Don’t cinnamon buns remind you of miniature labyrinths? After all, they have those long and looping outer layers covered with tantalizing hints which will eventually lead you to your goal in the middle. In their own way, cinnamon buns have always mesmerized me – just like labyrinths. And so now the time has come for me to set off on my quest to find Tallinn’s perfect cinnamon bun – or is it a roll, a swirl, or even a snail? In the same way, you’ll find Estonians adding different suffixes like kukkel (bun), rull (roll) or sai (sweet bread) to their kaneel (cinnamon). Happily, Tallinn happens to be the perfect place for my labyrinthine quest as it was here that I first encountered the kringel (a giant braided version of the cinnamon bun) at an Estonian birthday party. When I saw my first kringel, I knew I’d come to the right place.
While one Estonian birthday tradition involves receiving flowers on your birthday, my favorite Estonian birthday tradition is the one where you must host – and pay for – your own birthday party. The upside of this is that you get to have the party you want rather than the one that someone else thinks you want. The downside, however, is that you need to feed everyone – and usually do it twice in the same day. Unless you’re lucky and your birthday falls on a Saturday or Sunday and you can weasel your way out of it, first, you must feed your colleagues at work. And then, you have to go home and feed your family and friends. And here is where the great kringel once came to the rescue.
Unlike now, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, everyone had a surplus of free time to enjoy these birthday parties. Unlike now, there was little to buy in Tallinn’s food stores. Fortunately, both the Viru and Olümpia Hotels – as well as Gloria Restaurant – all ran their own kulinaaria (prepared food shops). And these prepared food shops would usually sell you two types of kringel – savory and sweet – if you ordered them in advance of your big day. And thus, your problem was solved: you started off by feeding your guests a savory ham and cheese kringel along with some sweet Soviet champagne. This was then followed by a sweet cinnamon and raisin kringel with strong coffee. It was these twin kringel that turned me into a big fan of Estonian birthday parties – and I couldn’t wait to host my first one. And so off I went to Viru which made the best kringel of them all ….
Sadly, these days when everyone is rushed and has no free time to enjoy anything – and the stores are full of just about everything you might want to buy – the kringel tradition has mostly fallen out of favor as it seems rather boring and old fashioned. If you can afford it, then it’s often just easier to invite everyone out to a café or a restaurant and let someone else do all the work. And while you can still find pre-made kringel for sale at various supermarkets, you should avoid those industrial versions whenever you can as they are but pale copies of the original. But as Soviet-era kulinaaria are institutions of the past, you’ll need to find yourself a good Old School bakery if you want to serve kringel on your birthday. Kalamaja Pagarikoda at Jahu 11, for example, will bake your birthday kringel – both savory and sweet – if you order from them in advance. And these days, you can even try two new savory options – vegetarian (spinach & cheese) or pescatarian (tuna & cheese) – as well as a new sweet option (almonds & berries). Sorry to wax nostalgic for the vanishing days of the kringel, but I just had some over the weekend and the memories all came flooding back. And yet as a kringel is much too big to tackle on your own, it’s time to return to my quest for Tallinn’s perfect cinnamon bun ….
If the kringel was brought to Estonia’s shores by the Danes (kringle is what Danish Christian Crusaders called their Nordic version of the pretzel), then the cinnamon bun was a sweet gift that arrived in Tallinn during Swedish rule (the first kannelbulle most likely originated there). Given that Swedes and Danes have also migrated to the United States in large numbers, the cinnamon bun – that wonderful culinary concoction made from yeast, flour, eggs, milk, butter, sugar, a little salt, and (of course) lots of cinnamon – is a taste that interconnects Northern Europe with North America. Although Americans might be more likely to add pecans rather than raisins to their buns (and we like to ice them to make them even sweeter), both Estonians and Americans love that stretchy and sweet dough that keeps us coming back for more. Plus, we all tend to associate this special sweet bread with holidays like Christmas or celebrations like birthdays. Although, truth be told, a cinnamon bun also makes for a very nice breakfast treat ….
In any case, my ongoing quest for Tallinn’s perfect cinnamon bun also serves another important purpose beyond just identifying the best. As a former baker, I like to think that I can judge whether a bakery knows what they are doing by simply trying one of their cinnamon buns. Far too many of the cinnamon buns I’ve had in Tallinn are dry and tasteless. Earlier this year, a couple of my Estonian friends were rather shocked when they saw me take a bite out of one particular cinnamon bun and then throw the rest of it away. But since I could tell from the very first bite that the mouth-feel was all wrong and that the bun was far too dry and tasteless, why should I have bothered eating any more of it? It would have just given me extra calories that I didn’t need – and wouldn’t enjoy. In other words, I’ve spent quite a bit of time and made certain sacrifices to arrive at my current list of Tallinn’s best cinnamon buns. I say “current list” because I’ve found that good things seem to come and go far too quickly here in Tallinn. And even at my favorite bakeries, their cinnamon buns can taste differently from visit to visit depending on who baked them, how they mixed their ingredients, and even on the weather. When I worked as a baker in California, we loved trying to figure out who had been the baker on our days off based on the quality and consistency of what they had baked.
So, without further delay, I would have to say that Ristikheina Kohvik (Clover Café) – both at its original Pelgulinna bakery-café at Rikstiku 57 and at its BJT storefront – bakes the cinnamon bun (or in their case, a cinnamon double roll) which I would argue represents Tallinn’s “best value for money.” While the quality of these rolls varies from day to day, their price of Euro 1.20 is hard to beat. (Yes, it has been beaten but I will take a pass on those cheaper cinnamon buns.)
Now I’m of two minds as to which of the next two cinnamon buns to list first. Both are on the expensive end of things at a Euro 2.50 each – or twice the price of Ristikheina’s. But in both cases the extra money is well spent – especially as both these buns are much more consistent with smaller variations between days. Yes, cinnamon – especially true cinnamon (cinnamomum verum) – is not cheap but it is a spice that has been well known to the West since Ancient Egyptians first imported it from the Indian subcontinent. The English word cinnamon comes from the Ancient Greek kinnamonmum where it was highly valued not just as a spice but as an offering to the gods. The Estonian word kaneel comes from the similar sounding Latin cannella – Ancient Rome’s rich not only enjoyed cinnamon in their food but also burned it on the funeral pyres of their dearly departed. But once again, I digress. I guess I’m just stalling while I figure what to write next ….
[Takes a deep breath] If you happen to be a fan of the original Swedish kannelbulle, then I’d have to say that Tallinn’s Nordic bakery Røst in the Rotermann Quarter at Rotermanni 14 makes Tallinn’s best cinnamon buns. These braided bundles of joy even come with crystallized sugar on top. And since they’re baked off and on throughout the day, you can frequently get them while they are still warm. You just can’t get any better than that – plus, they also bake Tallinn’s moistest and most consistent cinnamon buns. And then they’ve even baked in that hint of cardamom (another spice which originated on the Indian subcontinent) which makes them taste all the more Swedish and authentic. If you like that cardamom accent, then go to Røst where you can also try their cardamom buns if you want to go all out. No questions asked. And yet therein – at least for me – lies the rub. As it just so happens, I’m not a huge fan of cardamom. My humble apologies. And so, while Røst really bakes Tallinn’s best cinnamon buns, they are not always my favorite – especially when I taste too much cardamom in a given bite.
And so, I would have to say that my favorite cinnamon buns in Tallinn are baked just couple of blocks away from me at Café Levier on Vana-Kalamaja 21. While I’ll admit to my Kalamaja bias, I wouldn’t let that influence anything as serious as my opinions on food. You’ll just have to trust me on that one. Instead, my personal bias towards Café Levier in this case is because their cinnamon buns – baked up vertically in their own little paper cupcake cups – are those that come closest to looking and tasting like the ones my mother used to bake for us at Christmas every year. In other words, even their variations in consistency from visit to visit help remind me of home. I guess it’s hard to compete with anything once you start getting lost in the labyrinth of your own childhood memories ….
Image: A labyrinth pendant from the Kirkenes labyrinth in northernmost Norway (jeweler unknown).