Everyone else seems to be going West these days, so we did, too. We took a week’s vacation in Kuressaare, in Saaremaa. That’s the main island off Estonia’s western coast. The last time I was there was also the first time I was ever in Estonia, so it was very good to revisit and re-evaluate some of my first impressions.
And my first impression of Estonia was—võileivad, or sandwiches. Except an Estonian sandwich is a half slice of bread with one of a million possible toppings, most of which contain fish, pâté, cheese or ham. To welcome me, the family I stayed with that first, fateful night laid out two full tables of sandwiches. I shied away from the fish and pâté, but that was also the first time I’d ever tried what I now consider my favorite Estonian food—garlic cheese on toast.
Today, however, most traditional Estonian sandwiches have been replaced with various types of so-called “hamburgers”. Kiosks sell a large bun with a patty of mystery meat, shredded cabbage and carrot, and a ketchup and mayonnaise mixture that is dolloped on by the liter. But every once in a while…every once in a while…you get a delicious burger. But I’ll come to that in a moment.
The Mingus family arrived in the evening and we were hungry, and wanted to eat dinner in the sunshine. The only outdoor terrace (there are quite a few) that still had direct sunlight at that time was a place called Pub Vaekoda, on the main drag. I ordered the “Vaekoja Hamburger” with fries.
“What’s this burger like?” I asked Kristjan, the waiter.
—Um, it’s a patty in a bun.
“No, I mean what’s on it?” I specified.
—A patty? Kristjan seemed quite confused by my question.
“Is it a beef patty?”
“Pure beef, not anything else?”
“And what else? Tomato, onion, and so on?”
—Tomato, onion, and something else.
I could see I was getting nowhere, but this looked like a reputable establishment, so I took the plunge. For the kids, they wanted fish sticks. Kristjan said the plate was huge and that one portion would be enough for the Little Minguses. Mrs. Mingus ordered the burger as well.
A few short minutes later, the food was delivered. The kids’ plate was a mountain of over-salted fries, and three fish sticks. Not three each, but three total. Mrs. Mingus couldn’t eat more than three bites of her burger. The bun was rock-hard and the meat…I didn’t know what it was, but it was not beef. She left with the kids to go get something in the shop to eat in the hotel room.
When Kristjan returned, he asked how we liked it.
“Not very much, I’m afraid. You said this hamburger was pure beef. I know beef, and this is not beef.” He said he would go ask the chef, then returned a moment later.
—Yes, I’m sorry, it’s only fifty percent beef.
“What’s the other fifty percent?” I asked.
—The chef didn’t know.
“Where do you buy them from?”
—They’re made here in our kitchen, from locally raised and bought meat.
I didn’t want to know how they didn’t know what they were cooking in their own kitchen, so I just asked for the bill. Even though our dinner was only fifty percent food, Kristjan did give me a ten percent discount. Twenty euros for that.
The next evening, however, we ate at a placed called Sadhu. The “Sadhu Studio Mega Wild Boar Burger” intrigued me. It was the same price as that thing across the street from the night before. I was not expecting much. But I can say now that it is one of the top five hamburgers I have ever had in my life. I’ve never been a fan of wild boar, but this patty was simply succulent, so tender! Even the bun was delicious. The roasted potatoes were perfectly seasoned with fresh herbs, a wonderful mild, homemade salsa in place of ketchup, and a freshly fried egg (a lot of places will serve fried eggs that were actually fried hours—or days—before). I went back the next day and ordered it again. Still amazing.
The rest of the family was also more than satisfied with their dinners. But the kids were restless. They quickly tired of playing with the gigantic stuffed tiger from the sofa nearby. They can only play “Don’t Steal the Tiger’s Stripes” for so long, after all. I asked the very friendly waitress, Krista, if she had any entertainment for the kids. She brought back some paper placemats and a couple packs of crayons. Why she didn’t offer them immediately, I don’t know, but the Little Minguses were occupied for a whole hour, coloring in the pictures and playing the games on the printed placemats, and we ate and sat in peace. That’s a near-impossible feat when you eat out with the whole family.
I asked Krista where the restaurant had bought them, as it had an Estonian web address on it. Krista replied that they had just bought them an hour earlier, and the seller was still sitting in the other room. I went to go talk to her, because this was the first time I had ever seen anything like this in Estonia. Usually our kids were just bored in restaurants.
The seller, “Kristiina”, was more than willing to talk to me, and told me all about her experiences with dealing with loads of restaurants all over Estonia. I grinned with interest. “I have customers everywhere, but it’s hard to sell in Tartu. Tartu businesses just don’t want to make their customers happy, I guess.” That sounded very familiar. “We also offer customized placemats, too,” she continued. “A lot of hotels order those.”
On our way out the door, I asked Krista the waitress to give the chef my compliments. She smiled broadly and thanked me kindly. On the other occasions when I’ve done the same, in other restaurants of course, the waitress has actually frowned in confusion and simply replied, “Oh.”
The next day I took the Little Minguses to Kuressaare Castle, built in the fourteenth century. There’s a ton of educational stuff to see there, but if you go to the watchtower, I would advise against taking children. First you have to go through a dark, dingy corridor that shows what appears to be the dungeon. My older child asked, “Dad, what is this?”
—It’s the dungeon, I think.
—That’s where they put criminals.
“There are criminals here?” she asked in alarm.
—No, not anymore.
“I don’t like it here. I want to leave.”
At that moment, in the darkness and without warning, the sound of a lion roaring blasted from some unseen speaker. It was loud. My younger daughter started shrieking in panic, and the older one yelled at me, “Dad! Why did you bring us here?! You’re making my nerves get old too soon!”
We left without seeing the watchtower. But I began to wonder why they would have a lion roaring in the castle. Did they have a lion there? Was this one of the three lions that are on all the national insignia of Estonia? Did lions traditionally call the Estonian countryside home? Why not a lynx? Those exist here, and the President’s name is also “lynx” in Estonian (Ilves). Well, for better or for worse, I no longer have to read a nightly fairytale to my kids that takes place in a castle. Castles are too scary, now.
So a few brief bits about the rest of our vacation on the islands:
—Check out the Kaali meteorite craters, right off the main highway;
—Check out the Kaali meteorite craters, right off the main highway;
—Check out the Panga cliffs on the northern shore of Saaremaa;
—Check out the windmills in Angla;
—And whatever you do, do not attempt to eat on the ferry from the mainland to Muhu, as you literally will not have enough time to finish your food.
Overall a fun, fulfilling vacation. Soovitan!