Monday, December 03, 2007


I was invited to Estonia recently. My mate Marny is a tutor in European Rural Tourism at nearby Radstock College and she asked me along to do a workshop with a local food network in South Eastern Estonia. Near the Russian border. A place called Voru. Once you’ve found Estonia on a map, and then find Voru, you discover it’s actually nearer to Riga in Latvia than to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. And you can now fly direct to Riga from Bristol Airport. So off we went.

As we drove towards Voru through the flat birch wood countryside the snow started to fall, lightly at first and then more thickly. By the time we reached our destination it was a foot deep. In Estonia they don’t grit the roads, or sweep the snow from them. The cars just have snow tyres with studs in them. For some reason our car didn’t have snow tyres and we tobogganed our way down the country roads at the end of the journey.

The workshops were held in a log cabin, well equipped technically and cosy – they do know how to do cold. It perched above a freezing lake, the ice growing as we watched. We had about sixteen participants, all involved in local tourism and interested in food.

It’s hard to know what to tell such people. In this part of the world we are all eschewing processed foods and buying locally. Even, heaven forbid, actually growing some of our own vegetables. Local food festivals are multiplying, there are farm shops everywhere, and each town has its own farmers’ market. But isn’t that what they have been doing for centuries in Estonia?

Well, no, surprisingly. Which is when you realise what being under the heel of the Russians, then the Nazis, then the Soviets does to the character of a nation. Estonia was a sovereign country for only a couple of decades in the early part of the twentieth century. For the rest of the time, until 1991, it was part of somebody else’s hegemony. So, apart from the regional costumes and the national pastime of choral singing they have hardly any traditions left.

We ate good black bread, made locally from rye, and sometimes it had raisins in it. Main courses were invariably pork and potatoes. The local supermarkets were well stocked, with oranges from Spain and the usual range of vegetables. I liked the vodka a lot, also made from rye. It was smooth and faintly fruity. Local beers included one with honey. The wine was called Old Tbilisi and it was recommended but I gave it a miss!

We took with us the pride of Somerset – West Country Farmhouse Cheddar from Westcombe Dairy – see previous post. We also took some chutney, Real Ale chutney. Some translating problems with the words Real Ale, never mind chutney. It’s amazing what you take for granted about your own culture.

In return they gave us goats’ cheese, a multiplicity of grains including spelt, and some wonderful berry products, juiced and dried, from the virgin woods and forests of Estonia. Had it not been for the whiteout we would have foraged further.

As the bargain airlines fly planeloads of hen and stag parties ever further into foreign territory, places like Voru – quiet oases of peace and solitude – will have their chance to bid for tourists who don’t want to party all night. I’m just not quite sure how you tell the difference between all these new arrivals on our eastern horizons.


Aivar Ruukel said...

Hello June.
It is a really good story, how a foreigner sees our country. I enjoyed reading it!
May I use parts of it in the electronic newsletter about Estonian Ecotourism?
Aivar Ruukel

June said...

Dear Aivar
In the two days of workshops I think we told the participants quite a lot about the way we do rural tourism in the UK - the feedback was very good - but because of the weather and the time pressures we had hardly any opportunity to see much of Voru. When I came to write the piece for my blog I was very conscious of this, and of how much we had missed. Please be assured that we realise there is a lot more to your country than we were able to see in such a short time. Do let me have an email address for you and we can correspond in more detail.

June said...

Dear Aivar

PS Of course you can use it.

denzylle said...

If you don't know Pille's blog, you might be interested:

She's in Tallinn, but I started reading it when she was living in Edinburgh (for seven years), so it was also interesting to see her Estonian take on Scottish and UK food.

I haven't been to Estonia, but I have been to Lithuania and would love to go again and go further afield in all the Baltic countries.

June said...

I do know Pille. I met her last year in London. I contacted her before I went to Estonia and she was very helpful about websites for estonian vocabulary. I have had a link to her blog on my site for a while now. Voru is a long way south of Tallinn of course.

Rose said...

I love Estonian food. Their stews are very nice in a cold day. With the rye bread...yummy...

Figs Olives Wine said...

Just beautiful. The snow is so lovely. I took a big break in November and really missed your site! Glad you had a good trip.

June said...

Congratulations on your Food Blog 2007 nomination - richly deserved!

lindy said...

This is just so neat-I'm entirely envious.

Having so enjoyed the cream, I have been trying to think of something to send you that is somehow specifically North American-and also not readily available to a person who is often in London. The second condition is not so easy to meet.

When I was a kid, it used to be easy to bring things our English relatives didn't see- but the days of popping corn and cranberries as exotica are definitely over! I may have thought of something, so you must tell be if it is also everywhere, and I am delusional.

I know that maple syrup is now common world-wide, but it is usually the pale Grade A "Fancy" maple syrup. Much more interesting is the cheaper, cruder, darker "Grade B" which is more flavorful and wonderful to cook with-good with roasting vegs, as well as in cooked fruit things- I have a few nice recipes using it,too.

If it isn't on the shelves at Sainbury's- let me know, and I will try to find it a small enough container to post. (It tend to come in gallon jugs that weigh approx. a ton.)

June said...

Maple surple...wondrous slurple... but better still to see you if you are coming to visit your be in touch, and a very Happy Christmas.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Just came over to say Buon Natale, June. Auguri from Sicily xx

Pille said...

June - I object to the "So, apart from the regional costumes and the national pastime of choral singing they have hardly any traditions left", I think it's over-simplifying things. I think we're much more in touch with nature and changing seasons than an average Brit (if there's such a thing:), and that's a thing to be cherished in today's globalised world.
But then I'm an Estonian patriot, whose grandparents, both born in early 1920s, are still alive and very proud of their distinct way of life :)
Glad to hear you enjoyed Estonia - and so sorry it took me a while to revisit your lovely blog. Hope you'll get a chance to visit again, and then via Tallinn. (PS The islands are highly recommended!)

June said...

Dear Pille

I'm sorry to have offended you, and no doubt you found my comments glib, but that was my experience. I was invited to rural Estonia to talk about rural tourism and the big challenge is how outsiders can distinguish between a number of apparently similar countries in the same part of Europe. All of them say the same thing, which is that they are in touch with the seasons, and while that is excellent in our dusty metropolitan world it isn't going to drive tourists to one rather than the other.

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