“Where there’s work, there’s bread” – Estonian Proverb
Estonia may be the smallest country I’ve come to so far, in terms of population that is, but when it comes to its cuisine it has more than a few surprises. It may be because of its position, clinging to the very fringes of the European continent next to Russia (okay, okay I know that geographically speaking Russia is partly in Europe, but I’m talking culturally here so give me a break eh?), or its long history of being tossed from the clutches of one country to another, but there’s more than a few culinary oddities to my uncultured British eyes at least.
Estonian food, at its simplest, is very simple indeed: meat and potatoes as well as fish and other seafood along the coast. Sauerkraut, jellied meat & blood sausage are firm favourites on most Estonian tables, but there’s so much more than that, with it having absorbed a lot of foods originally from elsewhere including German, Sweden, Denmark and Russia. So what are some of its specialities?
Black bread – if you could only talk about one speciality food, it would have to be Estonian black bread. Estonians are very serious about their bread, and have at least three different names for it. Black bread is their signature bread however. It is a healthy bread with a thin crust and made with rye flour and seeds, and is served with most meals, usually with a healthy slathering of salty butter.
Sprat Sandwich – doesn’t the name just sound so appealing? Haven’t you always wanted a sprat sandwich? Sprats are a greyish fish common to the Baltic sea along the Estonian coast. It comes on the aforementioned black bread, sometimes served with a boiled egg, or occasionally with the sprats and the eggs mixed together. It is supposed to be delicious, though not being an egg lover, I doubt I will be trying this one.
Curd snacks (Kohuke) – These are a completely new concept to me. Best eaten for breakfast (in true “a healthy meal to start the day” style!) these are a freshly pressed sweet curd, coverd in chocolate or caramel. They either come plain or with flavoured fillings – berries, kiwi fruit, coconut etc. In case you are expecting to only see these solely on the menu in restaurants, let me enlighten you. These are everywhere, and these days usually come in foil wrappers, much like sweets or chocolate bars do here. As well as Estonia, they are also popular in Russia and other Baltic countries, as well as throughout parts of Eastern Europe and indeed other places round the world (just not in the UK, or not that I’ve ever seen). I was excited about trying these, until I realised that curds are basically cottage cheese, just about the only food item with the word cheese in the title which I don’t like (but see head cheese later on for another I doubt I’ll be trying!). If you would like to know more about curd snacks, you will be delighted to hear that there is an online ‘museum of curd snacks’. I kid you not. Point your browser at http://www.curdsnack.com/ENG/ and away you go.
The first course at an Estonia dinner is traditionally a selection of cold meats and sausages, served with potato salad or perhaps rosoljie, a traditional Estonian dish of beetroot, potatoes and herring. You can get soup as a starter as well, but generally this is a main meal – thick soups with a meaty stock and a wide array of ingredients. I always like seeing how other countries do soup – I’ve always thought I’m quite a well rounded soup eater (or should that be drinker?), having made and eaten all sorts of different types. The more I read about the cuisine of other countries however, the more I realise how sheltered a soupy existence I have had until now. I’ve never tried any of these Estonian varieties:
- Lamb soup with cabbage
- Estonian Meatball soup (Frikadelli soup)
- Zucchini and smoked cheese soup
- Beer soup
Yes, you read that last one right, beer soup really is a thing, all over Europe it turns out. How have I missed this until now?
Lastly, how could I leave you without offering a drink? Beer – of the non-soup variety – and wine, are both popular drinks, but the most popular drinks are liqueurs. Vana Tallinn is one of the most popular – it a spiced rum liqueur, developed in the 1960s and made by the Liviko company. According to the Vana Tallinn website, it “embodies the true sense of adventure” and is flavoured with various natural spices such as cinnamon, vanilla and citrus oil. Sounds intriguing. If you want to go for something even more unusual, how about trying Kannu Kukk, a juniper & caraway flavoured spirit. Teie terviseks!