an american fish in estonian waters

Oh La Muu! The Art of Enjoying Estonian Ice Cream in Winter

 

Now that I think of it, there used to be “street food” back in Soviet times. Of course, there wasn’t much of it, but it really did exist. And it existed mainly in two forms – savory or sweet. The standard savory street food cart served up meat pies known as liha pirukad in Estonian or пирожки с мясом in Russian. As U.S. students studying in Leningrad, we couldn’t help but ask: Well, what kind of meat is it? The answer we would get – as if we were slow-witted – was always the same: meat. As if it didn’t matter – or as if we shouldn’t even be asking that question …. While “meat” back in Soviet times usually meant a 50-50 combination of ground pork and ground beef, sometimes the taste didn’t quite correspond with our American understanding of either one. Unsurprisingly, these mystery meat pies were always a bit of a gamble and they would even make us sick from time to time. And yet we would still eat them as we were always on the look-out for food which wasn’t prepared in our even more suspect dining hall – the dreaded столовка. Of course, whenever they were available, we would always choose the much less risky pies filled with either potatoes or cabbage instead.

But there was one type of Soviet street food cart that we were always happy to see: the sweet one. These carts served ice cream – and a very delicious kind of ice cream. To be more exact, they served just one type of ice cream – cream-flavored ice cream. We don’t really have a word for this flavor anymore as we now refer to all such generic ice creams as “vanilla ice cream.” But this ice cream wasn’t even plain vanilla. After all, vanilla was just too expensive an additive – it had to be imported for hard currency from overseas. Instead, this Soviet ice cream was what the Spanish would call nata – or literally, iced cream. And while the Soviet food industry usually deserves the bad rap that it got, one of the few foods that the Soviets excelled at making was iced cream. It was always freshly made and delicious. It contained no additives, no flavorings, no colorings, no chemicals, no substitutes, or anything else that wasn’t supposed to be there. In other words, it was made from nothing but real cream and sugar – plus the occasional egg yolk. For once, the Soviet love of the word нет (nyet or no) turned out to be a good thing. And so, as long as you were happy with eating just that one flavor, then all was well.

For Soviet-era college students needing an energy boost before junk food was ever available or power drinks were even invented, iced cream was it. Fortunately, it was on sale all year round – although I mainly remember seeing the street vendors in winter when the contents of their non-refrigerated carts were less likely to melt. Of course, Soviet dairy factories also had to meet their monthly production quotas established by Gosplan in Moscow. Since everyone worked at the end of the year to just barely overfulfill their annual plans, you could almost always count on finding an iced cream cart in winter. And as “proof” that their street-side operation was entirely sanitary, these ice cream vendors – usually women – would be decked out in white lab jackets with matching white caps as if they were still working on the production line. Of course, since it was often quite cold outside, these white lab coats were usually issued several sizes too large so that they could be worn over their winter coats. When it was snowing, these white women dressed in white and standing next to their white iced cream carts would sometimes blend into the background. But no matter – we would always be able to track them down whenever we needed that all important late afternoon energy surge.

During my first visit to Tallinn in the winter of 1983, I remember that the iced cream that we ate here was particularly good. Even back in Soviet times, Estonia had a reputation for its quality dairy goods – especially in the city of Leningrad since most of their milk products came from either Estonia or Finland. And while we were here in Estonia, we even found some “chocolate iced cream.” Sadly, as real chocolate was also an expensive import, this peculiar iced cream used carob instead – perhaps supplied by one of the Soviet Union’s client states in North Africa or the Middle East in exchange for armaments. While I’ve eaten some edible carob-based desserts in California, this Soviet carob was not that kind – it was far too gritty. And as it didn’t have that all-important kick of theobromine which makes chocolate the food of gods, then why even bother? And so, we quickly abandoned our dreams of faux chocolate iced cream and went back to the basic version.

At some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s when the sale of sugar was restricted, it became harder and harder to find Soviet iced cream. Enter an early Estonian “cooperative enterprise” known as Pengvin to the rescue. With soft ice cream machines imported from the West by entrepreneur Alexander Kofkin, Pengvin began making and selling not just vanilla-flavored ice cream but also chocolate- and strawberry-flavored versions as well. Located on Old Town Square where the restaurant Rae is today, you always needed to queue for your Pengvin ice cream cone – and hope that they wouldn’t run out before it was your turn as the supply chain was rather erratic in those days. Back in the summer of 1991, I remember waiting for over an hour with my friends and their two little girls before we were able to get a taste. And when I finally tried Pengvin’s vanilla soft serve, it just wasn’t as good as that old Soviet iced cream.

From its Pengvin peak, Estonian ice cream production continued to slip and slide downhill as foreign companies came in and introduced endless additives along with their countless new flavors. As someone who has always been rather lactose indifferent, I soon gave up on Estonian ice cream as it often seemed engineered to stay in the freezer forever. And so, when some of my friends told me about this new ice cream called La Muu back in 2013, I must admit that I was skeptical. After all, everything that I’d tried since Soviet iced cream vanished from the streets of Tallinn was just not worth the bother.

When I finally got over my initial hesitation and tried La Muu – Estonia’s first organic eco-ice cream (eesti esimine öko-jäätis), I realized my mistake. I shouldn’t have waited: La Muu is the real deal. And, ironically, by going completely natural and using only the best and purest ingredients, founders Rasmus Rask and Priit Mikelsaar have managed to revolutionize Estonian ice cream in the true sense of the word. To put it another way, they’ve managed to recreate the wonders of Soviet-era iced cream by returning everything back to the days when only real ingredients were used. Of course, Rasmus and Priit have gone on to make their new handmade ice cream so much better by introducing a brave new world of natural flavors. Yes, you can still get the basic trio of vanilla (made with real vanilla beans) as well as dark chocolate and strawberry-cream. And, yes, La Muu keeps up with the times by offering such comme il faut flavors as: salted caramel, pistachio, cherry, coconut, coffee, stracciatella, and passion fruit. La Muu will even get a bit funky with some of their other popular flavors such as: almond-cardamom, blackcurrant-mascarpone, or lemon-poppy seed. For those of you who are lactose intolerant, they also produce a range of sorbets including: raspberry-proseco, lemon, and mango. For you vegans out there, there is a peanut butter and a brownie ice cream which is made – just like their sorbets – without any eggs. But if you ask me, the La Muu crew is at its best when it goes full-on Estonian and makes up wonderful new flavors like rhubarb.

Clearly, La Muu has something for everyone. And just about everyone I know is quick to tell me their favorite flavors of La Muu. Up until last year, you had to be satisfied with whatever flavors of La Muu you could find at your local grocery store. Or, if you were lucky, you might run across La Muu’s very own ice cream cart at a food fair or at some other event like Kalamaja Days where you could try their latest flavors. But as La Muu’s production facility is located right near me in Telliskivi, I started hoping that they might open their own ice cream shop one day. At some point in 2017, things seemed to move a few steps further in the right direction when street art and signs appeared on Telliskivi’s walls promising that La Muu would be opening their very own ice cream shop soon. After a year-long wait, La Muu finally delivered on their promise earlier this year. While their ice cream shop went through a few growing pains at first – especially in terms of staffing and opening hours, La Muu’s bricks-and-mortar shop is now running just as smoothly as their ice cream. So, if you want to try out their latest flavor experiments or get the freshest possible ice cream, then you really need to go to and visit La Muu. I mean, who wouldn’t want to try some – or even all – of their new small-batch flavors including: crème brûlée; walnut & maple; maple & bacon; eggnog; peppermint; banana-chocolate; Japanese quince; matcha; avocado-lime; mojito; or the rest of their ever-changing list? Growing up in Spain in the land of nata iced cream, I was even surprised to find my favorite Spanish flavor there one day – turrón – which is what got me started on my own ice cream making adventures. Thanks to La Muu, I no longer need to make my own. After all, La Muu is the only place in Telliskivi whose culinary creations can compete with the very best that London’s impressive food scene has to offer. La Muu’s ice cream could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with such London ice cream greats as Udderlicious, Ruby Violet, Gelupo, and Snowflake – even if the last two technically make gelato.

Yes, La Muu does just about everything right. And yet … I still find myself hoping that I could make three wishes to help make La Muu even better. First, I would love to see La Muu open for longer hours – perhaps in season and perhaps when it makes best financial sense. As it happens, London’s ice cream shops – as well as those across America – do a lion’s share of their business in the evening after dinner, after the movies, or after a show – at those times whenever couples who are still enjoying each other’s company go off in search of something sweet to eat. Second, I’d love to see La Muu’s ice cream shop experiment with becoming a proper ice cream parlor and start making sundaes, shakes, and other similar frozen desserts. Yes, La Muu’s ice cream is already perfect on its own – but it might become even more perfect with some hot chocolate sauce, whipped cream, or extra roasted nuts added on top. Third – and third wishes are always the most import ones – I wish La Muu would make that simplest of all ice cream flavors – nata – or their own nostalgic version of original Soviet iced cream …. Now that’s a flavor that I could enjoy eating all winter long.

 

Image: The door to La Muu.

2 Responses to “Oh La Muu! The Art of Enjoying Estonian Ice Cream in Winter”

  1. Cynthia Borys

    I’m sold! Any prospects of export status in La Muu’s future? Funny how ice cream can trump just about any food memory. Total pleasure.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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