an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Estonian Peanut Butter?!?


Who’d a thunk it? OK. So, maybe it really was almost hot enough this Estonian summer that you might have been able to grow peanuts here. But, Estonian peanut butter?!? As I said, who’d a thunk it? Not me back in the 1980s – when peanut butter seemed like an alien, half-forgotten American dream. Not me in the 1990s – when I had to smuggle in my jars from the United States to keep me going. Not me in the 2000s – when I would have to go up to Helsinki to get it – although jars of creamy Peter Pan would appear in Stockmann’s from time to time (I’m a Skippy crunchy loyalist). Not me in the 2010s – when a few Estonian supermarkets started carrying peanut butter made in Germany or Holland.  Mark my words, 2018 will be remembered not just for its hot summer but as the year that peanut butter finally made it in Estonia.

If you – as an Estonian – are wondering why I would obsess over peanut butter, I have but one word for you: kohuke. What those unfathomable curd cheese snacks invented just south of your border are to your sweet childhood memories, so peanut butter is to my savory childhood recollections. No school lunch would be complete without a PB&J – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – especially as I don’t remember anyone being allergic to peanuts way back then. And just in the same way that the American mind boggles when going to any Estonian supermarket and finding that half of the dairy section is taken up by kohukesed, in the same way the Estonian mind must boggle when going to an American supermarket and seeing shelves upon shelves of different kinds of peanut butters – especially now in the era of artisanal peanut butters. Peanut butter may well be America’s most holy of holy food items – even more so than the burger if I dare say it – although it was first patented just north of our border back in 1884.

Now the very first thing you must decide when you become a peanut butter aficionado is are you creamy or are you crunchy? In other words, how do you like your peanut butter – smooth or with chunks of peanuts still in it? And then you need to choose your favorite brand.  America’s three main peanut butter giants are Skippy (slightly saltier), Jif (somewhere in the middle), and Peter Pan (slightly sweeter). All three make crunchy and creamy alternatives as well as a honey roasted versions these days. And once upon a time, one of the giants even experimented with a version (a peanut butter spread) that included your jelly already swirled into it – until Americans revolted. These three giants, if you’ll allow me mix my metaphors, are just the tip of America’s peanut butter iceberg as there are hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of other competing brands of peanut butter out there.

Americans have been eating these roasted and ground legumes – once also known as goober peas as peanuts are indeed a type of pea rather than a nut – since long before we became an independent country. If you go visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia – and I recommend that you do if you’re in the neighborhood – then make sure to try their peanut soup, a regional specialty. I bring all of this up to point out that peanuts and peanut butter are an essential part of American culinary life. From an early age, we know what kind of peanut butter we like and we know what do with it. We have our favorite jelly – such as Concord grape jelly – that we choose to go with our PB&J sandwiches. And, as you’ve seen, we even have another one of our beloved three letter acronyms – PB&J – for our most all-American of sandwiches. And, of course, everyone grows up knowing that Elvis loved his daily PB&J with banana slices on it – first invented by smart American moms to get their kids to eat their daily fruit. Elvis sometimes even added crunchy, fried bacon to his PB&J. That works as well. If you want to skip the bread, then apples – especially tart apples like Granny Smith – go well with peanut butter. And if you want to be really healthy, then you can dip celery sticks in your peanut butter. The list of savory options goes on and on. Peanut butter, after all, may actually be good for you. It is high in protein and fiber, low in carbohydrates, while also being rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals including potassium and antioxidants – and most of its fat content is the healthy kind of fat. As with any food, however, peanut butter is always best when consumed in moderation.

As for peanut butter’s sweet options, there are lots of those and every American has a favorite – just like every Estonian knows what kind of kohuke they love best. American kids grow up eating peanut butter cookies – a sweet and savory treat that’s hard to beat. Here in Tallinn, Ristikheina Kohvik (Clover Café) has given the peanut butter cookie a try – although their version is not quite as moist, as savory, or as sweet as it should be. And then of course there is that magic combination of chocolate and peanut butter – especially dark chocolate and peanut butter. Every American kid is introduced to this sweet and savory perfection through a Reese’s. Once you grow up, however, you find that there are so many better versions of this wonderful combination including those delightful peanut butter cups made by Trader Joe’s. Here in Tallinn, Chococola makes a delicious peanut butter filled praline which scratches my chocolate and peanut butter itch – and so I find it hard to resist each time I go into their store. However, you might also want to try their delicious all-American chocolate turtles which feature caramel and walnuts in addition to the famous chocolate and peanut butter pairing for that perfect sweet and savory taste.

If you want, I could go on and on for pages upon pages about peanut butter – and how you should enjoy it – as it has always been an integral part of my life going all the way back to my first childhood memories. But I won’t. I only wanted to make the following point: imagine my surprise when I saw my first jar of Estonian peanut butter at an Estonian food fair this spring. Again, who’d a thunk it? Especially as the very word in Estonian (maapähklivõi) is even more of a sticky mouthful than peanut butter is in English. And so, after decades upon decades of being a peanut-butter free country, Estonia suddenly has not just one but two different Estonian artisanal peanut butter makers on the culinary landscape. First to arrive on the scene late last year were the central Estonian rural hipsters from Natty. And then along came the rather more mainstream folk from Pähklikoda (The Nut Factory) located in another central Estonian corner which also happens to be not all that far from Tartu. What’s with that?

OK. So, I get Natty’s marketing plan. As there aren’t generation upon generation of Estonian adults who have grown up eating peanut butter, Natty seems to be going after those hipster or vegetarian-vegan-friendly Estonian adults who love healthy food. Their version with Chia Seeds gives it all away. As does the rest of their label which reminds you that they are green, organic, ecologically friendly, and vegan. In fact, Natty likes symbols so much that they’ve even added one that says Muhe and comes complete with a drawing of a Hawai’ian hang-loose hand. I guess you could translate muhe (which sounds a lot like the Estonian word for organic or mahe) as “chill.” An interesting choice, as the adjective that I associate most with peanut butter is probably “sticky.” In any case, Natty also puts the URL for their trendy website – – right on the label of their standard looking jar. You can even find their various peanut butter recipes online – although their recipes are so hip that few Americans would probably even recognize them. Oh, yeah. And they use the Estonian word krõbisev for crunchy.

I must confess that I don’t really understand Pähklikoda’s business plan. They arrived on the market after Natty. Their unusual hexagonal jars are smaller and yet more expensive per gram. Their black label is very Old School and not very hip looking. As a result, I’m not quite sure who their intended market would be as I doubt that mainstream Estonians would be interested in peanut butter. And then I had to go hunting for their URL …. I will let you know what it is so that you don’t have to go searching for it as well:  Judging by their website, Pähklikoda is also hoping to reach the same hipsters and vegetarian-vegan-friendly folk that Natty is going after. Anyways, these new guys also make all the standard versions of peanut butter plus some non-standard flavors including one with raisins & cinnamon in it and one with unspecified seeds. They also have a version with cacao & honey which seems to be aimed for the potential Reese’s loving crowd. Their Estonian word for crunchy is krõmpsuv – but let’s not get started on that old crunchy vs. chunky debate.

Just like Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan always go head-to-head and mano-a-mano in the U.S. market, I thought I would compare-and-contrast Natty and Pähklikoda to save you the trouble. And so, I bought a jar each of their crunchy version and put them to the taste test. Sadly, neither brand says where their peanuts are grown. Both peanut butters, however, are healthy and “artisanal” in that they are made in small batches – Natty even adds its batch number on the jar – with no additional oil or sugar added. The only thing other than peanuts in each product is salt – sea salt in both cases. Both peanut butters, I would say, are a bit on the salty side which is fine with me. The two jars also come with “best before” dates – Natty’s is stamped on while Pähklikoda’s is added by hand.

For the final taste test, I smeared each peanut butter on its own half of one of Paul’s excellent onion bagels – toasted, of course. I then took alternating bites, cleaning my palate with ice cold Finnish spring water – my favorite. From the very first bite, it was clear that Natty makes the better Estonian peanut butter. Although I usually like my American peanut butter darker and oilier, Natty’s spread is lighter in color and a little drier when compared to Pähklikoda’s. The clincher, however, is that Natty tastes and smells nuttier – or more like real peanuts. Feel free to give them both a try to see for yourself. And yet, I would really like to know where Natty’s peanuts are grown as I don’t think it is quite hot enough down in southern Estonia as in their original South American home … at least not yet ….

P.S. And if you get the chance, please be sure to give Natty’s smooth new and super tasty cashew butter Kašu a try. I’ve always had a weak spot for cashews ….

Image: A jar of Natty’s crunchy Estonian peanut butter – just in case you don’t believe me.

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