an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Kalamaja’s Secret Bakeries


OK. So, they aren’t really secret bakeries if I’m telling you about them – and if someone else told me about them before that. They’re more like open secrets – secrets you have to know in order to enjoy. But they are secret enough that if you don’t know where to go looking for them, then you may never find them. Mainstream bakeries they aren’t. Kalamaja has a lot of those. In fact, these days Kalamaja (Fish House) has many more loaves than fish – so much so that you could even start calling the neighborhood Pagarimaja (Baker’s House) and you wouldn’t be all that far off.

Kalamaja’s flagship bakery is the eponymous Kalamaja Pagarikoda (Fish House Bakery) – visibly and appropriately located on the corner of Jahu (Flour Street) and Vana-Kalamaja (Old Fish House Street). Although the quality of their baked goods has slipped in recent years – mainly after they expanded to the Arsenal Center in neighboring Karjamaa (Pasture Land) thereby spreading themselves too thin in the process, Kalamaja Bakery is the one that everyone identifies with the neighborhood. After all, they got here first and helped put Kalamaja back on the map. As a result, you will find them on just about everyone’s list. While they bake bread, cakes, and cookies, Kalamaja Bakery is most famous for its sweet and savory pastries including their retro Moskva sai (a Moscow-style cream pastry) and my favorite kana pirukas (chicken pasty). You’ve got to give them full credit for embracing both Old School baking and the new. And they also have a cool space where you can have your cake – and eat it too – together with a nice cup of coffee.

A little way up Vana-Kalamaja at no. 21, you’ll find Café Levier which – as its French name, its cook book, its second store-front in the upscale Rocca al Mare shopping center, and its focus on colorful macaron all imply – has other aspirations beyond being just another neighborhood bakery. Levier also serves up an array of different French-inspired savory quiches and sweet pastries – their almond croissant being one of their standouts. And Levier will design and bake cakes for any occasion. Or, you can enjoy your slice of cake with coffee in their stylish interior – or outdoors on their private sidewalk if the weather allows. This attractive self-described “cakery” has earned quite a bit of attention for its good looks and good eats.

If you head further into Kalamaja, you’ll encounter a number of different cafés from T35 on Tööstuse 35 to new arrival Kursiv (Cursive Script) at Kalevi 42. In addition to serving the mandatory coffee, these cafés also do some of their own baking – although perhaps not enough of it to make them count as true bakeries. To find Kalamaja’s other most visible concentration of bakeries, you’ll need to head to BJTBalti Jaama Turg or the Baltic Train Station Market – which is home to several more. First, you’ll find the industrial Estonian chains like Pagaripoisid (Baker’s Boys) and Pagarini (The Baker with an Italian-sounding ending) who will bake whatever the market dictates. Then, you’ll come across the more niche Muhu Leib (Muhu Island Black Bread) whose main operation is over in Telliskivi. In the Biomarket health food store, you can also find black bread and other baked goods from popular Tallinn-based bakery Pagar võtaks! (Baker Take It! – an Estonian play on the words Pagan võtaks! Devil Take it!).

As for me, whenever I want to buy baked goods at BJT, I usually go to Ristikheina Kohvik (Clover Café) – the market store-front for a bakery-café located in neighboring Pelgulinn. Or, when I want to buy bread, I go to Eugenio’s in the meat hall and buy some tasty Crustum bread from Mustamäe (which is the best thing Eugenio sells) or to Härjapea Talupood (the Ox Head Farm Store) where they sell Kotzebue Bakery bread. Speaking of Kotzebue’s bread, I guess this marks the perfect point to segue to the world of Kalamaja’s secret bakeries which is what this article was supposed to be all about. Ah, but secrets are meant to be hidden! If they’re too easy to find, then it just ruins all the fun.

While all the Kalamaja bakeries that I’ve mentioned so far are not in any way hidden, Kotzebue Bakery is the first “hidden” – although not secret – bakery. The reason for this is that they are half-hidden in an alley running parallel to Kotzebue (a street named after the famous Baltic-German explorer named Otto von Kotzebue). While they’ve since added a sign to help you figure out exactly where you need to turn, Kotzebue Bakery has been notoriously hard to find – especially in winter. I would tell my Estonian friends where to go only to have them drive right past it and then complain that they couldn’t find it as it was so well hidden. Kotzebue specializes in bread – especially sourdoughs made from spelt and buckwheat as well as other specialty breads including brioche (which is just right for making French Toast in the morning).  They also work double-time as a charcuterie – curing their own meats – which you can now pick up along with their bread at their tiny new storefront at the front of their bakery in the back alley at Kotzebue 18E.

Now that we’ve covered Kalamaja’s hidden – or at least hard-to-find bakery – we can finally get to the first secret bakery which just happens to be located at the opposite end of the same large block as Kotzebue. As its very name implies, Paul’s Bagels is a bagel bakery. An American named Paul bakes nothing else in his Kalamaja bakery – or in his special bagel kitchen. As Paul doesn’t have a storefront or a shop, the only way you can get your hands on some of his delicious bagels is to special order them by messaging him on FaceBook or by Gmailing him at paulsbagels. Your minimum order needs to be one dozen bagels which will set you back 15 Euros cash. You can order savory bagels (mixing and matching poppy seed, sesame, salt, onion, garlic, or even “everything” which feature all of the above) or sweet ones (cinnamon, blueberry, and other special flavors you can work out with Paul). You’ll need to think and decide carefully about the sweet bagels as you have to order a full dozen of whichever flavor you finally choose. Paul prepares his bagels several times a week in the old-fashioned way – he rolls his yeasted dough by hand, shapes the dough into rings, boils the rings in water, and then bakes them. As making bagels is Paul’s part-time passion – he has a regular 9-to-5 job to pay the bills and a little baby to keep him up at nights, you’ll need to work out a time (usually on a weekend morning) when you can swing by his front door at Valgevase 3/1 to pick up your bagels. While Paul has now put up a sign, this secret bakery is still very much DIY.

For those of you who may be new to the world of bagels, I’ll let you in on two secrets. First, bagels freeze well. So, once you pick up your dozen bagels from Paul and enjoy some of them while they’re still warm, wait for the rest of them to cool down, wrap them in air-tight plastic bags, and then put them in your freezer. You can then pull them out whenever you want to eat them – I usually let mine thaw overnight in the refrigerator. The second secret is that bagels are at their best when they are thrice-cooked. While Paul has already cooked them twice for you (the boiling and the baking) in order to produce that crunchy crust and chewy interior, you can add the proverbial icing on the cake by toasting your bagels in a toaster or in the oven. Your bagels will then end up being completely crunchy, chewy, and delicious – and ready for some cream cheese spread or other traditional toppings like smoked salmon (lox) served with chopped red onions, capers, and squeeze of fresh lemon. If you’ve ever tried a bagel sandwich from one of Estonia’s food trucks – or even at Tallinn’s airport, then you may have across one of Paul’s bagels before and just not known it. A final secret: whatever you do, never ever – and I mean never ever – put a bagel in a microwave to heat it up or you will just destroy its wonderful mouth-feel.

If you would like to dig a little deeper into bagel lore, then you can trace the origins of bagels all the way back to Poland’s Jewish communities. By the late 1800s, bagels (sometimes spelled beigels) had made it – together with Jewish emigrants – to London’s Brick Lane and to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But it wasn’t until after World War II, that bagels began to cross the North American continent from one end to another. After eating my first bagels in New York and London, I became a more permanent bagel fan in college thanks to the Santa Cruz The Bagelry (est. 1977) which still makes excellent bagels and supplied the Stevenson Coffee Shop where I worked. My favorite bagels are still savory ones – especially those with onion or garlic. As for toppings, I have my own favorites just like everyone else: peanut butter or tuna salad with melted cheddar cheese (the famous Tuna Melt Bagel). Just in case, I always try to keep some of Paul’s bagels frozen away in my freezer for whenever I hear the bugle Call of the Bagel.

Strangely enough, Kalamaja’s second secret bakery is also located on Valgevase and is also a bread with specific ethnic roots. The Secret Georgian Bakery (SGB) is so secret that it doesn’t have a FaceBook page – or even a real name. Even the SGB’s location in a non-descript garage at the corner of Valgevase and Vabriku (Factory Street) – plus the fact that it only bakes lavash (Georgian flat bread) in the middle of the night – all add to the SGB’s aura of secrecy. I’d heard stories about the SGB for years long before I tracked it down and found it. While you may well have tasted SGB’s wonderful lavash before at Boheem or at another Tallinn café, you haven’t tasted anything until you’ve had it fresh out of the SGB’s oven. Since the SGB doesn’t have a sign or even a real address – and much less a storefront, it may be a bit hard for you to find. And if you do find it by following your nose, you’ll have to ask one of the head baker’s assistants if he’ll sell you a loaf or two. At 50 cents a loaf, SGB’s lavash may just be the best bread deal in Tallinn so I recommend that you get at least two loaves – and do remember to bring the correct change as only cash will do. Your hot lavash will then get wrapped in some scrap paper and handed over to you to eat on the spot (don’t burn your mouth!) or to take home (although you will have to play a little game of “hot potato” and move it from hand to hand unless you happen to be wearing your winter gloves). And here’s another secret: SGB’s lavash also freezes well and toasts up quite nicely in the toaster. Spread on a little bit of Saaremaa butter – and you’ll soon be in bread and butter heaven. Again, keep the lavash as far as way from your microwave as possible or you’ll ruin its lovely, chewy, slightly salty, slightly sour essence. After all, the microwave is the cunning culinary Tool of the Devil meant to deceive you by heating from the inside out rather than from the outside in ….

Anyways, once you’ve been to all three of these bakeries on this one Kalamaja block – hidden Kotzebue as well as Paul’s semi-secret Bagel Bakery and then the SGB late one night, then you’ll have mastered Kalamaja’s secret bakeries and can let others know that you’ve leveled up. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Kalamaja 2.0!

Stop Press! The goal posts just moved –  now you also need to track down and try Küps to earn your Kalmamaja 2.0 upgrade!

Image: A small wooden wind mill from Western Ukraine (craftsman unknown).

P.S. The legal name for the Secret Georgian Bakery at Vabriku 6 is OÜ Vireeda and you can usually find their bread for sale at various Tallinn grocery stores including Stockmann’s.

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