Medieval Dining in Tallinn's Olde Hansa
The height of dining in Estonia's Old Town Tallinn, Olde Hansa combines delicious meals inspired by the Middle Ages with a genuine 15th-century experience, all within the walls of what was once a Medieval merchant's house. Wanderous Affair's editor-in-chief, Emily Fata, describes her princess-like experience while lunching here.
It was during a remarkable day spent in the Medieval realm that is Tallinn, Estonia (an afternoon provided to Wanderous Affair by VisitTallinn), that I happened upon Olde Hansa restaurant. With the house being constructed circa 1475 for a wealthy local merchant, this stood out as a must-have dining experience. For anyone who knows me, I have a longstanding infatuation with this period in time, and will do anything to immerse myself a little bit further within it (minus the fear-inducing torture devices and lack of women's rights, of course).
From the moment you walk into the candlelit dining area, each sensory experience you encounter is completely inspired by its fifteenth century role models. In true fashion, waitstaff — or 'servants' — live according to the old Hanseatic customs, reflected in every act and detail of the house. It took a split second before I realized that a trip to Tallinn truly is not complete without a dining experience at Olde Hansa!
Walking across the picturesque dining room toward the back of the main restaurant area, we made ourselves comfortable in a corner booth, beneath a tall window. I quickly noted that all of the restaurant's furniture, table, and glassware were handmade; it wasn't until later that I discovered this was all intending to pay homage to the designs and craftsmanship of the period, during the time when house was originally built (including their luxuriously fancy washrooms!).
Furthering a mood of antiquity, an entirely candle-lit room (fun fact: they burn an excess of 18,000 candles each year within the house) served to heighten my other senses: the smell of the inviting food being served around me, the touch of the smooth grain of wood beneath my fingertips, the murmured sounds of conversation around me, and eventually, the flavours of my own meal. Of course, it also magnified the conversation happening right in front of me, with my friend and photographer, Kourtnie, much the same as it would have over five hundred years ago in such a dimly lit, intimate dining setting.
By the time our waitress arrived, I was entirely captivated. Each staff member trains rigorously at the Hansa Guild, helping to ensure that the Olde Hansa medieval experience is an authentic and friendly one. This holds true down to each stitch on their costumes! A custom tailor and seamstress research the period in exceptional detail, referencing and checking the authenticity of patterns and fabrics when creating clothing for the staff, including their famous curly-toed shoes. It's truly beyond me, how I was able to focus long enough to go over the menu and decide on what to eat — so much lovely visual stimuli had my roving eyes in overdrive.
As an appetizer, we decided on the Oven-Baked Herb and Juniper Cheese, complete with fresh bread, to start. This was by far one fo the best appetizers that I had tasted in a long time; the combination of spices with the melted cheese layered on fresh, warm bread, was absolute heaven. By the time I finished my share of this, I was on Cloud Nine.
As my entrée, I ordered the Five Delightful Tastes of Vegetarian Origin dish off of the à la carte menu (the full menu can be found here), and was completely shocked by the large amount of food that was delivered to my table (see images below for both the appetizer and main). In the centre of the dish was a mouth-watering flaky pastry filled with beans, the circumference of the beautifully glazed clay plate lined with spiced spelt, pickled vegetables, chilli lentils, a swoon-worthy serving of spiced barley, and a flavourful creamy mushroom sauce.
These dishes are all the creation of Master Cook and executive chef, Emmanuel Wille. All of Olde Hansa's dishes are made from top-quality meats, as well as locally sourced fruits and vegetables in order to guarantee their freshness; this is reminiscent of how local cooks would have functioned in the fifteenth century. What's more, each dish has been carefully researched from authentic medieval documents and very closely reflect the way in which a meal in a wealthy household from the 1400s would have been prepared.
You may notice that potatoes and tomatoes (two name only two ingredients) are not used in any of their dishes. Building off the idea of authenticity, this is because they were not yet part of the European diet, having not been brought over from the "New Worlde". However, the use of spices is critical in Olde Hansa's cooking. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, saffron, mackerel, and cloves are all integral additions remaining at the heart of their food. These assist in a unique combination of flavours that allow for each dish to be simultaneously sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury.
Thankfully, many recipes have been preserved in the town hall record books, which are used today as a primary source for making culinary decisions in the restaurant's kitchen. As well, Olde Hansa has been collaborating with Medieval-era historians and researchers since 1999, who are able to make use of the many drawings that have survived the Middle Ages. With this in mind, even the presentation of food on your plate is authentic!
It is for this very reason that not a single morsel of food was left on my plate. How could I withhold scraping up every last drop when over half a millennia of effort was put into creating it?
At the end of our meal, after we had paid, our lovely waitress spoke to us a little bit about the history of the house twenty-first century patrons now dined in. It began when we asked which, if any, of the many paintings surrounding the dining areas were original. Proving correct my speculations, the only original pieces were the faded designs remaining on the scaffolding of the back dining area; a scarcely visible memory of once-vibrant colours. On this note, I also learned a few additional facts about the house (and medieval history, in general).
Both the house, as well as other wealthy homes of the time, often contained walls decorated in paintings depicting various stories — this could be anything from personal stories of the family's history, to favoured Biblical tales. Regardless of the story being told, the depictions always contained the faces of people living within the house. When the family moved into a new home, they would paint over the faces on pre-existing wall murals and replace them with their own family's faces. Similarly, when someone passed away they would do the same, replacing the deceased individual's face with a living member of the household.
With these new tidbits of information garnered, we finally said goodbye.
On our way out, we decided to exit through the restaurant's adjacent shoppe, seeking out a few treasures to bring home both for ourselves and to our families as unique souvenirs. After extensive meandering and a prolonged internal debate on what to purchase, I decided on a metal knife for my brother, two Antonius water or wine bottles for me and my mum (ochre coloured for my mum and a deep blue colour for myself), and a pack of sweet almonds for my dad.
By the time I stepped out of this Medieval realm and back onto the ancient cobblestone streets of Old Tallinn, it took me a moment to readjust to life in the 'now'. The ability to enjoy such a fun, informative, and delicious experience took a while to settle in. Even now, the more I think about the amazing time that I had at Olde Hansa, the more anxious I am to book a trip back to this spectacular city.
It's only a matter of time before I give in... I know that I'll be back in Estonia again, soon.
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