FOOD in Europe’s ex-communist countries has an undeservedly bad reputation: stodgy peasant fare ruined by the culinary commissars of the planned economy. Your columnist has long disagreed, but proof is needed. So, on a recent visit to a supermarket in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, he set out to construct a winter picnic entirely from local ingredients.
The basis was easy: black bread, pungent and tasty. It makes loaves from the west and south of Europe seem bland and boring. So into the shopping basket went four or five different varieties, with different features: seeds, rye, crunchy and chewy by turns.
The mainstay of the picnic was pricey at €15 ($22), but succulent—a smoked salami from Lithuania. Accompanying it in the shopping basket were a gourmet smoked cheese from Estonia, a tin of smoked sprats (Latvia), Polish pickled mushrooms, plus Czech horseradish and Hungarian hot peppers. Who says eastern Europe is a vitamin-free zone? For dessert, Polish “chocolate plums” from the Solidarność confectionery works are a fine offering. So were crispy, crunchy gingerbread biscuits (Estonian) and a packet of dried apple rings (Polish).
The shopper wanting alcoholic drinks is spoiled for choice. Estonia is the country that pioneered the vodka box—a five-litre freezer-filler much favoured by Finnish tourists dodging their own country’s punitive duties on alcohol. Your columnist is partial to Żubrówka, which should have a stem of bison grass in every bottle and gives the whiff of a summer meadow even in the depths of winter. Poland is the main source, though you can also find it in Belarus and Ukraine.
But drinking vodka at a picnic is not to everyone’s taste. Wine works better. Your columnist always tries to use his budget to punish protectionism and support freedom-lovers, which can lead to some conflict with wine snobs. The supermarket had a range of cut-price offerings from the Balkans, including Macedonia and Moldova. But the intelligent consumer should encourage those who are trying to move upmarket, as opposed to those competing at the bottom end. Pricey bottles from Ukraine and Russia were on offer too, but only sweet wines: a big headache in every bottle, at least in your columnist’s experience.
A good range of Georgian wine was more tempting: the basket was soon laden by a promising-looking upmarket Saperavi, for the equivalent of €12. But Georgian wine can be a bit inconsistent. For safety, a few beers never go amiss, especially if a sauna is in the offing. Estonia’s Saku and Le Coq are both good lagers, but the final choice was a brace of real Czech Budweiser (so much better than the fizzy, insipid American version) and some Polish Żywiec.
For a post-prandial snifter, Armenian brandy was a strong contender. But throwing caution to the winds, your columnist plumped for a bottle of Estonian dessert wine. Grapes do grow even in northerly Estonia, and wine-growers have been known to make something drinkable from them. But this bottle was from the Põltsamaa winery, which uses apples and berries.
Soft drinks are more distinctive. Western-style juices and fizzy drinks are ubiquitous, but more interesting local concoctions are on the shelves too. A carton of Ukrainian birch sap was irresistible, along with one of the greatest treats in the northern part of eastern Europe: sea-buckthornberry juice. This is bright orange, more like a puree than a juice, and has an incomparable astringent and invigorating kick.
The taste requires some acquiring; your columnist drinks it neat, but it also makes a useful ingredient for other cocktails—mixed with birch sap, for example. The toast at the picnic was to free trade in food: who needs protectionism when you have stuff that consumers really want?