Monday, 22 July 2013

Eating Up Estonia

During our recent jaunt to Helsinki we decided to catch the ferry across the Gulf of Finland to spend a couple of days in Tallinn. It proved to be a marvellous place full of contrasts between old and new; not is it only the oldest city in Northern Europe and an UESCO World Heritage Site, but it is also ranked one of the top ten digital cities in the world. I was also looking forward to some serious meat and drink, with Estonia belonging firmly to the beer, vodka, rye bread and pork "belt" of Europe.

After dropping into to our the hotel for a quick shower, in a vain attempt combat the blistering heat and humidity, we made our way to Vanaema Juures, or 'Grandmother's place', in the centre old town, for a highly anticipated late lunch.

Reflecting its name, this is a place is known for it's traditional food and friendly welcome, and we were soon happily ensconced on their patio, happily drinking our Saku beers and watching the world (or, more accurately, guided cruise tours) go by.

Black rye bread accompanies pretty much in Estonia; instead of saying bon appetit before a meal, Estonians will often say j├Ątku leiba (may your bread last). The rye bread found here is typically much stickier, sweeter and darker than the Finnish equivalent, tasting more like a slice of malt loaf, which made it a favourite with the Ewing. At Vanaema Juures the rye bread is served alongside both wholemeal and white bread, meaning all bases are covered.

As we were enjoying our bread and beer out on their wooden decking, the menacing roll of thunder was drawing ever nearer. The Ewing initially scoffed at my assertions it was going to hammer down, but after the first crack of lightning we decided to move down to the cosy, dark depths of the cellar restaurant. It was perfect timing, as minutes later the heavens opened as we sat smugly listening to the rain pelting down on the cobbles.

While our mains came in hulking great portions,they were surprisingly light, with all components nicely balanced. My elk in a tomato and leek sauce came with zingy pickled cucumbers, beetroot and fresh lingonberries, giving a nice piquancy and crunch to the rich meat and fried potatoes.

The Ewing enjoyed her lamb in a blue cheese sauce; a big flavour combo that made a surprisingly good pairing. Accompaniments of lentil stew, vegetables and a scattering of fresh dill lightened the load. And while the Estonians prefer to cook their meat until it loses any vestiges of pink, both dishes featured tender chunks of protein that shredded apart under gentle probing from our forks.

I took the rain still hammering down outside as a sign we should probably stay for pudding, and the Ewing, as full as she was, didn't need too much persuading. My pancakes were great; fluffy, puffy feather-light discs of dough served with plenty of warm berry jam; while the Ewing loved her baked apple stuffed with nuts and raisins and served with a vanilla sauce.

After an eventful evening of continued beer drinking and a bit of sleepwalking the next morning saw the Ewing going for traditional sauna at the hotel while I managed to find an Estonian music channel that played the greatest hits of Milli Vanilli. As fun as it was singing along to soon Girl you Know it's True, our grumbling stomachs sent us back into the heat of the streets.

Our first stop was Maiasmokk, or 'Sweet Tooth', the oldest and most famous cafe in town. Inside is unchanged, with the post-war interior of blood red leather banquettes and fridges full of fancy cakes leading through to a small marzipan museum room and chocolate shop.

As it was a glorious morning we decided to sit on the decking area, giving us a lovely view straight down the charming Pikk street and a prime spot for some people watching.

I tried a pirukad to start, a fried meat-stuffed pastry similar to the ones we sampled at Helsinki's Market Square; a tasty start to my late breakfast, but possibly missing a good dollop of ketchup. To follow was a slice of fresh strawberry and curd cake, on a light sponge base. The Estonians are very fond of their fresh cheese, and it made a lovely foil for the sweet, ripe fruit. The Ewing went with a classic curd pastry; a flaky Danish with a tangy cheese filling liberally sprinkled in powdered sugar.

After paying we took a look around the marzipan museum room. Here you can see them painstakingly hand painting the little sweetmeats as well as admiring some of the fancier examples, including a full Estonian breakfast made from almond paste, and a range of traditional wooden moulds and tools. You can also buy a selection of the finished products, as well as a range of truffles and chocolates.

We couldn't leave without sampling one of their famed marzipan confections. As we had already consumed our fill of cakes, pastries and coffee we elected to take a slice of their layered sponge, filled with cream and coated in almond paste, to eat later. This proved a very welcome snack when I discovered later, slightly squashed, during our walk in the park, even for an avowed marzipan sceptic like myself.

Kalev are also the primary confectionery producers in Estonia.  As well as their many chocolate bars and candies, flavoured with different combinations of nuts, dried fruits and wafer, they also produce a rarther nice chocolate covered marzipan covered flavoured with Vana Tallinn liqueur as well as making the first Soviet chewing gum

The most interesting of all their products was the 'Kama' bar, which isn't really chocolate at all, but a mix of sugar, vegetable fat, and kama flour (a mixture of rye, wheat, pea and barley) flavoured with coffee, cocoa powder and vanilla. First available in the 70s, when a crisis lead to the Soviet Bloc having to create clever substitutes when they couldn't afford certain imported goods, it has now been reintroduced for those whose miss a taste of the past.  It's not only popular with the nostalgic; retro packaging means that it's also a hit with all the cool kids, being the fourth most popular Kalev candy.

Our final lunch on our fleeting visit was at Estonian restaurant Kuldse Notsu Korts, or, in English, the Golden Piglet. Living up to its name the menu features a range of traditional dishes including lots of porky options such as pig's ears, jellied pork terrine, pork knuckle with sauerkraut, and potato and pearl barley porridge with bacon.

We started with a some well needed, local beers - an Alexander light for me and a porter for the Ewing - brewed by, the rather French sounding, A. Le Coq, the oldest continually operating brewery in Estonia.

It's fair to say that this is one place veggies would do best to give a wide berth. Even the bread rolls - served with a lovely, slightly cheesey, whipped butter - came studded with chunks of smoked bacon.

Despite the 30 degree heat and late cake-based breakfast, I, managed to persuade the Ewing to share the 'Estonian Sausage Feast' for Two; a vast platter of assorted pork sausages, oven baked potatoes and sauerkraut, topped with two thick rashers of smoked bacon.

There were five sausages each; two smoked, two fresh and one verivorst, or black pudding, considered to be the national dish of Estonia. The black pudding was great; crumbly and iron-rich, with chunks of sweet fat and pearl barley, and served with the traditional accompaniment of lingonberry jam. The smoked sausages, one thin and one thick, were also, delightful, pairing nicely with some properly poky mustard. The only slight misstep were the pale pink fresh pork offerings which seemed to have been boiled in their skins, giving them a rather strange texture.

Their most famous desert is Tuuliku Kama, a thin, cold porridge made of sour milk and yoghurt mixed with the same kama flour found in the Kamatehvel candy bar, and served with fresh berries. Despite being pretty sure I wasn't going to like it much at all, I couldn't resist ordering it anyway.

Sadly, it lived up to my expectations; after managing a mere a mouthful of the 'sour smoothie' it was left to the Ewing to finish it off. Thankfully she actually seemed to quite enjoy it, especially when combined with the sweet fruit.

Apart from all the medieval history, beautiful buildings and lovely people, Tallinn also has one of the best supermarkets I have visited in a long time. I have quite honestly never seen so many processed meat products in one place. From endless strings of sausages to smoked pork knuckles, and from fridges full of cured saucisson to piles of packaged sliced meats. The deli counter stretched across the back of the whole store and I couldn't help but be tempted by a couple of, heavily smoked, reindeer salamis and a 'Tallin salami', which was rather like a juicy garlic sausage, to take back home.

We also stocked up on bottles of fresh sea buckthorn juice; little squares of fresh curd snack - which were rather like chocolate covered cheesecake bites; packets of pork jerky; chubs of smoked cheese and brightly iced slices of jam filled cake.

The Estonians are also rather famous for their prodigious alcohol consumption. Add that to the fact that all the day trippers on the ferry back to Finland seemed to be laden down with slabs of cheap beer and Lonkero, and multi packs of vodka and it will come as no surprise to hear the alcohol aisle was a sight to behold. The vodka section alone took up three huge bays, before you even consider all the shrink wrapped crates piled up in the middle of the floor.

With the local brand, Viru Valge, reduced to only 10 Euros a litre it would have been rude not to,and we soon stocked up on some standard 40% vodka, as well as a bottle of the barberry flavoured clear spirit. Of course their had to be a space for a bottle of Vana Tallinn, the legendary sweet liqueur, and we soon added bottles of cloudberry, sea buckthorn and alpine strawberry liqueurs to the ever expanding trolley. 

In the end we bought back no less than nine different types of spirits, as well as some cactus and lemon flavoured 'long drinks' (gin with mixer) and, most curiously, a bottle of Ukrainian 'Soviet champagne'. The Ukrainians have a long history of viticulture, and while the fizz proved a little sweet for my tastes, it certainly made an interesting match for our reindeer pizza when we arrived back in Helsinki.

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