And so I come to the final post of this series on Tallinn. Though it will probably not be the last Estonian flavoured post to appear on this blog, I wanted to tie things up with a post about Estonian cuisine and one of the Tallinn restaurants specialising in it: Eesti Maja.
You should not to get the idea that Tallinn has only traditional or medieval restaurants, so I should mention that, like in any European capital, there are quite a few exclusive restaurants offering refined international cuisine. If that is what you are after, then, according to what I read on the web, places like Ö and Bocca might be a good choice; Silk sushi is for some people a real hidden treasure; and clearly one should not forget Estonia's own celebrity chef Imre Kose and his Vertigo, opening in July (maybe, I would add, since the opening date has been shifted forward a few times already). All these places certainly tickled my curiosity, but when travelling somewhere new I prefer to get a taste of the local cuisine instead of going for stuff I could get elsewhere.
In Tallinn there is a small group of Estonian restaurants that seem to pop up in every guidebook I have read. Apart Eesti Maja, two traditional places are Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (Little Piggy Inn, Dunkri 8) and Vanaema Juures (Grandma's Place, Rataskaevu 10/12). There is also Maiasmokk, serving a modernised version of traditional cuisine, which I mentioned before and comes with Pille's recommendation.
I picked Eesti Maja mainly because it was the one place that seemed to come up again and again with goodish reviews on the web, but with a little more time I would have liked to try at least another of the remaining three mentioned above. Looking at the restaurant's website you would be excused for thinking that the place is not exactly appealing on the aesthetic level, i.e. looks like a dump, but you would be wrong. It is seldom that an establishment manages to sell itself so short on its own website, but Eesti Maja manages this feat. Instead, the atmosphere is rustic, yet warm and cosy, and the non-smoking room on one end of the restaurant where we dined was even quite intimate.
The menu is quite extensive, with a special section dedicated to national specialities, though I did not really understand the sense of that, given that the menu is throughout full of traditional Estonian dishes, which is what me and Daniela stuck to. The food is simple and pleasant, exactly like I had hoped. No gastronomic fireworks, but that's not what we were here for.
We started with some Spiced Baltic Sprats served with Boiled Egg and dark bread: simple and quite nice, plus more to my taste than other northern European fish specialities like marinated herrings or jellied eels.
The hernesupp suitsulihaga, pea soup with smoked pork, warmed up us nicely. I love soups that combine pea and pork, something that a lot of cultures have found out given how widespread this basic idea is, and this Estonian take was definitely a good one.
While Daniela decided to go all conservative on me and have Mulgi kapsad, a sauerkraut stew (can't take sauerkraut out of the German ;-) ), I opted for the more exciting option: Verivorst. These are the local blood sausages, served with bacon, red currant jelly and a few vegetables. They were quite a positive surprise once you get past the idea of eating blood, if maybe a little bit fatty, and the currant jelly was a good match. I don't really get the bacon thing though, which albeit nice, seems to add more fat to an already rich dish, but maybe it's just me being a wimpy Italian used to eating in warmer climates.
After reading so much about Kama, I would have liked to try Kama with Karask, a local barley cake (or bread, depending on the sources) which often goes with Kama, but Eesti Maja's portions are definitely on the generous side so we reached dessert satiated.
If you've made it to here you might still be curious to know more about Estonian cuisine: I would definitely point to Pille's blog nami-nami. Still, if you are looking for something more "solid" to keep at home than there are a couple of books you might be interested in, at least until someone decides to offer Pille a book deal :-).
Eesti Köök, is a bilingual Estonian/English book put together by two Estonian magazines: I bought this one in Tallinn and while not the kind of cookbook I like, it offers an introduction for the absolute beginners. Pille kindly suggested two other books: Estonian Cuisine by Silvia Kalvik, a classic which concentrates on peasant's dishes, and the new Estonian Tastes and Traditions by the Estonian-American Karin Annus Karner (click on the pic beside for more info).
On my part, I found Estonian cuisine to be simple but fascinating, though mine can only be an extremely superficial comment. A year would not be enough for a thorough impression of a nation's cuisine, never mind a long week-end. Nonetheless it is not too hard to see the cultural and geographical influences on the local dishes. The cold weather produced a rich cuisine that had to rely on pickled/dried/fermented products in winter. Likewise the historical ties to Germany in particular (but also Scandinavia) are evident with the abundant use of sauerkraut and dishes like Sült (Sülze) and Snitsel (Schnitzel, which might as well be Italian, but that's another story), though each of these recipes seems to get a particular Estonian twist once it became part of the local tradition. What somewhat surprised me is the lack of clear Russian influences, though I wonder if that would be different looking at the cooking of the countryside.
I don't really understand why Estonian cuisine is accused by some of being boring and bland. I cannot deny I prefer other cuisine to it too, but this sort of judgement always seems short-sighted and terribly subjective. On top of that I think the critique is misplaced: solid and straightforward would fit the bill better if one had to give a concise opinion. To me each cooking tradition is the product of its land and learning to understand how certain recipes evolved is the best way to understand any cuisine fully, be it from a land of plentiful gastronomic treasures, like France or Italy, or one with a simpler tradition. That is what I personally fiund most fascinating when eating abroad, and in this aspect Estonia is an interesting place to discover through taste.