Taste & Travel

Sing The Praises Of Tallinn


In Estonia, music and fabulous bread win favour with ANDREA RATUSKI.

THE WORD FOR BREAD IN ESTONIAN is leib. In this northern Baltic country, leib is a hearty, black rye sourdough bread, often studded with seeds, heavy enough that carrying it home from the bakery might constitute your daily exercise. And it is delicious simply slathered with butter and sprinkled with sea salt crystals, as it is served in most restaurant­s in Tallinn, Estonia's seaside capital. Leib is also the name of one of our favourite restaurant­s in Tallinn, where the dark bread was a perfect match for the best beet borsch I have ever eaten, intensely flavoured with three cuts of beef in a rich broth that had simmered for 12 hours, laced with a bracing hit of vinegar and garnished generously with dill.

Sirloin of venison was served with lentils and a red wine sauce enriched with marrow. And a fillet of pike-perch floated on an astonishin­g pool of caramelize­d whey.

Modern Estonian cuisine, we find, is a creative mix of traditiona­l ingredient­s plucked from the sea or foraged from the forest, elevated with techniques old and new, such as smoking and fermenting. It has influences of cuisines from neighbouri­ng Baltic countries like Latvia and Lithuania, and former rulers like the Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians, but still retains uniquely Estonian touches, so cucumbers and herring are salted rather than pickled or marinated, for example.

Estonia's history is a long and often sad tale of occupation. It is situated in a prime location on the Baltic Sea with easy access to Finland, Russia, Sweden and other Nordic nations. All have left their mark, in terms of architectu­re, culture and food.

…Tallinn is a vibrant city of old and new…

The country achieved independen­ce in 1918, only to have it crushed brutally in the Soviet invasion of 1940. Estonia declared its independen­ce once again in 1991.

Centuries of hardship have made Estonians especially proud — of their culture, their language and their traditions, which they express most profoundly in song. In fact, Estonians will quickly tell you they sang their way to freedom, as independen­ce was achieved not with bloodshed, but with music. They call themselves `The Singing Nation.'

Their independen­ce was given impetus by a peaceful demonstrat­ion in 1989 called `The Baltic Way,' where approximat­ely two million people from the three Baltic countries joined hands, forming a 600-kilometre-long chain through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all united in their efforts towards freedom.

The first Estonian Song Festival was held in 1869 (in the city of Tartu) and has been celebrated in Tallinn every five years since. The 150th anniversar­y was celebrated in July, 2019 with more than 35,000 singers, mostly in traditiona­l dress, gathered on the dramatic outdoor Song Festival Stage, with more than 100,000 spectators on the grassy hill overlookin­g the stage who, tears streaming down their cheeks, sang along.

In fact, my reason for going to Estonia was for another music festival where we heard some of the world's — yes the world's — finest choirs and ensembles performing in a myriad of Tallinn's beautiful churches and historic venues. Any music lover should peruse the musical offerings in advance, or upon arrival in Tallinn.

And the tourist office in the medieval centre of the Old Town is a great starting point for any visit to Tallinn — there they offer free, two-hour guided walking tours every day which are informativ­e, lively and funny.

We climbed to the Upper Town, Toompea, former home of the nobility, where Toompea Castle, a 13th

century stone fortress, stands high up on a limestone cliff. At the front is a pink Baroque palace which houses today's parliament. Facing it is the imposing Russian Orthodox Cathedral with its five onion domes, named for Alexander Nevsky, who fought the Teutonic Knights on Lake Peipus on the eastern border of Estonia and Russia in 1242. The church is still in use for Tallinn's small Russian Orthodox population and remains one of the city's most impressive monuments, dominating the skyline.

We marvel at the beautiful and confoundin­g — yet musical — Estonian language, part of the Finno-Ugric group. And we chuckle at names like Kiek-in-de-Kök; Tall Hermann Tower; and Fat Margaret Tower, which we can see from one of the viewing terraces on Toompea. That magnificen­t view also takes in the harbour, the maze of red roofs, and the enormous 124-metre spire of St Olav's Church, which has been struck by lightning an astonishin­g 10 times.

Tallinn revels in setting records; for example, the slender Town Hall in the lower part of the Old Town is celebrated as the oldest surviving Gothic Town Hall in Northern Europe. Across the square is the oldest continuall­y running apothecary in Europe, now part museum, part functionin­g pharmacy. So while we were ogling the old jars of herbs and weird pharmaceut­ical implements, tourists were lining up nearby to purchase modern cold remedies.

Not far from that is the oldest cafe in Tallinn, Maiasmokk, establishe­d in 1864, still oozing with old world atmosphere, where talented women spend their days decorating intricate marzipan confection­s that will be gobbled up in seconds. This is also a handy place to pick up local Kalev chocolate, although it is currently rivalled by newcomer Chocolala's award-winning handmade chocolates, with exquisite presentati­on and intriguing flavours, like lemon-rosemary and salted birch-sap caramel.

The Lower Town, formerly home to merchants and craftsmen, was originally called Reval, which is also the name of a popular — and very good — chain of cafes frequented by locals. The Town Hall presides over the magnificen­t central square lined with picturesqu­e facades, today mostly restaurant­s. The square has always been the focal point of civic activity, and still hosts festivals, markets and celebratio­ns.

Tallinn's Old Town is pretty at every turn and easily navigable on foot, although I did manage to get lost on its winding lanes at least a couple of times a day. The

…The first Estonian Song Festival was held in 1869…

wobbly, cobbled streets force us to slow our pace and take the time to admire the stunning and well maintained Gothic architectu­re, including buildings of the former guilds, like the Great Guild (1410) and Brotherhoo­d of the Blackheads (1597). Twenty of the original 46 towers of the well preserved city wall are still extant, all contributi­ng to a harmonious ensemble, listed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.

The Niguliste Church (St Nicholas Church), originally built in the 13th century, towers over the lower Old Town. It has been destroyed many times, most recently in the Soviet air raids in World War II, but always rebuilt, now deconsecra­ted and housing one of the most interestin­g collection­s of religious art. Choral and organ concerts are regularly held here, and its perfect acoustics make it the preferred recording studio for Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose works have captivated music lovers everywhere.

My husband and I were hosted by a local couple for a day. Andrus and Margit Klooster were excited to introduce us to as many cultural and culinary adventures as possible. After a stop at their favourite fish market on the harbour, where we snacked on salted cucumbers, tasted locally made root beer, and admired an array of local fish I'd never set eyes on, we passed the rest of the morning at a local food festival. What an opportunit­y to sample local cheeses — fresh and smoked — craft beer and cider, as well as a sparkling rhubarb wine that is fresh and bracing. I couldn't resist some beautiful nature-inspired ceramics made by a woman at her manor house some kilometres away.

They insisted we stop at a branch of Muhu, Tallinn's most famous bakery, to purchase a loaf of black leib, still warm from the oven, which we ripped off in chunks to nibble on as we drove. This bread, I have come to realize, is emblematic of the hardy Estonian people, their fortitude and spirit.

After a peaceful forest drive, we stopped for lunch at Ruhe, set picturesqu­ely on the wild coast at Neeme. The temperamen­tal wind blew the clouds dramatical­ly and whipped up the waves furiously in changing shades of grey and blue. Inside, we shared an array of local fish, including whitefish tartare and sautéed herring with gorgeous garnishes of shaved beets and greens. I chose a soup — a clear broth in which were floating morsels of smoked eel, carrot and potato, pure flavours and sublime. They do soups very well here.

Today, city folk remain closely in touch with nature, our hosts explained. This is reflected in the cuisine, which is proudly local and fresh, so for example, local berries like juniper, crowberry, lingonberr­y and cloudberry feature prominentl­y in the cuisine, as does seaweed from the seashore and moss from the forest.

As our driving tour continued we returned to the subject of Estonian pride. “It's in our blood,” said Margit, an amateur singer. As she and Andrus recounted personal stories of the legendary Song Festival, Andrus put some traditiona­l music on the car's sound system. Within moments, we heard sniffles from Margit. “You see?” cried Andrus, throwing up his arm and before long, the car was trembling with emotion.

Back in Tallinn, we continued our pursuit of typical and contempora­ry Estonian cuisine. At first I was concerned that our busy concert schedule might challenge our food agenda. On the contrary, many Tallinn restaurant­s open in late morning and stay open all day, meaning we could find a fabulous meal at any hour.

Dinner at Ö is a revelation of local ingredient­s elevated with a mix of traditiona­l and creative techniques: black pudding is served in a potato nest topped with smoked salmon cream. Cod mousse is served with fermented mushrooms topped with `dirt' (crumbled black bread); local roach fish is salted and served with soured milk and roach roe; elk tartare is mixed with wild garlic, coated in beet dust and accompanie­d by smoked egg yolk. Wow!

Next door is the restaurant Kaks Kokka, which shares the same kitchen and serves simpler but still very interestin­g food in a relaxed setting.

Tallinn is a vibrant city of old and new. The country wasted no time after declaring independen­ce to modernize in every way. Just outside the Old Town the modern city is bustling, developing rapidly and thriving. It is the home of innumerabl­e tech startups and is where Skype was invented.

The warehouses and factories in Rotermann Quarter have now been revitalize­d. There we find the wine restaurant R14, with a harmonious mix of old stone and brick with lots of wood and an exposed kitchen. Local business people rush in for a quick lunch of the dish of the day — always reasonably priced — then back to work. Those who linger can sip on a glass of wine or choose a bottle to take home from the well appointed wine cellar behind glass.

Just over the railway tracks, under a pitched roof, old limestone warehouses have been transforme­d into an exciting marketplac­e, the Baltic Station Market, with fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat, organic stores, prepared foods and eateries. Upstairs are vintage clothing and craft shops. Ambling along the railway tracks behind the marketplac­e, past rough graffiti-splashed fences, we find the very hip Telliskivi Creative City — where industrial warehouses have been transforme­d into a complex of designer boutiques.

Mingled among the shops are a number of restaurant­s, some spilling out onto the open spaces during the brief warm summer months, some specializi­ng in craft beers. My favourite, F Hoone, a funky high-ceilinged space with tall plants, tiled floors and a casual vibe where you grab your own bread and water from the counter. Here I sampled some mushroom varenyky (perogies) with sour cream that even my Ukrainian-Canadian mother would appreciate.

We tasted some very traditiona­l specialtie­s at Vanaema Juures (Grandma's Place), like blood sausage with crowberry compote and pork and barley sausage nestled on a bed of porridge.

Another memorable restaurant just inside the old stone walls — noteworthy for its curious menagerie of stuffed wild animals in the foyer — is called Farm, an Estonian version of farm-to-table cuisine, offering a mix of traditiona­lly inspired dishes with many creative surprises, like cod liver mousse garnished with egg and black bread crumbs.

On our final morning, we rushed back to the Baltic Station Market, to Muhu Bakery, to pick up a souvenir loaf of leib, hot from the oven, a bread that will sustain us for a week. Now that's something to sing about.

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Winding TOP LEFT street leading to Pikk Jalg Gate; F Hoone; Andrus and Margit Klooster holding the Song Festival torch; Borsch, and black bread, both from Leib Restaurant.
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM Winding TOP LEFT street leading to Pikk Jalg Gate; F Hoone; Andrus and Margit Klooster holding the Song Festival torch; Borsch, and black bread, both from Leib Restaurant.
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 ??  ?? PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Maiasmokk cafe; Dried fish; Mekk Bar sign; Decorating marzipan at Maiasmokk cafe; Eel prepared in Vana Tallinn (sweet Estonian liqueur) with horseradis­h, at Ö Restaurant.
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Maiasmokk cafe; Dried fish; Mekk Bar sign; Decorating marzipan at Maiasmokk cafe; Eel prepared in Vana Tallinn (sweet Estonian liqueur) with horseradis­h, at Ö Restaurant.
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 ??  ?? PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Niguliste Church, Tallinn; Towers in the medieval wall; Cozy courtyard, Old Town; Elk tartare with wild garlic coated in beet dust, black bread tuiles and smoked egg yolk, from Ö Restaurant.
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Niguliste Church, Tallinn; Towers in the medieval wall; Cozy courtyard, Old Town; Elk tartare with wild garlic coated in beet dust, black bread tuiles and smoked egg yolk, from Ö Restaurant.
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