Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 4, 2013

European capital's delicacies reveal its rich past

Dave Zuchowski
CNHI News Service

— During a too-brief visit to Tallinn, Estonia,  this summer, I devoted an afternoon to an eye-opening tour that gave me a taste of foods served in the days when the city - the oldest capital in Northern Europe - was a rich Hanseatic League town named Reval.

After linking up with guide Iveta Mandla, a charming lady who leads groups through Tallinn's Old Town, we started off on a romp that included four tasting stops and had turned into a complete dinner by tour’s end.

Our first stop was the Old Town Pharmacy, the oldest in continuous use in Europe, for a sample of marzipan, the tasty confectionery made with sugar or honey and ground almonds from an "ancient recipe."

No exact date chronicles when the pharmacy, thought to be the birthplace of marzipan, opened. But records show it already had its third owner in 1422.

The "raeapteek," as the pharmacy is called in Estonian, still stocks medicinal essentials such as aspirin and cough syrup. But at one time  patrons could also find things like swallow’s nests, burnt hedgehogs, bat powder - even unicorn horn powder - in the pharmacy inventory.

Later, a quick but fascinating stop at Haa Eesti Asi gave me a look at a foodie’s dream emporium. In between sampling several tasty foods, I jotted down the names of things that caught my eye including Estonian cheeses; flavored honeys; crackers made from blueberries, cranberries or black currants; as well as canned bear meat, wild bear terrine, moose meat, jarred eel and moose and horse sausage.

Moving on to the town’s 1404 City Hall, we stepped into a candlelit, brick vaulted, Medieval tavern on the first floor where ladies in period garb handed us bowls of delicious elk and wild boar soup along with meat pies that resembled a flaky croissant.

Patrons not on the tour can buy this tasty treat for two Euros, which includes a chance to spear a dilled pickle out of a wooden barrel.

Our appetites somewhat slaked, we hiked up Long Leg Street to Toompea, the upper section of town where the wealthy lived and the view of Old Town is a tourist favorite.

Contemporary Toompea is the site of the Estonian Parliament, many foreign embassies and the stately St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. An architectural gem built in 1900 as a power symbol of Tsarist Russia, the gleaming bright, yellow-and white-Orthodox cathedral has characteristic onion-shaped domes and permits visitors to enter its splendor-packed interior.

Further on to the city’s highest point, the panorama platform just outside the Luscher and Matiesen Winery was packed with people poised with cameras snapping shots of the picturesque rooftops and church spires below.

The winery's fascinating history dates to 1910, when Swiss-born Arnold Lüscher and Estonian Paul Matiesen established a vodka factory in Moscow. The business partners fled back to Tallinn during the Russian Revolution and began importing spirits. Soon wine was added to the inventory and yearly production eventually totaled 400,000 liters.

World War II saw the closure of the business, but in 2009 Matiesen’s nephew, Dimitri, revisited Tallinn to celebrate the factory’s golden anniversary. The business has since been resuscitated and is marketing remarkably good wines made from grapes from France - including Bordeaux - and Spain. (Visit www.matiesen.ee/eng for more information.)

After taking the Short Leg back into Lower Town, the bulk of our eating experience came at Estlander, a restaurant with 17th century looks and traditional Estonian cuisine.

Of the two options available on the tour, I chose the four-meat stew (chicken, pork, beef and elk) with sides of charcoal baked potato, warm sauerkraut and carrots in mascarpone cream sauce.

Dessert was just a short walk away, in an old merchant’s house, Olde Hansa, where I reveled in "a velvet delight of the nobility," which translates into a delicious rose pudding.

Dave Zuchowski is an independent travel columnist. Reach him at owlscribe@yahoo.com.

Dave Zuchowski is an independent travel columnist. Reach him at owlscribe@yahoo.com.