Loco about local. Estonian food

Source: Renee Altrov

Loco about local. Estonian food

In the recent years Estonia has made it´s mark on the map of gastronomy. Estonian chefs are highly valued internationally and influencers on social media have reported Estonia as the next foodie destination, and this is also how the country is marketing itself. Why is it so? 

However, as Estonians are a sturdy nation, salt of the Earth, they have kept the knowledge in their hearts about using forest and meadows as their garden and fields. The new-Nordic food revolution has encouraged Estonians once again to put on the table what they have always eaten. As the country is more than half covered with forests reminding you the ones your read about in the Tales of Brothers Grimm, wild herbs, forest mushrooms, lush, foraged berries and wild game, be it boar, bear or beaver, have all made their way (back) on the table. And exclamation mark – Estonian nature and food have been acknowledged among the cleanest in the world.

Fresh fish

Photo by: Renee Altrov, Visit Estonia

All of the latter you can find as artfully plated morsels in dozens of chic restaurants - fine dining in Tallinn competes on equal terms with the famous Scandinavian culinary scene – but with prices that will save you taking a second mortgage. That is all thanks to the new generation of chefs, finding national cuisine identity in combining the traditional with the new wave of the world. It is an ode to pure, fresh and seasonal food.

Estonian eating habits

Estonian food has traditionally been rather hearty. The cold and harsh climate at latitude 59´ North makes thick stews, porridges, soups and chowders part of the staple, always accompanied by bread. From late autumn to the end of winter, people prefer warming and rich meals like pea soup with smoked meat, mashed potatoes, meat stews, oven-baked meat or fish, casseroles and pies. Spring and autumn meals are much lighter. Salads, cold soups, berries and local fruit make their way on the table.

Regional differences are vast despite the small size of Estonia, and in recent years each region has been marketing their culinary specialities as a part of its identity. There will be around 20 different fairs or speciality food festivals in Estonia in 2022. To name a few, the annual Peipsi Food Route in August, that focuses on local specialities around Lake Peipus and runs on a distance of 175 km.

In June, Satserinna Sõirapäev in Setomaa, in the South-Eastern corner of Estonia, delights guests with delicious squeaky cheese from curd, cured meat from UNESCO heritage-listed smoke sauna, and almost every household has its moonshine recipe.

Fisherman working

Photo by: Stina Kase, Visit Estonia

There are also several events for seafood lovers. Estonian coastline is 3793 km long, so fishing traditions are deeply rooted. In addition, some lakes and rivers give a sizeable catch. Smoked, salted, cured and baked fish has always been part of Estonian cuisine. Most Estonians can make you a ceviche from almost any fresh fish the waters have given them!

About bread

Wherever you are in Estonia and whoever you might ask – rye bread is the closest food to an Estonian heart. Some might even say it symbolises national identity, and there is no food as quintessentially Estonian as is rye bread. Rye has been cultivated in Estonia for more than a millennium and is the central part of the nation´s traditional agriculture. Wheat is a much newer addition, and white wheat bread does not even count as „bread". Instead, it is called „sai".

In Estonian shops, you may find an unparalleled choice of loaves made from rye, wheat, oat and in the last decade, also buckwheat and high content of vegetables like parsnip, carrot or beetroot. But nothing compares to homemade bread, and many Estonians are making their own. Some as a hobby, some as the staple, and some have made their hobby into a lovely little business. There are new, and some old and rediscovered, Estonia bakeries all around Estonia. It is not only the bakeries!

Small Specialist Shops and Micro-Everything

In the last decade, the Estonian mindset has shifted from big and generic towards small and unique. Surely there are big supermarket chains supplying everything for everyday needs, and the selection is awe-inspiring, but the trend is toward locally sourced, locally grown and sustainable. There is a growing number of specialist shops: already named bakeries, butcheries, fish-shops, organic-farming shops where small businesses collectively sell their produce, micro-breweries and the OTT movement – Otse Tootjalt Tarbijale or Straight from Producer to Consumer – where small farmers bring their goods to bigger towns on a schedule.

Tammuri Farm

Photo by: Danel Rinaldo, Visit Estonia

Social media is a great help for smaller producers and even garden-owners who sell their home-grown berries, vegetables, homemade cheese and homemade cakes and pies.

Using wild nature as a pharmacy to haute-cuisine supplier

Winter in the Nordic hemisphere is long, cold and dark, so it is only natural that everyone is longing for spring. So it is as one can almost hear the first snowbell flowers making their way through the frozen crust of the earth and when the sun starts to cross the skies a little higher day-by-day, otherwise rather stern northerners cannot help but have this dreamy smile on their faces. You can smell the spring, they claim.

In Estonia, people use the meadows, forests, and wetlands as a granary and a pharmacy. There is a season for everything – and one cannot be precise enough with timing. As there are only four and half months of active vegetation, the plants grow in the first few months after the winter as quick as in the Amazon rainforest. So one must know when to pick what and where – most Estonians have their secret spot, shared only with most trusted friends, for example, mushroom picking.

Picking berries

Photo by: Aron Urb, Visit Estonia

Estonians have a strong belief in traditional medicine, and there is a saying that if you know nature well enough, you do not really need a pharmacy. The sentiment is so strong in the national psyche that all modern pharmacies in Estonia sell medicinal herb teas, and mostly everyone knows how to use them. For example, bearberry or cranberry leaves for urinary tract infections, birch leaves for flatulence, common nettle for iron deficiency, field horsetail for immune-system, and numerous mixtures for the common cold, cough, and gastroenterological issues, to name a few. Every child knows that a common waybread is the best solution for a scratch if no band-aids are around. And the list goes on! Most of the medicinal herbs are also used for seasoning food.

Spring is the most active time for wild herb picking. Late April and early May bring us vitamin-rich green shoots that have been a true rescuer after the dungeon-like winter. The most common things to be picked, whether eaten on the spot, preserved, nowadays also frozen, are dandelions, cowslips, goutweed, wood sorrel, nettle, bishop´s weed and spruce shoots. And then there are many herbs most of us would pass by indifferently. Still, more knowledgeable „nature scouts" pick up gracefully and gratefully and send them to haute-cuisine restaurants where the weeds are included in salads, soups and ice-creams.

As a reminder. Estonia is among the Nordic countries where the Viking-rooted allemansrätt or every-man´s-law still implies. Everyone is welcome to pick berries, mushrooms and herbs wherever they find suitable in any public forest or meadow. Perhaps make your own nettle ice-cream or wild garlic pesto?

Last updated : 21.06.2022

In category: Food & Drink & Nightlife