A taste of Estonia

Clean, green Estonia is drawing on its national pschye to build impressive eco-credentials and a culinary scene foodies will not want to miss, says Julie Baxter

Estonians, it seems, carry a strong hunter gatherer gene, and they’re very proud of it. They love to forage – berries, mushrooms, herbs, hazelnuts – whatever is in season. 

They all have their favourite hunting ground and they’re not about to tell you where that is! 

But check out the first Michelin Guide on Estonia, launched this year, and you soon discover how this love of fresh produce and creative flavours are now the hallmark of dining here.

We are on our way to the Viru Bog. Admittedly it doesn’t sound like an obvious tourist attraction, but it is one of six National Parks in Estonia and if you want to understand the psyche of Estonians, it’s as good a place to start as any.

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Local specialties at MerMer
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Sweet treats at 38

Natural attractions

We step out along the forest trail and onto the bog boardwalk. The air is fresh and smells pleasantly organic. The landscape feels ancient and in fact some 4,000 years of sphagnum moss creep has created this bog. In every direction the yellows and rusts of autumn tint the leaves, lichen and bracken.

A connection with nature is almost a religion in Estonia and has helped the population through a chequered history – ruled by all its neighbours at some point (bar Finland), and with many years under Soviet occupation. 

A cottage in the country, a sauna by the river and a bit of tree hugging are all part of the local scene, and with a maximum 25 people per kilometre outside the capital the space, quiet and natural beauty here mean a walk in the forest to destress after a busy day is as common as the foraging.

Visitors increasingly come here for away-from-it all glamping or to visit the 100+ country manor houses built on vodka, beer and herring wealth then turned into collective farms in Soviet times and now run as country clubs, historic houses and hotels. 

There are important bird migration paths too, so twitchers come for the thousands of transient storks and cranes. The forests are also home to more than 1,000 brown bears, wild boar, wolves, moose, deer and lynx. 

Estonia is the size of the Netherlands and three-quarters of that landmass is forest or marsh. Set in the Gulf of Finland, it also has 2,222 islands dotted along its 3,800km, coastline so sailing is popular. There is a great national affinity with the Finnish, whose country is just 50 miles away by ferry.

We stop off at Estonia’s highest waterfall and step out into a pine forest. Pretty soon we have worked up an eager appetite.

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Maritime museum
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Fresh flavours at Lore

Michelin mix 

And that’s just as well, as our itinerary includes a liberal smattering of Michelin-rated and uniquely Estonian restaurants, including my first experience of a ‘home restaurant’. Restaurant MerMer is set on the Juminda Peninsula with stunning views of the Baltic. It is one of many home restaurants popular in Estonia, serving six-10 diners in a relaxed, informal home setting as the homeowner-host cooks up local specialities and seasonal favourites. 

Artisan products and local ingredients also exert a distinct influence on the kitchens of ambitious chefs in the capital – forward-thinking innovators combine traditional cuisine with global gastronomic influences.

The Michelin Guide Estonia is the first for a Baltic country and features 31 restaurants countrywide including two honoured with a Michelin Star, five awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand, and two highlighted with a Michelin Green Star for sustainability.

We check out just a few: Lore is a modern bistro created from a cavernous harbourside warehouse, Härg is a buzzy all-day brasserie with the focus on the chargrill, while Mantel ja Korsten is a bright clapboard house with a sunny Mediterranean menu. 

At 38, an historic Old Town building has been reworked with a cool, fashionable vibe and creative menus showcasing Asian influences. It is easy to see how they had got their place in the Guide, with interesting menus, quality ingredients and clever unexpected twists. Every dish is a gorgeous work of art and full of fresh flavour. 

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Tallinn flower market

Capital attractions

Tallinn, the capital, is super accessible from the airport, thanks to the city’s great tram network and it is an easy place to explore on foot. Largely pedestrianised, it is one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Expect ancient city walls and cobblestones, a flower market and medieval churches, squares, merchant houses and monastry ruins. 

Then there is Tsar Peter the Great’s impressive Kadriorg palace and art museum, set in manicured parklands; trendy artisan shopping areas, and the seafront, once home to Tsarist Russia’s most important submarine factory and now offering the chance to board a submarine at the Seaplane Harbour Maritime Museum.

In 2023, Tallinn becomes Europe’s 13th Green Capital and new initiatives are in hand to showcase it as a model green city. 

At the heart of the Baltic region, it connects the cultural dots between Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe. 

It pairs well with other regional capitals but is fast making its way as a stand-out get-away with something for all.

Book it with… Regent Holidays

Combine Tallinn’s history, modern culture and exceptional gastronomy with time at a country estate hotel to explore the forests and coastline.

T. 01174 535 461