I have a confession to make. It might loose me whatever gourmet street cred I have – what's life without a little thrill? – but here it goes: I have an acute fascination for markets and supermarkets.
Markets are fine actually, especially if you belong to the SlowFoodite eat local fraction, which I incidentally feel pretty close to. Local products, artisan made and all that. It fits perfectly in the XXI century cool people's food culture. But supermarkets? For many they are the evil empire, the globalisation machine at its worst, selling unhealthy and badly tasting products to the unknowing masses. I won't deny I have a food snob streak in me: if I have the choice, I would mainly buy goods coming from excellent local producer, but, being pragmatic, I do quite a bit of shopping in supermarkets.
Yet, whatever the criticism, supermarkets intrigue me (and I know I am not alone in this). Those who criticise them for being one of the ugly arms of globalisation should give a closer look. Sure, they sell the whole array of soft drinks, snacks, chocolates etc. that you find everywhere, but that's just one part of the story. To me supermarkets are to food what soap operas are to performing arts: they are the manifestation of pop culture, food-pop in this case. And as pop culture they differ from country to country in a multitude of peculiar and unique details, which give each of these stores a recognisable national mark. In Italy, for example, I am pretty sure I could tell you in which region you are just by looking at the cheese and cured meats counters.
You think it is obvious? Well, so do I, but I know not everyone sees it so. If, on the other hand, you thinks that's a load of bollocks try a little experiments next time you travel abroad. Before you leave home visit your local supermarket, then visit one in your country of destination. When you go home, have a look at your store again. Notice any differences? I bet you do, and those details are what marks your local place unique to your culture.
I love to play this game whenever I am abroad so I could not miss the chance to have a go at it in Tallinn.
The closest I got to a market was the row of colourful flower shops that marks the beginning of Viru street. Unfortunately too little time in the end to visit the real central market, Kesksturg. Instead, finding a supermarket was no problem.We just had to cross the road from our bus stop and get into the Kaubamaja department store.
Kaubamaja's food department is quite impressive. Even the limited selection of Italian gourmet products was quite good and certainly way better than the stuff I get here; I cannot deny I felt a bit envious. I was more interested in the Estonian stuff though, and clearly there was plenty of that. I was surprised by the variety of canned/cured fish and cured meats on offer: as an "eat me" souvenir, I bought some traditional canned sprats (recipe suggestions for these are extremely welcome), a couple of pork sausages and two local cheeses. The sausages were OK, all of them quite rich and garlicky, but I hope Pille won't be mad at me if I say that I'd rather have an Italian salame any time. Of the two cheeses, one was extremely nice in its simplicity – young and still slightly sour in taste, yellow paste (probably coloured with anatto) and crust covered in herbs – too bad I didn't write down the name.
One thing that definitely hits the eye was the amount of sweets on offer. The cake shelves were not only mouthwatering, but the decoration skills of whoever made some of them would not go amiss in an exclusive pastry shop, never mind a supermarket. I was seriously tempted to buy at least a small one, just to test if looks and taste matched clearly, but Daniela sensibly voted against it. The chocolate section was bursting with products from the local brand Kalev. These are omnipresent around Tallinn: everyone carries at least a few sorts, from the tiny bus-stop kiosks to a supermarket like Kaubamaja.
Pille had mentioned Kalev's chocolate on her blog and actually her post was the main stimulus to try out a few kinds. (Wikipedia also has a quite thorough history of Kalev, if you are interested.) I am a chocolate snob, but nonetheless I think the dark chocolate and cherry bar from Kalev is among the better industrial ones. The white chocolate bar with blueberries and puffed rice is an interesting combination, if a bit too sweet, but then I still have to find a white chocolate that is not. The fruit in both bars was very aromatic: either Kalev uses quite a bit of good-quality aromas in its chocolate or Estonia produces the most aromatic berries I ever tested. Pille's description of the Kamathavel had made me curious: how would a bar made with Kama (the Estonian flour mix made of grain and pulses) instead of cocoa taste? Unusual is definitely the first thing that comes to mind. It is very nutty, with a predominant toasted taste and some coffee. It should not be compared to chocolate, but rather tasted for what it is.
Our shopping could not be complete without a few Kalev candies for Daniela. These sweets are very similar to what is usually referred to as "Russian sweets" here in eastern Germany, a memory of the communist past and of childhood for Daniela, but those from Kalev are better than any of the Russian made ones I have tried till now. No wonder Estonian confectory was much appreciated and even exported to Russia in the XIX century. I actually wonder if those "Russian sweets" are actually inspired by the Estonian ones. My favourites were the marzipan praliné and the one simply marked Kalev (in front), but all were quite nice, except maybe the one with Vana Tallin liqueur filling. I guess I simply do not like Vana Tallinn.
I am sure I missed quite a lot of stuff that would have deserved a try. I'll cnsole myself thinking that at least I have something to look forward to for a future visit.