What images come to mind when you picture Northern Europe? Snow? Smoking cottages in the woods? Fish? Wool mittens? For many, this area of the world is not well known or well traveled. I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity this summer to travel to the northern European countries of Estonia and Finland. I wandered through the historic cities of Tallinn and Helsinki and am so excited to share my experiences!
FIRST, A LITTLE HISTORY AND CULTURE
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and is the most well-preserved medieval trading city in northern Europe. The country has been ruled by several nations in its colorful past, including Sweden, Germany, and Russia. This melting pot of cultures has created a unique blend of traditions in the country. Estonia gained independence in 1918 and celebrated 100 years this year in 2018.
During our walking tour of Tallinn, our tour guide shared many of his personal and family stories as Estonians. The most moving story he shared was his morning ritual. Each day , he said, the Estonian flag is raised along wtih the national anthem. Each morning he wakes up to view the flag and start his day with a cup of coffee. He checks daily to make sure the flag is still Estonian. If a different flag has been raised, it means the country has been conquered and his life is about to change.
As Americans, this is something we often take for granted. This story really made me stop and think.
The entire population of Estonia is 1.3 million people. Today, Estonia is one of the most high-tech countries in the world. You can do anything online, from voting to banking. Resources are dedicated to the commitment of building technical and internet systems. Skype was created and is still maintained in Tallinn today. Education is very important to the citizens and Estonians are among the most highly educated people in the world, outranking many larger countries in terms of test scores. The majority of people we met with had obtained at least a Masters degree in their field of study.
Many of the people are tall and blonde, a contrast to other western European countries in which the people are smaller and have brown or black hair. Most everyone is able to speak English, as well as Estonian, the national language. People tend to be reserved and almost standoff-ish, but are very friendly as you get to know them.
Below are some beautiful shots from around Tallinn and Estonia.
AND NOW FOR THE FOOD!
I was fortunate enough to attend a “Farm to Fork” food tour as part of my Master’s Degree program in Food Science. So, basically, I was able to travel around with new friends tasting all kinds of new food and drinks 🙂 We visited local markets, forests for gathering berries and mushrooms, restaurants, food manufacturing facilities, and even participated in hands-on workshops!
Estonian cuisine is often simple and hearty. Dishes are inspired by German, Finnish, and Russian cuisine. Rye bread, pork, and dairy products are very popular choices for many meals. Portion sizes are often larger than in other European countries and are similar to the US. Many cold soup options were available due to the unseasonably hot summer weather this year. Desserts often feature berries gathered from the many forests in the country. Estonian people shop at local markets often to gather fresh food to prepare at home. Health and wellness is also a popular trend in Estonia.
First up: Rye Bread! Let me just start out by warning you that rye bread is a staple in Estonian culture and you can find it anywhere and everywhere throughout the city of Tallinn. The bread is very different from the rye bread you would typically find in America. This bread is very dark, dense, and has a complex earthy and slightly sour flavor. The bread is often dry but made delicious and perfectly moist with a butter spread.
Rye bread production is a complex process and requires a “mother sourdough” to begin fermentation. The base ingredients are simple: rye flour, water, sourdough, yeast, and salt. The “mother sourdough” aids in the fermentation step. The product is mixed and goes through several proofing steps to allow the dough to rest and rise. The dough is then molded to fit the desired product type and goes through ovens at four different temperature settings to ensure a consistent bake. The high temperature in the first oven helps to develop the dough structure. The next oven is slightly cooler and allows the crust to form on the outside of the bread. As the bread moves to the cooler ovens, the inside of the bread is able to remain softer and fluffier, while maintaining the crisp crust on the outside.
We visited Leibur, Estonia’s oldest bread manufacturer. The company made many different kinds of bread for Estonia and Finland, but the major product was rye bread. There were several options: toasting bread (traditional sliced bread we find in the US, but used specifically to toast), sandwich bread (thin slices similar to “Sandwich Thins” in the US), and whole loaves.
The next course: from the land. Estonia’s land mass is covered by about 50% forest. Many Estonians gather berries or mushrooms that grow or may hunt game. Take a look at some of these dishes that display the local vegetation beautifully. Estonians prefer to consume fresh foods and may visit their local market or grocery store several times a week. Eating outside the home is also popular with younger people.
For the main course: meats. As mentioned previously, you may be surprised to find out pork is typically the most popular protein in Estonia. Chicken and fish are also consumed, but beef is not as popular on many menus.
I had expected fish to be the main staple of the diet and was surprised to learn fish is not as well liked by many. Fish must be imported from other countries, meaning the fish is not always as fresh.
Nonetheless, I learned to gut my first fish in our hands-on fish workshop! We learned to cut butterfly fillets, whole fillets, and single fillets and then assumed the role of a product developer to create a new product for a target audience. My group created a crunchy, breaded, citrus Meditteranean whole fillet to be sold as fun street food for snacking. The end product was golden brown with distinct red pepper flakes and fresh aromatics from the Meditteranean spices. In these small fish products, you eat the bones and skin of the fish, too!
Did you know?
Fresh fish should like slimy. Slime is produced by the fish to help it move easily through the water. When looking for a good piece of fish, look for one that has little odor and is slimy/shiny.
Below are examples of the fish available for sale at the local market.
We can’t forget the drinks! Beer is very popular in Estonia, along with fruit wines. Grapes are not grown in Estonia, so the main wines are often made from fruits such as currants, rhubarb, and blueberry.
Here’s a fun cocktail made of pea puree and topped with crispy onion straws and fresh dill.
Many of the restaurants we visited were in traditional style homes or manors that were very beautiful.
As you can see, this country is a unique and deliciously different than many of the traditional tastes we have become accustomed to from Western Europe. I hope this post will inspire you to learn more about Estonia and maybe even research some recipes to bring this unique cuisine into your own home!