Craftsmanship surging in Estonia

  • 2009-12-02
  • By Liina Lelmi

NOT SO OLD-FASHIONED: Time-worn skills are being used to make a wide assortment of attractive and quality products for today's consumers.

TALLINN - Estonia is known for its innovativeness and eagerness to adopt and invent new technologies. Yet the old and the traditional has not at all been forgotten. Among the Nordic capitals, only Tallinn and Lubeck have far-reaching roots in the history of marzipan.

The recipe for marzipan was invented in Hanseatic Tallinn by a student at Town Hall Apothecary, which is also known as the oldest apothecary in the world. Since then marzipan (originally Marci Panis) has been produced in Tallinn. When visiting Tallinn, it is suggested to go to one of the two marzipan museums in Tallinn, on Pikk street 16, or Viru street 4, where one can shape all sorts of marzipan figures. These are popular places for celebrating children’s birthdays among the locals. Also, Estonia’s biggest chocolate manufacturer Kalev had its start, in 1806, in Pikk street’s marzipan boutique in the Old Town. Kalev celebrates its 203rd birthday this year.

As for handmade sweets, the selection is wide. Chocolaterie Cafe on Vene street 6 offers a Parisian atmosphere along with handmade chocolates made on site, with almost religious care. It is told that the owner of the chocolaterie, Peeter Reier, learned the “sweet art” from an old master of Brussels, and his truffles are definitely worth tasting.

A new and growing trend in Estonia is to eat chocolate to stay healthy. Healing handmade chocolate bars and truffels are produced by Kolleste Kommimeistrid in the southern Estonian town Polvamaa. There is no magic behind the recipe, but there is science. The handmade chocolate bars contain pollen, propolis, or honey, and are copyrighted by the company as being unique, and are sold in pharmacies. It is known that propolis carries similar healing properties as do weaker antibiotics, able to kill over 100 different viruses. But antibiotics also kill the “good viruses,” while propolis removes the “bad.”

CEO of Kolleste Kommimeistrid Imre Sokk says that sales of their handmade chocolates, (especially those with propolis) has shown significant growth in recent months. Whether it’s due to this period of flu-panic, or just greater awareness of the healthiness of propolis and pollen chocolates, people have started to consume more of them.

“It is a unique recipe in the world, which we have copyrighted, and strongly suggest to eat it every now and then,” Sokk explains. Sokk comes from a family of apiculturists, and one day he started to research for more possibilities for honey and its byproducts. He came across the idea of chocolate and now their pollen and propolis chocolates are sold in Estonia’s pharmacies, stores and shops, as well as in Finland and Latvia. In Russia, Estonia’s embassies and consulates have taken the role of representing the chocolates. Sokk says he very much appreciates Russian customers, as they are always aware of what they look for. The CEO says he has witnessed no crisis at his company – on the contrary, their turnover shows a continuous growth trend.

“Saaremaa Sepad” – the Blacksmiths of Saaremaa – is a strong brand in Estonia and the Baltic sea region. Even though new technologies enrich the work of blacksmiths, this profession has retained something ancient and beautiful about it. Many look for their Christmas and birthday presents to the boutiques of Saaremaa Sepad. These presents carry in themselves the knowledge and legends of hundreds of years of craft.

Saaremaa is the biggest of the numerous islands of Estonia. The Finnish-like Saaremaa is known for historical and cultural reasons, as well as for the famous Saaremaa’s Waltz, by Georg Ots. Saaremaa has also kept its good fame among Russians. Latvians and Lithuanians like to come to seek the magic of this island, since they  don’t have islands themselves. Undoubtedly it drives from the high quality, uniqueness and rich variety of products of Saaremaa Sepad, but also from the strength of Saaremaa as a brand.

“We produce items that blacksmiths made in the old times,” Tullio Ella, master of the blacksmith’s workshop of Saaremaa Sepad explains, adding that their partly handmade production keeps historical traditions alive. “We also meet the needs of people who come to us with their own designs, and give our best to fulfill their expectations,” showing why their products stay unique. The company has been in business since 1997, but the skills and know-how this profession has probably date back to times when Estonians were still Vikings (Vikingr fra Esthland, or Aestland) and ancient traders. 

“Our blacksmiths are trained by Uulo Sink and have a long experience,” reveals Ella. He is a man who knows some secrets and legends of blacksmiths, being an honored member of one of Saaremaa’s oldest known families of blacksmiths. Probably the first blacksmiths came with the needs of ship-makers, in addition to making swords and other military equipment.

One will find candlesticks, horseshoes, souvenir keys, swords, bells, fireplace accessories, building accessories, grills and even furniture. The company itself sends real horseshoes as gifts to their business partners for Christmas. Ella says “This is so that they would be marked by the real horses that once used them,” he explains, expressing the goodwill shown towards their partners. This company also, in spite the world crisis, has managed to expand its business in recent years.
Saaremaa Sepad’s craftwork is sold in Finland, Sweden, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, and soon in Norway as well. One can find their representative shops in Tallinn and Riga, the company also has a Web shop.

Ship-making and boatbuilding are old professions in Estonia. There are some 150 companies in the country currently making fishing-boats, barges, sailing boats, motorboats, military boats and even tankers. Being surrounded by water from three sides (some 70 percent of Estonia’s borders are located on the water), this profession has always been highly respected on the coastline and the islands of Estonia. TTU Kuressaare College trains experts in the field, along with other educational institutions.

OU Lindvart, an innovative boat-builder from Saaremaa, has recently finished designing and building a new innovative electric motorboat – Linda520. So typical in Amsterdam and Venice, it’s the first of its kind in the Baltic, they claim, and contributes to saving our planet from CO2 emissions. This elegant and silent design-boat is also usable on inland lakes and rivers, where the use of regular motorboats is forbidden. The boat is retro-looking, ecological and innovative at the same time. It is silent and emission-free, and needs to be charged every now and then, but is cheaper to maintain than a usual motorboat.

Design-wise, the boat is a rebirth of the design of Artur Vakrom, Saaremaa’s famous pre-war boatmaker and designer. The boat is made by father and son, Edgar and Kristjan Kana. Lindvart hopes to sell at least 30 boats per year in the future.
Estonia has recently been conquered by a cult of local embroidery, typically invading homes and wardrobes with beautiful and colorful patterns of the Muhu island and other regions. The Web page of Kadakmari represents most of the area’s handicraft shops. The most valuable are carpets and bedcovers, the making of which take up to three months.

Many are familiar with traders of knitted woolen clothing sold on the streets of Old Tallinn. One of the oldest factories is Hiiu Vill, on the island of Hiiumaa, where the local wool is turned into yarn and our deft-fingered artisans use it to make beautiful knitwear. Everything is made from local wool, and some of the machinery dates back to the 19th century. One of the owners, Tiiu Valdma, designs the clothing herself.

It is also a must to get acquainted with the pottery of “Eddi Potitehas” when in Parnu. The pottery was opened in 1996, and is famous for its blue ice-flower, or crystal pattern. It is possible to learn to make pottery under the guidance of Eddi personally, on site. There are many old ceramic factories in Estonia, but this one is memorable due to its personal touch.