an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Stone Cake: A True Estonian Tale

 

One of my favorite tales is that old classic about making Stone Soup – an old story that has been told and retold all the way from China to Portugal. I grew up on Marcia Brown’s award-winning version of Stone Soup – although in the Estonian story-telling tradition the head of an axe – we could always imagine a primitive one made of stone – is used to start the soup (Kirvesupp). But as I’m about to tell you a true Estonian tale called Stone Cake (Kivikook) why don’t we stick with Stone Soup? In any case, I’m sure you’ve encountered plenty of people over the years trying to sell you some Stone Soup or some Axe Soup or its equivalent. And so, I thought I’d see if I could get you to taste a bite of Stone Cake – especially as the original Stone Cake Baker (Kivikoogi pagar) asked me to give it a try.

What I always found most fascinating about the story of Stone Soup is that there is a fundamental truth to it. After all, our Neolithic ancestors used to cook by a process known as “stone boiling.” As early pottery could not always withstand the direct heat of the fire, the thing to do if you wanted some soup back in the Stone Age was to put some stones into the fire, heat them up, and then add them to your pot filled with water and other ingredients. While that was quite some time ago, there is one place in the world still known for its tasty Stone Soup or sopa de pedra: the Portuguese town of Almeirim. The good townspeople have even built a statue to honor the monk who made their first bowl Stone Soup and have even go so far as to post their official Stone Soup recipe online. The moral of this particular Stone Soup story is all about the importance of sharing.

And just like Stone Soup exists in the real world, so does Stone Cake. I know this because once upon a time, on a journey not too far from Tallinn, the Stone Cake Baker baked me a Stone Cake and tried to get me to eat some. First, though, she had to cut a slice. As the cake was a Stone Cake, she couldn’t exactly cut it – she had to chip away at it as if it were a rock – almost exactly like our Neolithic ancestors when they made their tools from flint. Afraid that I might break a tooth on the Stone Cake, I tentatively took a bite. The cake was as dry and as tasteless as stone. When the rest of the cake was finally thrown away in the trash can, it landed with the crash of breaking rocks.

OK. So, I may be adding a few extra polishes to the Stone Cake in my tale. But at its core, this tale is a true one. I can produce witnesses and sworn statements if you need them. Even the Stone Cake Baker herself will agree that this really happened. She will also be the first one to admit that she cares nothing at all about food. For her, food is simply the fuel that her body needs to get through another day. For her, cooking is only a chore and not something that she likes to do. While this is one way to look at the world – and far too many children of Estonia’s Soviet occupation look at food exactly the same way, this approach is completely alien to me.

Growing up in Spain (not too far from Portugal and its Stone Soup), I was fortunate to be raised in a country where food is life, where food brings pleasure, and where food is meant to be shared and enjoyed with your family and your friends. Cooking is meant to bring you joy as it lets you share your joy with others. Food is never, ever fuel. Any restaurant or café which sells fuel rather than food would soon go out of business. Sadly, here in Tallinn, far too many of its eating establishments still function as the post-Soviet equivalent of filing stations. Once you refuel, you can be on your way. Estonian food will never achieve its full potential until Estonia develops a true food culture like Portugal or Spain or Italy or even France where life revolves around the Cult of Food.

To play my part, I’ve tried to teach my Estonian friends how to cook and how to enjoy good food – I started with the Stone Cake Baker and her classmate as we’ve all been friends for 35 years. I guess I must be a bad teacher as very little of what I tried to teach seems to have taken root. As a former baker, I still haven’t figured out how the Stone Cake Baker managed to bake such a rock-hard cake without setting her oven on fire. I guess I didn’t know that flour could fossilize so quickly. One clue might lie in the Stone Cake Baker’s approach to cooking. Instead of following her heart or her stomach, she uses her brains and follows recipes. Then, when she doesn’t have a required ingredient available at home, she will substitute it for something else. Her husband likes to joke that she will usually substitute water for anything that she can’t find. That clearly didn’t happen with the Stone Cake or else it would have been as soft and as spongy as a giant pancake ….

I’ll admit that when I go to the Stone Cake Baker’s house for dinner, it’s not about the food but about the company. She, her husband, and our mutual friends are nice people to hang out with, especially as all of them have a great sense of humor. Plus every time I go over, there’s bound to be a new culinary misadventure. If not, the Stone Cake Baker will entertain us with her past culinary misadventures – such as the time when her boss (who knew she couldn’t cook) gave her a ready-made mixture to make a Dutch Apple Pie. All that was required was to add half an egg – I’m not sure if it was the yolk or the white as the story changes somewhat each time I hear it. In any case, the Stone Cake Baker used the whole egg – not wanting to waste the other half of it – and ruined her pie in the process. While she couldn’t eat what she baked, at least she didn’t bake a Stone Pie ….

My favorite culinary misadventure of hers happened right in front of my eyes on the day that the Stone Cake Baker decided to make some bechamel to accompany her roast. What could be easier than this simple white sauce, right? You melt some butter in a pan, add some flour and salt, and then stir in some milk until it thickens. Instead, the Stone Cake Baker had bought a package of something purporting to be bechamel which had to be mixed with water and God knows what else. When I asked her to read the list of ingredients from the back of the package, she read off the name of one chemical after another for what seemed like half an hour (well, we were laughing the whole time). Of course, not a single one of the ingredients was butter, flour, salt, or milk. And so, we threw that out and made some bechamel from scratch. Come to think of it, the Stone Cook Baker’s use of a whole egg in her ready-made Dutch Apple Pie mix was probably not the real problem. I’m sure that the real problem was that the list of fake ingredients in that pie mix was probably even longer than the list of fake ingredients in the bechamel. Good food is simple food.

If this true Estonian tale of the Stone Cake has a moral, then it would be this: please care about what you buy, cook, and eat – and don’t waste food if you can help it. Only when a critical mass of Estonians finally cares about the food that they put into their bodies, only then will Estonian restaurants appear in London and in other cities around the world. Having gone to high school in London back when the food there was terrible, I have every confidence that Estonia can make that same culinary transition. And just as Copenhagen’s Noma could become the world’s best restaurant by focusing on locally sourced Nordic ingredients, then Estonian food can follow in these Danish footsteps – just as long as the majority of Estonians start to think food and not fuel.

 

Image: A spiral stone carved by Estonian rock carver Margus Rebane.

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