After finding Helsinki to be heaven for those who are gluten intolerant or have Celiac Disease, I was a little concerned that my first stop in the former Soviet Union – the true kick off of my year traveling through the former USSR – would be a bit more difficult. I was partially right about Tallinn, the capital of Estonia that sits just a short ferry ride away from Helsinki. It occasionally felt like I was on a wild goose chase to discover gluten free Tallinn.
Before visiting Estonia, I checked out the website of the Estonian Celiac Society (I thought it was a good sign that such a website even existed). It helpfully provided a list of gluten free friendly restaurants in Tallinn and a few other major cities in the country, as well as a list of grocery stores that should carry gluten free brands such as Schar’s and Glutano.
I found several of the restaurants in Tallinn. One did indicate gluten free items on their menu, but they were extremely limited. The only main course that was gluten free was ratatouille (which I don’t really care for). Two of the other restaurants, both in the heart of the touristy Old Town area, did not indicate anything gluten free on their menus and were far outside of my budget so I chose not to even try. A fourth restaurant, the Oliver Restaurant, was not listed on the Estonian Celiac Society web site, but proved to be a winner. Rather than highlighting gluten free items, it marked all menu items that did contain gluten. Upon consulting with the waitress, she said they could also try to alter other dishes to make them gluten free upon request. I ended up going with a simple grilled chicken with garlic and cheese potatoes, which were pretty good.
My mission on day two in Tallinn was to try to find a supermarket selling gluten free products so I could stock up for some breakfasts and lunches. The place that appeared to be closest to my hostel was called Kaubamaja. I found it on a map, checked and double checked the address, and set off to find it. I found a building that was apparently called Kaubamaja, but when I went inside, it seemed more like a large mall full of clothing shops, with no grocery stores anywhere in sight. I walked around the building and through the building multiple times, with absolutely no luck.
Luckily, my second stop was a success – the Stockmann department store on the edge of the Old Town. Stockmann is a Finnish chain, which includes a supermarket on the ground floor. There, I discovered a variety of gluten free breads, muffins, croissants and cookies, most of which were less expensive than what I found in Finland. And, similar to what I tried in Finland, everything I got tasted much better than most packaged gluten free products in the United States.
My final mission in Tallinn was to check out Rosso, a Finnish restaurant chain that allegedly offered gluten free pizza and pasta. It was located on the same street as my hostel, but about a 20 minute walk in the opposite direction from the Old Town area. Thus, for any tourists visiting Tallinn, Rosso is not conveniently located. However, it was definitely worth the effort to find it – I ended up visiting twice.
On my first visit, I went with a gluten free pizza – the Al Capone to be exact. Although named for an infamous Chicago figure, the Al Capone pizza consisted of pineapple, ham and blue cheese – something that I would typically think of as Hawaiian pizza. Not being a big fan of blue cheese, I ordered mine without. The pizza was huge, making it a great value for the 7 Euros I paid for it. The crust was extremely thin and very hard – it was actually difficult to cut through at times. While the crust was less than ideal, the pizza overall was ok. It is hard to ruin pizza, and I would eat this again if I was experiencing a pizza craving in Tallinn.
On my second visit, I decided to branch out and try their gluten free pasta. Although the menu stated that any penne pasta could be made gluten free, the waitress initially was confused and uncertain when I asked about getting the chicken penne pasta. She said she would have to check and then returned to inform me that they could make it gluten free, but it would take longer. I told her that was fine and went ahead with the order, slightly nervous about what I might end up getting.
The pasta came out looking and even feeling like regular penne pasta, leaving me even more nervous. But I took the chance and tried it, telling myself that a chain like Rosso which so prominently advertises its gluten free offerings would not screw up my meal. Sure enough, it all turned out okay. The pasta was slightly lacking in taste (the sauce was supposed to be a pesto sauce but definitely missed something). But again, if I wanted something reasonably priced and gluten free in Tallinn, I would probably try it again.
Finally, I had a few experiences eating at places that did not advertise themselves as offering anything gluten free. First, I tried the McDonald’s to see if they might happen to have gluten free buns as they did in Helsinki. No such luck and when I tried to order a burger without the bun, they got thoroughly confused. At a couple other restaurants I used my Estonian restaurant card that I got from celiactravel.com. Both times, the waitresses gave me very funny looks and I was skeptical whether they fully understood. But, I did end up with decent meals that did not make me sick, so apparently something went right in the translation. Either that, or I was just lucky.
I certainly was not as comfortable eating gluten free in Tallinn as I was in Helsinki, but I survived okay. And as I would soon realize, my efforts at staying gluten free would only get more difficult as I continued my career break travels in Russia.