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..


rege said...

Great you are back! I missed your writing and miss you! And the fact that people don't give comments here,doesn't mean they don't follow you - at least I'm following you at Google Reader. So don't leave your secret fans:)

Katrina said...

how sweet of you:) I promise to be good (well, a bit better!) about my writing! it's just that I do actually write quite a bit, but not for my own blog..

I still have your green hair tie:)...

Pille said...

Katrina, I'm defending my home town again :) Just as the middle classes are flocking to the farmers markets in the UK (not the cheapest places to shop for one's weekly food, at least not in Edinburgh few years ago), they are doing it here :) There are new markets being opened every few weeks - Rotermanni quarter has a market selling local (artisan) food, there's a new market in Pirita (daily!), a farmers market in Viimsi (weekly, went there this morning), a new farmer market outside Ülemiste shopping mall, a Saturday morning Fish Market near Linnahall. "Sadamaturg" - a brand new and large daily market is being opened in the harbour are, selling foods from small local producers from across the country, as well as from Latvia apparently. Nõmme turg was beautifully refurbished last year, unfortunately lost the main building in a fire few months ago. It's being rebuilt by the end of this year, as there is actually a huge demand for markets. People do like to know the provenance of the food they buy, they really do.
I shop quite frequently at Keskturg, and love the vendors there (I've got my fresh veg lady, there's a lovely Russian women who knows my daughter's name and always keeps a jar of her excellent adjika for me, an old woman who has best salted cucumbers. I love the fact that I can choose between two different types of Suluguni cheese, both made locally. BUT the Keskturg (and even more so Balti jaama turg) are in a miserable state. If they're not refurbished in the near future, I'll happily take my business somewhere with as good a selection of goods, but where I can actually easily access with a buggy, don't have to worry about breaking a leg in one of the zillion holes or dents on the floor, etc.

Katrina said...

Pille - thanks a lot for such a thoughtful comment:) Watch this space, as they say - I'm about to write about that little cute market in Pirita (at least I think we are talking about the same one!), and write a more general comment about Estonians/Russians yearning for their 'roots' again.

In fact, this willingness to back to its roots is what stroke me when I met the guys from Moon...I left Tallinn feeling enlivened, even curious about Tallinn's foodie future!:)

sorry, blogging takes me time..

p.s. Nomme market is definitely on my list for next time - as well as this 'adjika lady' that you've mentioned several times!