Gifts From Estonia

gifts from Estonia
When you ditch your wife and kid for a week to go off to Estonia in the middle of the winter, you better bring some cool stuff back. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find interesting gifts from Estonia. I managed to get a variety of low-cost presents that gave them a taste of what the country is like.

And I mean “taste” literally. As you can see, I mostly brought back food. Estonian cuisine has its own distinct twist. One thing that really stands out is that the Estonians like to confuse their taste buds. That bottle on the left is Vana Tallinn, a rum-based drink mixed with various contrasting flavors to creature a sweet, syrupy drink with a taste I’ve never experienced before. That honey is mixed with pollen, the chocolate is mixed with locally gathered berries and that cheese is some of the smokiest I’ve ever had.

Two gifts were specifically for my kid. One is a book called “The Retribution of Jack Frost,” which includes two Estonian folk tales of the familiar theme of the poor stranger being refused help by a rich person and aided by a poor one. Guess who gets punished and who gets rewarded at the end! I didn’t see much of a choice in English-language titles, but he liked this one and the drawings really catch the Estonian countryside in winter.

He also wanted a cup with a castle on it, so here it is, complete with a picture of Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town.

Last but not least is an odd wooden refrigerator magnet I found in a retro vinyl shop. Some weird Tom Waits-like figure dancing with crows. It isn’t actually from Estonia but rather handmade by a Lithuanian artist. Hey, you can never have enough refrigerator magnets.

Not going to Estonia? Check out what ended up in our home from Japan and Greece.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Eating And Drinking In Estonia

Estonia
I always enjoy dipping into a new cuisine, so when I headed off to Estonia I was curious as to what kind of food I was going to get. Would it be like Russian cuisine? Scandinavian? A bit of both since the country is sandwiched between those two areas?

Turns out it’s a mix with its own local twist. At least that was my impression. I was only in the country a week and so take all my observations with a dash of salt.

The first thing I noticed is that bread comes with everything. The most distinct kind is a heavy black rye bread. Breakfasts include bread and an assortment of cold cuts and cheeses to fortify you against the cold day. Bread reappears for lunch and dinner and snacks. You’ll see kids tromping down the street with a slice of black bread and butter for a snack.

Estonian cuisine includes a lot of meat, especially pork, usually served with some form of potato. One dish I tried was juniper-smoked pork with honey cabbage, mustard sauce and potato-groat porridge. A good recipe that was only adequately done at the place I tried it. In the winter Estonians like soups and stews. My favorite is seljanka, a meat soup that warmed me up after a cold morning chasing the Estonian army through some snowy woods. More on that story in the next post. The vegetable soups thickened with cream or yogurt will keep you going too.

%Gallery-180003%Despite being a maritime country, fish doesn’t rank high on the menu. Herring, eel and flounder are found the most, although I didn’t try any of them.

Eating Spanish food every day, I’m accustomed to simple, direct flavors, while Estonians like to mix up their flavors. Trying to buy pure honey was a bit of a challenge. Most brands are mixed with pollen or bits of various herbs.

A lot of Estonian cheeses tend to have seeds in them, like this sampler plate shown above. My favorite was the one mixed with the rye seeds. I got this at the Seaplane Harbour Museum, which unlike many museums has a surprisingly good and affordable restaurant. The best cheese I tried was a heavily smoked cheese called Lepasuitsu Eesti juust. If you like smoky cheeses, hunt this one down.

This mixing of flavors even extends to beer. Some of the main brands and microbrews I tried were sweetened; one of them was honey flavored. Mead, sadly, was nowhere to be found. A good place for Estonian beer in Tallinn is Hell Hunt, a bar/restaurant that’s hugely popular with both locals and tourists.

As for the harder stuff, there’s no shortage of Estonian and Russian vodka. Estonia is also known for Vana Tallinn (“Old Tallinn”), a sweet liquor that wasn’t to my taste. It’s made with vanilla pods, orange, lemon, bitter orange oils and a bit of cinnamon mixed with Jamaican rum. Often called the “Baileys of Estonia,” I brought some back to my Baileys-loving wife and she found it overly sweet just like I did. We’ll foist it off on some unsuspecting guests. Apparently this is what the Estonians do. Several told me that it’s mostly an export brand.

In the bigger cities you’ll find plenty of other cuisines. Besides the usual staples such as Chinese, Indian and Italian, there are plenty of Caucasian restaurants featuring the cuisines of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. These places will give you a very different dining experience and I recommend visiting at least one while you’re in Estonia. At Must Lammas in Tallinn I tried a dish of crisphead lettuce with grilled chicken filet and garlic-cheese sauce that was excellent.

Visiting Estonia in winter, I missed all the fresh herbs, berries and nuts the country folk like to gather. Everyone raves about the local strawberries. I did have a fun culinary experience, though. Plus I took the Estonian advice to eat a lot of garlic to keep from getting a cold. It worked!

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Chasing The Estonian Army (And Finding A Different One)!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Exploring A Snowy Traditional Village In Estonia

Estonia
After so many years living in Spain, it was nice to visit Estonia and experience a real winter again. That numbness on the tip of your nose while the rest of your body is bundled up and warm, the way sounds get muffled by the snow, the intricate designs the icy branches etch into the sky – winter is a good season when you don’t have to experience it for too long.

The best way to experience winter is to get out into the countryside. Day trips from the capital Tallinn can be tricky, however, as the bus system isn’t the greatest. One quick way to experience country life and get a bit of history is to spend a few euros on a taxi and go to the Estonian Open Air Museum just outside of town.

This remarkable place is the Colonial Williamsburg of the Baltics. Historic buildings have been collected here from all regions of Estonia to recreate several traditional villages. Costumed employees practice traditional crafts as visitors wander around the forested paths between the villages.

I went on Shrove Tuesday, which is a special event in Estonian culture. The village tavern was serving up pig trotters with the warning not to wipe the grease off your chin if you wanted to ensure a prosperous and lucky new year. After a messy lunch that’s going to make me rich and fortunate in 2013, I headed out into the country lanes. Being the middle of a weekday, it was quiet. Visitors were spread out over the museum’s several acres and for the most part all was silent except for the crunch of my boots in the snow. Every now and then I’d hear the jingle of sleigh bells and see a happy family scoot by, driven by one of the museum employees.

%Gallery-179095%It’s a big day for kids, who go sledding on this date. For some reason sledding ensures that flax will grow tall in the new year. The child who sleds the farthest guarantees that his or her household will have the best flax crop. A gaggle of squealing Estonian kids hurtling down the slope next to one of the windmills were having too much fun to care whether the flax grew tall or not. Nearby was a merry-go-round set atop a frozen pond, spinning extra quickly on the ice.

Estonian kids have turned the making of snowmen into a fine art. Kadriorg Park, back in town, had an entire population of snowmen, snow women, snow dragons, and a snow bear climbing a tree to get a snow squirrel. Scattered around the 18th- and 19th-century buildings of the Open Air Museum I saw snowmen hanging out enjoying the holiday. It made me wonder how old the tradition of making snowmen is and why it started.

The homes, barns and churches collected here are now rarities. During Soviet times the emphasis was on collectivization and most old rural buildings were allowed to decay. So it’s a rare treat to see their distinct, homey style and watch kids play at the same games their ancestors did when these old buildings were new.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: The Secret Tunnels Under Tallinn!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Estonia