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Posts Tagged ‘Estonian’

Happy Shrove Tuesday, or as the Estonians say, head vastlapäeva! I last blogged about this day a few years ago when we made pea soup, which is one of the foods traditionally eaten on this day in Estonia. The other food associated with today is the vastlakukkel — a lightly sweetened yeast bun with the cap sliced off, topped with a hefty swirl of whipped cream and a dusting of powdered sugar. Some of them also contain jam under the whipped cream, like this one I picked up on the way home from choir rehearsal this evening. Yum.

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Birch juice

I tried something new yesterday afternoon! The woman I share an office with asked, “Have you ever tried birch juice?” (Kasemahl in Estonian). She had a chilled 1.5-liter bottle of what looked like plain water sitting on her desk. Always up for trying something new and completely clueless as to what to expect, I had her pour some of the clear liquid into the mug I keep at my desk. It looked like water and poured like water. I stuck my nose into my mug and gave a deep sniff, as if I was tasting a fine wine. It smelled fresh and sort of sweet (like a tree, I suppose). “Did you make it yourself?” I asked, not sure if this was the kind of thing people generally made at home. She hadn’t, but my supervisor joined us and said she’d made birch juice at home a few years ago.

I took a sip, and at first I didn’t taste anything. The other two agreed that this batch had a very mild flavor. However, the flavor seemed to develop and become more pronounced the more I drank. It tasted as though somebody had dissolved a spoonful or two of molasses into all that water, leaving it subtly sweet with a bit of earthiness. It was really refreshing and, as I found out when I did a bit of research, really healthy as well! Birch juice contains potassium and high levels of vitamin C, among other things, and is supposed to help with stomach problems, improve circulation, and do a host of other beneficial things. I might have to buy some of this stuff for myself! However, I also discovered that it’s highly perishable and only keeps for a few days, even when refrigerated.

This is the kind of situation that makes me love living abroad. I’ve been here for over four years and know quite a bit about traditional Estonian food, but there are still things out there I’ve never experienced. And I love it when I find them, especially when they manage to brighten up a typical sleepy Monday afternoon.

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In my last post, I mentioned enjoying the things that nature makes available to us in this part of the world. Sharing my activities from this weekend will be an appropriate follow-up to that. On Friday, my department at work and the department we share a floor with left the building at noon to take a field trip to a bog 60 km outside of Tallinn. Nature walks have nothing to do with my job itself, but some of us decided we wanted to get out of the building and socialize in a more natural setting :-).

At Kakerdaja raba (Kakerdaja bog– the name comes from a type of bird), we hiked through forests, traversed the bog on a trail made of planks, and listened to stories from our guide, Romeo (…which is not a common Estonian name). The bog offered more than just beautiful views– there were big, ripe cranberries growing along the plank trail, so it was easy to reach down and pop a firm, sour berry in your mouth without even breaking stride (the plank trail is narrow, so we had to walk single file). And just as our stomachs were starting to rumble and we were getting somewhat tired, we reached a forested spot thick with blueberries, even bigger and sweeter than the ones I found in Finland, so of course we made a pit stop there. It was just so satisfying spending a quiet, relaxing afternoon surrounded by a vast expanse of untouched land… complete with snacks.

Then on Saturday, I went seenele (mushroom-picking). It’s very common for Estonians to head to the woods early on autumn mornings to fill their baskets with fresh wild mushrooms. Pille over at Nami-nami has written more informatively about wild mushrooms in Estonia than I ever could, so I recommend heading over there if you want to know more about this custom.

I was heading into the woods for the first time in my life to pick mushrooms, along with the kind co-worker who had agreed to take me with her. The fact that I’d never done it before is one of those things that reminds me that I’m not a “real” Estonian, as I didn’t grow up here, doing the things that other Estonians have done. But now I’m here, and I want to learn how to find mushrooms.  I was shown two types of mushrooms that are good to eat, so that was basically all I was looking for… but I couldn’t find any. I found mushrooms, of course, but they didn’t possess the characteristics I was looking for (and many of them had skinny stems, which somebody told me is usually the sign of a shady mushroom. Edible mushrooms generally have fat stems). I enjoyed being outdoors, crouching low to the ground, poking and examining mushrooms that were interesting, if not edible, but after a while I did get somewhat discouraged (my more experienced companions found some mushrooms, but even they were having a difficult time, as there weren’t very many around).

But then, wonder of wonders, in the third area we visited, I found one! And a few more next to it! And later, 2 more! So my grand total for the day came to 5 lousy mushrooms, 2 of which were tiny, but I didn’t care. They were my first-ever mushrooms, mushrooms that I’d picked myself and would prepare in my kitchen. And I know that the next time I venture into the woods, I’ll learn even more, recognize even more, and hopefully find more. And maybe it will even make me more Estonian :-).

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I’m only 8 days late. Luckily for me, this year on February 24th the Republic of Estonia (Eesti Vabariik) celebrated the 90th anniversary of its declaration of independence, so the celebration is going to continue all year long. So I’m actually not late at all 🙂.

One Estonian staple I wanted to try to make by myself was pirukad, Estonia’s dough-stuffed-with-meat offering (every nationality seems to have one—pelmeni, pierogies, empanadas, etc…). I had helped my mother make them before, but never done the entire process from start to finish, so I had to give it a shot.

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I used the dough recipe my mother always uses, which is from her Latvian friend. The recipe kind of annoyed me from the start because it’s written in a very free-form, grammatically ridiculous way—here’s an excerpt:

When Pirukad are completely cooled, they can be put in Zip-Loc bags and frozen for later use! They last a LONG-LONG time! Just re-heat them! Microwave is OK! A real oven is better (they don’t get mushy!). BUT!!!! Who cares? They are good any way you fix them!

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This particular advice is given in the middle of the recipe. Um, yeah. Also, the instructions hardly include any measurements. Which is why, soon after I added the risen yeast to the warm milk-and-butter mixture, I ran out of flour. DAMN. Luckily there’s a grocery store right across the street, but still, I was terrified the half-done dough would rise too much while I was gone and subsequently be ruined, or something (I don’t know very much about yeast dough…). It was pretty nerve-wracking. I guess I could’ve put it in the fridge to keep it from rising, but the mixture was so warm, I don’t think the fridge would’ve helped.

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Once I had obtained flour and mixed it into the dough until I reached the “hard-soft” texture described, it didn’t seem too much the worse for wear. I let it rise as I prepared the meat filling, which I made up off the top of my head. I like pirukad with ground meat filling, so I cooked 2 parts ground pork to 1 part ground beef, and added salt, pepper, and finely chopped onion. I had also diced some bacon (big, fatty slices) and added that, hoping it would impart a nice flavour to the mixture, but it didn’t seem to do anything for it. Next time I’ll just leave it out, or try with some suitsupekk (smoked fatback, mmm). I also added a chopped hard-boiled egg to half of the filling mixture.

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The rest of the process went smoothly—gently pulling a handful of dough into a long snake, cutting it into marshmallow-sized pieces, squashing each piece flat, putting a spoonful of filling in the middle, and sealing the edges together. The dough behaved very nicely. The pirukad were also treated to a brushing of egg and water mixture to make them shiny (as you can see, I don’t have a pastry brush, so I gently used a fork). (I don’t know how many pirukad I made exactly, but I was engaged in this filling process for a few hours. Melrose Place on DVD kept me company :-)).

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Overall, I was quite pleased with the final product. The dough may have had a bit too much cardamom in it, but at least it wasn’t bland. And my Estonian co-workers seemed to approve when I brought a batch into work 🙂. It wasn’t an overwhelming project for me to do solo in one night, but it would definitely be better with an extra set of hands. Next time…

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