Estonian food producers are making ancient methods and ingredients cool – and in the festive season you can even dine on Christmas trees, says Florence Derrick.
In Estonia, the Christmas meal is usually eaten on Christmas Eve – if not the evening of Christmas Day – and is a veritable feast of up to 12 courses. The huge platters of food you’ll find weighing down the table stem from a time when food was locked into the seasons: berries would be picked in the summer and made into jams for the winter, and autumnal mushrooms, grains and fruits would be pickled, fermented and preserved for later.
What you might not know is that these old-school methods are undergoing a revival in Estonian cuisine, that’s not dissimilar to (but tends to be a lot cheaper than) the new Nordic movement in Copenhagen led by the foragers supreme at noma.
Christmas dinner in Estonia most likely means hearty and filling fare, from verivost (blood sausage) to sauerkraut and pork – followed by sticky, dense gingerbread. And thanks to a rising sense of national pride in Estonia’s dining scene, you’ll find innovative takes on these classics in trendy restaurants in Tallinn and beyond. You might even spot Christmas trees on the menu – especially if you head to these two complementary businesses, in two distinctive areas of the country.
Põhjaka Manor, Tallinn
Actually an hour’s drive outside of the Estonian capital, this renovated 19th-century manor house was transformed into Estonia’s first countryside restaurant – Tuscan-style – in 2010. Three friends run the place using nothing but Estonian produce, whether delivered by specialist farmers, grown in the kitchen garden, foraged or hunted locally.
According to co-owner Märt Metsallik, this way of eating was nothing new to Estonians – until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 finally brought outside influences to the new country. Young chefs went mad for the availability of new ingredients and culinary ideas.
“We were such a young nation and we were so cut off from the western world, that everything new was really fascinating for us,” says Metsallik. “We’d never had shellfish or lobsters, so that became a really popular thing in the late 90s and early noughties.” But over the past decade, the revival of interest in fermentation (who else had a sourdough baby in lockdown?) and organic, seasonal eating has brought traditional Estonian eating – with a trendy twist – back into vogue.
Enter the humble spruce tree. Around 50 per cent of Estonia’s territory is covered by forest, so it’s only natural that the needles, cones and sap of spruce trees have long been incorporated into the country’s cuisine – although in recent years these tall evergreens were more likely to feature in December living rooms, dangled with baubles, than on fine dining menus.
“Spruce comes from really old times,” says Metsallik. “When children went to gather herds outside, they just sat with the sheep or the cows all day under a tree. When the spruce shoots come out, they’re really nice tasting – a bit sweet, a bit sour. It’s a nice thing to eat. And there’s a lot of vitamins in it. So it started from there. Estonian chefs started using them again maybe only 10 to 15 years ago.”
At Põhjaka Manor, spruce shoots are distilled into vodka and crushed into syrup for the basis of mulled wine, with added blackcurrant, apples and spices like cinnamon, cardamom and star anise. “The spruce gives it a distinct taste, and it works together with Christmastime,” says Metsallik. “We serve it in the restaurant and sell it in smaller shops around Estonia and online.”
Sending holidaymakers to Tallinn for a Christmas break? Point them in the direction of this updated manor house for an education in Estonian food culture – and some of the freshest produce it’s possible to taste.
Lahhentagge Distillery, Saaremaa island
Take an hour’s flight from Tallinn (twice daily, costing €26) and you’ll get to Saaremaa. A nature lover’s paradise, it’s on the migration route for thousands of birds and is the site of the first proven meteorite crater in Europe. The main town of Kuressaare (a small capital of 15,000 residents) is beloved by regional Baltic tourists, especially from Finland, but remains a secret from the UK tourist trail. But Brits that make the extra effort will be rewarded with a taste of Estonian Christmas as well as scenic walks and wildlife spotting.
“The island is covered with juniper trees,” says Tarmo Virki, one half of the husband-and-wife team behind Lahhentagge Distillery, which is built in another 19th-century manor house 30km from Kuressaare.
“In January 2016, my wife came home from a walk with a message: darling, we have to put up a village distillery.
“She’s always been an avid amateur chef with a lot of passion and a really good palate. She went to study drinks technology in Finland and Scotland. We founded the company in October 2016 and brought the first drink to the market in mid-2017: a dry gin made with a lot of special local herbs. The problem was that the gin was so unique, it tasted weird with regular tonic.”
One day in 2018, Virki’s wife picked some branches from a spruce tree behind their home and decided to blend it with cardamom. Then the big idea struck: to upcycle the Christmas tree in Kuressaare town square into botanical tonic water.
“By now we’ve upcycled about 10 different Christmas trees: three from the central square and half a dozen from the Estonian mainland, including the Tallinn tree. Which is historic because in 1441, Tallinn was the first city to put up a public Christmas tree in the central square.”
Virki’s team macerate the pine needles and infuse them into a concentrate, before bottling them into tonic and selling them online and in cocktail bars – including their on-site distillery bar, that can be visited for a specialist gin and tonic or two (including non-alcoholic botanicals).
“People drink gin and tonic in the summer too, but there’s always a rise in interest in our products at Christmastime,” says Virki.