The Modern-Day Devils of Põhjaka Manor
The Tallinn-Tartu highway is probably the most cursed road in Estonia. The traffic is much heavier than it could be. It demands the full attention of the driver and quite tires him out by the end of the drive. It is good to be in Tartu, it is good to be in Tallinn, but often, the intercity drive is entirely avoided – all because of that road.
But it is much better now. Not because the seemingly never-ending work of the construction workers has finally achieved some sort of a result. It is because of that road sign, situated at a place that is almost at equal distances from both Tallinn and Tartu.
As soon as you see that sign, take your foot off the gas and make a turn! Once you have done that, you will do it every time the drive takes you from Tallinn to Tartu or back.
Põhjaka sounds a bit like Põrgupõhja, the farmstead from one of the most symbolic novels of Estonian literature, where a man resembling the Devil himself toiled away, doing hard work, and fought a perpetual battle with nature to achieve eternal bliss.
Time has passed and the Devils have become smarter. These days, they still fight their battles, but not alone.
The picture shows two of the three Devils of Põhjaka, Märt and Ott. Sitting at the kitchen window of their manor and rejoicing about whatever the third Devil, Joel, has brought from the woods.
The new eating place at Põhjaka Manor was the subject of expectant rumours long before it was opened. This had never been seen before – three top chefs from the kitchens of Tallinn's most expensive restaurants hanging up their ladles to dry, putting on overalls instead of aprons and turning an almost destroyed old manor situated in the most impossible of places into a restaurant themselves.
Although by now, aprons are back on and the ovens in the spacious kitchen are hot, Põhjaka is not nearly ready as a restaurant yet. Achieving bliss that quickly and that easily is still not an option, not even today and not even after joining forces.
It is not exactly known what Põhjaka is supposed to be in the end. Its final completion is so far away that the mind cannot grasp the idea.
However, the essentials are all there and the dining rooms of the manor are filled with people as soon as the doors are opened. Everything here is simple and natural. The interior, the food and the service.
The prices are affordable and the diners are diverse.
In the parking lot, a farmer’s clunker and a banker’s limousine stand side by side. Just like the men owning these cars sit by tables next to each other, and the thought “What is he doing here? This is a place for my kind only!” never crosses their mind.
However, there is a type of client that is considerably more preferred than any of the others. These are the local schoolchildren. In a way, these modern Devils have taken after Jamie Oliver, serving their food at the local school.
The food served at school is the same as the one here in the manor’s dining room. Fresh and healthy. As the Põhjaka School is small, the Devils have seen better results there than Jamie has in his country.
But preparing simple meals is by no means simple. Not anywhere. If the hardships were found in the kitchen, they could be overcome easily, but they are far beyond the kitchen.
Information on what is being served is published on the web site www.pohjaka.ee every morning. One thing is for sure – the food is always seasonal. As fresh as possible and as local as possible.
Sometimes it is even a shame to live in a non-totalitarian country. Think how easy it would be for an enlightened tyrant to issue an edict stating that as of tomorrow, all roadside caterers have to serve fresh and local food that they themselves have prepared.
Let us then at least hope that the example Põhjaka sets for other caterers is contagious. Extremely contagious. Maybe even to the extent of an epidemic.