Tallinn, Estonia and the best cheese balls ever

It’s been a while since I’ve done a travel post, so I thought it was high time to tell you all about our adventures in…

Tallinn, Estonia.

After being pampered, wined and dined in Finland, the four of us were ready to set out on our own, into the wilds of Eastern Europe. Tallinn was a convenient ferry ride away from Helsinki, and we used the boat trip as an opportunity to take in the crystalline Baltic Sea.

The ferries there are nothing like we, natives of Vancouver Island, are used to. We’re used to a comparatively small boat with 3-4 decks, a lack of comfortable seating and a plethora of children’s areas full of screaming rugrats, with the only reprieve from boredom being a visit to the souvenir gift shop, and the obligatory lining up to eat greasy sausages or “Triple O” burgers at the cafeteria for no less than $15-20 per meal. The less scrupulous amongst us will occasionally repair to the upper decks and bear the whistling wind and rain to sneak beer we’ve smuggled on board and drink out of slurpee cups.

My friends, the ferries that run between Finland, Sweden and Estonia are floating party cities. The locals say that the youths of the area will commonly take an overnight boat just so they can party their faces off all night, only to stay in the far port for one day then return to do it all over again.

The very numerous decks are packed with bars, restaurants and stores. They are like shopping malls, except with more bars. And get this, the bar we settled ourselves into sold TWO FOR ONE BEERS. Naturally, we all ordered two beers each and settled into a table, gazed wistfully out the front of the boat, listened to Estonian pop and ate stolen food from our complimentary hotel breakfast in Finland.

After several hours of passing the time in this fashion, we saw the skyline of Tallinn appear on the horizon and blinked blearily, realizing we should at least attempt to sober up slightly so as not to trip over a cobblestone and realize our demise in the old city, which is where our hostel was.

Tallinn is world-renowned for its “Old City”, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and dates back to about 1154 A.D. It took a beating during WW II from Russian bombs but somehow (thankfully), much of it was preserved. This would be our first real “old town” experience in eastern europe, and we were excited to see its midieval towers, castles and streets.

We tumbled off the ferry in a belligerent pack, straining under our backpacks and consulting maps on road signs conveniently provided next to the ferry terminal. Somehow, we triangulated our position using these and the slightly out of date Lonely Planet which, thankfully, J&H had brought along,  and were able to locate the hostel where we had booked a room for the 4 of us.

We arrived and were told that no, our room was not here but at the other hostel run by the same company, a few blocks away. Perplexed, but otherwise still jolly from our ferry imbibement, we moved along to the next place, meandering through Tallinn’s windy, cobblestoned and ever-changing-in-elevation streets until we found it.

After settling into our bunks, the first priority was food. We walked around for a while, taking in the sights of lovely colourful buidlings and cheerful squares until we found a particularly promising-looking place with a pig statue out front – it was called Kuldse Notsu Kõrts, literally translated, “Golden Piglet Inn”, and it boasted traditional Estonian cuisine which is exactly what we were looking for.

We had a seat on their patio constructed of dark wooden booths, tastefully decorated with vases of decorative wheat sprigs and which sported blankets which could be wrapped around oneself if oneself were to become chilly. The weather was still quite warm so we were fine.

Ravenous, we all ordered starters and mains, and of course, a round of the local beer. I ordered Estonian fried cheese balls – which in hindsight I must admit were the most delicious thing I ate the entire trip –

…and a crusted chicken fillet for the main. Cheesler had the fried country bread with garlic sauce and a potato cake. As I write this, my mouth is watering in lustful memory of this meal. Unfortunately I didn’t document all of my companion’s dishes, but as I recall, we all thoroughly enjoyed the food and the atmosphere. If we had had time, I’m sure we would have returned to this restaurant for a second feast of traditional estonian cuisine.

That night, as is the fashion of backpackers, we got to know some of the other travellers staying in the hostel and got absolutely rip-roaringly drunk. Seeking something fun and interesting to do, we headed into the “new town” part of Tallinn, which is basically the more modern part of the city where people actually live and work and conduct business. We spied a hookah lounge that was still open at that ungodly hour and beelined for it, and spent the next several hours smoking various flavours of tobacco, taking kooky pictures and drinking wine.

We spent most of the next day sightseeing: taking in the old buildings, having coffee at an adorable local coffee shop and climbing the creepy stairs to the top of Count Olav’s cathedral, which boasted excellent views and questionable guardrails, much to Cheesler’s chagrin.

At one point we walked through a courtyard where this medieval-style music was playing, and there were people dressed up in costumes and the walls were just so, I felt like we were walking through a level of Assassin’s Creed 2.

Ever the frugal travellers, we also went shopping at the local supermarket for food that we could cook at the hostel. Cheesler was delighted to find pelmeni and insisted that he cook them for us all later.

After a quick stop at the local alcopood to freshen our booze supply, (note the mysterious hole in the floor), we trouped back to the hostel to prepare our goodies and socialize with our new hostel buddies.

We had heard that there would be a party at the other hostel (the one we were supposed to be staying at but had no room), which would supply free shots and endless entertainment. We had one more night in Tallinn before we moved on to Riga, Latvia, so we wanted to make it a good one.

That night’s party was typical for hostel-life. Drinking, comparing travel plans, jokes and making new friends, followed by a downright crash landing into our bunks at the end of the night. We awoke early the next morning and packed up all of our earthly belongings, once again, for the next step in our travels. Tallinn was not yet culinarily exhausted, however. We stopped at a small café in old town on the way to the bus station to enjoy crepes and Vana Tallinn-spiked coffees.

Back in Canada, I recently caught myself reminiscing about those cheese balls at , and decided I would try to re-create them. I googled the restaurant, and was delighted to find an e-mail address. I immediately sent a request to the Hotel St. Petersbourg (in which the restaurant is located), asking them for a recipe and directions on how to make them. I had almost given up hope when I hadn’t received a response in over 5 weeks, but one day, I checked my inbox and lo! The director of the hotel’s kitchen had responded, glad to provide instructions to a culinary enthusiast from afar.

The secret in the cheese balls is a traditional Estonian cheese called Eesti Juust. I knew it would be very difficult to find this in Canada. Here in Toronto there are a few Eastern European grocery stores, but they are more centralized around Polish and Ukrainian goods. Estonian cuisine does not have a large following in this part of the world. Plus, the places most likely to carry obscure European cheese are in the nether regions north of the 401 and far west, a pilgrimage too far for me to attempt without a car. Yes, I am a bad Torontonian and don’t venture much beyond my comfort zones downtown and to the east. Bad, bad, bad.

In her e-mail, the nice hotel director suggested cheddar as a substitute but I decided in the end to go with Havarti. I remembered the texture of the cheese being slightly creamy yet firm, and not too “cheddary”. Mozzarella would be too stringy, and something like provolone would be too firm. No, I guessed the texture was more similar to Havarti or Monterey jack. I spied a veritable log of Havarti on sale at the grocery store and went with it.

The method was very easy. Mix grated cheese with flour, an egg, crushed garlic, salt and pepper. Form into balls and fry in hot oil until golden brown. The dipping sauce is really the star – the balls are more like a conduit to get the dipping sauce into your mouth as quickly as possible: sour cream, mayo, more garlic, dill and salt and pepper. Yum!

The cheese balls took only about 10 minutes to fry up, and I was surprised at how well they turned out with the Havarti. Crunchy, yet soft in the middle. And of course, cheesy and salty and fried, dipped in garlicky dilly dip.

So, for comparison, I present to you, the Estonian Cheese Balls…and Soph n’ Stuff’s Cheese Balls!

Here’s the recipe! “Estonian” cheese balls

Want to see all the photos from our trip Tallinn, Estonia? Check them out here.


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Categories: Food, Travel

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