A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
I hope one day when I say I'm from Estonia, people don't say: 'What? Where's that?'
-- Carmen Kass, model and famous Estonian
For spring break, we decided to spend a week in Tallinn, Estonia. The Lonely Planet travel guide provides an introduction.
Estonia doesn’t have to struggle to find a point of difference: it’s completely unique. It shares a similar geography and history with Latvia and Lithuania, but culturally it’s distinct. Its closest ethnic and linguistic buddy is Finland, and although they may love to get naked together in the sauna, 50 years of Soviet rule in Estonia have separated the two. For the last 300 years Estonia’s been linked to Russia, but the two states have as much in common as a barn swallow and a bear (their respective national symbols).
With a newfound confidence, singular Estonia has crept from under the Soviet blanket and leapt into the arms of Europe. The love affair is mutual. Europe has fallen head-over-heels for the charms of Tallinn and its Unesco-protected Old Town. Put simply, Tallinn is now one of the continent’s most captivating cities. And in overcrowded Europe, Estonia’s sparsely populated countryside and extensive swathes of forest provide spiritual sustenance for nature-lovers.
Much to Carmen Kass’s disappointment, the Louisville metro area is not a bastion of Estonian name recognition, and while I’ve long since become accustomed to puzzled looks when announcing holiday destinations, mentions of Estonia have furrowed more than the usual brows.
Yet Estonia is everything I crave in a European nation. It is obscure and mysterious, with an impenetrable language and an inspiring back story. It’s wonderfully Baltic, with an adjacent ocean and plenty of delectable herrings. There is blood sausage, bear meat dumplings, head cheese and dense, nutty pumpernickel bread.
Granted, we didn’t venture past Tallinn, a former Hanseatic League port known for centuries as Reval, but there is plenty of interest there to occupy six days of wandering between drinks and snacks.
(Elsewhere, I’ve recorded the travelogue)
For 5,000 years, Estonians have lived in these lands by the sea, although as a nation, Estonia has been independent only a scant 45 of them (1920-1940, then 1991 to the present).
Regional overlords have included Swedes, Danes, Teutonic Knights, Germans and Russians. The Alexander Nevsky cathedral's prominent position on the Toompea ridge in Tallinn’s Old Town is a constant reminder that Russians were a part of Estonia's history even before Communism. In the present time, almost 40% of Tallinn's population is Russian, many of them relocated during the postwar Soviet era.
Interestingly, Reval historically was regarded as a German city owing to the mercantile and commercial dominance of ethnic Germans, even when the Russian Tsar ruled the realm and native Estonians were little better than downtrodden laborers in their own country.
Truly, Tallinn’s golden era is right now, and that’s why I’m happy we went. There is beer in Estonia from both old and new schools, and I tried dipping my beak into several.
The server at Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (The Golden Piglet Inn) cautioned me about the Saku Mõdu I’d just ordered.
“It is very sweet,” she said in perfect English.
I reassured her: I’m a trained professional who knows what mõdu (mead) is.
In this case, it was a tasty honey-flavored malt beverage of moderate carbonation and alcoholic strength, similar to what I’ve had before in Scandinavia. Braggot, perhaps? While mead may have originated in China, India and/or the Middle East, it will remain a beverage that sounds Nordic to me, and drinks better the closer you are to salt water.
We dined at The Golden Piglet Inn on our last night in Tallinn. It isn’t the type of restaurant most amenable to those in the habit of counting calories.
Using recipes that have been passed down from our grandmothers and our grandmothers’ grandmothers, this authentic restaurant is popular with locals as well as tourists. All meals are prepared with fresh products from local farms, accompanied by a variety of Estonian drinks.
Consequently, I was delighted to see both mead and kvass on the drinks menu, even if they’re commercially produced and not rigorously farmhouse-sourced. They paired nicely with my meal of sauerkraut soup and salted herring.
Kvass is a lightly fermented, traditionally homebrewed “soft” drink made from dark bread and yeast, with a myriad of other additional ingredients varying from kitchen to kitchen. We tend to think of kvass as Russian, though many Baltic and Eastern European countries have their own versions. In the Estonian language, it's called kali.
To create that tangy fermented flavor, kvas makers start with Russian brown bread. You soak it in water, and then add some yeast (other additions — raisins, honey, mint — vary from recipe to recipe). The whole mixture ferments for a few days, a process that creates a natural carbonation, as well as a distinctive sour flavor.
According to Russian writer Alexander Genis, that sourness is beloved in the region. "The sour is the taste of Russia — everything is supposed to be sour for Russian taste. Like sour cream, for example, or pickled cucumber. Cabbage, mushroom."
Given that one of the glories of Estonian cuisine is its dense, moist black bread, kvass/kali is a natural product line extension. It tastes like its principle ingredients, bread and water.
The commercial version of kvass available at the Golden Piglet Inn actually lacked the tang of what I remembered at a street stand in Moscow, circa 1999. It was sweeter but no less delicious, and would be an apt thirst quencher in summertime, so keep the lemonade and iced tea. Let’s cook some kvass instead.
For beer hunters of my generation, Estonia is primarily associated with two larger commercial breweries and two relatively familiar beers: A. Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout, and Saku (Baltic) Porter.
The writer Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson told the story of A. Le Coq in his classic introductory text from the 1970s, World Guide to Beer. In the early 19th-century, the brewery’s founder and namesake Albert Le Coq began brewing Imperial Stout in England to Tsarist expectations, shipping it to Russia via the Baltic.
St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital, lies at the Gulf of Finland’s furthest reach, 230 miles to the east of Tallinn. In the early 1900s, the A. Le Coq finally elected to establish production nearer its market, and the company purchased a brewery in Tartu – now Estonia, then Russia. Accordingly, there was a side benefit of avoiding increasingly onerous import duties.
Sadly, World War I and the Russian Revolution quickly ensued, combining to put A. Le Coq out of business, though the brewery eventually was resuscitated under new management during the first period of Estonian independence before (again) being nationalized during the Soviet occupation, ending in 1991.
Today, A. Le Coq remains in Tartu and is a subsidiary of the Finnish company Olvi. While in Tallinn, I drank several pints of A. Le Coq Premium, the flagship golden lager. It’s smooth and balanced; heftier than mass market American brands but falling shy of what I’d expect in Germany.
Baieri Kelder, the Bavarian-style restaurant in the basement of the Hotell St. Barbara (both recommended, by the way) stocked bottles of A. Le Coq’s Porter (6.5% abv) and Imperial Marzen (since when does 5% abv justify the “imperial” modifier?), and both were solid, if unspectacular. Unfortunately, when the draft lineup includes fresh Paulaner Hefeweizen, Märzen and Salvator, there isn’t very much incentive to improvise.
Once in the Old Town, I spotted bottles of A. Le Coq IPA, made with Chinook, Amarillo, Cascade and Citra hops. There was a time when I’d have jumped. This time, I merely shrugged, because drinking American-style IPAs simply isn’t why I came to Estonia.
It’s been at least 15 years, and probably more, since the B. United beer importing company commissioned the revival of A. Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout.
The internet informs me that these days, Imperial Extra Double Stout is being brewed in the United Kingdom by Harvey & Son. Back in the day, this ale was a staple of the Public House’s bottle list, very expensive and entirely worth it. A reviewer at Beer Advocate captures it perfectly.
Dark fruits, licorice, saddle soap, leathery funk, figs, and cherries. A whole lot going on. Raspberries, and maybe a bit of barnyard. Burnt fruitcake and some bubblegum. Some industrial asphalt kind of aroma as well. This is crazy complex.
Had there been the opportunity to drink an A. Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout while in Tallinn, I’d have liked to pair it with the herrings, blood sausage, bear meat dumplings, head cheese and dense, nutty pumpernickel bread.
In Part Two, I’ll have a few words about Saku, a newer generation of Estonian “craft” beers, and places I enjoyed them.
May 9: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Hip Hops ... A look at two new New Albany breweries.
April 26: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: The mouse, the elephant, and a clash of nonpareils ... part two.
April 25: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: The mouse, the elephant, and a clash of nonpareils ... part one.
April 18: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 33 … All good things must come to a beginning.
April 11: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 32 … Leaving Leningrad.