Olde Hansa: Medieval Dining in Tallinn
The capital city of Estonia, Tallinn, is home to one of the most unique travel experiences you can imagine in a Game of Thrones meets MasterChef way. Olde Hansa, a world-famous restaurant, offers authentic medieval dining to tourists and local foodies in a reconstructed medieval tavern. From the moment you step through the door, everything brings you back in time — drinks, food, costumes, plates, goblets, and music. Lucky us, we enjoyed a memorable dinner there and met with the chef who told us about creating recipes with resources and ingredients from the Middle Ages.
Debunking Medieval Food Myths
As Emmanuel Wille, Master Cook at Olde Hansa, explained:
All recipes at Olde Hansa are based on products that existed in Europe before Columbus discovered America in 1492 and that would have been served by a wealthy Hanseatic merchant to his guests.
Part of the fun in the meal is therefore “unlearning” what we think we know about medieval lifestyles.
For instance, potatoes — OK in a medieval stew? Wrong. Potatoes didn’t become an everyday vegetable until the 18th century. Chocolate pudding for dessert? Think again. Chocolate didn’t arrive in Europe until the late 1500s and was an expensive indulgence until the 19th century.
The worst reviews on TripAdvisor are quite enlightening on what people assume wrongly about medieval dining. A diner moans that the restaurant serves no sweet potatoes — the lovely spuds were only brought back to Europe after Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the Americas. Another diner is unhappy that they had to ask for forks. The truth is, forks didn’t really get used until the 1600s and those that existed were serving items — two-tined forks used to hold roasts down while carving. So, no forks would not be outlandish in a medieval setting.
As you see, medieval dining is very different from a 21st century dining experience so it’s best to come with an open mind. Welcome to Olde Hansa!
Discovering Olde Hansa
It’s 7pm on October 29, 2016 and we are meeting up with a representative from the Estonian Tourist Board who is taking us to Olde Hansa. On a clear and cold autumn evening, the cobbles are still wet from rain showers when we reach the imposing mansion housing the restaurant. With my family, we are very intrigued. Will it be tacky and cringy, like that Dracula restaurant in Romania, or tastefully executed? Will we eat savory gruel with a wooden spoon all evening? We have so many questions.
Setting the Mood for Medieval Dining
As soon as we step inside, we are greeted by a young man in the staircase on the way to the first floor dining room. Wearing leggings and a tunic, he welcomes us in medieval phrases, holds a ceramic pitcher of warm water and invites us to wash our hands over a bowl before dinner. Contrary to popular belief, people were pretty big on cleanliness in the Middle Ages as they were afraid of germs that poor body hygiene would bring on (and rightly so).
Now, we could eat dinner with our bare hands (tempting) but opt for spoon and knife before sitting down at a long wooden table. Hand-painted foliage garlands and people scenes adorn the walls.
Complementing the medieval mood, three women play 15th music on instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy, fiddle, bagpipes, and flutes. In front of us, pillar candles cast a diffuse warm light over appetizers — bowls full of cranberries, fermented cabbage, carrots, apples, fresh herb cheese and pâté. Time to dig in.
What is Medieval Food?
Forget potatoes and tomatoes. At the same time as the Italian Renaissance, rich merchants would have dined on hunted local game and fish, berries, nuts and mushrooms foraged in the forest, grains grown locally and because food needed to be preserved a long time without refrigeration, a lot of fermented foods. Picture this.
Local Food & Forests
The words “forest” and “woods” make regular appearances in my conversation with the Master Cook and I have to wonder. How can anybody realistically and reliably source food from forests in the 21st century?
With 50% of its territory covered in forests, Estonia is the 5th most forested European country in percentage, vs only 12% forest cover in the UK and 29% in France. This abundant forest cover means large expanses of trees or nature, including Lahemaa and Soomaa National Parks (which we have visited) protected as Natura2000 sites.
With so much forest cover, foraging for mushrooms is as normal a family activity as for us, buying supermarket mushrooms. Estonian kids grow up knowing which mushrooms are edible or poisonous, which berries taste good in syrup, when’s the best time of the year to eat this or that. It feels like a proper Waldorf School education, doesn’t it?
Estonians have a very strong nature connection in all seasons and this goes well beyond mushrooms.
Hazelnut is the only nut that grows in Estonia but it’s not grown commercially. You just go into the woods and pick hazelnuts, the same way you pick mushrooms and berries. You don’t need a permit for this.Emmanuel Wille, Master Cook at Olde Hansa
As a matter of fact, the Olde Hansa purchases its hazelnuts and wild mushrooms from local foragers. When hazelnut bread pops at our table along with mushroom soup, we enjoy it even more knowing that the ingredients were harvested by hand in a real forest. It sounds very fairytale like. The same Master Cook tells me he harvests young pine needles in the spring to make them into a Vitamin C-rich syrup and rosehips in late fall to make sweets.
Fascinated does not even begin to describe how I feel. This restaurant is all about foraging, wild foods and seasons – my favorite things!
Medieval Dairy & Meats
By extension, the “eat local” spirit applies to dairy and meat. The restaurant sources its cheeses from a local farmer and — you may need to sit down — its boar, moose, elk and brown bears from local hunters.
Yes, bears. Imagine our shock when we realize that the Olde Hansa has brown bear on the menu. It’s not a typo but then, this food is historically accurate for a medieval dining experience.
Still, this makes me uneasy. Does this threaten brown bear populations in Estonia? I’m no expert but from what I read, the brown bear population of Estonia amounts to 700 to 800 individuals and is considered stable (whatever “stable” means). Olde Hansa buys roughly 10 brown bears from hunters every year (in frozen cuts). For a better picture, it would be useful to know how many bear hunting permits are issued per year and how that impacts the bear population but I don’t have that information. I only know that bear is on the menu. To be precise, it’s on the table.
Out of curiosity, we taste a small portion of slow-cooked brown bear and my two girls love it. Same goes for the elk steak in mushroom sauce and boar sausages. Unsurprisingly, people in the Middle Ages appreciated good food too.
Spices & Medieval Dining
Another important aspect of medieval dining lies in the use of spices that were commercially available in the Middle Ages. Rewinding the clock 500 years, we find out what spices were sold in Europe.
To show off his wealth, the Hanseatic merchant’s cooks would have seasoned dishes with spices brought by ship from faraway countries – cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, saffron and cloves. Despite the enormous challenges linked to land and sea travel, the world was not as closed or siloed as we imagine it. During the Age of Discovery, maritime trade flourished in Europe, new routes to the “East Indies” were explored, and spices were as prized as gold or silver.
It’s with great delight that we sample cucumber marinated with saffron and cinnamon beer, as well as other dishes using local flavors — juniper berry cheese, pine needle wild boar sausages, caraway winter sauerkraut. It’s truly a feast, both for the eyes and the mouth.
Medieval Sweets & Drinks
Perhaps the most familiar part of the menu is dessert. Our medieval meal ends on an apple pie with almond milk and rose pudding with honey. Drinks are a tad more exotic.
All through dinner, we’ve been sampling foxberry juice, honey beer and as a special nightcap treat, Master Cook Wille brings us 6-year old schnapps infused with caraway, juniper berries, vanilla and pepper.
It’s amazing. I enjoyed this meal four years ago and still remember it as if it were yesterday.
As we step outside Olde Hansa in nocturnal Tallinn, we know that this was a very special meal, a truly immersive food and cultural experience.
We are also grateful for the warm welcome we received at Olde Hansa and even more grateful to the Estonian Tourism Board for sponsoring the evening as Olde Hansa is not cheap. Having some background on the food we ate certainly added an interesting dimension to our meal and helped us sample foods we would not have considered otherwise.
From the comfort of your home, I hope that you enjoyed this armchair travel experience and that when real travel resumes, you will be tempted to visit Estonia and Olde Hansa.
Disclaimer: the Estonia Tourism Board sponsored this meal. However, this is an honest review of my medieval dining experience at Olde Hansa.