What Comes Around Grows Around – Part 1 ( Online Exclusive )

If you are reading this because you read “What Comes Around, Grows Around” in the September/October 2011 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine, what follows could be largely characterized as “outtakes” from a column originally nearly as long as our recent “road trip” through the Baltic country of Estonia.
It is not necessary that you read that column first,
but I would certainly love it if you did.

PART 1: After arriving in Estonia for a brother-in-law’s wedding, we spent the next 12 days romantically immersed in what was partially a cultural “throwback.” Now independent, it was only 20 years ago that Estonia sang for their freedom from occupation by the former Soviet Empire.  Driving through miles upon miles of rich farmland, from one corner of this small, seaside country to another, with a fairy-tale-like, castle wedding as our inspiration, we enjoyed a lifestyle that reminded us of what our own country may have been like once upon a time.

The culinary philosophy of “local,” “community” and “sustainable” still represents the natural state of things in this “Singing Nation,” rather than the social cause de rigueur, as we Americans increasingly reject the shameless “fast food,” maximum-profit-driven corporate compromise of our food supply.  Read Food, Inc., or Anthony Bourdain’s new book Medium Raw, for further perspective, but that’s rampage fodder for another day.  Back to the more wholesome subject of life in emerging Estonia.

Upon arrival (or even before!) “slow food” principles were quickly evident.  Even on the plane, the snack offered was a sort of creamed “mystery meat” on a roll.  This food application, I suspect, is inspired by the age-old, survival oriented utilization of all food remnants.  “Nose to tail” cooking defines such practice, and some examples that we are all familiar with include sausages (big in Estonia, with knockwursts on the hotel breakfast buffet), ham salad, fish cakes and soup stocks. It’s all about utilizing every bit of the slaughter while wasting nothing.  (For the record, with romantic notions cast aside, airplane food is still airplane food. ‘Nuff said)

A few hours after landing, we convened for a home-cooked, “meet the new family” reception, at the home of the mother and father-in-law’s to be.  The tone for the week was naturally set in place that very first night as we sipped water flavored with mint leaves from the garden, (and perhaps a few beers from Estonia, neighboring Russia and Norway). We enjoyed amazing, grilled elk sausages with organic pork and chicken skewers marinated in locally cultured “joghurt.”  Upon a toothy, homemade sourdough rye bread, we spread an egg, herb and butter mixture, while likewise digging into a salad of new potatoes and radish sourced from a local farmer. There were fresh herbs in every dish, picked directly from the garden out back, including fresh basil.  And in an exceptional exception to the meal’s thematic undertone:  a salad of watermelon and imported feta cheese, chosen specifically with the intent of offering economic support to struggling Greece.

On the night following our arrival we enjoyed new mother-in-law Riina Quak’s (right) fresh home-baked bread using unprocessed grain cultivated in Estonia.  Riina is flanked by daughter and new bride Liis Leitsalu (left) and kitchen volunteer Sue Plath (the author’s mom). To the right, two Estonian beers and a Russian beer.

Following dinner, the entire group carpooled to a summer solstice celebration along the shores of the Baltic sea, held in a park that regularly doubles as a farmer’s market. Though winters are long and dark in Estonia–the latitudinal equivalent of Alaska–in summer the sun barely sets.  Estonians (along with these visiting Americans!) take full advantage of the extended days.

On this night, a hard wind whipped off the sea.  The cold, however, was largely offset by a giant bonfire, singing and camaraderie, and grills filled with local sausages, lamb kebobs and “krinkle cut” fries.  The whole “back in time” theme served us well in another way, as we enjoyed the somewhat surreal experience of daylight as the hour of midnight approached…

To be continued: Part 2 of ‘What Comes Around Grows Around Online Exclusive will be posted September 6, 2011.

Estonia Bonfire

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