Saturday, 26 June 2010

A Tallinn market and its local fruits

Meet Alexander, a former 'designer-modelier', a navy officer and presently an artisan of all things pickled. Alexander is clearly a dandy with a keen eye for style - just look at his cap and artfully laid table of home-grown herbs and 'conservanty'. When asked to pose for a photo, he comfortably fell into a coquette-ish pose with a fleeting 'oh, I've been photographed sooo many times over the years!' . However, he quickly became all business when asked which adjika (hot Georgian paste) he would recommend (best is made with lots of corriander, 30 krones) or how to use large, green leaves laying in a sack (to pickle those little prickly cucumbers, 10 krones).

Alexander is a seller at Jaamaturg (a Train station market), one of Tallinn's final outposts of home-grown produce and, increasingly so, of far-flung cheap clothes and manufactured tomatoes. He is one of the few retirees selling goodies from their dachas to supplmenet their scarse pensions. Amongst the majority of stalls stuffed with goods bought in chilled warehouse, there are still a few old babushkas offering small, neat bundles of dill and plastic cups of wild strawberries. But Alexander sticks out for being a rare man with a display and attitude that brings a rare smile amongst the understandably defeated looks of women. Once these babushkas are gone, one fears there will be no more produce from allotments or the charm and knowledge that only seems to come to markets where people who grow or make stuff come to sell.

This is an irony that when in Britain farmers' markets are on the rise, with flocks of middle classes rushing to stock up on 'organic' goodies with 'provenance', paying over the odds for the privilage, here it is the underprivilaged - the retired, the unemployed - who still come to such markets (there are no more than a handful of them left in the whole of Tallinn). This is not to say that in Estonia there is no interest in grow your own or food with a story - just look at the heavily stacked shelves of bookstores, full of Estonian Jamies and Hughes* - but perhaps the speed with which these markets are dying out is greater than the birth rate of the 'real food' enthusiasts.

Jaamaturg is a particularly colourful market, as it is snugly sandwiched between the old Soviet train station - still very much in operation, but with only a few lines running East - and Kalamaja, a district of Tallinn full of wooden houses built in the 1930s, sleepy parks and drunks. Kalamaja literally means a house of fish, a place where freshly caught fish is processed, as in the past, and to some extent still now, fishing is a big industry in Estonia. Although these days the melancholic and beautiful but polluted Baltic sea can only provide with plentiful Baltic herring - a smaller variety of the Atlantic type. Most fish on sale in Jaamaturg comes frozen from Norway. One honourable exception perhaps is caviar made out of pressed seaweed: refreshingly tasty, pretty-looking and cheap, as well as an allowed substitute for a vegan. The one on the picture was produced in Russia, however several brands are made locally.

Kalamaja houses several docks and the main Tallinn harbour. As everywhere in the world the area around the train station is not for midnight walks, but as everywhere else, what starts off as an area of low rents and high criminal activity, ends up as a hippy land, adored by artists and those aspiring to be. Kalamaja in Tallinn is what Hoxton in London used to be some 10-20 years ago.

One hopes Jaamaturg will survive not despite but because of its quirky old-fashioness and low prices. The market seems such a fitting spectacle for Kalamaja: not a pretty, messy place where one can buy anything from old Soviet memorabilia, to that made-in-China Dior bag and Estonian perfumed strawberries. It is nevertheless chilled and well-ordered with characters, such as Alexander, abound. They call it a soul I believe.

p.s. well, hello again my dear readers. I am back, although not sure if anyone else is still around. a big warm hug to you anyway, even if you have no company..