At a time when juniper is in decline across the UK, mostly through poor land management, for a gin geek like me, a visit to an island where the plant is thriving promised to be quite an tonic.
But as I found out, as well as being a place of conservation, it is every bit a place of innovation. I met with Liisi Kuivjõgi at Orbu farm in pretty Leedri village who took time out to talk me through how they make their special syrup: and it is special. It has a taste and colour most similar to maple syrup but with subtle pine-forest notes, which admittedly doesn’t sound great to anyone familiar with 1970’s toilet cleaner. However, it is great, as are the various sauces and conserves all developed from the same process.
To make the syrup, they take fresh shoots from the new spring growth rather than berries. The shoots are steeped in water for four days then the resulting infusion is boiled down with sugar until rich and gloopy. This seems to give it a much subtler flavour, despite the rather vigorous syrup-making process.
Liisi and her sisters are planning. They are thinking about tapping their own birch and maple trees and seeing what new things they can make.
With a belly full of syrup, I grab some perfectly decent juniper beer made by Pihtla and head to my lodgings at the Aavikunurga Guesthouse in Randevere which are home to a different kind of innovation. As father of the modern Estonian language Johannes Aarvik, who grew up here, sought to standardise the various Estonian dialects. His methodical and open-minded approach included borrowing words from other languages like Finnish. It was readily adopted by the Estonian government and by doing so enabled a nation to be build in the inter-war years.
The next day I headed to the main town on the island, Kuresaare, for another meeting with some more innovators.
In the old electricity generating plant in Tolli Street, I met with Lisa who now brews Poide beer with her husband. With little experience but full of can-do spirit, they started brewing beer at home in Poide before up-scaling operations at their new building in Kuresaare.
Among a range of great beers, two stand out: The imperial brown ale and the rye beer which is like eating a slice of rich rye bread.
But leaving myself little time to linger, I went to visit another local produce provider. I met Maria and Inge at Idea Farm who have used their knowledge of food technology to grow the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices on a small-holding surrounded by beautiful woodland of pines, birches and of course juniper.
They make their own products which are available locally and through a little bit of personal exporting, also in Marlborough, England. Anywhere else, their small-holding with it’s neat rows of crops, would seem like a rural idyll, but on Saaremaare it’s just normal.
After grabbing a picnic, I headed for the beach, which meant walking through woodlands mixed with juniper. The sound of birds preparing nests and gentle waves lapping the shore while you can almost see the new juniper shoots pushing their way out a little further all serve to slow time down.
Sitting by the shore, nibbling some dried fish (I like it, but not to everyone’s taste), it’s a chance to reflect on what makes Saaremaa special. It is a beautiful island where juniper thrives. But what makes the island special is that it’s people have taken what nature has given them and made new things, all with a little love.