The one word you hear repeated ad nauseam in Estonia is season. Everything rotates around and in harmony with the seasons. Each season has its own story to tell. How could it be otherwise in a country where 51% of the land is given over to forests, with one of the lowest population densities in Europe – just over one million people to 45,000 square km, practically one inhabitant to 3.51 hectares – and a climate that could euphemistically be described as “tough,” with winters of almost total darkness and temperatures well under zero.
The Estonians have learned to be a nation of gatherers, but above all they are food preservers. Their forests are a treasure trove of marvels – dozens of types of berries, often untranslatable, and mushrooms – which are either consumed immediately or preserved equally rapidly by means of brining, drying, smoking, fermenting and marinating. Even though it is far from being vegetarian (the average pro capita consumption of meat is 65 kg a year), Estonian cuisine is inevitably characterised by foraging, and is steeped in the aromas of birch and wild garlic, sea buckthorn and chanterelle mushrooms.
One of the best – and most fascinating – places in which to explore it are the islands. It would be an arduous task to visit all 2,222 of them, but Muhu makes a good starting point.
SAAREMAA & MUHU ISLANDS
Saaremaa is the largest island of Estonia, and the one where it is easiest to find accommodation. A natural paradise (over 200 local fauna species) and a remarkable history, which is well preserved in the ruins of the Maasi castle for instance, or in the Church of Valjala but, above all, in the fortress of Kuressaare and the old centre of the eponymous town, the only real built-up area of the island.
Once you arrive by ferry, you can proceed by car, crossing the bridge over to the island of Muhu. Once an island of fishermen (and pirates), today it is well known for two reasons: the typical local costumes whose colours and patterns are so bright that they have inspired the national ones, and its reputation for fine food.
Once again we shall try to present an accurate picture with the help of some statistics: 2,000 people live on Muhu and there is an average number of 1 restaurant per square kilometre. The keyword is obviously local. Not quite so obvious, however, if you consider that the first traditional restaurant was only opened in Estonia in 1996. For many years following the second independence, people were mainly after exotic and unusual food, in an effort to forget a former diet of verivorst (blood sausage) and black bread, root vegetables and salted herrings. If you are seeking a different sort of culinary experience, we would recommend the cooking lessons, ending with a luncheon and dinner, organised by Mihkli Talu, a delightful holiday farm.
Unlike their Scandinavian “cousins,” such as Norwegians who rarely have it on the table, Estonians give great importance to bread at breakfast, lunch and dinner. White bread is a rarity here, where the term for bread is leib, leavened naturally and made from rye, oat and barley flours: the result is moist with a thick crust, an intense fragrance and a sour-sweetish taste.
The best known bread in the country actually comes from Muhu, where they keep up a centuries-old bread-making tradition. Muhu bread is normally enriched with seeds – sunflower seeds, hempseed and linseed – as well as malt, which combine to confer a distinctive flavour and make it even richer in nutrients (an authentic concentrate of fibres and vitamin B, should you need an excuse for helping yourself to a fifth slice). Two of the most popular bakers are Saare Leib OÜ and Karja Pagariari.
The best way to enjoy it? With Baltic herrings, hard boiled eggs and spring onions. Generously spread with butter of course.
Another longstanding and important tradition of this country is that of beer brewing. Estonia is experiencing a real craft beer revival, with a growing number of small breweries springing up throughout the country. Despite the fact that Saaremaa and Muhu have often laid claim to being the “moral capitals” of Estonian beer, their production was largely of a domestic nature, but things are now changing in this respect. Try the rye beer from Pöide.
THE MOST RENOWED ESTONIAN RESTAURANT
The Michelin Guide does not cover Estonia. However, other guides and ratings that do assess national restaurants are unanimous in crowning Alexander, on the island of Muhu, as the best in the country. Located inside Pädaste Manor, an elegant country dwelling converted into a five-star resort, the Alexander is directed by Matthias Diether, with an international past and a present dedicated to “Nordic Island Cuisine.”
This is how the German chef defines his culinary philosophy, characterised by a rigorous use of seasonal produce (“At these latitudes, the land only yields its fruits 130 days a year,” explains Martin Beuer, owner of Pädaste Manor and spiritual guide of the Alexander) and close ties with producers – whether fishermen, hunters, farmers or breeders.
The various gourmet menus feature intensely flavoured meats such as lamb, venison, moose or wild boar; fish such as plaice, cod or other white fish varieties; and obviously the gems of the Estonian forests, from mushrooms to roots, not forgetting the famous berries. For further information on Estonian cuisine visit this dedicated portal.