Far from flat
I was trying to convince my friend Heleri Rande to join the Estonian group for the Ski Club of International Journalists, which was recently cancelled as it had only one member. All of a sudden, I realized that this country is practically all flat, they would never be able to hold a winter ski event there.
Probably it would not even be possible to hold a proper cross-country race, with no obligatory one-third downhill and uphill portions. The land is plain as if drawn with a ruler, so are their roads. Our drive from Tallinn to Pärnu could almost be done without any steering wheel.
The highest peak of Estonia (and the Baltic States) is Suur Munamägi, which means The Big Egg Mountain. It is not really a mountain, it is barely a hill reaching 318 meters above sea level, with a base at around 20 meters altitude. I think that explains a lot about the flatness of the country.
The landscape of Estonia is an endless stretch of woods dotted with lakes. Being the northernmost of Baltic States, the country is like a bridge between Russia and Finland, reaching towards Sweden. This is not only a geographical bridge, but also a cultural one. Being a Baltic state, the country bears influences from continental Europe, Russia and Scandinavian countries, the latter distinctly noticeable.
Tree is sacred in Estonian culture, and apart from birch, spruce and pine forests. Naturally the country is rich with wild berries and forest fruits, and all the other herbs, sprouts and mushrooms the forest can offer. If it is not the woods, the other most common tree must be the apple. I have a feeling that every Estonian must own an apple tree, if not a whole orchard of their own. Having Pagan roots, Estonians truly worship trees, planting an apple tree is like connecting oneself to the soil and mother nature. This fact has a direct effect on what people drink. Estonia is a cider lovers land.
Well above the grape zone, the closest one can get to wine is other fruit fermentations, especially apple ciders and fruit wines. Before my recent visit to Estonia, I was not aware of their wide world of bubbly fizzy drinks, obviously having a great potential to be next popular think in the craft drinks world with all their fermented goodness. I’ve seen only one producer who had planted a vineyard of Solaris grapes, apart from that the landscape is of fruit orchards. Cider, mostly from apples, sometimes from pears and quinces, is the most common norm.
Perry from delicious pears, or quince cider from rock hard small wild quinces has an almost tannic bite, giving a deep complexity. They are sometimes spiked with the fruity flavors of forest fruits and berries, mostly blackcurrants, red currants, blueberries, raspberries, rowanberries, lingonberries, chokeberries, and so on. Berries also make ideal fruit wines, especially when made using the Méthode Champenoise, fruit wines give wonderfully sparkly drinks. Always made small-scale by family-owned cider and fruit wine houses, they are as artisanal as they can get, often the fruits coming from own orchards or collected from nearby neighbors’ gardens. Again, wild or cultivated, no orchard is sprayed, berries foraged from the woods, Estonian craft ciders are as organic as they can get.
For Estonian brewers, fruits are not the limit. It seems that they can make a bubbly from any plant they put their hands on, birch tree sap, dandelions and especially rhubarb. Fermented birch sap juice is kasemahl, it is a love-or-hate taste. Obviously, many locals tend to be on the love side. I find the rhubarb wines amazingly refreshing, perfect for a balmy summer evening with its almost cucumber-like cooling effect. Berries of all kinds give a depth to apple-based ciders. Depending on the type of berry, the taste can range from fruity and aromatic, to grassy and green. One revelation was a fruit wine with green currants, not meaning unripe green, but color green. Tart and fresh, it was amazing.
After a tour of cider houses and fruit wine producers scattered near the vicinities of Pärnu, back in Tallinn to join the annual event of IFE-Ideas-Flavors-Experiences, we had the chance to broaden our experiences with an even wider variety of fizzy drinks in the attached Drink Festival. Each sip was a new discovery, even the strangest ones became loved acquired tastes. Naturally on the way back, my suitcase was full of a wide range of samples.
Gastronomically, Estonia has a tendency to connect itself to the Scandinavian league of fine-dining and top chefs, especially Tallinn, with its exciting new restaurants. The drinks and beverage world is also thriving, or rather better to say, bubbling, ready to offer a whole new horizon to the drinks world.
Estonia must be one of the flattest countries in the world, but it is surely far from flat when it comes to its developing culinary scene. It is fizzy, bubbly, lively and fermenting for a fabulous future. Note down, Eesti is up and coming!