Cuisines from all over the world are represented in its many atmospheric eateries and the prices are generally much lower than you’d pay for a similar meal in most other European capitals. Several restaurants are strongly influenced by New Nordic cuisine, a food trend emphasising the pure, seasonal flavours of the north exemplified by Copenhagen's world-topping Noma restaurant.
Finally the rest of Estonia has started to catch up with the capital, with some fantastic restaurants springing up in recent years in Pärnu, Tartu, Otepää and various manor houses scattered around the countryside.
However, many areas still offer visitors little variety beyond what type of meat they’d like with their potatoes. This owes much to Estonia’s roots. For centuries native Estonians were relegated to the role of serfs working the fields. Heavy nourishment was required to fuel their long days. Food preparation was simple and practical, using whatever could be raised, grown or gathered from the land. Daily fare was barley porridge, cheese curd and boiled potatoes. On feast days and special occasions, meat made an appearance. Coastal dwellers also garnered sustenance from the sea, mainly cod and herring. To make foods last through the winter, people dried, smoked and salted their fish.
Restaurants have turned humble traditions and historic locations to their advantage, offering table-straining feasts served by young folk in medieval peasant garb. The best example of this is Tallinn’s Olde Hansa, but the trend has extended to historic taverns scattered throughout the countryside.
Eat Your Words
Don’t know your kana from your kala? Your maasikas from your marjad? Get a head start on the cuisine scene by learning the words that make the dish.
|May I have a menu?||kas mah saahk-sin menüü||Kas ma saaksin menüü?|
|I’d like …||ma saw-vik-sin …||Ma sooviksin …|
|The bill, please.||pah-lun ahrr-ve||Palun arve.|
|I’m a vegetarian.||mah o-len tai-me-toyt-lah-ne||Ma olen taimetoitlane.|
|Bon appetit!||head i-su||Head isu!|
|To your health! (when toasting)||ter-vi-seks||Terviseks!|
|caviar||kaa-vi-ah, ka-la-mah-rri||kaaviar, kalamari|
|herring||rraim, heh-rrin-gahs||räim, heeringas|
Did someone say ‘stodge’? Baltic gastronomy has its roots planted firmly in the land, with livestock and game forming the basis of a hearty diet. The Estonian diet relies on sealiha (pork), other red meat, kana (chicken), vurst (sausage) and kapsa (cabbage). Potatoes add a generous dose of winter-warming carbs to a national cuisine often dismissed as bland, heavy and lacking in spice. Sour cream is served with everything but coffee, it seems.
Kala (fish), most likely heeringas (herring), forell (trout) or lõhe (salmon), appears most often as a smoked or salted starter. Lake Peipsi is a particularly good place for tracking down suitsukala (smoked fish); look for roadside stands along the shore road. A more aquired taste is kilu, pickled Baltic sprat, often served in sandwiches or as part of a breakfast buffet.
Another favourite is kama, a thick milkshake-like drink made from a powdered mixture of boiled, roasted and ground peas, rye, barley and wheat mixed together with buttermilk or kefir (fermented milk). It's often served as a dessert, with the addition of berries and sugar.
At Christmas time verivorst (blood sausage) is made from fresh blood and wrapped in pig intestine (joy to the world indeed!). Those really in need of a culinary transfusion will find verivorst, verileib (blood bread) and verikäkk (balls of blood rolled in flour and eggs with bits of pig fat thrown in for taste) available in most traditional Estonian restaurants year-round. Sült (jellied meat) is likely to be served as a delicacy as well.
The seasons continue to play a large role in the Estonian diet. When spring arrives, wild leek, rhubarb, fresh sorrel and goat’s cheese appear, and the spring lambs are slaughtered. During summer there are fresh vegetables and herbs, along with berries, nuts and mushrooms gathered from the forests – still a popular pastime for many Estonians. Be sure to take advantage of the local turg (market) and load up on superbly flavoured strawberries (check you’re buying the local stuff, not imports).
Autumn was always the prime hunting season and although many species are now offered some protection through hunting quotas, you’ll often see elk, boar, deer and even bear making their way onto menus, year-round. In winter, Estonians turn to hearty roasts, stews, soups and plenty of sauerkraut.
Given Estonia’s rustic origins, it’s not surprising that bread is a major staple in the diet, and that Estonians make a pretty good loaf. Rye is by far the top choice. Unlike other ryes you may have eaten, here it’s moist, dense and delicious (assuming it’s fresh), and usually served as a free accompaniment to every restaurant meal.
Where, When & How
Meals are served in a restoran (restaurant) or a kohvik (cafe), pubi (pub), kõrts (inn) or trahter (tavern). Nearly every town has a turg (market), where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as meats and fish.
Estonian eating habits are similar to other parts of northern Europe. Either lunch or dinner may be the biggest meal of the day. Cooked breakfasts aren’t always easy to find but many cafes serve pastries and cakes throughout the day. Tipping at top restaurants is fairly commonplace but not essential, with 10% the norm. For reviews of the country’s culinary best, see www.eestimaitsed.com.
If invited for a meal at an Estonian home you can expect abundant hospitality and generous portions. It’s fairly common to bring flowers for the host. Just be sure to give an odd number (even-numbered flowers are reserved for the dead).