A DELICIOUS surprise at every turn . . . and the local food reflects a wander through the historic, walled Old Town of Tallinn in Estonia, with its richness, variety and meticulous attention to detail.
If you thought Baltic cuisine began and ended with pickled herrings, smoked herrings, salted herrings or dried herrings, then think again.
There are indeed more herrings around than you can shake a net at, served in all manner of ways, but Estonian cuisine offers much, much more and has undergone a sea change (sorry) since the days of enforced Soviet austerity.
The vibrant capital blossomed after brutal, bleak decades of Soviet oppression ended in a bloodless revolution, and there have been even more changes in the 10 years since I was last there, especially when it comes to dining out and chilling out.
So forget the prejudice about herrings – which were, incidentally, delicious in all the various guises I tried – but relish the fact that fish will figure largely on any menu.
Traditional Estonian cooking has its roots in village culture, with German, Scandinavian and Slavic influences stirred into the mix, along with more recent Russian links, with favourites other than fish including sauerkraut, jellied pork and blood sausage.
But a tradition of rustic flavours doesn't preclude fine dining – hearty eating doesn't have to mean a bucket-load of basic, don't-ask-what-it-is peasant food; and you can combine heritage flavours with the most refined of modern menus that would shine against any competition.
The timeless charm and year-round appeal of Tallinn means there’s plenty to feed the mind and soul... and you can feed the rest of you in the many bars, cafes, hotels and restaurants, ranging from a very discreet McDonald’s on the fringe of the Old Town, to cutting-edge cooking at Mekk, with its historic setting a counterpoint for the best of modern Estonian cuisine.
Intrigued with the healthy and seasonal ethos of Mekk, I started with hot smoked plaice with marinated saffron milk-caps and fresh pickle, followed by a clear cep soup and then a signature main of 'Mekk's fish' with apple vinegar caramelised beetroot, duck fat potatoes and sparkling wine sauce.
Dessert was a toss-up between cranberry souffle with raspberry cream or a crispy sea-buckthorn cheesecake with salty caramel, so I went for the cheesecake if only to see if I'd found a kitchen which could make buckthorn taste good... and I had. (I was greedy and tasted both).
Chef Rene Uusmees stresses freshness and eco-friendly ingredients in a dazzling menu, but one of his four-course specials can be as little as €30, or €46 with wine . . . and it is rather special. Take a look at this link.
Only a short walk away is Neh, the seasonal city restaurant of the 5* Pädaste Manor, a resort and spa on the island of Muhu, which supplies much of the kitchen’s fresh produce from its estate and the forest.
Travel Editor Neil Sowerby visited the manor itself and sampled things at source and I can only echo his approval. The manor's seasonal kitchen in Tallinn might be some distance from its spiritual base, but cooking in the the bistro-style restaurant has lost nothing in translation – and you can almost join the team in action if you sit on one of the five seats at the chef's table, which is actually in the kitchen.
As befits a top award-winning eating spot – and in contrast to the hard winters in the town – nothing on the menu is frozen, apart from sorbet, ice cream... and vodka. Look up a menu at this link.
My base for the Tallinn part of my trip to Estonia was the Sokos Hotel Viru, a refurbished former Soviet tower with commanding views of the town and harbour, where the KGB used to have a key surveillance operation. No spying these days, but the staff are very attentive!
From Tallinn, I headed off into the countryside and was to a manor borne... a luxury retreat based in one of the historic manor houses built by Baltic Germans and now celebrated as a valuable slice of heritage.
The tucked-away gem I explored is Vihula Manor Country Club & Spa, which is part of the Estonian-based Unique Hotels group . . . and it certainly lives up to the 'unique' tag, starting with 27 buildings set in beautiful parkland by the Mustoja River.
Unique's Paul Taylor and Michael Pilkington have already built up a fine reputation with the von Stackelberg, Kreutzwald and City Hotels in Tallinn, and with Vihula manager Michael Stenner they have now created a Rolls Royce resort 90km out of town. See this link.
Apart from regular showcase events, weddings, concerts and conferences (with occasional get-togethers at prime ministerial level), Vihula caters for couples, families and any visitor who just wants to get away from it all and enjoy a darn good pampering, with food, drink and spa treatments in any combination, or just plain relaxation.
The fine dining La Boheme restaurant in the main manor building is backed up by a two-level tavern in the grounds and a Lifestyle Café in the old Water Mill and it's well worth looking on the website at menus and a sommelier's list with more than 500 bottles of Portuguese wine.
The foodie focus is on local cuisine, with hearty country fare combined with elegant manor dining, many ingredients coming from neighbouring farms as well as the Manor's own Eco-Farm with its cows, sheep, rabbits and chickens; and its garden, where you can maybe see your salad being freshly picked before dinner.
A quick lunch at the family Lahemaa Kohvikann restaurant in the forest, with a menu featuring a sturgeon in aspic starter before schnitzel with wild mushrooms picked that morning by local foragers, punctuated visits to the Palmse and Sagadi manor houses and other corners of the impressive Lahemaa National Park.
Then it was back to base at Vihula, with time for an aperitif before dinner in the rustic Kaval-Ants Tavern, once the manor's ice cellar, with traditional Estonian dishes to replace the burned-off calories.
From capital city to the wild forests, Estonia is small but pretty-well perfectly formed – and truly deserves to be put on any 'must visit' list, be it for scenery, heritage, food or just having a great time.
David Graham is a member of the team at Silver Travel Advisor.
Full reports at this link and this.
He travelled with tour firm Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244), which offers a 3-night Tallinn City Break from £350 per person, based on two sharing at a three-star hotel and including return flights with Estonian Airlines. It can also offer a six-night trip, with three nights at the Radisson Blu in Tallinn and three in Vihula Manor from £625 per person, B&B.
Eating in Tallinn:
Mekk, Suur Karja, Street 17-19, OLd Town, Tallinn. www.mekk.ee
Neh, Lootsi 4, Tallinn. http://www.neh.ee
A useful website rating Estonia’s best restaurants: http://www.eestirestoranid.ee/en/
Fly with Finnair from Manchester, changing at Helsinki. www.finnair.com.
A planned service from London City Airport to Tallinn from March has bitten the dust due to the economic situation and a Ryanair service from Manchester has now finished... but watch this space.
Neil Sowerby reviews Padaste Manor: www.planetconfidential.co.uk/Abroad/Estonia-and-long-nights
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