When you think of Estonian cuisine – if you think of it at all – you probably imagine hearty foods like sauerkraut, jellied meat and blood sausage. But what do you really know about Estonia and its food culture? We decided to go to Tallinn and take a closer look at the Estonian Food Fair. Held at the popular (and easily accessible by bus) Song Festival Grounds during the first week of May, the fair is the biggest culinary attraction in the country with about 500 exhibitors and 100,000 visitors over two days.
Half of Estonia’s territory is covered with forests and one third with farmland, which is why the country has an abundance of agricultural and horticultural crops and livestock products, as well as wild berries, mushrooms and game. The chefs of the new generation are seeking ways to transform Estonia’s traditional nourishing and simple peasant cuisine, starting with a seasonal approach.
The spring brings rhubarb, wild garlic, sour dock, radishes and fresh goat cheese to the table. Summer favorites include fresh potatoes accompanied with a salad made of cottage cheese, tomato and cucumber, or chanterelle sauce or fish. Summer and autumn is when wild berries ripen – strawberries, raspberries, bilberries, lingonberries, cranberries, cloudberries, sea-buckthorn berries and gooseberries. During our visit, we sampled a local dish of fresh strawberries as large as your palm topped with “Kohupiimakreem” quark, a milky curd cheese mixed with sugar, vanilla and whipping cream, served with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and wildflower honey.
The early winter hunting season brings elk meat, roe deer meat, wild boar meat and even bear meat to the table. The winter introduces long-cooked roasts and casseroles with wild mushrooms. The traditional pea, bean or cabbage soup with smoked meat, pearl barley and pork braised with sauerkraut (Mulgi kapsas) or potatoes (Mulgi puder) are no longer common everyday meals, but they are still prepared every now and then during the winter.
We liked the braised elk roast with cauliflower cream, parsnip, carrot and blackcurrant sauce at Rataskaevu16.
But Estonians also love fish (and if you’ve been reading my blog, you know I do too) including white fish, flatfish, perch, sprat and Baltic herring – the national fish of Estonia – which was once considered the cheap food of the common people but has now made its way to restaurant menus. Gourmands can take pleasure in roasted and marinated lamprey, and marinated eel and eel soup are served as delicacies. One of our favorite dishes was the fried Baltic herring in homemade marinade, cottage cheese and mushroom salad at Kaerajaan in Tallinn’s Old Town Square.
If you like herring, Tallinn is the perfect city for you. Not only can you find it on restaurant menus, but every supermarket stocks a wide array of fresh, frozen, dried, canned and jarred varieties. Our favorites were herring in sour cream and “sill”, sweet-sour pickled herring soaked in vinegar spiked with sugar, spices, and aromatics that we first tasted in Sweden. Often served atop crisp bread with chopped red onion and chives, sill is a mainstay on Nordic breakfast and lunch buffets. Though it comes in many varieties, it’s actually quite easy to make at home.
Perhaps one of the most surprising offerings at the Estonian Food Fair was the selection of Mediterranean-style food, particularly kebabs and paella. In Estonia, the kebabs are prepared primarily from veal though pork, chicken, lamb and beef are popular options. For us, grilled hot kebabs with veggies were the perfect street food on a cold day in Tallinn.
One last word about Tallinn…we struck up a conversation with an American expat who told us about the “burger wars”. The story is that after the Estonian Burger Factory opened in 2012, a number of competitors entered the market and there was a fierce (food) battle for who had the best burger in Tallinn. First, you should know that Estonia is not known for its beef and our expat friend hailed from Texas, so he should know. Anyway, apparently the struggle continued for several years until most of the other restaurants finally closed…and Estonian Burger Factory declared the winner (their burgers were pretty awesome). Judging from our visit to Tallinn, we think the whole town is a winning foodie destination.
Links for more information:
Estonian Food Fair – http://www.toidumess.ee/eng
Kohupiimakreem – https://www.valio.ee/en/products/quark
Rataskaevu16 Restaurant – http://rataskaevu16.ee/en/
Kaerajaan Restaurant – http://www.kaerajaan.ee/en
Abba Sill – https://abba.se/produkter/sill/
Estonian Burger Factory – http://ebf.ee/en/
Tallinn City Tourist Office & Convention Bureau – https://www.visittallinn.ee/eng/visitor