I had wanted to spend my birthday outside of the UK this year, so when my boyfriend suggested going to Estonia I immediately said YES! But I had no idea what to expect there. I was totally clueless. I did some shout-outs on Twitter and in Facebook traveller groups for Estonian tips, but no one could really give me much info on the country nor any insider tips! What did this mysterious country have in store for me?
I did a small amount of research before the trip (oh look it’s besides Russia), but in all honesty I was pretty much going in blind – especially about the food. On the plane, I kicked myself as I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought to look up their traditional dishes and find some tasty restaurants to target! Luckily, the travelling gods were in my favour and I managed to find some stunning little eateries where I got to eat traditional Estonian cuisine at its finest.
More than half of Estonia is made up of farmlands, forests and small villages meaning fresh and seasonal produce fill the plates of the population. Estonians are incredibly inventive with basic ingredients, such as bread, mushrooms and goat’s cheese, and they are constantly evolving traditional dishes to provide exciting culinary affairs that will blow your taste buds.
After we landed at Tallinn’s airport, we grabbed a hire car and immediately began the journey down south to the town of Viljandi. We’d heard that an authentic and unique restaurant lay hidden off Highway 2 that connects north to south. Pohjaka Manor was about an hour’s drive from Tallinn’s airport and you have to keep your eyes peeled for the turning. It turns out Pohjaka Manor was clearly signposted, but we were a bit dazed after only having a few hours sleep from flying over from London so completely missed it. A quick call to the restaurant wailing “Where are yoooou?!” soon had us turning back and finding the long gravel driveway to the secluded spot of calm.
You can’t hear the nearby motorway at all once you park outside the huge old farmhouse and I instantly warmed to the place before even stepping a foot inside. The bright sun filtered through the trees, basking the grassy grounds in dappled sunlight and children ran amok in the fields having the time of their lives!
We entered the farmhouse and it was the epitome of shabby chic. The walls had patchy paint and raw brick, and all the furniture was upcycled or vintage. A record player lay in the corner, wild flowers in a variety of vintage vases were on windowsills and young waitresses in twee aprons quickly waltzed around attending the many customers – turns out Pohjaka is a favourite for both locals and tourists!
We began with a light grapefruit juice and the traditional bread of Estonia. As an accompaniment with dishes, Estonians favour black rye bread with salty butter and it’s a popular bread that all Estonians have at home. The entire menu was in Estonian so we had to get a hand with the translating… but we kind of blindly picked out some dishes that sounded good and hoped for the best for our first Estonian meal.
It turns out we had selected chicken pate as one starter and a goat’s cheese meal for the other. The first thing that got me was the incredible presentation of the dishes as they had carefully adorned the food with edible flowers and artistically arranged splodges of sauces.
The pate was smooth and delicious with a side of pickled vegetables to top the crusty bread with! But I was puzzled by the goats cheese dish. I thought it was a big wheel of baked cheese at first glance, but the centrepiece was actually a light fluffy crumpet/pancake-esque cake surrounded by carefully piped whipped goats cheese. The cheese was so light and fluffy, and with some of the beetroot puree the flavours were divine!
I had heard the word ‘mushrooms’ and decided to get some veggies in me after the long travels of the morning. The woodland mushrooms, chanterelles, are considered a delicacy in Western Europe but it turns out that they populate the surrounding countryside and are plentiful in the grocery stores in Estonia. Since they are pretty affordable here I thought it best to dig in!
My creamy mushrooms were scattered with fried shallots, dill and small boiled potatoes. Fresh salad with a light dressing lay besides making this a healthy and nutritious dish that certainly filled my belly! Discovering that they grow all their ingredients onsite explained the freshness of their dishes.
Pohjaka Manor is actually one of the top three Estonian restaurants and it certainly gave us a brilliant introduction to Estonian food.
In Estonia, we noticed how insanely cheap the food and drink was, if you went to the right places. Eateries in Tallinn, the capital, are fast making the city a major gourmet destination, but you do have to book ahead for your dinner. You can’t easily take a seat whenever you please, meaning you have to do a bit of research ahead – but it is better to take the time to prepare for a delicious experience than end up in one of the many touristy restaurants that won’t give authentic food at affordable prices!
The countryside of Estonia is another story though. In places such as the small lake-filled town of Viljandi, you can eat like a queen without breaking the bank! Be sure to take in a coffee and breakfast in Viljandi where numerous coffee shops hide down the cobbled lanes, waiting to serve you lovely fresh coffee, pastries and cakes.
The pastries here are so tasty it is claimed that Estonian Grandmothers are the world leaders in jam making and cake baking. They certainly are a huge hit with the whole family as kids positively wolfed them down! The countryside of Estonia has a wide variety of bakeries available, so why not indulge in a naughty breakfast of cakes whilst taking in the sights? Ready-made excuse: You need the energy for your adventuring.
We had headed down to Viljandi for the huge Folk Festival and got to wander the weekend market on Tasuja pst 6. So many arts and crafts were available here, it was hard to not splurge on unique trinkets and traditional clothing! We picked up some mysterious looking balls of goodness – they looked a bit like truffles but were actually a selection of raw food balls. Ten points to whoever can tell me what these balls of goodness are called…
Pulverised nuts, dates and honey had made some of these delicious healthy treats, and the white ones? I thought they were white chocolate, but got the surprise of my life when it turned out to be cheese. Extraordinary, but pretty surprising to my taste buds that were salivating at the thought of a sweet taste. Estonia sure loves its dairy!
The dairy used in their chocolate is incredibly creamy – I think I demolished at least three bars of it (probably in one day) but it was just so much more creamier than confectionary in England. Since Estonians champion their cheeses and their sweets, they have created the ultimate treat: the traditional sweet called Kohuke (chocolate covered curd bars). They might sound a bit questionable but imagine small individually wrapped bars that taste exactly like cheesecake. I would’ve brought home a sack of the curds if I had had enough room in my bag – my waistline is glad that I didn’t.
On our last day in Viljandi, we managed to score another amazing meal at a wonderfully quaint spot besides the entry to the Folk Festival grounds. Besides the large park that contains the castle ruins, Fellin is the ultimate sun spot to enjoy a bite to eat beside the bright posies.
Smoked fishes and meats are a traditional food to tuck into, so I decided to go with a mackerel and radish salad with goats cheese (of course!) and a light scatter of charcoal powder. Again, the presentation was flawless and the flavours complimented each other perfectly!
I drooled over other dishes and stole bites from everyone, including the 50c beef open rye bread sandwich. The meat was succulent and juicy with pools of charcoal to moisten each bite – a real Estonian feast!
The sharing platter was a smorgasbord of beets, goats cheese, smoked fish slithers, tender rare beef and a variety of pickles and vegetables. It really summed up Estonian food as it was an onslaught of the wild produce that the country provides and it showcased the inventive ways that Estonian chefs present their flavours.
The country isn’t particularly rich as it suffered badly from the last economic crisis of 2008/2009 and now relies heavily on what the forests and land provides. This can be seen in their food as they haven’t let the hard times affect their spirit and have continued to create modern dishes with traditional ingredients.
I hope I’ve tempted you into visiting Estonia by the food alone! It’s an unlikely destination for a foodie, but you’re seriously missing out on exploring eastern European food at its finest if you skip a visit.
If you find yourself in Estonia, be sure to check out at least one of the top 50 restaurants! Are you tempted to dine over in Estonia now?
All photographs by Sophie Saint