About four years ago I started to have a recurring dream, a dream that intrigued me. It was set in a warren of small streets, peppered with tiny cafes, bars and restaurants; the amber glow shining off the light stone of the quaint facades and glistening cobbled streets. There were cavernous eateries with space for a handful of diners, boutique coffee shops that ostentatiously sat their clientele like mannequins in the windows; aromas, sounds and a feeling of being so alive that upon waking, I would pray to fall asleep again to rejoin this seemingly impossible world for just a few moments more.
I often wondered during the waking day, where this place might have been. If I were to describe it, I might liken it to a small charming Italian town, maybe the prettier parts of Oxford or York; possibly Edinburgh… or maybe Prague: the truth is I had no idea. They were only silly dreams after all.
Three years on, and living in Moscow, Russia, I needed to renew my visa. A friend gave me details of a guy who knew a guy who could work the magic for a price, and off I went on the overnight train. But little did I realise, I was about to arrive at that place of my dreams. Tallinn, Estonia.
I arrived to find a small, friendly and creatively exciting city. After the Soviet occupation, Estonia became a magnet for the creative industries. It is now a landscape of tech start-ups, design studios and local crafts brought right up to date and beyond. It’s a well known fact that where the creatives go the foodies follow, and they certainly did.
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia with a population of 399,816 at the last census. Currently there are approximately 1300 restaurants, cafes and pubs. A fair few, even if you count the sharp rise in population during the summer months, when the Baltic cruise ships dock and the more adventurous travellers descend on the picture postcard Old Town.
But it’s not a game of numbers, as not all these places are out to impress. It’s far more complex than that. Leading the way from the beginning was modern Italian venue, Bocca. Being placed 3rd best restaurant in Estonia for two years running, and still regularly falling within the top 15, this restaurant has matured very well. A far cry from the tame reviews of the mid noughties.
Today, real Estonian food has caught up with the other industries and has a real presence on the restaurant scene. Horizont, Neh, Ribe and Salt to name but a few, all of which feature in Estonia’s top 15. The food in Tallinn is experimental, with many fusion places or traditional cuisines with a modern twist.
So why does it deserve such reverence, without so much as one Michelin star in the land. One could argue that brilliance is never recognised at once, that a fledgling Barcelona, Paris or Rome can all but command excitement or recognition of intention. There is however, something quite exciting about being on the crest of a wave with every promise of breaking. Tallinn is a city with a big vision for the future where food and culture are concerned, some might say a city with a silly, unrealistic dream. All the ingredients are here, now it’s down to fate and the right marketing plan.
In ten years time it will be a different story written here, or by some similar medium. How nice it would be if it that story revealed a dream that wasn’t so silly after all; and if that city of my dreams, realised it’s own.
First appeared in GO! Magazine, April 2014