If that’s elk in my soup, this must be Estonia.
One can get a bit disoriented on a cruise ship after charging down the gangplank each morning and entering another new port in another country.
“Well, there’s an old saying that you are what you eat,” said a smiling Gerard O’Reilly, the culinary manager on Holland America’s Eurodam cruise ship. “In this case, you can tell where you’re at by what you ate.”
Estonia—No Antlers, Please
We are in the medieval walled town of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, one of six port stops on our 10-day Gems of the Baltic cruise. And the elk soup (podrasupp), served in a stone bowl with a chunk of crusty bread, is quite tasty.
The strips of elk meat look “just like chicken” but have a slightly sweeter flavor. It’s a hearty serving, but for big eaters there is also ground reindeer pie, another traditional Estonian specialty.
A seasoned but jaded cruiser had told me that Tallinn was a fantastic place to visit…“for about an hour and a half.” We strolled the winding, narrow cobblestone streets for the better part of a day and would have stayed longer if the ship did the same.
It was a 15-minute walk from the Eurodam to Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, where we had our elk boost. The winding streets peel off from there, each one filled with boutiques, sidewalk cafes and craft shops. Toss in a castle, a palace and a church dating back to the 12th Century and you wonder if that jaded cruiser really ever set foot here.
Russia–Borsch & Bears, Oh My!
Next port, St. Petersburg. No food hints needed here, the customs agent signals where you are by looking up and down at you and your passport about eight times before stamping it. Welcome to Russia.
St. Petersburg has often been described as the Venice of the North and is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. But smiles are scarce, just as they were on my first visit 25 years ago.
The sights, however, are dazzling–the magnificent Peterhof Palace and gardens, the world famous Hermitage Museum, the Summer Palace, Catherine’s Palace, the list goes on and on.
And then there is the majestic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with its fascinating history in the center of the city, perhaps the most visited site by tourists and locals alike.
Constructed in 1883, the church was ransacked and heavily damaged during the Russian revolution, transformed into a hospital and morgue during World War II, and after the war transformed once again into, of all things, a potato warehouse.
In 1970 a restoration project began that would last for almost three decades. “I was born here,” our guide said, “and all I ever saw were scaffolds around the church.” Restoration was completed in 1997, but the structure is now a museum and no longer used for religious services.
On the food trail, Russians are big on borsch, a cold beet soup that comes in 12 flavors, pickled vegetables, pig fat and stooden, the broth of cooked meat that’s refrigerated, hardened into a gel and eaten cold. Many wash this down with kvass, a mixture of water and pumpernickel bread fermented into less than one percent alcohol and sold for 25 cents a glass.
We were told a number of restaurants and butcher shops were also selling bear meat “under the counter,” labeled as pork or chicken to dodge health authorities and preservationists.
Finland–The Big Chill
After a sauna and a buck-naked roll in the snow in the dead of winter, the Finns’ next passion is sautéed reindeer with mashed potatoes and lingonberries.
“We roll in the snow because it’s good for our skin and circulation,” said the spry sixty-something owner of a 200-acre farm we visited in the countryside. “And we eat reindeer just because it tastes so good.”
After our farm lunch, we visited Porvoo, a tiny country village dating back to 1346, which was a bit touristy but cute, and then drove to downtown Helsinki, the capital city with about 600,000 residents.
It surprised us to learn that Finland prices were almost 20 percent higher than the rest of the European nations. The Finns travel to Estonia and even Sweden for bargains. Main Helsinki attractions include the sparkling white Lutheran Cathedral, largest in all of Europe, the Rock Church carved into a hill and a nice market and restaurant area on the waterfront.
While the Finns are reserved but friendly, they are no slouches at the dinner table. In addition to reindeer, they like moose, a squeaky cheese called leipajuusto made with rich milk from cows that have recently calved, and a desert called mammi, a combination of water, rye flour and molasses that looks disgusting but is supposed to be good for whatever ails you.
Sweden—What’s That Smell?
Who would have thought that those serious Swedes would take the top prize for all of the strange food eaten in Europe, and even challenged those daring Asians?
The dish is called surstromming, and it is arguably the world’s foulest smelling fish. Some claim the odor rises three floors up in an apartment building and you need a broomstick to keep the drooling cats away.
Sunstromming is fermented herring–really fermented herring, sometimes for as long as a year–covered in salt and brine and stacked in barrels, leaving a little air space so it doesn’t explode. In some rural areas, it’s buried under the house (they grow accustomed to the stench).
You can buy some of this stuff in pressurized cans but if packed too tightly the cans can also explode. From what I’ve heard, it’s as bad as it smells, but many Swedes have acquired the taste and wash it down with a shot of alcohol or aquavit.
Graciously declining a sampling of sunstromming, we visited Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla Stan), one of the largest neighborhoods of 16th Century buildings in Europe, the Royal Palace and several museums, including one dedicated to the pop/rock Swedish singing group ABBA.
Germany—Our Wurst Is Best
“We have no strange foods in Germany,” our tour guide responded as we docked in Rostock, population 200,000. “All our food is delicious.”
Fair enough, we settled for a bratwurst, sauerkraut and potatoes, then to the town square for our walking tour. Several pedestrian streets branch out from the square. By noon they were filled with cruise ship passengers and it was difficult to find a seat at any of the outdoor café/restaurants.
Street musicians and entertainers kept popping up as the crowds increased. We had chosen Rostock as a tranquil break instead of taking the three-hour train ride to Berlin, which we would do the next day, but by mid-day made a beeline back to the Eurodam.
The Holland America ship was an 11-decker with all the trimmings: seven restaurants, spa, casino, saunas and swimming pools, main theater and workshop classes and lectures throughout the day. A few guests never even left the ship during our port calls.
There were about 2,000 cruisers aboard, 60 percent from the U.S., 20 percent from Canada and 1000 crew members. Cabins and suites were well appointed and service was fast and efficient throughout our cruise.
Now it was time for our final port.
Denmark—Kickstart Your Day!
We arrived in Copenhagen at dawn, just in time for Happy Hour. The Danes like to start the day with a drink called Gammel Dansk, a strong bitter liquor made of 29 herbs, spices and flour.
The recipe is a state secret, but actually there are a number of variations. While it is a potent drink, the Danes believe in its health benefits and sip it with chunks of rye bread.
And so, beginning with our elk soup in Estonia, we concluded with a Gammel Dansk–to go.
IF YOU GO;
We flew American Airlines (aa.com) from New York to Copenhagen, roundtrip.
Visas are required for Russia if you sightsee on your own, but not on organized tours.
Denmark (Krone), Russia (Ruble) and Sweden (Krona) have their own currencies. Other countries use Euros.
For further info on Holland America’s Baltic and other cruises, try hollandamerica.com