Even if you’re not a history buff, chances are you’ve thought about what life was like decades and centuries ago. Books, films, and museum exhibits attempt to provide us with enough information and visuals to give us a taste of life in the past, but they ultimately fall short on the experiential side of things by being unable to literally give us a taste of the past.
As I’ve said before, I firmly believe that food is the key to a culture, and that the first step to understanding why a country or people exist the way they do is to understand the food. A culture’s culinary development, whether through nature (crop proliferation or degradation) or through import from immigration or travelers, is undoubtedly present throughout history, and the reason behind today’s food. It’s not often that you get to experience life in medieval times (and how do we know whether it’s even accurate?!) but a popular restaurant in Tallinn, Estonia, does a rather good job in providing diners with a full experience.
First, it’s important to note that Tallinn itself has an impeccably well preserved old town, which can easily send visitors back a few decades. If I had to compare it to places I’ve already ventured, I’d say the old town felt a lot like Krakow, but a little more compact. The buildings bear faded coloured facades, looking like large pastel cardboard cutouts, and sit right on the narrow, chunky cobbled streets. From above, however, Tallinn looks a little more like Prague and Dubrovnik – with its orange tiled roofs and old stone forts. What sets it apart from its Eastern European cousins are the cone-topped towers and Russian Orthodox houses of worship, which have rendered Tallinn more like a magical fairy-tale land, dotted with forests, small castles, and splendid displays of architectural prowess.
While Tallinn itself sets the scene, Olde Hansa keeps you in the medieval spirit with its atmosphere, staff, food, and beverages. Having been recommended by two of my friends, one from Helsinki and the other from St. Petersburg, it was pretty clear this place was something special (even though it’s pretty damn touristy). According to its website, Olde Hansa was established to pay homage to the Hanseatic League of Estonia’s so-called golden age of the 12th and 13th centuries. The restaurant offers all-you-can-eat, two hour grand feasts of all sorts for large parties and festive evenings, but since we were a measly group of three, we selected off the portioned menu.
First, the beer. While my fellow diners debated whether they were served the correct version of honey beer, I sat happily inhaling and sipping my cinnamon beer. Clearly, the honey beer was disappointing, while the cinnamon beer was utterly delightful, comforting, and sedating. As for the food, well, the portions were rather large (be warned), but don’t let that scare you off. Olde Hansa offers a wide variety of traditional foods made with the same spices and raw materials used in the middle ages, creating a flavour palate different than the ones we often encounter in Western cuisine. In fact, by going back to the basics, the foods become more naturally flavourful, and completely delicious.
I hunkered down with an appetizer of “French royal poultry liver pate with lovely onion jam”, and was served a huge plate of incredibly tasty food. As a child, I was rather precocious when it came to food, because I tended to love the ‘finer’ foods, like lobster, shrimp, and pâté. Naturally I was drawn to this pate dish, and was so far from disappointed, it was as though I’d arrived in pâté land and was told I never had to leave. The onion jam was a fantastic accompaniment to the rustic bread which I slathered in pâté, and my plate also inexplicably featured a white mousse/pâté type thing (I honestly can’t remember what it was, but I know it was spectacular), and some sauteed root vegetables. Yes, this was an appetizer. Needless to say I had major difficulties finishing my entree, which was a fish stew that was less stew-y and more fish with vegetables and butterbeans and a cream-like sauce. It was still pretty good, but given that I was so full from the appetizer of yesteryear, I don’t remember it as vividly.
After the meal, just in case you don’t feel medieval enough, Olde Hansa’s restrooms will make sure you remember you’re not meant to be in the 21st century. Obviously they’re modern restrooms disguised as ones from the middle ages, with little light, wooden toilet seats, and a curious configuration of apparatuses, not to be attempted after more than your fair share of cinnamon beers. As if that’s not enough, Olde Hansa has a small store next door that sells all kinds of ceramic mugs (like the ones your beer comes in the restaurant), spices, potions, utensils, and the like, if you want to bring the Hanseatic League home with you.
Although it’s a little disorienting to walk back out onto modern Tallinn’s old streets after an evening at Olde Hansa, the city has done a fantastic job in maintaining its historical integrity and classic charm. Throughout my travels in Eastern Europe, there’s no doubt that Tallinn was the most whimsical and historical city I’ve encountered, making it appropriate that it’s the best place to travel back through time on a delicious medieval culinary journey.