an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Tallinn’s Forgotten Market?

 

Ever since my first visit to Valencia’s amazing Art Nouveau Mercat Cental, I’ve been enthralled by markets. Of course, as I was only seven years old at the time, my attention was focused not on its spectacular cathedral-like architecture but on its octagonal fish market crawling with an amazing selection of live seafood and fresh fish. Regardless, my market obsession has stuck with me ever since.

And so, one of the first things I do whenever I want to learn something about a new city is to head straight to its main market just as soon as I can. Markets, after all, are where civilization and cities first began. Markets are where we first learned to interact with Others by trading and not fighting, by creating rather than destroying, and by exchanging what we had for what we needed. The agora – the Greek market – is what made the first Greek polis possible. The forum – the Roman market – was a fundamental part of the Roman urban template applied everywhere from the Scottish borders to the deserts of Northern Africa. Markets are the beating heart of every city, pumping life blood into its people. And so Keskturg – Tallinn’s Central Market – was one of the first places I explored when I was able to wander around this city’s streets on my own.

Keskturg became my go-to market when I lived in Kadriorg in the mid-1990s and then in Tõnismägi in the mid-2000s. Sadly, I seldom get back to visit my old friend these days as my Kalamaja fish flat is only a few blocks away from Balti Jaama Turg (the Baltic Train Station Market) or just BJT for short – the best market in Tallinn today. After all, as I had planned to repeat often in my London Market Blog which never happened, I’m a strong believer in the philosophy of Support Your Local Market!

Even so, I still try to make it back to Keskturg whenever I can even if BJT seems to be sucking up all of Tallinn’s available market air. After all, there are still some things – such as red Uzbeki rice for making plov – which I can only ever seem to find at Keskturg – or KT for short. And so, I wish KT a long and prosperous life. Oh, yeah. Please feel free to call her “Katie” out loud – or, you can localize her name to either Kati or Katya if you prefer.

Sadly, these days, I tend to worry that KT is in the process of becoming Tallinn’s forgotten market. After all, she’s not the market that she once was back in her heyday right after her 1990 privatization when occupancy rates were close to 100%. These days, far too many of KT’s stalls are empty. And some of my favorite stalls are simply gone – including the one run by the old Estonian farm woman who used to sell me her fresh produce – as well as her free-range eggs literally “under the table” after Estonia joined the EU and various new food inspection rules went into effect. In any case, I’m glad to see that free-range eggs can now be traded openly in Tallinn once again as I always felt a little bit guilty about dealing in culinary contraband ….

KT, of course, is getting a little old – but, then again, aren’t we all? Indeed, KT quietly celebrated her 70th anniversary last year. And therein lies part of the problem: KT needs to learn how to celebrate herself just like London’s wonderful Borough Market enjoyed being 1,000 years young back in 2014. Even if KT doesn’t have an investor who can give her a BJT-level makeover (for the record, I pretty much avoided BJT until after she re-opened in 2017), there are many ways that KT might find new ways to refresh and revitalize herself. From hosting special seasonal harvest events to starting up a Food Truck Friday, from inviting musicians to play live music to planning for her 75th anniversary celebration in 2022, there are dozens of different ways KT could put herself back on the map as Tallinn’s Central Market. And all of us can help by visiting her more often and showing her that we still care.

Yes, KT may still have a bit of a Soviet image problem. For some, KT is still the unwanted offspring of Stalin’s forced collectivization of Estonian farms and the centralization of her farming. KT replaced Tallinn’s former Uus Turg (New Market) located near the Estonia Concert Hall where Tammsaare Park is today and demolished in 1948.  Indeed, when I last visited KT to write this story about her, I had a very Soviet experience. As I walked around with my little notebook taking notes, two very large market security guards approached me and asked me in Russian what I was doing. One of the market administrators followed about a minute later. They were, truth be told, very polite and let me go about my business when I said I was just writing an article about KT. The irony, of course, is that if I had been taking my notes on my tablet or my smart phone, then it’s likely that no one would have noticed as they would have assumed I was just texting my friends. But at least for a moment, I got to feel like an American spy who had been apprehended at what the Soviets used to refer to as an SVO (stratigicheskiy vazhniy obekt or “a site of strategic military significance”) although I doubt that a small paper notebook designed for Estonian school kids and a pen would have been successful undercover tools …. And so, the moral of my story is this: go to KT to shop and not for any Soviet time-warp experiences as I’ve seen suggested elsewhere. Market security, after all, were just trying to protect their lady Katya …

Fortunately, visiting KT these days is just as easy as it has always been — you can take any bus or tram that runs along the main road to Tartu and get off at the Keskturg stop. Come to think of it, one of the reasons I bought my Fish Flat in Kalamaja was because the no. 2 tram from Kopli would take me right to KT. You will find the market’s main pedestrian entrance just a block away from the bus and trams stops located near its north-east corner on Lastekodu which runs east-west (although technically the market’s address is number 9 Keldrimäe which runs north-south). You can see a miniature tower inscribed with the word Keskturg which marks that corner. Radiating both west and south from this marker along KT’s outside walls, you will find a thriving seasonal outdoor market stocked with all the fresh produce you might want for prices lower than those at BJT. But as this is just the “pre-market,” let’s go and meet KT herself.

After you enter the market grounds, you will find yourself at KT’s first outdoor pavilion which was once the main produce section of the market. Sadly, only a few stalls still use it as their main base of operations. The pavilion is surrounded by various corrugated metal stalls – my favorite of which specializes in nuts, fruits, spices, and other dried goods from across the former Soviet Union. Off to your right, you will find a semi-covered market – also made up of mainly of rows of corrugated metal stalls which sell clothes. However, its north-west corner is home to two of the market’s main bakeries where you can buy a mash up of your favorite traditional sweet and savory pies and buns – one of them specializes in the baked versions while the other focuses on their fried counterparts. Both stalls almost always have short lines – but don’t worry as they usually move quickly.

KT’s main market building is that big, unevenly shaped concrete box right ahead of you. But before you go in, head to the second outdoor pavilion which is off to the right of the building. You will find more vegetable stands set up over here – this is where I used to buy my produce – as well as various stalls selling plants and flowers in season. The back stalls are usually covered with antiques or second-hand goods which can also be found scattered all around the market and are popular with treasure hunters.

Now that you’ve visited with KT outdoors, you can now go and see her indoors. KT’s inside looks something like a large airplane hangar – I wouldn’t be surprised if she was built by military engineers. Once upon a time, KT’s main floor was filled with stalls selling cheese and other milk products in addition to chicken and eggs. These days, you will also find meat, dry goods, and an assortment of other things for sale up here. The main meat hall – where I once bought my Estonian pork – is still downstairs and is very much worth a visit even if the days of big meat cleavers and even bigger oak cutting blocks have pretty much vanished. KT’s second floor is mainly filled with clothes – although it has been known to host the occasional art happening. When I visited KT last week, the fish market out back was closed. All in all, KT is a fairly typical architectural example of a Soviet-era market – complete with undersized ramps, entrances, and exits – that you might find anywhere in the post-Soviet world from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. But like all other markets, she is still somehow a wonder to behold.

And so, I hope you’ll visit KT soon and help keep her strong by making those market purchases that she needs to keep her life’s blood flowing. (For the record, the most annoying thing I found about my visits to London’s Borough Market were all the tourists armed with cameras and no shopping bags.) Still, whatever you do, don’t tell KT that flatfish sent you or else we both might end up in trouble!  Instead, let’s make sure that KT doesn’t become Tallinn’s forgotten market so that we can celebrate her 75th anniversary together in style!

 

Oh, and if you want to grab something to eat before you head back downtown or to wherever you might need to go, there is a good Thai place across the street from KT – New Thai at Lastekodu 9. While I’m unlikely to write anything more about the place, I tend to agree with my friends that New Thai might just serve the best Thai food that you can find in Tallinn these days.

Image: And, in case you are interested, the ceramic pomegranate featured above was made by an unknown Crimean-Tatar artist and purchased at a craft market in pre-occupation Crimea.

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