It was a pretty good year in food.
First and most important, my belly stayed full. I hope the same was true of you and yours. The global food crisis of 2008 did not recur or spread to more affluent countries. I remember back when bread riots were taking place in Cairo that year, the West had some problems of its own -- we're so codependent sometimes -- Sam's Club ran out of rice! But I guess that was a one-time hitch in the supply chain; nothing like that happened again. Somehow, although it's like a game of Twister, computers and financial markets keep our interlocked agriculture sectors vital, even as GMO monocultures take a victory lap. Industrial, hardly sustainable...but alive.
Estonian stores (based on my experience in Tallinn) offered an ever-widening assortment of food. Sometimes culturally-specific comfort foods were hard to find, but that is true everywhere. It's hardly worth complaining about items like corn masa and chipotles not being available, because in fact, less specialized exotic produce like limes and mangoes are currently cheaper than they have ever been (20-30 EEK/kg).
Wonder of wonders, staple food prices even started falling late in the year, after months of false promises about deflation.
Developments like the opening of a farmer's market (albeit a bit tourist-oriented) in central Tallinn mirrored trends in the West -- more power to fresh local food.
A survey indicated that local ethnic Russians eat more vegetables than Estonians. Based on simple observation, it seemed both nations were eating a little lower on the food chain, at least judging from the popularity of Mediterranean diet items in the larger cities and in the more educated classes.
Some vegetable categories are still problematic. Dark green leafy vegetables are under-represented (with the exception of broccoli, which is everywhere).
Where's kale, for example? You may know kale -- the crinkly bitter-tasting brassica that's often used as a garnish in North American restaurants and is presumably discarded by most diners. It happens to be the world's most nutrient-dense food, certainly cost-wise, and as far as I know it will practically grow in the snow. Like Swiss chard and a number of other dark greens, it's not available in Estonia. I've seen just about everything in Estonia, even Starbucks frappuccinos (despite the lack of Starbucks outlets), but never kale or chard. Kind of surprising when you consider Estonians eat more the average amount of beets. What happens to the leaves? Biomass, I suppose, like the kale garnishes.
Of course, our property in the countryside this summer was a jungle of nettles and ground-elder, which are just as tasty, and we could easily grow radishes for the greens -- but it would be nice if there were more bulk greens while we're confined to the city in the winter. A nice kale stew was always a mainstay back in the States, either laced with bacon or not.
As far as raw salads go, it's a riot of leaves. The yellow Chinese cabbage that has been serving as lettuce since 1991 and looks like it is grown underground is finally giving up the ghost. Its elegant sister bok choy is moving in, but not into the salad bowl.
Rucola and baby spinach are widely available these days, and Romaine is almost ubiquitous, along with most common herbs, usually in little plastic pots (wonder how many people plant them?) but you have to be careful that you're getting a good deal. In winter, the basil and lettuce really get puny, to the point where you can count the number of leaves on your fingers. The standard green-leaf lettuce gets a shade paler, and the price goes up. Romaine is often wilted. NOP, a neighbourhood grocery-cafe in Kadriorg reliably had excellent fresh greens, even lamb's quarters and radicchio, at competitive prices.
If there were any other downsides, they were tied to general depressing trends (the state of the fisheries) or pet peeves. With some items, a case can be made for pure practicality. Even though they're also culturally a bit unusual, I don't understand why nut butters are hard to find, for example, especially in pure, unprocessed form. I mean, you can't always eat cheese or cold cuts, pate or its poor dodgy relative, saiakate. Peanut butter is close to a nutritionally perfect convenience spread as can be, especially for the age 2-18 contingent, but wasn't always available this year. I guess I should be thankful it is stocked at all.
Accessories like heavy-duty Zip-Loc freezer bags should by all rights be stocked, but I haven't seen them.
I didn't see any veal in supermarkets this year. Ethically I suppose that's fine, but that means one fewer alternative to pork. Pork can be easy to cook and tasty, but I don't support it. As we say on Facebook, It's Complicated with me and pork. Then again, one of the best things I ate this year was a kamararulaad or head cheese made by the söökla in the town of Vastseliina.
Eggs (unlike chicken) are now available in various degrees of omega-3-enhanced, free-range and organic, with the most expensive ones more than 80 kroons a dozen. On a largely irrelevant side note, eggs are the one thing that is often hard to find for me in supermarkets. They often aren't filed under dairy or the mayonnaise and cheese. I am giving out a prize of an Estonian dozen (10) eggs to anyone who can identify the location of the eggs at Pirita Selver.
Fresh fish sections seemed to be poorer this year. A couple times cod came in at dumping-level prices, but I never understood where it was from or what was wrong with it, even after eating it.
Cheaper white fishes like pike and flounder were usually available, along with more pricier whitefish and perch. Salmon and its pink relatives continued to dominate visually but were rarely dirt-cheap this year. Generally, industrially farmed tilapia and pangassius seem unstoppable.
I had a fantastic experience with fresh grilled Baltic herring (räim) with a sprinkling of kosher salt at a local maritime festival in Viimsi. As good as any sardines in Greece or Italy. More restaurants should feature this as a starter.
Estonia gets a really bad grade for food additives, unfortunately. There's unlikely to be much movement on trans fats after comments by the First Lady on this topic generated a strong opposite reaction. Although "no preservatives" appears on many labels (often where there would be no reason to use them), use is endemic in some categories of food. It is still nearly impossible to find any marinated fish not embalmed with E211 (the probably carcinogenic sodium benzoate). Boo. Cheese with nitrates is also a pervasive problem. You have to read the labels, the rule of thumb is that cheeses with "Saaremaa" in the name are OK, containing only CaCl2 but no nitrates. Nitrates are simply not OK for kids, in my opinion, because of what they turn into when browned. Same is true for cured meat (except for the new smoked five-day smoked meat (viiepäeva suitsuliha) -- they almost always contain E250 or E251. It was strange to hear of people in the countryside paying many thousands of kroons to get well water tested for traces of fertilizer...and then offering their kids fried bologna for lunch.
Tallinn Central Market (keskturg) tended to have a wider selection of fresh deep-sea and other fish, but I had a disappointing mushy baby trout experience there, which kept me from returning, so I'm not really up to date there.
Infrastructurally and experientially the central market is still stuck in the Soviet era, but it has good product. For things like organ meats, go there. I wanted chicken livers and I couldn't find them in any of the supermarkets, even frozen (though there were all sorts of frozen pig organs) but there was plenty of excellent chicken liver in the marketplaces.
Yuppification and gentrification of the food chain continued. I measure this by the Kaubamaja Index -- how far do I have to walk into Kaubamaja's ground-floor supermarket before I get to the actual grub, as in victuals, as in food that's not in a designer bottle or single-serving package. Around 15-20 metres.
Sometimes gentrification was confusing, as some stores have a health food section and a yuppie delicacy section, with some overlap.
The excellent Vertigo Restaurant launched its brand of foods, centred around expensive bread. But if there's two things I tend to avoid, it's expensive bread; the other is bread with pieces of meat baked into it (lihaleib).
Premiumization tends to be an inconvenience for me. We go through a lot of canned tomatoes and puree. Stockmann had 400g cans for years and they cost 10 kroons but then I guess someone got the idea that Stockmann's customers might fancy Italian organic tomatoes at 20 kroons a can. Apparently they were right. Maybe they taste twice as good. But there was no reason for Stockmann to really continue to carry too many 10-kroon cans. This has made Pomi Tetrapaks the most cost-effective option at 15 kroons. But that's all for the better anyway, from what I read about chemicals leaching from metal cans.
Finally, although this is not a restaurant review, here is the obligatory coffee review. The best coffee I had was the double espresso at Kehrwieder cafe, for instance the one at Apollo bookstore in Solaris. It's not very well-known that every establishment's coffee has a special character, with subtle variations, even in psychoactivity. The cup design adds to the full experience. If you've ever drunk coffee -- black americano, not a latte -- from a clear glass and found it to be somehow lacking or weaker-tasting, you may understand what I'm talking about. Inevitably, the good Apollo experience should be contrasted to the coffee at the other bookstore cafe in the competing Rahva Raamat in Viru Keskus. It's a fine cafe, but perhaps it is the hard-to-hold white cups -- the coffee tastes like pencil shavings. Vello once mentioned the cups in Baltlantis as well. If you poured the Rahva Raamat coffee into one of the low, glazed ceramic Apollo-Kehrwieder cups, it might taste less like graphite, but it's not completely certain.
Coffee prices tended to drop from 25 to 20 EEK in the city and from 20 to 15 EEK in outlying areas. Tried the famous Kükita coffee on the Tartu-Tallinn highway and I couldn't see anything special about it, but it did get me to where I was going.