Cafe Maiasmokk & Chocolala, Preserving and Rediscovering Tallinn’s glorious past

There were during the Russian era of control of Tallinn, two narratives to the city: the Tallinn of the Estonians in subdistrict like Kalamaja and the Tallinn of the Baltic Germans in the city.

While the people in the outskirts lived in poor conditions and performed hard labour, the life of the people in the city was a lot more comfortable. In an effort to suppress rising Estonian nationalist sentiment, the Russians gave more rights to the Baltic Germans.

The old town of Tallinn therefore developed like any bustling city in Europe of the age, wonders of the 20th century were brought into their lives such as homemade chocolates, marzipan and cafes.

Throughout the last century, where things got exceedingly difficult for the Estonians, some of these things disappeared. But the new Tallinn is changing all this, some stalwarts have preserved that glorious era in the city, now to be shared with the whole country, others have taken a romantic notion of the past and reintroduced them to the locals. This is the story of a preserver and a rediscover – Cafe Maiasmokk and Chocolala.

It was a cold dark morning, and what we really needed as a pick-me-up was a good cup of coffee. So off we went in search. The lights outside the cafe glowed with a warm yellowish-orange tinge, contrasting with the cold-grey all around. It called to us.

The door opened into a world of classical elegance.

We had stepped into Cafe Maiasmokk, the oldest cafe in all of Estonia, and one that has retained its interiors since the 1900s. Green floral tiled floors, shint wooden walls with mirrors to enlarge the space, intricate and beautiful round tables and booths for guests to sit, at the window a gold painted wheel turning with beautiful glass and saucers.

Cafe Maiasmokk, which means Sweet Tooth Cafe in English, is famous for selling marzipan. Marzipan, while still appreciated today was was particularly enjoyed beginning in the early 20th century as an artistic medium to add to the visual deliciousness of the cakes.

Cafe Maiasmokk also has a museum that is dedicated to the beauty of these marzipan ornaments, it almost feels like a sin trying to consume them.

The whole cafe was so bourgeois that it is a minor miracle it survived throughout the Soviet occupation. Third things probably saved it. First, despite being a Soviet satellite, the people of Estonia were never really enarmoured with socialism and had no desire to go down destroying anything that looked like it did not belong to the proletariat. Second, it was headquarters to Kawe (later Kalev) the one confectionery that was allowed to exist in the then Soviet satellite state. Third, even Socialists like sweets.

We walked out all warm and fluffy on the inside ready to soldier through a cold winter day in Tallinn.

I’m not really a chocolate guy, but a fortuitous trip to the Maestrani Chocolarium in Switzerland got me fascinated about the process of chocolate making by Chocolatiers.

So when the opportunity arrived to check out handmade chocolates and learn the process, I jumped at the chance.

It happened to be a great chance to buy souvenirs from Tallinn too. The chocolatier was called Chocolala and was located just outside the old town of Tallinn. Unlike the old town Chocolala is not an old established name but is in fact a rather new one.

Despite its relative youth, Chocolala is an award winning chocolatier that makes all their chocolates by hand with natural ingredients and inspired by local cuisines.

Estonian chocolate doesn’t quite have the cache of Swiss or Belgian chocolate, but it’s history is no less fascinating. Something that this amazing chocolatier documents in a small free-to-enter musuem located at the basement of the shop.

The story of Estonian chocolate is intimately tied with the physicial location of Cafe Maiasmokk, because it was there on Pikk Street that the first chocolate factory was opened in Estonia in 1806. It was set up by Loren Caviezel who learnt his trade in Switzerland. In 1846, George Studde boought over the factory from Caviezel, redesigned it and set up a cafe that sold chocolates and marzipan. His chocolates were so well known that the Russian Tsar was among his regular clients.

It was in 1901 that mass produced chocolate was made available for the masses when August Brandmann set up the Nurr confectionary factory in Tallinn. More and more factories opened Orjol (1906), Kawe (1921) being some of the most famous. By the 1930s, Tallinn itself had some 120 different confectioners, however all this came to an abrupt end in 1940 when the USSR decided that all private companies would be merged into a single publically owned one – Kawe, later called Kalev. Kalev still exists today.

The decline of USSR led to chocolates being one of the last items that people even wanted. And was into this milieu that the founder of Chocolala, Kristi Lehtis, grew up. She had grown up just as the Soviet Union was in the verge of collapse and the luxuries of life had disappeared from the shelves of stores.

Those harsh times brought back memories of the good old days of the 1930s that Kristi’s grandparents recounted with fondness.

While the days of chocolate shelves have gone, high quality handmade chocolate was not something available in Estonia, and that was when a Chocolala was born. Kristi Scoured Tallinn to learn from aging, retired masters of the trade how chocolates and pate de fruit were prepared in the 1950s and make them those traditions in their store today. Today, Chocolala is widely considered one of the best chocolate makers in the country, a re-florescence of a once-proud Chocolate industry.

The cafe that preserves Tallinn’s past located still on the very street and site where Tallinn’s sweet tooth first began, and the chocolatier that re-discovers Tallinn’s chocolatier history located next to the city’s Freedom Square,

there’s something wonderfully apt in all this…

ON THE MAP (Chocholala)

ON THE MAP (Cafe Maiasmokk)

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