Thursday, 21 August 2008

Little babushkas of Estonia

Tere, zdraste, hello. I have been away from my favorite blog for a while and I've missed it. Hopefully, there are others who would like to see it again too:)

I have been visiting my homeland, Estonia, for the last 10 days or so. The main reason for coming here was to attend the wedding of a very good friend of mine, but we have also done a bit of travelling, fooling around (the picture on the left taken in my brother's sauna!) and - naturlich - eating.

Food in Estonia is a very satisfying, although somewhat confusing, affair. On the one hand, do not even think of coming here if you don't eat pork, or even worse - horror - you are a vegetarian. Thus, everywhere you go the food is simple, heavy and tasty (Jonathan, for instance, really got to liking the following dish as a daily cheap lunch: barbequed chunks of pork, boiled or baked potatoes with various accompaniments, such as gurkins (obviously!), pickled cabbage, tomatoes, all helped with sweet and very dark black bread. The result of staying in this cold and flat country after a week is always the same - 5 kgs more each).

On the other hand you do really start missing the variety of food quite quickly, especially vegetables and, surprisingly, fish, or to be more specific fresh fish (you can eat yourself silly with various pickled herrings - which is, by the way, a traditional part of breakfast here, but why is it that you just can't buy ANYWHERE fresh mackerel, which you can easily get in canned form). But when you do come across small markets that sell the aforementioned, it is a very special experience...

The first few days in Tallinn we spent with Jonathan's parents, and on the second day we decided to show them a different, ie not pretty postcard Tallinn, and so we went to the suburbs - Lasnamae, the area solely consisting of high rising Soviet blocks. There, in between the usual supermarkets and kiosks, we visited a small market where my mum and myself used to shop some years ago when I was still living here as a red-haired teenager...It was such a curious experience to visit this market now, with my 'well-travelled' eyes and my well-fed stomach. The sellers are a mixture of usual retailers, ie traders that buy vegetables elsewhere and re-sell them (the majority of stuff is therefore non-Estonian, but good) and little babushkas selling a few jars of peas (recycling of used jars, tovarishi), or a few sprigs of dill.

They follow the highest of London trends - the food is organic (too expensive to buy chemicals, and the people don't know anything about them anyway), seasonal (what else can they grow?!), local (they bring their produce from their dachas, 5-20 kms away from Tallinn), without realising of course that there is anything trendy or particularly special about it. This is simply something they do to supplement their poor pensions (I doubt it that they have to pay anything for the place at the market).

We stopped and bought a 3-litre jar of blueberries from one old lady for about 2 pounds. She found us very curious - speaking English and taking pictures - especially when Teresa, Jonathan's mum who herself has a beautiful garden with many fruit and vegetables, asked her about the location of her garden and whether she too finds it tricky picking gooseberries.
I also bought some lovely golden honey from a cheerful Estonian woman (I should have explained that this area of Tallinn is almost 100% Russian, so it was so sweet to see an Estonian woman happily chatting to her Russian customers in her crisp and confident Russian). I am savoring to have my performed honeycomb a bit later, on a chilly autumn day, somewhere on a Russian long-distance train, with hot black tea..*Katya's dreamy eyes*

There is another market in Tallinn which I absolutely adore and always broadly smile when I go past it remembering many-many times I came past it when I was little. Not sure if you can call it a market, since it is simply a row of tables in a street in the centre in Tallinn, just as you enter the old town. This place has been here for ages: people come here for the 1st of September with their kids (it's the first day of school here, and everywhere in post-Soviet space) to buy long gladioli to present them to their teachers (don't you think it's a touching and wonderful tradition??); young guys get dark and elegant roses to smitten their new loves; little old ladies ask for tiny bouquets of peonies and chamomiles.

The principles of trade is very similar here to the market in Lasnamae - babushkas grow their own flowers, and come to sell them here to earn an extra kroon, to chat to their friends, to smile to passer-bys. This place is so different from all those beautiful and very self-aware florist shops that you find everywhere, including Estonia, where you can buy a well-constructed bouquet of flowers from Holland, but can never find a bunch of wild field chamomiles...I've retained this love for uncomplicated, wild flowers to this day, and often cut branches of rowan tree or random colourful flowers on busy London streets. After spending a few days in Tallinn with J's parents and my brother, we drove to the west of Estonia, towards plentiful serene islands and abundant lush northern forests. One thing is definite about this land - if you are looking for dramatic scenery and sunny days, this isn't the place to visit;

but if you want to breath in fresh and sparkly air of wild pine forest, rest your eyes on shallow and steel sea waters and are generally the kind who enjoys the melancholy of dumb weather and flickering candles, Estonia fits all the criteria.

We took a ferry to the largest island in Estonia (all 40 000 of its people!) and drove all the way to the most north-west point of the island, where we managed to badly mis-read the map (ok, I managed to misread the map) and found ourselves under torrential rain, amongst most spooky Soviet remains of some army buildings...We then spent a day recovering from our adventures in a swanky spa-hotel in civilized Kuresaare (I should have added above that this country is perfect for anyone in need of R & R and with a soft spot for saunas).

But all of that time I was thinking 'surely, in such rural countryside, with so many fields and water, there must still be people not lynched by the EU regulations, making simple Estonian cheeses and baking non-plastic bread!' I was doubting my conviction, as everywhere we went (with some noble exceptions, on which later..) we came across the all-familiar - tasty, but a bit dull - pork/potatoes/gurkins combination.

We did manage to find it though. By pure chance and only with 15 minutes to spare (we were on the way to the wedding) in the seaside town of Haapsalu, which we visited on return from Saaremaa. That was the whole fete, or a yarmarka, or a festival!

I was reassured to see various interesting cheeses (how about Saaramaa blue cheese?) and fluffy rye breads (with bacon bits inside..yum..), fresh water fish from all those Estonian rivers and numerous local crafts' makers (enormous wooden tables and delicate Scandinavian style jewellry).

The atmosphere was completed and properly Estonian-ied:) by a choir of prettily dressed children, shyly singing some folk and kiddies' songs. I felt relived, happy and confident in the future of this country and the remains of our holiday:)

1 comment:

Pille said...

Did you visit the Keskturg or Central Market in Tallinn? That's my favourite food-shopping place in the capital, and I've taken many visitors there..
On the way to Saaremaa, you must stop on Muhu island - there are some excellent places to eat on the island - from high-end gourmet Pädaste, foodie heaven Namaste and excellent fish café Kalakohvik along the main road.