Wednesday, April 23, 2008


On our first day in Estonia we went into the city to get our Vana Linn (Old Town) fix. Here is the evidence of medieval Tallinn. Twelve years ago, before the big cruise ships had discovered Tallinn, Vana Linn is where I began to experience Estonia. For just a few dollars we could buy lunch, perhaps a few slices of homemade sausage, dark bread, and soup of cabbage and meat broth, potatoes, and Saku beer. The menus were written in Estonian, German, and Russian. Of course the food would be Estonian; we never questioned that. Aarne enjoyed recognizing dishes that his mother had continued to cook in the United States.

Two years ago, while having Nordic salad (smoked salmon on shredded lettuce) at a outdoor café table on the Town Square, we were amazed to see restaurants advertising Mexican, Chinese, Thai, and Irish food; on our walk into the square we had passed a sushi bar. This, we told ourselves, proved Estonia’s new prosperity and also perhaps a return to an international spirit, a looking outward to the rest of the world. After all, the shop signs—iron icons representing a baker, a blacksmith, a coffee cup—remind us of Tallinn’s place in the Hanseatic League. During those times, people speaking different languages walked these streets and depended on the sign code of the League.

So, the other day, when we spotted a shop with window boxes in the forms of elongated pigs, we concluded that this was a restaurant with a lot of pork on the menu. The shutters advertised “Estonian Restaurant.” Now that made me pause. We’ve spotted another restaurant, too, outside of Old Town that advertises “Genuine Estonian Food.” In the early 1990s, such advertising would have seemed irrelevant. Every restaurant then served Estonian food—what else? But apparently, with much more diversity of restaurants, a niche cuisine exists for “the real thing” and is often found literally underground in small cave-like cellars. That Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (The Little Piggy Inn) is part of a high-priced Tallinn hotel, albeit in the cellar, suggests distinctions between “downstairs food” and “upstairs food,” or in this case, old and new food, or country and city food. It’s comforting to know that, if we don’t relish the rustic setting or the Witches Stew, we need only find our way to higher levels of the building.

On the Little Piggy Inn menu, the Head Chef (Peakokk) recommends “Crisp Pork Knuckle with Sauerkraut, Baked Potatoes and Mustard.” Aarne was thrilled to find smoked Baltic herring, and I tried a potato porridge and salad of shredded lettuce and sweet peppers. To read the entire menu, visit

The interior of Little Piggy is charming with colorful hand-woven wool table runners, hanging light fixtures made of wagon wheels and overturned baskets, and best of all, proverbs painted onto the walls. While waiting for our porridge, we pondered a quotation across the room: “A mouse never runs into a sleeping cat’s mouth.” All of this adds up to what a reviewer on called “nouveau rustic.”

The next day in the April 2008 City Paper I found this review of Little Piggy Inn: “Whether or not this is exactly what old Estonian inns looked like may be open to question. But in sheer comfort, good cheer and fine food, one would like to believe they were just like The Little Piggy Inn.”

A few evenings ago, when I described to a young Estonian friend our experiences at Little Piggy, he laughed and replied, “But there IS no Estonian cuisine.”

Among older ex-pats like Aarne, however, I hear a shared telling of a different story. It goes like this: one person says something like “klimbi soup,” and the other ex-pats groan in pleasure, their eyes misting over. “Frikadilli” evokes especially happy reactions, as does “pirukas” and kompott.” [Klimbi is a dumpling soup; frikadilli soup is meatballs in broth; pirukas is pastry filled with carrots or cabbage or meat; kompott is cold fruit soup such as gooseberry, currant, or pear.]

At least in memory, then, Estonian cuisine survives, and Little Piggy is one place to test these memories.


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