How to eat like an Estonian? Get loco about local

Estonia is a sturdy nation and its people are the salt of the Earth, using forests and meadows as their garden and fields. The new-Nordic food revolution has encouraged Estonians to put on the table what they have always eaten. 

The country is covered with forests like those you read about in the Tales of Brothers Grimm: wild herbs, forest mushrooms, foraged berries, and wild game such as boar, bear, or beaver, have all made their way (back) onto the table. And exclamation mark – Estonian nature and food are recognised as among the cleanest in the world!

All of this can be found as artfully plated morsels in dozens of chic restaurants – fine dining in Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). competes on equal terms with the famous Scandinavian culinary scene but with prices that will save you from taking a second mortgage. This is all thanks to the new generation of chefs, finding their national cuisine identity by combining the traditional with the new wave. 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 summer meals are much lighter. Salads, cold soups, berries and local fruit make their way onto the table.

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

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

There are also several events for seafood lovers. The Estonian coastline is 3793 km long, so fishing traditions are deeply rooted. 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!

Wherever you are in Estonia and whoever you might ask – rye bread is the closest food to an Estonian’s heart. Some might even say it is a symbol of national identity, and there is no food so quintessentially Estonian as is rye bread. Rye has been cultivated in Estonia for more than a millennium and is a 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”.

Estonian shops offer an unparalleled choice of loaves made from rye, wheat, oats, and in the last decade, buckwheat and 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 a staple, and some have made their hobby into a lovely little business. There are some new, some old and some rediscovered 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. 

The number of specialist shops is growing: 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.

Social media is of great help to 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 or haute-cuisine supplier

Winter in the Nordic hemisphere is long, cold and dark, so it is only natural that everyone is longing for spring. It is as though one can 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, the otherwise stern northerners cannot help but have dreamy smiles on their faces. You can smell the spring, they claim.

Forests are open for foraging

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 a half months of active vegetation, the plants grow in the first few months after the winter as quickly as in the Amazon rainforest. One must know when to pick what and where – most Estonians have their secret spot, shared only with most trusted friends, for example, to find mushrooms.

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 almost everyone knows how to use them.

For example, bearberry or cranberry leaves for urinary tract infections, birch leaves for flatulence, common nettles 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. 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 are a true rescuer after the dungeon-like winter. The most common plants to be picked, whether eaten on the spot, preserved, and nowadays 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 those 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?

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

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