Stuart Forster meets Chef Rene Uusmees who discusses Estonian cuisine and its evolution.
Rene Uusmees is the Executive Chef at Mekk. He opened the restaurant in central Tallinn in 2008 and is making a name for serving contemporary Estonian cuisine in smart, casual surroundings, ensuring that diners can relax and enjoy his food.
Uusmees started working in kitchens in 1992, one year after Estonia regained its independence. He has worked in Italy and at leading Tallinn hotels such as the Meriton and Radisson SAS. However, a few years ago he started to consider a more personal project and eventually opened Mekk.
“We started five years ago. There were not so many restaurants in Tallinn that served Estonian food. We had Italian and French cuisine, Sushi places, but not so many places that served Estonian,” recalls Uusmees.
“We started to think, why can’t we serve the local food? It’s always the best food around you. Italian lasagne is never as tasty outside of Italy,” he says passionately.
“The people who travel here, they have not seen what we do. The idea is to serve nice local food and to develop it, because we are a young country,” conveying the idea that few people outside of Estonia have a clear idea of what Estonian cuisine really is.
More than cabbage and potatoes
“Most people think in Estonia we eat only cabbage and potatoes. But we have nice traditions. We eat plenty of fish; herrings and white fish. We have smoke ovens in our countryside,” he explains in clear but accented English for which he needlessly apologises.
He explains how Estonia has come a long way since the 1990s, when the shops were more or less bare. There was a time when chefs had to work hard simply to acquire ingredients such as olive oil.
“Now we need to work with our own products,” says Uusmees with conviction.
Forests cover around half of Estonia. People have the right to go into them and pick berries and mushrooms. Uusmees explains that while going picnicking might be popular elsewhere, going into woodland and harvesting natural products is a national pastime in Estonia.
Using berries in cuisine
As a consequence, cloudberries and lingonberries feature in dishes. So too do a wide range of mushrooms.
One of Uusmees’s concerns today is “how to get berries from our forests to our restaurants. Once or twice a week I go to the market and buy local mushrooms,” he explains. They are important as “we play and develop our specialities.”
Uusmees holds that view that different tastes work in different countries. What works in one place won’t necessarily work elsewhere. He describes how Ferran Adrià, one of the creators of the El Bulli restaurant came to Mekk and ate black rye bread and braised pork belly. “He hadn’t tasted such bread before and he asked how we did it,” explains the Estonian. “The taste works here.”
Uusmees remains faithful to the traditions of Estonian cuisine and believes his recipes vary little on those used a century ago. “I still use the same product and ideas but in a modern way. The old Estonian food was much more heavy and more fatty. I try to use the same ingredients but to be more healthy, not so fatty and to more use fresh herbs,” says the chef.
Eating black rye bread
“Everything starts from the black rye bread. I play with the local ingredients but use French cooking techniques,” he explains.
In Estonian homes pork is the most commonly eaten meat. Therefore Uusmees feels obliged to cook his a little bit differently in Mekk. “As a main course you have to try our braised pork belly. We use also the pork crunchies [crackling] on there.”
What about for starters if you dine in Mekk? “I have many different appetisers. I smoke and marinade herring,” suggests Uusmees.
If you’re dining elsewhere in Estonia Uusmees suggests you keep your eyes open for dishes featuring ingredients such as black sausage and mushrooms. He thinks desserts featuring local berries, plums, hazelnuts and honey can be good, due to the quality of the ingredients. Kama, a typical dessert blending flours and sour cream, is worth trying if you want something very traditional.
Magnanimously, Uusmees suggests visitors to Tallinn also look in at the restaurants Leib and Neh in order to get a more rounded view of the contemporary dining scene in the Estonian capital. “We are not in competition,” he says, emphasising that the chefs are all professionals, working together on the same mission, “to develop the Estonian cuisine and bring the Estonian flag to Europe.”
Finding a unique ingredient
Uusmees still thinks Estonian cuisine needs to find a unique ingredient. “You know that the Norwegians have salmon, the Swedish herrings, in Finland it’s reindeer…we need to find our specific Estonian thing. We are still looking. Maybe my children will find it, because they have grown up in a free country but I was born in Russian times and the mentality was completely different.”
The bottom line though, in Uusmees’s view, is that Estonian cuisine shares the basis as those other Nordic nations.
“I’m trying to show our guests the traditions that we have in our homes. The development is going is so fast. Everyone is always welcome here; we’ll take care of you,” says the chef smiling.
Mekk is a contemporary Estonian restaurant at Suur-Karja 17/19 in Tallinn’s Old Town. Call +372 680 6688 to make a reservation.
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