As soon as they heard I was moving back to Tallinn, those who know what I love to eat asked me: “so, will you get to eat a lot of fresh fish?” And, indeed, one would think that living on the shores of the Baltic Sea in a neighborhood called Kalamaja (Fish House) that a good piece of fresh fish wouldn’t be that hard to find. Ah, if only that were true!
Not only has the Baltic been completely overfished, back in Soviet times the sea became Leningrad’s sewer. Imagine raw sewage and industrial waste from a city of more than six million people being dumped into a body of water which only rarely drains out into the Atlantic through the narrow Kattegat or Danish Straits. While a lot of work has been done over the last two decades to reduce the amount of waste being dumped into the sea by the 15 million people who live along its shores – plus the 70 million more across its drainage basin, the Baltic Sea is still far from teeming with life. Agricultural runoff and the fertilizer from farms is still a major problem.
And while you used to be able to spot the occasional man fishing from one of Tallinn’s piers, that is becoming an increasingly rare sight these days. There’s just nothing much left to catch. As a result, Kalamaja’s one remaining fishing tackle store is usually empty whenever I walk by. Living just a few minutes away from a sea that’s more dead than alive, it’s hard to ignore the impact people are having on our planet. Sadly, it will be many more generations before the Baltic Sea recovers from all the abuse.
Still, if you happen to be in Tallinn on a Saturday morning between 10 AM and 4 PM, do swing by Kalamaja’s Kalaturg (Fish Market) located at Kalasadam (Fish Harbor) to see for yourself what I mean. In a neighborhood named after its fishermen and fish-processing plants, there are fewer than a dozen stalls these days that sell their fish just once a week. And if you ask about the provenance of the fish, you will find out that most of it comes not from the Baltic Sea but either from Estonia’s many lakes and rivers where the water is still alive with life or from the North Sea off the coast of Norway or Scotland.
Long before I lived in Kalamaja, I used to work at another faraway Fish House – the Riva Fish House in Santa Cruz, California – the best seafood restaurant in town. Cooking fish for a living, I quickly learned what fresh fish should smell like: it should smell slightly salty like the sea. If it “smells like fish,” then it is no longer fresh. Before I buy any fish, I always give it the sea smell test. If it fails, I won’t buy it. Sadly, just about the only fish I will end up buying at Kalaturg these days is smoked fish from Lake Peipsi. Don’t know about you, but I prefer my fish hot smoked rather than cold smoked and eel – though expensive – has always been a particular favorite.
When my friends from afar insist on trying fish here in Tallinn, then I’m careful about where I take them. Some of the restaurants I go to when I want some good fresh fish properly cooked include places such as Leib (Black Bread), Moon (Poppy Flower), and Ö (Swedish for Island). If the menu doesn’t say – or the server can’t tell me – where the fish is from, then I won’t order it. Despite the challenges, I’m always on the lookout for any of my favorite local fresh fish including siig (European whitefish), ahven (perch), and koha (zander). Zander, by the way, is often listed on menus here as “pike-perch” which once confused me to no end – until I visited Helsinki’s Natural History Museum and saw that, yes, there really is a third species of fish that is neither pike nor perch but something that could be a cross between the two. When I can’t find fresh wild-caught fish, then I will often settle for local Estonian farmed fish. My Saaremaa friends live right next to Pidula Forell (Pidula Trout Farm) and so I’ve been there several times.
Of course, as I travel around Estonia, I’m always in search of that next golden fish lottery ticket. And if you know what you are looking for and where, you can sometimes be rewarded with a winning fish. Some of my past Estonian winners include: freshly salted raw siig (whitefish) on Vaindloo Island; freshly grilled koha (zander) on Piirissaar Island, freshly cooked silmud (lamprey) overlooking Narva Castle; freshly hot smoked angerjas (eel) on Abruka Island; and freshly cured räim (Baltic herring) on Muhu Island. The little räim, incidentally, is Estonia’s national fish while its similarly-sized relative the kilu (Baltic sprat) is the star of Estonia’s national sandwich – an open-faced slice of (sometimes buttered) black bread topped with egg salad (or hardboiled egg slices) as well as the mandatory kilu before being decorated with some chopped green onion or other fresh and tasty green. Do give one a try.
Given that I’ve tasted how great Estonian fish can be – and that I can imagine what Tallinn’s original Kalaturg (Fish Market) must have been like before World War II, I’m rather sad that I’m unlikely to see the day when the Baltic Sea finally comes back to life ….
Image: A bone fish (carver unknown) purchased at a craft market on Solovki Island in the White Sea.