Chef Toomas Leedu: before ordering your fish, check what’s on the plates of the local people

Text: Silvia Pärmann / Photos: Keili Tees, Margit Kõrvits, Silvia Pärmann / Travel Magazine “MO Saaremaa” 2019, Visit Saaremaa

Photo: The most famoust fish restoran in Saaremaa is located in Kuursaal

Chef Toomas Leedu who runs a summer fish restaurant Ku-Kuu in Kuressaare Kuursaal and who is going to open a new restaurant ’Lab’ this spring, is fascinated with everything that the land and the sea provide in the islands and he is giving recommendations as to what, when and where to eat. Because the innocent tourists who order flatfish in May, get a few sympathetic looks.

In summer Kuressaare definitely becomes the food capital of Estonia and the numerous White Guide stickers on restaurant doors signify the high level of the eateries of Saaremaa and Muhumaa. The islands whose food selection is high – ly dependent on the weather and who have been rather reluctant to accept foreign recipes, have a great variety of pure, delicious flavours to offer.

Where are the best places for local food? Is there any other food available apart from the local food in Saaremaa?

Kuressaare probably has about forty eateries and there are more in the whole of Saaremaa. Muhu is a close competitor, no doubt. In the village of Liiva you will find Koost and Tuul and in the immediate vicinity there are Muhu Veinitalu (Muhu Wine Farm) and Pädaste. They all have very strong concepts. The chefs really must make an effort not to fall behind. There are various places in smaller villages. For example, Tihemetsa Farm in Nasva serves warm smoked fish straight out of the oven. It’s really easy here, as everything grows literally by the restaurant door. Occasionally I feel sorry for the chefs in Tallinn as the city has grown so much that there is no space left for any greenhouses. We needed tomatoes for our chilly jam, the season was coming to an end and we had not placed our order. I got into car, drove around in town and I spotted some tomatoes in a greenhouse. I knocked on the door and asked whether we could buy a couple of buckets of tomatoes. So, we picked the tomatoes that we needed! Not everyone has discovered the local stuff yet, recently I ate out and there was kangaroo steak on the menu. It was unbe – lievable, as if the 1990s had returned, only the alligator was missing from the menu. When you travel and a chef in Japan serves mulgipuder (an Estonian dish of mashed potatoes, barley and optional pork), then would a native Estonian agree that it is actually mulgipuder? You can really cook the food that you have grown up with well and it’s in your genes. Lots of Estonian chefs have worked in top restaurants abroad. They return, making super dishes, using the techniques and the mindsets they have acquired, not the exotic ingredients.

How have eating habits changed on the island?

Traditional food has always been very poor. We should keep in mind that peasant food and manor cuisine are two different things altogether. Also the availability and preferences of food have changed. You open an old cookery book and you read a crayfish recipe that says: “Take 100 crayfish”. OK, that must be a wedding meal recipe but it actually turns out to be a meal for six. The fish have changed a lot, too. My partner’s mother is in her fifties and in her youth whitefish, eel and cod were all considered to be very common fish. Eel is still caught but it’s sold live and it costs 30 euros a kilo. I refuse to be part of this price inflation, so we rather cook something else in our restaurant. There is not much eel around here. There is less whitefish as well and you need to go further to catch it, like around the island of Ruhnu and to the Northern coast. Cod, the most common fish 30 years ago, has become very rare. People still eat lots of fish on the island. Today people tend to shy away, scared of the smell of fish sticking to their hands and thus they hardly ever cook fish at home. In the island people still do.

Is there something that people did not know how to eat but now it is on our tables?

Definitely seaweed – some restaurants are using it already. Agar is made of it and it can be used instead of gelatin. Juniper berries are picked for making gin and syrup. I must say that I am not a fan myself. People like to take it as a souvenir, it is extremely local. Some eat it with their pancakes, some with their ice-cream. Seasonality must be quite prominent in the islanders’ choice of food . What should we eat when? I open KuKuu at the end of April and then we will be expecting the pike to arrive. It normally arrives in the first weeks of May and the fishermen know where to catch it the earliest. I have got a deal with them that I always get the first pike. This way the pike arrives on my menu before it’s sold in the market. Some of the fish are available the whole year round but it’s always a good idea to ask the locals if it would taste good. When I came to the island, I made lots of mistakes that proper islanders would never make. I reckoned that the bigger the flatfish, the better the taste but the small ones taste much better although they are a nightmare to eat. Obtaining fresh fish is quite a saga to go through. I have my famous list of the local fishermen in my telephone. Everybody has his own spot for fishing. Summers are completely crazy for the kitchen staff. Fishermen’s calls start coming in in the early morning when they are still on the sea – then I am involved already. I often arrive in Kuursaal with the fresh fish only 15 minutes before opening, the waitresses waiting for the daily menu and their prices to be written on the menu. The computer in my head is trying to calculate the weight and price for fish. One of the cooks complained that the fish was too fresh. Too fresh material is a problem of a lucky cook – the fish tends to roll up on the pan when you put it on the heat too fresh, it’s complicated to fry it evenly. It all changes by dinner time. Our fish are often still alive when they arrive in the kitchen. A large meat tenderiser comes in handy. I never buy enough fish for several days, I am not going to serve five-day-old deep frozen fish. The customers are aware that the catch of the day might not last until the evening, thus they drop by in Ku-Kuu during the day and book their fish for dinner. We have tubs with notes “Seven-o’clock dinner table bass” and so on. Forests are rich in food too. I pick all my mushrooms myself, I have my own spots and once you have your spots, it’s easy. Within four hours you can pick a bootful of mushrooms. I have tens of kilos of ceps in my freezer ready for the next summer.

Is the autumn still quite busy in spite of the low tourist numbers?

Yes, it is. Autumn is the time to discuss my menu plans with farmers, so that they know how to plant the lettuce and vegetables. We have several excellent vegetable farms here. Rautsi farm is very popular with mainland restaurants as well. Jõe farm produces superb vegetables as well. Sheep farmers need agreements concluded, otherwise they would not slaughter any sheep in the summer. In March we are going to open a tiny restaurant Lab with a completely different concept in a smaller room of Kuursaal. Lab stands for laboratory and it’s going to be a venue for experiments. I am not going to practise molecular gastronomy, the kitchen is still going to run on salt, pepper and bay leaf but I would like to make food from the best raw material available through experimenting. I have got various blends brewing for drinks. Time will show if they are going to work. Lab will be a small place, open over the autumn and winter as well.

Have the islanders brought along exciting recipes or cooking methods from their distant voyages?

The island of Gotland has always been receiving our vodka and it has provided grindstones in return and there have been more distant destinations. Spicy sprats must have got their spices from somewhere for sure. However, when I recently tasted the Ukrainian spicy sprats they tasted exactly the same as ours. /