Estonian Food

As you might have guessed from my comments about the Estonian language, the difference between with breakfast and without breakfast can easily get lost in translation. So, on our first day in Talinn, we went to the local supermarket and bought the basis of tomorrow's breakfast, a large cinnamon loaf, and when we got back found that the management of our accommodation had provided us with the same, plus yogurt and cereal. On our second stay in Tallinn, in a different room of the same building, we discussed the arrangements carefully in advance: Does the price include breakfast? No. You're sure? Yes, but if you really want it, you can come and have it in the dining room. No, that's OK, we don't really want it - it's just that last time you brought it anyway. And you want us to bring it this time? No. Having cleared this up, we went to the supermarket and bought another cinnamon loaf, and once again came back to find tomorrow's breakfast on the sideboard. The day before we left, we deliberately didn't buy anything for breakfast, and this time they didn't bring any - but of course we had a backlog to get through by now.

These sweet breads (chocolate is another one) are popular both for breakfast and as pudding after a meal. The yogurt is thin, and fruit-flavoured, for drinking, and I found it quite comforting first thing in the morning. (We are both the sort of people who need compensation for having regained consciousness.) Other popular breakfasts include the cold ham and thin slices of bland cheese that you find in many parts of Europe - there's something very alien to the British palate about the idea of cheese for breakfast, but because of the blandness, it does actually work. At Leigo Farm, where the breakfast was a buffet outside, brawn and other leftovers from the night before were included. This brawn, known in the US as head cheese, is a kind of meat jelly with scraps of meat in it - very tasty, but not enough to exempt itself from the long list of British breakfast taboos. On the road once, the cooks prepared a breakfast consisting of toasted cheese and sausage sandwiches (too delicious not to eat), yogurt and (to general shock!) salad. Estonians are also porridge-eaters, and the porridge, especially at Leigo Farm, is really good, thick and creamy.

White and rye bread are served with just about every meal. The white is rather tasteless and dry. The rye can be light, in which case it's tastier than the white, but still rather dry, or the heavy, dark, sour type, which is wonderful, far better than the equivalent in Britain. The other ubiquitous Estonian foods are pork, salmon and cucumber. The pork comes as brawn, very good ham and chops or escalopes, usually barbecued. The salmon was sometimes barbecued, but also very thinly sliced, fried till crisp and served on a bed of salad which turned out to be shredded raw savoy cabbage, a surprisingly good combination. As for cucumber, I hate it - a stagnant canal in vegetable form. Dr Johnson was right when he said it should be thinly sliced, well dressed with pepper and vinegar and then thrown out as good for nothing. I thought Britain was cucumber-mad, but the Estonians are even worse. At practically every meal we had three or four salads, all of which I had to pick the cucumber out of. If there was none visible, that just meant it was carefully disguised.

A lot of the food was quite rich. One picnic dish was a savoury layer cake of bread, seafood and cream, for example, and restaurant meals often came in heavy, cream-based sauces, which I enjoyed, guiltily. Another picnic item was steak tartare on toast, which I'd never tasted before. But my two favourite dishes were salmon caviare, which Creina and I had as a starter at a Tallinn restaurant, with onion, sour cream and blini (yeast pancakes), and a sublime mixture of barley, boiled yellow potatoes and crisp bacon with the fat poured over, which we ate at Leigo Farm.

Good red wine cost the same as it does in Britain. White wine was best avoided, as it almost always turned out to be sweet. There were several good brands of lager, and an excellent dark beer. There are also sweet fruit wines, which really taste of the fruit, and the Estonian liqueur, Vana Tallinn, 45% alcohol and full of intriguingly elusive flavours: vanilla, coffee, chocolate?

Estonia home page

Matthew Francis home page