I am home now, but my sister and I recently spent the last two weeks of our month-long trip to Estonia on the island of Kassari (the island of cats). There will be some talk of snacking and foraging at the very end, but first some stories about our travels!
Kassari is actually attached to the much larger island of Hiiumaa by two narrow causeways of land, but it is considered a separate island. Both islands are rising out of the sea at an astonishing rate. We were told that families that reclaimed their ancestral farms after 50 years of Soviet occupation discovered that they had acquired quite a few new acres! As a result of this rapid rising there are some very unusual seaside meadows and forests that have grown up on what were clearly just recently rolling sand dunes. The Baltic sea is shallow and it freezes in the winter allowing for an ice highway to the mainland. At midsummer the island smelled like lilac, juniper, birch, pine, smoke from sauna and bonfires, wild roses and sea air. I wish that I could bottle the air. Also the drinking water was very delicious.
You may be wondering why we chose to travel to such a remote and little known spot. Our paternal grandmother was from Kassari and our paternal grandfather was from Hiiumaa. Our father passed away almost two years ago and my sister and I felt that it was important to go to the island that would have been his home if world war two had not scattered our family. Our father talked about the island quite a lot in the last few years of his life. He was a fabulous storyteller and it was always hard to tell what part of the story was based on fact and what was embellishment. It turns out that people from Hiiumaa pride themselves on being able to tell outrageous stories with an expression of dead seriousness. It is a part of their unique sense of humour.
This long strip of land is called Sääretirp. It extends for few kilometers out into the sea and is supposed to be what is left of bridge that the local giant Leiger was trying build to the nearby island of Saaremaa. We went at sunset…well actually it was midsummer and far enough north that the sunset just dipped below the horizon briefly at about 3 in the morning….but the sunset sky lasted for hours and hours. At Midnight, he sea on one side of Sääretirp was choppy and bright pink and the other side was absolutely calm and black.
We were there for the midsummer festival called Jaanipäev (St John’s day), which is celebrated with big bonfires (traditionally to scare away witchcraft or other magical mischief) and by swinging on giant wooden swings. Some of these swings can accommodate 20 or more people at a time! Young couples are also supposed to…ahem… go looking for fern flowers in the forest. And of course there is drinking and dancing!
We were pleased to discover that we have some distant relatives who still live and farm in the same place where our grandmother grew up! Even more thrilling, they are genuinely lovely people! Our grandmother’s niece Salme, is now in her eighties but absolutely remembered her aunt. She noted that Silvi looks like our grandmother and that I looked like our grandmother’s sister Miralda. Her children and their children were all so welcoming and generous with their time and stories. They have created a thriving, independent dairy farm during a huge period of transition for Estonia. It was so amazing to hear about recent Estonian history from their well informed, down to earth, fierce and graceful perspective. Estonians have endured so much without having lost their cultural identity and language. I was struck that Estonians did remarkably little crying and yelling about what various occupyers of their country have done to them over the last hundreds of years. The attitude seemed to be, big powers come and go, but we will always be who we are. One of our relatives said, “You can’t hate your own past”. Of course you can never generalize about an entire nation, but reflecting on our conversations not only with our family but with everyone that we encountered, I am impressed buy the strength, self-reliance and stubborn, gleeful eccentricity of Estonians. It was very inspiring. I am hoping that some of our younger distant relative will find their way to visit us in New York someday! Below from left to right, Ulvi (the amazing woman who runs the farm with her husband Tiit), Silvi and I with Salme (Ulvi’s mother in law and our grandmother’s niece), Silvi and I with a portrait of our great grandmother Helene.
A few months before he passed away, my father recommended that I seek out “The Wolf’s Bride” by Aino Kallas. Aino Kallas was Finnish, but she was married to an Estonian and she based her novels on Estonian folklore. She also wrote her novels at her summer-house on Kassari, right down the road from where our grandmother lived as a young girl. So in addition to family research, I was also hoping to learn about Estonian folklore. I met a wonderful folklorist in Tartu who is particularly interested in Estonian werewolf tales and she joined us for a few days on Hiiumaa as a translator and fellow seeker of stories.
One of the best storytellers that we met had gathered folktales from the old people in her village as a schoolgirl. In the early 20th century school children all over Estonia interviewed their elders and contributed their stories to the national folk archives. The Estonian folk archives are the third largest in the world, which is particularly impressive when you consider how few Estonians there are. She told us that there was an old story about how Kassari used to be divided in half by a ridge. The people who lived on either side of the ridge were prevented from crossing to the other side by glowing beings who lived in a large rock and would not allow anyone to pass. Finally someone dared to cross the ridge in order to follow their lost cat, and the two peoples living on either side of the ridge discovered one another. The woman telling the story speculated that this story may be related to the series of UFO sightings on the island in the 1990s. I have to say that it is not hard to imagine that magical and otherworldly things might happen in this landscape.
If you are wondering why the photos are so much better than usual it is because my sweet husband joined us on Hiiumaa and he is a rather excellent photographer. Also, my dear friend and often artistic collaborator Rima (I make the puppets and she makes the music) came for a few days as part of a longer trip to nearby Finland. It was so amazing to adventure with people so dear to me.
We all stayed in the Männi guesthouse, which was a former grainery that had been renovated with a new thatched roof, lovely kitchen and cozy beds for up to 6 people. The guest house is run by a wonderful family who have put a great deal of work into making their small farm beautiful and relaxing. There is an amazing farmhouse sauna and lovely yard with pine trees and also chickens, a very friendly rabbit, a beautiful orange kitty cat and wonderful loving, clever dogs.
The family is very respectful of their guests comfort and privacy so if you wanted complete quiet you could absolutley find it there. They even moved their rooster every night so that he would not wake us in the morning! We ended up becoming friends with family, so we got to hear wonderful stories and play music together and share some time and food around the bonfire. I plan to return!
My goodness, have I actually written all of this with barely a mention of food? Well the food was wonderful. When we first arrived we were eating a lot of open face sandwhich lunches.
Estonian sourdough rye bread is very, very good. Our grandmother used to make it and broke my heart to think that I would not get to eat it on this trip. So, although Rye has gluten and my body does not deal well with gluten I managed to eat the bread for a two days before getting sick. I think it was worth it. I will try to make a version of it using teff flour just as soon as it stops being nearly 100 degrees farenheit in NYC. NOTE ADDED LATER- I did it! To see my recipe for gluten-free dark sourdough bread click here.
We ate a lot of salted fish, the best of which was the baltic herring. The fish pictured here was not our favourite but it was sooooo pretty!
Here are some suggestions for open faced sandwhich toppings….
- smoked fish
- sliced hard sausage
- aged gouda
- sliced cucumbers
- tart apple slices
- sliced radish
You may also notice that quail eggs were a part of every meal. We took a picnic to the beach one day and Silvi realized that standing in the Baltic Sea while peeling and eating quail eggs was obviously an experience that she had longed for without knowing it for many years.
We drank a ridiculous amount of the apple cider that was produced by the orchard on Kassari. We fed the chickens all of our kitchen scraps and our hosts brought us the best tasting fresh eggs for our breakfasts. Our relatives on the island gave us the most amazing, creamy milk (Piim!) form their dairy. Oh my goodness and the kohupiim kreme…this amazing creamy cultured stuff, its like sour cream but much, much better. I made a lot of twice baked potatoes with kohupiim and dill. I was also frying sausages in red wine and blackcurrent syrup with wild abandon.
The only trouble we had was with salad greens. Cut salad greens were not a common item at the grocery store. You could buy lettuce plants. I mean think about it… what kind of person buys cut lettuce? Plant lettuce in your garden and cut the leaves as you need them dummy! We did not buy a lettuce plant, but we did forage for stinging nettles. It was cool enough there that they were still tender even in June! I tried to make nettle gnudi using only buckwheat flour and I am not sure if it was that the buckwheat flour was not binding enough on it’s own or if I just cooked them too long, but it turned out as soup instead of dumplings. Actually, it was a quite delicious soup and I may make it on purpose next spring!
We also foraged for sea cabbage, which looks just like Kale, tastes like salted collard greens and grows on pebbly beaches. Silvi spotted it the first day we arrived and was so confident that it was kale that she ate some (much to my horror). She didn’t keel over and we later confirmed that it was edible with a local. We found out later that the sea cabbage might be a protected plant. Oops. But we only took a single leaf from each plant, like you would in the garden so I am certain that no sea cabbages were hurt!
We prepared some of the sea cabbage like southern collard greens. The rest of the sea cabbage became a salad inspired by my a delicious raw kale salad that my friend Boo makes…so if you don’t happen to live on an island with sea cabbage, just use kale!
RAW SEA CABBAGE SALAD WITH YAMS AND HAZELNUTS
- about cup peeled and cubed yams.
- extra virgin olive oil
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- several leaves of sea cabbage (or kale), ribs removed and finely sliced. (if you have a bunny feed them the ribs!)
- 1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts cut roughly in half
- LOTS of fresh Lemon juice
- 1/2 cup finely grated pecorino, parmesan or other hard, sharp cheese for shaving (In Estonia, this sort of cheese was called “Forte”)
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the yams with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread the yams in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast until tender and caramelized. Stir every 10 minutes or so.
- If your hazelnuts are not already toasted, spread them on a clean baking sheet and put them in the oven with the roasting yams for about 10 minutes or dry roast them in a skillet over medium heat.
- In a large bowl, toss the sea cabbage with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and massage the greens to soften them up.
- Add the hazelnuts, yams and cheese and toss to combine.
Toward the end of the trip, the wild strawberries ripened. We came back to the guesthouse to discover that the mother of the family had left us the most delicious and beautiful wild strawberries stung like beads on stalks of grass. Her daughter also made an amazing cake…layers of chocolate cookies with sweet sour cream and decorated with wild strawberries…along with smoke grilled sausages and salad for our farewell bonfire.
I have to say that I was genuinely sad to leave Kassari and Hiiumaa. It feels ridiculous now that it took so long for us to travel there. Another storyteller who I met, said that there were old stories about how Hiiumaa used to float, which made it difficult for the sailors from the island to find their way home. Some versions of the story say that the problem was solved when a stake was driven into the ground at the heart of the island to pin it into it’s place (see the photo below). Other versions say that an anchor was placed in stove, in a house, in the center of the island. However they did it, the island is now moored to it’s spot in the Baltic Sea, so it shouldn’t be hard to find again soon.