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November 4, 2013

European capital's delicacies reveal its rich past

During a too-brief visit to Tallinn, Estonia,  this summer, I devoted an afternoon to an eye-opening tour that gave me a taste of foods served in the days when the city - the oldest capital in Northern Europe - was a rich Hanseatic League town named Reval.

After linking up with guide Iveta Mandla, a charming lady who leads groups through Tallinn's Old Town, we started off on a romp that included four tasting stops and had turned into a complete dinner by tour’s end.

Our first stop was the Old Town Pharmacy, the oldest in continuous use in Europe, for a sample of marzipan, the tasty confectionery made with sugar or honey and ground almonds from an "ancient recipe."

No exact date chronicles when the pharmacy, thought to be the birthplace of marzipan, opened. But records show it already had its third owner in 1422.

The "raeapteek," as the pharmacy is called in Estonian, still stocks medicinal essentials such as aspirin and cough syrup. But at one time  patrons could also find things like swallow’s nests, burnt hedgehogs, bat powder - even unicorn horn powder - in the pharmacy inventory.

Later, a quick but fascinating stop at Haa Eesti Asi gave me a look at a foodie’s dream emporium. In between sampling several tasty foods, I jotted down the names of things that caught my eye including Estonian cheeses; flavored honeys; crackers made from blueberries, cranberries or black currants; as well as canned bear meat, wild bear terrine, moose meat, jarred eel and moose and horse sausage.

Moving on to the town’s 1404 City Hall, we stepped into a candlelit, brick vaulted, Medieval tavern on the first floor where ladies in period garb handed us bowls of delicious elk and wild boar soup along with meat pies that resembled a flaky croissant.

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