When viewed from the top of the ferry deck, the isle of Muhu stretches out over a flat green plane. The coast is accented with patches of sandy beaches and the occasional rock that sticks up above the foamy fringes of the calm Baltic water. The journey from the mainland port of Virtsu is only a 40 minute crossing by ferry, but Estonia’s third largest island embraces the kind of ethereal draw that only a separation by water can inspire.
For a short spells in the winter, the boundary between land and sea becomes blurred when the coastal regions of the Baltic Sea freeze over, creating a natural ice road that’s even possible to drive across. In late May though, when the long “White Nights” of the summer have already taken a hold, the ice roads are long gone and the frequent car ferry links not only Muhu to mainland Estonia, but also the country’s largest island, Saaremaa, which is connected to Muhu by a 2.5 km rocky causeway.
Estonia is a small country with a population of around 1.3 million. Outside of its capital Tallinn and perhaps larger towns like Tartu, the empty countryside feels like it’s been reclaimed by nature. Thick fir forests and fields carpeted with blue cornflowers and yellow rape lie untouched by the world of industrialisation and urbanisation.
On Muhu this low population density is especially felt, where the island’s inhabitants lie just shy of 2000. It’s a small community, but it’s a tightly knit one that lives by the seasons and the local flora and fauna. Amidst the tapestry of green and floral tones, walls constructed from piled moss-covered stones, said to have been stacked by the island’s women while the men were fishing out at sea, draw up the boundaries between the roads and agricultural land.
My first impression of Muhu is that this is a small, dare I say it, remote island, but my lasting one is that this is a place with a big heart and a unique place locals are only happy to share.
Muhu’s Literary Fishing Villages, Limestone Corners and Sheep Saunas
It takes very little time to cross to Muhu’s western part of the island to the historic fishing village of Koguva. The skies turned a moody grey after teasing with patches of blue and the wind lapped against the juniper bushes; plucking the blossoms from the apple trees with invisible fingers in the salty air. The island’s open-air museum capturing Koguva’s fishing and rural heritage lies contained within the original thatched-roofed houses divided between Muhu’s trademarked mossy stone walls.
The small village made its debut in written history during the 16th century, when Wolter von Plettenberg documented Koguva in a declaration of freedom bestowed upon a local village peasant named Hansken and his descendants .
The family eventually took on a new surname, Schmuul, and they are not only interesting for literally giving Kogova a recorded place in history, but also for their 20th century descendant, Juhan Schmuul, a writer esteemed for his books about life on the islands, but most notably about embarking on a Soviet expedition to Antarctica.
Today, the museum commemorates Kogova’s old life, where the well preserved and timeless stone houses are actually centuries old, with some dating as far back as Estonia’s Swedish rule, a period spanning the 16th to the 18th centuries.
“See the stone corners,” my guide Elle pointed to the white limestone edging of the old houses, “this is typical to Muhumaa. You might see this on other parts of the Estonia, but the style started here on the island.”
Inside the houses, preserved memories of Muhu’s village life lie exhibited. From the books by Juhan Schmuul spread out in the main house, translated into various languages to screen-caps from Estonian films bringing his fiction to life to artifacts and reconstructions from his life and village life.
Spinning wheels with flax, looms, a “Christmas goat” and fishing boats lie dotted around the barns, whereas inside Schmuul’s own study and bedrooms offer a glimpse into a past life behind the cordons. We then visited the old school nearby, which was set in a converted Lutheran church, where its low ceiling testified to a shorter generation in the past.
But the most curious part of the museum was the “sheep sauna”. While saunas made up a basic part of daily life in Scandinavia and the Baltic States, here the small stone hut, its floor strewn with straw, served a dual purpose as a sheep pen and as a sauna for the village inhabitants. Saunas in Estonian village life were social places, a far cry from the whispered tones of elegant luxury spas. Saunas became a place where people came to socialise with their friends and neighbours.
All this talk of sheep and saunas somehow worked up an appetite, and it was finally time to sample some of Muhu’s local cuisine.
The Surprising Gastronomy of Estonia’s Third Isle
Baltic cuisine is not high on the list in the culinary world, but Estonia’s innovation and creativity with locally sourced ingredients really should place the region on the foodie map.
My first taste of Muhu’s unique and delicious dishes came at Ingrem Raidjõe’s Nautse Mihkli Farm just outside of the island’s main town of Liiva. Dressed in Muhu’s local folk dress, sporting a white embroidered shirt and a saffron coloured woolen skirt, Ingrem welcomed us into her eco-farm, set in a traditional stone and wooden house not dissimilar to those in Kogova, except for the huge array of solar panels in the neighbouring field.
The table in the main hall was set with local wild flowers, baskets containing the local chewy, sweet rye bread and pitchers of water filled garnished with redcurrants and tiny fir sprouts that we soon discovered are a core ingredient in Estonian island cooking.
Ingrem and her family served up a feast featuring locally harvested delights, sharing her culinary secrets in her coffee-table cookbook “The Magical Meals of Muhu” as we waited between courses.
From a delicately flavoured fish soup made with the catch of the day with freshly picked wild garlic, to medium-rare ostrich steaks harvested from her mother’s farm just 200m away, topped with a juniper accented sauce and finished off with cloudberry, an amber coloured fruit resembling a raspberry, panna cotta.
However, Muhu’s gourmet cuisine continued beyond Ingrem’s kitchen at Nautse Mihkli Farm and on our journey back to the mainland at the end of the trip, we stopped off at Pädaste Manor, a luxury resort, for lunch at its signature Alexander Restaurant.
Set inside the restored manor house, Alexander has earned the title of being the “Best Restaurant in Estonia” over the years for its unique interpretation of Nordic Island Cuisine. Today, its in house chef Matthias Diether hails from Germany, who has several Michelin stars under his belt for the restaurants he led before coming to Estonia. What makes Alexander really pop in the culinary scene is that, like Nautse Mihkli Farm, its emphasis lies on locally sourced produce. Whether it’s the ostrich tartare from Ingrem’s mother’s farm or locally caught cod served with ramson (wild garlic) and herbs from the state’s own kitchen garden.
Pädaste Manor and Alexander may have the luxurious privilege of working with a top chef, who is also a poissonnier, it’s the local ingredients that take Muhu’s cuisine to another level. Alexander uses ingredients from its own kitchen garden and uses an in house forager who looks for the best ingredients from Muhu’s forests. Seasonal, fresh and local seems to be the culinary mantra on Muhu.
In the late spring, Estonia’s island cuisine is dominated by its Nordic berries, like cowberries, cloudberries and sea buckthorn, or local herbs like fresh ramson and fir buds. Juniper accents Estonia’s island dishes through rich syrups or juniper infused salt. Black bread, handmade from coarse rye, accompanies each meal, and is sometimes innovatively crumbled up onto appetisers and desserts. And of course, freshly caught fish or locally harvested lamb play a big role, too. Either way, meals on Muhu are a culinary journey that capture the island’s close knit relationship with nature.
How to Get to the Island
The easiest way to get to the island is to hire a car and drive from Tallinn and take the ferry to Muhu. But there are also a frequent bus services from Tallinn to Kuressaare (on Saaremaa Island), which stop on Muhu in the towns of Kuivastu (Muhu’s port town) and Liiva, you can find timetables here.
Where to Stay
Pädaste Manor $$$$$ – Set in a historic 15th century manor house, Pädaste is the ultimate luxury for those looking to escape into nature. The site lies on the coast of the Baltic Sea, with stretches of long forest walks on its ground and also close to the smaller Island of Lovers and the Island of Whores. It has its own spa on the ground, and also home to the top quality Alexander Restaurant.
Nautse Mihkli Farm Bed and Breakfast $$ – Located in a historic wooden and stone house, this eco-farm also offers accommodation for guests. It has a sauna and a garden, and the Ostrich Farm 200m away can be visited by guests, not to mention its own mini zoo. Of course, you can also find excellent food on the property.
Address: Mihkli talu, Nautse, Liiva, SA, Estonia
Luscher & Matiesen Muhu Winery $$$ – Wine and Estonia might sound like a strange combination, but this winery is the country’s first wine tourism farm, located close to a rocky beach. Its outdoor terrace with views over the vineyards offers a place to relax in the summer with a bottle of local wine or house apple cider made with the Champagne method (best opened with a spade!).