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Culture 2000

European Union


The short story of the Estonian Cuisine

Estonia is a Nordic country, which also says a lot about the Estonian cuisine: eating habits, food, ways of cooking etc. The rather sharp contrast between seasons, quite unusual for a southerner, is also reflected in the rhythm of life of the people, closer to nature than the average European. An Estonian tends to be slow and introvert in autumn and winter, and much more energetic and communicative in summertime. How, what, and where an Estonian eats seems largely to be determined by the length and warmth of the days. Darkness and frost bring to the table sauerkraut and roast, brawn and black pudding, thick soup and stew. In summertime, on the other hand, it seems that people are able to survive on little but the warmth and sunlight, accompanied by everything light and fresh that gardens and forests have to offer.

Estonian fare has never been too plentiful, and this is perhaps the reason why the habit of wishing one another “bon appetite” has not taken root here. Instead, people say: “May your bread last!” Apart from a few periods of famine, Estonia has not lacked black, leavened rye bread. Even those who have lived abroad for dozens of years still do not forget its characteristic taste.

To those Estonians who have moved to the cities over the last few generations, the cuisine of their mostly country-based forefathers of the late 19th century has become rather unfamiliar. Regional distinctions, sharply defined a hundred years ago, have now become fairly hazy. In the past, islanders and coastal people, living on poor, stony land, mostly ate potatoes and salted, dried or smoked fish with their bread. Inland farmers raised cattle, of which only the milk cows and breeding animals were kept over the winter. The fatal day for rams was Michaelmas on September 29th; St. Martin's Day on November 10th always boasted a goose on the table, and on St. Catherine's Day (November 25th), one had a chicken. Before Christmas, a fatted pig was killed. After the festive food was prepared, the salted meat and lard were supposed to last until next autumn. Seasoning was mostly done with salt: only urban artisans and the landed gentry could afford expensive spices. Honey was used rather than sugar, and was viewed as a medicine as much as a foodstuff.

The most popular drinks were light malt ale in North Estonia and light ale made from barley and rye in South Estonia, or birch sap in spring. Beer has been the traditional beverage for all occasions, having displaced mead, its ancient rival brewed from honey, several hundred years ago. Ale brewing, especially on our larger islands, has always been a serious and important business for the local people. The islanders' secret tricks of the trade remain a mystery to mainlanders even today. The beer, served in large wooden pidgins, is all the more insidious for its mild taste.

The cultivation of potatoes, a crop introduced into manorial kitchen gardens by the 1740s, finally “took root” during the 19th century. By 1900, potatoes had become a staple of regional food, competing with pearl barley porridge. Competing so successfully, in fact, that only recently Estonia came second in the world - after Poland - in per capita potato yield! Spices, and various new dishes such as semolina and rice porridge gradually made their way from manor and city kitchens to the tables of wealthier farmers. On market-days, village boys could treat their girls to the sweet, yellow, white bread, which indeed was long known as “market bread”.

As with potatoes, getting used to coffee, which arrived in Estonia as early as the late 17th century, took a long time. But by the end of the 19th century Tallinn had several cafes of quite the same standard as those in Central Europe, and at the same time the habit of drinking coffee also spread amongst the farmers. In the country, people drank home-roasted and hand-ground coffee on Sundays, as well as on festive days and when guests arrived. On weekdays, a simpler “coffee” made from roasted grain and chicory was regarded as good enough.

Abstract from: Maire Suitsu, Estonian Cuisine (1998)

design: Kai M. Wurm
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