Extreme Estonian spring greens
Plants have barely begun to peek out of the ground and Estonians are already busy harvesting. Birches were tapped for sap (kase/mahl) and now cowslips, Primula veris or nurme/nukud are the first flowering plants to be picked; either fresh for salads or to be dried for tea. The name cowslip alludes to the plant's tendency to grow amongst cow patties (lehma/koogid) in pastures. The Estonian name nurme/nukk is considerably more romantic, meaning "doll of the field / grassland". I wouldn't dream of pick these scarce, seemingly sacred flowers at our Kotkajärve cottage, but since they abound in the Estonian countryside, tossing them up in a salad doesn't serve up feelings of guilt. Photo: Riina Kindlam
Blame urbanisation: being cut off from your mullased (soil covered) roots, becoming a store snob... It just seems somehow kohatu (out of place; weird) to gather and eat plants that abound in the wild close to home. Like dandelions (või/lill). You know there's nothing really wrong with them, yet there's a slight aversion felt towards a plant that pops up in your face from every crack in the sidewalk (kõnni/tee). As a kid in Toronto, I remember hearing that local Italians made and ate dandelion salad. That somehow made it okay, since they're people who know what they're doing when it comes to food. Usaldus/väärsed – trustworthy. Nowadays it seems rukola is just glorified võilill.
Estonians in Estonia aren't as wary of what sprouts from the earth. City folks maybe, but a lot of "maa/rahvas", (country folk) still experience or at least inherently remember what it feels like to have your root cellar empty by early spring. The first cure was NAAT – Aegopodium podagraria, commonly called ground elder, herb gerard, bishop's weed, goutweed, and snow-in-the-mountain. It's not showy snowy in Estonia; quite non-descript really and extremely common, downright invasive. But when young and fresh, it's a fantastic first shot of vitamins and iron. I chopped some into a salad for the first time in my life on Mother's Day on Saaremaa island. I also threw in some freshly picked nurmenuku (cowslip) flowers and leaves, collected from what we call "lehma/maa" – cow land, although there are no cows grazing there yet; i.e. no slipping of any kind on lehma/koogid.
A impromptu poll of people around me revealed that two families had made naadi/supp or ground elder soup on the weekend. Naadi/pesto is another wonderful option, since pesto can be made from many fresh dark, intense greens incl. the classic basiilik (basil), rukola, young dandelions, naat... (Red pesto made from Estonian beets is also amazing.)
The other early-to-sprout green that rises alongside naat is NÕGES (nettle). And naturally my mother-in-law was already out picking and the first batch was drying on the top of the wood-burning stove for use as tea. Kõrve/nõges = stinging nettle. To avoid having sting in your mouth, it is quickly kupatatud = parboiled. 30 sekundit should suffice and then it can go on to star in soup or pesto. But it can also easily be baked into pirukad, quiche, or pannkoogid.
KARU/LAUK, wild garlic, bear's garlic or ramsons can easily be mistaken for the leaves of Lily of the Valley. They are another early spring favourite, that is widely used in any recipe that could benefit from the usual clove garlic or green onions. Our köök (kitchen) witnessed a pasta sauce in which chopped karulauk was blended with 2 egg yolks, whipping cream, olive oil and pumpkin seeds. The blending was done with a hand blender – nui/mikser or sau/mikser. Nui = club and sau = baton or stick.
Next we await the arrival of hapu/OBLIKAS – sorrel and spruce buds. Indeed! I've been reading about the use of KUUSE/VÕRSED (spruce buds) in pesto, vinaigrettes and võie (spread) in Estonian cookbooks for years. It's time to gather and experiment without hesitation. But I won't lie to you: the karulauk was bought from old Russian ladies at Tallinn's Kesk/turg (Central Market) and the rest of my greens were harvested from the untouched depths of Saaremaa. But who knows, a mets/kits (Roe deer) might've relieved itself on my patch of naat. But since all said greens are consumed only when very young and delicate, even those born of urban soil have probably not had a chance to gather much of anything kahtlane (dubious) yet. Soak all your fears away. And know that you are not looked upon viltu (as strange) if you start picking greens in a park or on a roadside.
Riina Kindlam, Tallinn