Stuart Forster meets chef Rene Uusmees who discusses the evolution of modern Estonian cuisine.
Rene Uusmees has made a name for serving modern Estonian cuisine. Uusmees started working in kitchens in 1992, one year after Estonia regained independence. He worked in Italy and at leading Tallinn hotels before opening Mekk, a restaurant in the heart of the Estonian capital. These days he works with the Palace Hotel Tallinn and the city’s new Radisson Collection Hotel.
“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 about the dining scene in Estonia’s capital during the first decade of this century.
“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.
Modern Estonian cuisine
“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.
Traditional Estonian food
As a consequence, cloudberries and lingonberries feature in dishes. So too does a 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. He believes they are important while Estonian chefs experiment and develop specialities.
Uusmees holds the view that tastes work effectively according to location. 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 from those used a century ago. “I still use the same product and ideas but in a modern way. The old Estonian food was much heavier 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.
Estonia’s black rye bread
“Everything starts from the black rye bread. I play with the local ingredients but use French cooking techniques,” he explains.
Pork is the most commonly eaten meat in Estonian homes. Therefore Uusmees feels obliged to cook his a little bit differently. “As a main course you have to try our braised pork belly. We use also the pork crunchies [crackling] on there.”
“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.”
Estonian food and its unique ingredient
Uusmees still thinks Estonian cuisine needs to find a unique ingredient. “You know that the Norwegians have salmon and 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, in Uusmees’s view, is that Estonian cuisine shares its basis with Nordic nations.
“I’m trying to show our guests the traditions that we have in our homes. The development is going so fast. Everyone is always welcome here; we’ll take care of you,” says the Estonian chef smiling.
Travel to Estonia
Air Baltic operates direct flights between London Gatwick and Tallinn Airport in Estonia.
Hotels in Tallinn
Looking for hotels in Tallinn Old Town? Search for accommodation in Tallinn on Booking.com:
Books about Estonia and Estonian cuisine
Want to learn more about Estonia and Estonian cuisine? You may be interested in the following books:
Estonian Tastes and Traditions by Karin Annus Karner:
Baltic: New & Old Recipes: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania by Simon Bajada:
Estonia: A Modern History by Neil Taylor:
The Lonely Planet guidebook to Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania:
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A version of this post was first published on Go Eat Do on 27 May 2013.