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Photo by: Lauri Laan

Estonian cuisine and Estonian restaurants

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By Heidi Vihma • 15.04.2016

Estonia is a country of good food with flavours that are influenced by the four seasons and pure Estonian nature.

Half of Estonia’s territory is covered with forests and one third with farmland, which is why the country has an abundance of agricultural and horticultural crops and livestock products, as well as wild berries, mushrooms and game. A history of interruptions and fifty years of being hidden away behind the iron curtain have preserved many food traditions that the world is now rediscovering.
Estonians love the food of their country more than anything, but they are curious and willing to adopt new flavours and cooking techniques. Traditional, new, local and foreign are eagerly combined in both restaurants and home kitchens – there are customised, simple and convenient Italian dishes as well as influences from Asia and America.

Estonian restaurants

The chefs of the new generation are seeking to find new essence and form to Estonia’s traditional nourishing and simple peasant cuisine. Tucked away in one of the most beautiful gardens in Old Town, the restaurant Leib Resto ja Aed has been acknowledged for its hearty and simple food, but also for its special range of beverages. MEKK (Moodne Eesti KöögiKunst – modern Estonian culinary art) offers Estonian dishes in a new setting in the restaurant of Savoy Boutique hotel. Recently, a restaurant named Konrad opened in hotel Palace on the initiative of the same head chef. Kaerajaan at the Town Hall Square plays with national elements concerning not only the menu but also the design, adding a local accent to the diverse scenery of restaurants on the Town Hall Square. Neh is the Tallinn branch of Alexander, a restaurant located on Muhu Island that has been named the best Estonian restaurant on several occasions. The youngest by age, but the biggest in size is Farm in Old Town. Nipernaadi, located outside the city centre, is modest by appearance, but national by the menu.

The four seasons of Estonian cuisine

The spring brings rhubarb, wild garlic, sour dock, radishes and fresh goat cheese to the table. Summer favourites include fresh potatoes accompanied with a salad made of cottage cheese, tomato and cucumber, or chanterelle sauce or fish. Summer and autumn is when wild berries ripen – strawberries, raspberries, bilberries, lingonberries, cranberries, cloudberries, gardens are full of apples, plums, black and red currants, sea-buckthorn berries and gooseberries. The fruits and berries become cakes and sauces, but they are also preserved in jars: the long winters and the soft spot for homely flavours have kept the conserving skills of the fore-mothers alive.

Estonians love mushrooms. Going mushroom hunting with family and friends is a popular pass-time. The early winter hunting season brings elk meat, roe deer meat, wild boar meat and even bear meat to the table. The winter introduces long-cooked roasts and casseroles. The traditional pea, bean or cabbage soup with smoked meat, pearl barley and pork braised with sauerkraut (Mulgi kapsas) or potatoes (Mulgi puder) are no longer common everyday meals, but they are still prepared every now and then during the winter. The traditional Christmas food includes roast pork or goose with sauerkraut and black pudding.

Black bread, curd, cottage cheese and other dairy products are always on the table, regardless of the season. The all-time favourite is pork, but the meat from beef cattle raised on local natural grasslands is also more and more appreciated. Estonian grasslands are very rich in flora; there’s even an unofficial world record of 76 different species of plant found on one square metre of a wooded meadow. While the trendy concept of nose to tail eating is only being discovered in many places, Estonians have always lived sparingly and prepared food from all kinds of meat, not just from the fillet.

Favourite fish include white fish, flatfish, perch, sprat and Baltic herring – the national fish of Estonia – was once considered the cheap food of the common people but has now made its way to restaurant menus. Gourmands can take pleasure in roasted and marinated lamprey, and marinated eel and eel soup are served as delicacies.
Finding its way back to the table is kama, a boiled, dried and ground coarse flour from a mixture of grains. It is eaten with yoghurt, sour milk or curd. There’s also the traditional barley bread (odrakarask), a simple baked bread with baking soda. The favourites treats include curd desserts and baked sweets, apple and berry cakes.
The local food culture has been strongly influenced by the Germans who ruled the country for almost seven hundred years, and the Russians whose dominion included Estonia both during the imperial and Soviet times. We share a love for pure and simple flavours with our neighbours, the Finns and Swedes.

Beverages

Estonians have always loved to drink beer. Many microbreweries have sprung up in recent years to the delight of beer gourmands and they offer exciting products with a wide variety of tastes and styles. Fruit and berry wines are made both at home and industrially; the best ones, such as the sweet apple wine Põltsamaa Kuldne, are perfect with an apple or pumpkin pie.

Old-time home-made liqueurs are being rediscovered, among the most exciting ones being rowanberry, sea-buckthorn berry and spruce shoot schnapps. The best-known Estonian alcoholic beverage is Vana Tallinn, a liqueur that goes well with coffee, but is also perfect for flavouring desserts. Today, Estonians tend to give it as a gift to foreigners rather than drink it themselves.

Milk, sour milk and kefir are wildly popular among Estonians. Today, a glass of milk seldom accompanies a meal, although lactose intolerance is not that common here and just a few decades ago, it was the most common beverage to wash down a meal with. Homemade apple and currant juices are highly valued.

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