Anna Sulan Masing is intrigued by Estonia’s eclectic food and culture
Fifty miles south of Helsinki, Estonia is the most northern of the Baltic states, with a culture that’s rich and varied. Ancient myths still feature in folk music today and Tallinn Old Town is a beautifully preserved medieval UNESCO Heritage World Site. Recent history has also been difficult, with both Russia and Nazi Germany wrestling over the country, a story sensitively told at the Eesti Rahva Muuseum (Estonian National Museum) in Tartu.
As a result, the food has elements of Nordic, Baltic, Russian and German influences coupled with a strong Estonian character derived from the country’s ‘farm to fork’ culture. Restaurants and chefs are going for native and heritage foods rather than the imported ingredients of the past.
This revival of Estonian heritage has helped develop a unique palate profile, a stark contrast between sweet and sour: challenging at times but attention-grabbing. At restaurant Sfäär in Tallinn, a simply-cooked piece of duck is served with an elegant pear purée that adds a clean acidity to the dish; at Põhjaka Manor, the sharpness of sea-buckthorn balances out the richness of the egg in the pavlova (sea-buckthorn is a berry that grows only across the very northern European coasts).
Another example of heritage cooking is seen in Estonia’s passion for craft beer. Almost every restaurant brews its own, from crisp, hoppy IPAs to delicately sour stouts (their local ciders and sea buckthorn schnapps are also delicious!).
The landscape as you drive across the country is flat – acres of panoramic views, with poker straight trees silhouetted against the horizon. These right angles are broken up by houses with 45 °-angle roofs, sharply designed to let thick snow fall off. I was there at the start of spring, when the leafless trees create a dramatic landscape and I can easily imagine how beautiful the summer flush on their branches would look.
The old with the new
The country’s clean lines and sense of nature are echoed everywhere, from the beautiful parquet flooring at Leib Resto ja Aed (a restaurant named after the traditional black bread) to the slick lines at NOA where you can bask in the sunset across the Baltic Sea.
You’ll find unusual wooden houses next to old stone buildings, and old Russian cafés with intricate tiled floors, beside minimalist modern coffee shops with exposed brick and steel. Every turn results in new and interesting visuals – warm, thoughtful and inviting.
6 of the best places to eat…
1 Leib Resto ja Aed, Old Town, Tallinn
Located within the old Scottish Members Club.
2 Salt, Tallinn
A tiny basement restaurant with mismatched furniture run by a beautiful Estonian woman who travels the world bringing back inspiration and new styles of cooking. The savoy cabbage is a standout dish. Pair with one of their amazing natural wines – Portuguese wines seem to be a big deal in Tallinn – and try the very authentic ‘Grandma’s Soup’ dessert.
3. NOA, Tallinn
This restaurant is perched on the bay that looks back onto the old town of Tallinn. It’s a stunning setting, with an open-fire grill where you’ll see the chefs playing around with dishes like a cooked beef carpaccio. For this, they drip wild boar fat into a metal funnel, trapping the smoke to cook the beef, giving it an intense smokey flavour.
Try one of their tasting menus, either the Omnivore or Herbivore, both accompanied by wine and a range of fresh juices like Lime and Dill or Blood Orange and Sea Buckthorn.
4 Stäär, Tallinn
A chilled- out design shop with a restaurant, wine shop and clothes/design store out back, DJs in the evening and great food during the day. Don’t miss the retro dish of pike birch in panko with roasted beets and tartare sauce – absolutely delicious. A young, hip crowd hangs out here for brunch, and this place really sums up the new wave of restaurants appearing in this country: simultaneously relaxed, open, informed and creative.
5 Põhjaka Manor, Tartu
Located in an old, dilapidated German/Soviet manor in the heart of the countryside off the highway to Tartu and tucked behind a forest, this restaurant is 100km from every point of Estonia, so is able to source a vast amount of ‘local’ ingredients.
6 Umb Roht, Tartu
The name means ‘weeds’ in Estonian and, accordingly, they do a lot of foraging. These guys are in the student city of Tartu, so are a bit more experimental. A great selection of craft beers and a standout dish of beef tartare with paprika.
Make it real
British Airways, Ryanair and easyJet all fly direct.
Places to stay
1 Tallinn: The Angleterre Apartments within walking distance of the Old Town in the Rotermanni Kvartal area (angleterre.ee).
2 Tartu: The Hektor Design Hostel, located right next door to a warehouse complex taken over by different bars, design stores and galleries (hektorhostels.com).