an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Going Inside Tallinn’s Most Popular Market


Before we head off on that promised tour inside BJT (Balti Jaama Turg), why don’t we pause for a moment to think about the market stall. After all, a stall – run by an independent trader – forms the basic modular building block of a market. Only when enough of these stalls are co-located together do you end up with a working market. After visiting hundreds of London markets, I decided that the magic number needed to run a viable market was five – fewer stalls would mean that a new market wasn’t going to last – or that an old market was dying. And yes, so far, I’ve only provided a variation on one of my earlier market themes.

To take my observations in a new direction, I soon realized that a market’s individual stalls are held together by a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, an individual stall needs all the other stalls around it in order to survive as a market. On the other hand, an individual stall must compete with every other stall in the market – especially those selling similar things – in order to survive as a stall. An individual stall succeeds by doing its very best to attract your business and your money. If a stall fails to gain enough support, then it will go out of business. Sometimes I like to imagine that a large market – if you’ll stick with me – resembles a herd of bison roaming the North American plains. Bison keep together to maximize their survival as a herd. But when hunters come hunting, it is every bison for itself. And although individual bison do end up dying, the herd lives on. The same holds true for a market and its stalls.

It is this competition for customers – for survival – which helps keep both markets and their stalls healthy because it forces them to become both flexible and adaptable. And it is this competition that helps keep any good market and its stalls alive and continuously evolving. While not everyone can be as successful as Jack Cohen who began in 1919 with just one stall at London’s Well Street Market – a stall which would eventually evolve into a UK-wide network of over 3,000 stores known as Tesco’s, then at least each bison can dream of leading the herd. But enough of my market philosophizing ….

Let’s start our tour of BJT up on the market’s second floor. We can get there by going up one of the outside ramps facing Tallinn’s Old Town. We’re starting up here because it’s the least visited part of the market – it tends to be “out of sight” and so is often “out of mind.” So, let’s take our time and wander among the different vendors up here selling antiques, clothes, and other things. Make sure to look around to see if there might be any seasonal traders working from the small portable stalls. These rolling “boxes” offer temporary homes to the market’s newest members. The second floor also houses a family-friendly restaurant (Knicks & Kraaps) as well as one of Kalamaja’s two micro-breweries known as Humalakoda (Hop House). If I had to choose a favorite stall up here, it would probably be Eesti Käsitöö (Estonian Handicraft). The full version of my buyer’s walk will also take me into the large thrift store up here and past the many Estonian design shops. I’ve also been known to check out the antique vendors when I’m searching for something off-the-beaten track such as Soviet-era postcards of Tallinn. Once we’re done exploring BJT’s second floor, let’s take the elevator down to the basement.

We won’t spend much time down here because most of the basement is taken up by a large underground parking lot at one end and by a gym at the other. But we’ll also find a dry cleaner down on this level as well as a half-dozen other small shops selling everything from eye-glasses to flowers. But the basement’s main attraction is a rather decent Selver grocery store where you can usually find those items from your shopping list that you weren’t able to get in the main market upstairs. Near the entrance to the grocery store, you’ll also spot two stalls selling sweets. But let’s just keep on walking and take the large moving walkway-escalator upstairs and into the very heart of the market.

We now find ourselves in the middle of the market’s three main rows. This section happens to be home to Tänavatoit – the Street Food stalls. If you want to come back and grab a bite at the end of our tour, then check out my recommendations on Where to Eat in Kalamaja. Or if you’re looking for a coffee and a pastry, then Ristikheina (Clover Bakery) is a good place to start. If baked goods are your thing, then you may also want to check out my guide to Kalamaja’s Secret Bakeries. In any case, let’s move on right now and keep walking further into the market. We’ll soon find ourselves in BJT’s Meat Hall which is home to more than just meat these days – especially after the wall dividing the hall from the rest of the market came down. Whenever I happen to be cooking for others, my go-to stalls here are: the Egg Lady (Kanamunad); One’s Own Pork (Oma Põrsas); and then either Butcher Willi’s for his high-end imported beef or Butcher Mikhli for his Saaremaa beef.

When we’re done exploring the Meat Hall, let’s head out the back door. Once outside, we should take a left and then another left. This will take us back into the market through a sliding door. This particular market row – the one which is closest to Tallinn’s Old Town and resembles a limestone canyon – is home to BJT’s indoor fruit and vegetable stalls. Let’s stop for a moment to check out the Italian Taste stall as they’re now selling a lovely sourdough bread from Küps Bakery. For most occasions, however, my favorite stall is a little further in and is known as Härjapea Talupood (The Oxhead Farm Store). They mainly sell whatever fruits and vegetables their farm – and their neighbors – grow. They also sell Kotzebue bread – and if you were also to pick up a loaf of Crustum bread at Eugenio’s in the Meat Hall, then you would be able to sample three of Tallinn’s top four sourdough breads after just one market visit. Whenever I want mushrooms out of season, I’ll visit the Mushroom Lady at Eesti And (Estonian Gift). And if I’m looking for other produce, I’ll usually do a full buyer’s walk to see who has what and then buy my vegetables wherever they seem to be the freshest. To the right of all the produce stalls, you’ll see a half-dozen mainstream stores built right into the old limestone warehouse which now houses everything from an Aphoteka pharmacy to a Biomarket health food store – both of which I’ve been known to visit.

If we head outside through the sliding doors at the opposite end from where we entered, we’ll see Tallinn’s Old Town rising above the train station in front of us. But as we’re here for the market tour, let’s head towards the “Selver sign-post tree” on our left and then over to the silver sculpture – or fountain-mister – until we find our way into the main outdoor market which will be on our left. Here we’ll find whatever fresh fruits and vegetables happen to be in season – or their pickled cousins in winter. Several of my friends swear by the Pickle Lady – just look for the oldest vendor at the market.  Her small stall should have several large jars of dill pickles – plus other pickled vegetables – lined up in front of her. Please note, however, that she only speaks Russian – although that shouldn’t prevent you from completing your transaction. From the outdoor fruit and vegetable stalls, let’s head a bit deeper into the red I-Beam forest. The first few small houses on our right will sell a variety of prepared food from raw vegan to hearty Uzbek and Ukrainian, while those on our left will mainly sell baked goods. Once we see the flower shop on our right, then the little wooden houses on our left will start selling a variety of other things. My favorite little market house is home to the Umami Spice Shop. On our right, we’ll also see a Kalev chocolate store as well as a pet store before we reach the Fish Hall. In the Fish Hall, I’ll usually get the farmed trout from Farmare located near Pärnu. We can now exit out of the back of the market and we’ll be aimed towards the Depoo Street Food Market and Telliskivi beyond it. Please feel free to continue your onward explorations or head back into the market with me.

On my BJT buyer’s walks, I always try to determine the overall health of the market while also tracking the success – or failure – of individual market stalls. Some small businesses like the Uzbek Samsa Family Bakers are thriving. After first selling their savory pies out of a trailer over at the train station, SFB then rented a small stall in BJT’s Street Food section when it first opened. This stall was so successful that they’ve since taken over a part of one of the wooden market houses which they now use as both their main kitchen and as a small de facto restaurant. Sadly, not every market stall that went in when BJT opened its doors in May 2017 is still here today. Most went out of business because they failed to attract enough customers. While I remember most of the places that are gone now (like BJT’s first pizza joint), I don’t miss most of them – especially as the one vanished stall I frequented the most (the African produce stall) has now reappeared elsewhere (inside Tervist, Aafrika! – Hello, Africa! – over in the nearby Telliskivi Quarter). Sometimes I barely even notice the changes taking place – such as when one Georgian or vegan food stall is replaced by another similar one. That’s just the way markets work – forever changing.

So next time you go to the market, remember that your euros are your votes. If you want a particular stall to survive so that it’ll still be there the next time you visit BJT, then you need to support them. For this reason, I keep going back to my favorite stalls – those that have what I need and maintain the quality that I expect – as my way of voting for their continued survival in a tough market. And whenever I meet up with my friends at BJT – or run into others who just happen to be passing through – then I’m always happy to share my recommendations on where to buy what – from free-range eggs (Härjapea Talupood) to peanut butter cookies (Ristikheina). In other words, it’s up to us to determine which of BJT’s more than 300 different stalls will survive – and which ones won’t. So, please don’t forget to support your favorite market stall!


Image: A hollow Acoma Pueblo seed pot designed to save seeds until the next planting and made by Acoma potter Carolyn Concho. 

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