Sunday, November 6, 2011


Years ago a friend had a house in Võru County that was robbed. The thief took everything. Dishes, towels, furniture, electrical wiring, even a plank of wood from the floor. There was one lamp that apparently was not to his liking, however, as he left it there. He didn’t forget to cut off the plug though, and steal that, too.

Our friend was devastated, of course. She invited us over to have a few drinks and complain about the crime. But Mrs. Mingus and I had good news to brighten the mood at this small party—we had just that day discovered we were going to be parents. An interesting spectrum of emotions that night, ranging from rage and loss to delight and elation. Then our friend’s sister showed up with a pastry that changed my life forever.

A small, white cake, hard frosting on top, with a layer of apple-flavored something or other in the middle, nestled between what seems to be a sort of short bread. “What is this?” I asked in utter bewilderment. “It’s amazing!”
—It is Alexander’s cake.
“Who’s that?”
—No, in Estonian it’s “aleksandrikook”.

The next day I looked everywhere. I tried each different aleksandrikook I could find, all of them more or less disgusting. Some had chocolate swirls on top, some had pink with chocolate swirls on top, and they were all dry. Too dry to consume. It was like eating old hay. Then I found the right one: Pagaripoisid. Pagaripoisid (Bakery Boys) is a bakery factory in Tallinn. They have a small chain of cafés in various cities in Estonia—not, of course, in Tartu, however. This cake is my favorite store-bought pastry in the country.

Our friend’s thief was caught, and confessed. He served a month in prison and was ordered to pay for damages. He is now (or perhaps still is) an unemployed alcoholic. He will never reimburse our friends for his crime of desperation, and will eventually die a pauper.

In summer of last year we installed a water system at our summerhouse, also in Võru County. Fresh stream water, purified by a good water filter as well as a network of beaver dams upstream. After a long day of healthy, hard work in the yard, which is my passion in hot weather, we could finally take a shower in amazing water. (I was surprised…the water you bathe in really does matter!)

Just two months later, Mrs. Mingus went to check up on the place, and discovered the sauna had been robbed. The thief took everything. The water pump, water boiler, shower curtain, shower, a bucket, almost-empty bottles of shampoo, a bar of soap that probably had a hair dried on it, the pipes running along the walls, the outside lamp, and half a roll of toilet paper.

This reminded me of a story I once heard. A thief on Saaremaa robbed a house and took a dump under the tree by the window he’d entered through. He then wiped himself with his phone bill, which of course had his name on it, and he was quickly arrested. He was released three days later. At the same time, a newspaper headline announced that Edgar Savisaar had been missing for three days.

I was at home enjoying an aleksandrikook with my kids when my wife called, in tears. “They took everything,” she sobbed. I told her to call the police, and when they arrived more than half an hour later, they began their investigation.
“It’s very unlikely that we’ll catch your thief,” the officer said.
—But what can you do to catch him? my wife pleaded.
“We’ll just register what was stolen, and it will enter the official statistics.”
Then I had an amazing idea. It was risky, it probably wouldn’t work, but it could change the course of Võru criminalistics forever. Take fingerprints!
“He won’t have left any,” the officer tried to get out of doing his job. He was pressured to dust for prints, and found some on the window that was broken into.
“The prints won’t be on record,” the officer tried to get out of doing his job. A few months later, we got a call from the Võru police. The thief had been caught red-handed, emptying out another house. As it turned out, he had robbed more than twenty houses in the area, leaving prints which—the officer was right—were not on record, but which could now be linked to the man himself, because the officer had been pressured into dusting for prints. He confessed to all the crimes, and was due to stand trial.

I bought some aleksandrikooks to celebrate. By this time, Pagaripoisid had changed the color of the frosting to pink. It still tasted the same. That is the wonder of modern chemistry. Pink frosting tastes like white frosting, and pink powder can catch a criminal with white-power tattoos on his arms.

We drove to the Võru police station to file charges, and answered specific questions about the price of each item stolen. Luckily we had receipts for everything. The detective would only tell us his name, but we found out—by accident—that the criminal would have full access to all our personal information, which had been required by the police in filing our charges against him. Address, email, telephone, children, how often and when we went to our cabin, and so on. Such is the legal system in Estonia. The detective, I think her name was Anne Pihus (she had talent in the palm of her hand!), raised a stink when we demanded that our personal information be removed from the case file, but she eventually complied.

I searched for the thief on-line, and found him. He owed money to half a dozen banks, creditors, casinos and so on. There was no way we were ever going to get any money back from this asshole, who had apparently never done a hard day’s work in his life. Then a couple weeks ago, I looked him up again, just a week before his scheduled trial. He now had a Facebook account, and I could see photographs of him. He was a musclehead. A member of three different gyms and weight-lifting clubs. So that’s how he could single-handedly lift the boiler off the wall while it was still full of water. You could see the tattoos on his arms, one of which was also anti-gay. Sentencing him to jail would obviously be futile, because he was so homophobic he would not be able to properly enjoy his prison time.

Then his trial was just last week. He didn’t show up. I sent him a reminder about it on Facebook, as Mingus, which of course is my real name. He didn’t respond. He did, however, manage to sell his Võru apartment in an auction, for eleven thousand euros. How he was allowed to keep this with all his debts and crimes is beyond my comprehension. And doesn’t skipping trial count as contempt of court? Shouldn’t the police have immediately gone to arrest him? Apparently the Võru police don’t use Facebook. This morning, while sitting in Pagaripoisid headquarters in Tallinn, on Vana-Lõuna Street, enjoying an aleksandrikook fresh from the factory floor, I looked him up again. He’d updated his current city to Madrid, Spain.

I know of someone else in Madrid. At least he used to live there. The local Nazi ringleader Risto Teinonen was hiding out there for years. Now he’s been kicked out of his own Nazi party because—surprise, surprise—he’s actually gay.

The staff are polite in Pagaripoisid, but ordering a coffee seemed somewhat tricky. “…and I’d like a coffee too, please”, I asked politely.
—What size? Krista the waitress asked.
“Just a small.”
—We don’t have small.
“What do you have, then?” I was a bit confused already.
—We have medium and large.
“How can you have ‘medium’ without ‘small’?” I just couldn’t resist exploring the logic behind this.
—What do you mean? Krista asked.
I explained the theory of medium being a comparison of small and large, and that without the former, you could not have a comparison.
—Do you want a medium or a large coffee? she asked, getting exasperated.
“I would like a small coffee, which you call a medium,” I compromised. But she actually smiled, finally realizing the oddness behind their sizing system.

But regarding the thief—I’m not angry that I won’t get money back, but I am annoyed that I won’t get my time back. The time I spent installing the system, roughly twenty hours, and I will have to do it again. Come to think of it though, I will have paid for the water system twice, once it’s replaced, and I would have probably paid an equivalent amount a third time as well, in the form of tax money spent incarcerating this worthless person who in no way contributes to society. Now it is Spain’s problem. He will go to jail there eventually, I am sure.

But wait! I will, eventually, pay that same amount twice more for his more expensive Spanish prison expenses in the form of tax money spent on a financial bailout. So I can’t quite decide if the police are doing anyone a favor by freely allowing the thief to skip the country. Estonia basically already has the highest percentage of its population in prison in the European Union, and it has to let other countries help clean up its mess by letting its criminals go to these countries to export their skills.

Why can’t Estonia export pastries instead of criminals? They could make a killing on these aleksandrikooks. Export cake to pay for its criminals. I don’t think Pagaripoisid is the best pastry company I’ve ever tried. Far from it. But I do think it’s the best in Estonia, and the aleksandrikook is heavenly. The main reason why is that they are not afraid to use flavor and moisture in their products. Eesti Pagar, Astri, Pere Leib, Lõuna Pagarid, and other similar bakery chains are just boring and dry. Some of them make good kringels, but that’s about it. Fazer is decent, but their products are available absolutely everywhere, and they’re Finnish, not Estonian, so I can’t really include them in this list. Unless of course you take into account that many of their factory workers undoubtedly come from Estonia to escape prison time.


Kadri said...

Pagaripoisid is right behind the high school I used to go. During recess "going to Pagaripoisid" was also a code name for a cigaret break :) Good stuff!

Yuri said...

Ah, Alexander-cake, one of my grandmother's specialities. I used to help her to make them, when I was a boy. The glaze always me reminded of the surface of ice which on those days would form occasionally along the edges of the Seine. My grandfather, coincidentally named Alexander, was a White cavalry officer and the family legend is that my grandmother's cakes were once served to Nicholai II, among others at a large retraite. Though apparently invented one hundred years before, we came to associate the delicacy with my grandfather in the family legend. But the real story is that when grandmère arrived in Paris in 1919, having been widowed in the civil war, she moved into a gutted cold-water flat with little but the clothes on her back, with no known connections among the emigres there. The doorbell rang that first night, and when she opened it there was a white box of Alexander-cake wrapped in a gold ribbon; the box was stamped with a patissier from Petrograd that had been looted and burnt in 1917 (which years later proved to be authentic box). It remains mystery, who prepared the cake and went to the elaborate trouble. In any case, it appears Alexander-cake has some kind of Proustian power of transcending the time and property lost, which you appear also to quite astutely discern.

PS. The pink frosting is sacrilege, and inappropriate, too: the icing is lemon-flavoured.

notsu said...

Pagaripoisid the best? No-no-no. The best big(ish) bakery (there are several good tiny ones, but they are hard to find) is Pihlaka, based in Rakvere. They actually use REAL WHIPPED CREAM in their cakes, something of a rarity among Estonian pâtisseries of these days.

I once eat in their Rakvere café - it was like a dream. I nearly cried as there was too much goodness to even try to have a sample of everything.

Sadly, not everything they prepare is available outside their cafés (which are only in Rakvere and Tallinn), but there is something nevertheless - in Tartu Kaubamaja or Konsum, occasionally. I'd suggest their rullbiskviit, mustikarull was the best.

elle s'ennuie said...

I'm several months late to this, but I second notsu's comment about Pihlaka. Their aleksandrikook is my absolute favourite.