Interview/Words: Johanna Raudsepp
Historically, Tartu is somewhat notorious for its café traditions. The university town attracts young crowd from all over the country and abroad, so cafés have long served as socialising places for the youth. My grandmother would tell me stories about she and her friends enjoying fresh pastries at Café Werner before heading to lectures as a favourite pastime. Werner has been around since 1882, making it one of the oldest cafés in Estonia. Many Estonian writers and artists gathered there to play chess, read poetry, and of course, drink coffee. But times have changed and so has café culture. People’s lives have grown faster and it seems like we have simply lost connection with time to enjoy an indulgent drink or sit down for a chat.
Yet amid the hectic day-to-day life in today’s Tartu, there are those who choose to enjoy the little moments. Whether we are sipping coffee at a quaint local café before heading to work or venturing into a new hip restaurant at the creative district for lunch break, we try to embrace a slower lifestyle. And the city responds to the yearning. A new wave of cafés, bars and restaurants with sassy names are popping up all over the town, and we’re excited.
I sat down with Liis P., the owner of Aparaat, and Simone Cassano, of Barlova, and had my own little chat about what makes these cafés special and why they are still relevant today.
It seems that café culture, or the custom of going out for a coffee and a bite to eat with friends and colleagues, hasn’t died out, but is rather becoming more popular. Why do you think cafés still play an important role in our lives?
Simone: Because people are rushing everywhere and cafés can offer a nice solution for slowing down the hectic pace of life. A café can be a hideaway, where you don’t think about the daily chores, but just take a few minutes for yourself and your surroundings; for reading and observing. Hopefully you’ll meet a few people that you don’t know yet, but your roads cross at your favourite café.
Liis: I think part of the reason is that people have finally developed a habit of going out to eat. Also, some guests come to Aparaat just to sit and relax, whereas others come to get some work done on their laptop [to be more productive]. It provides a certain inspiring atmosphere, necessary for getting out of the daily grind. Some people specifically look for that bustling environment to experience the feeling of belonging. Our customers seem to enjoy the company of other people and like a crowd surrounding them…I think they come here to find just that.
In a way it’s like a counter-reaction then…
Simone: Yes! Yes, in a way it's like another world, another little world: outside everyone’s rushing and everybody’s going to work and they have errands to run… but cafés in the morning offer a nice pause, when you can have a little moment for yourself, practice people-watching and relax from your day job, your worries, daily comings and goings. Whereas, in the evenings, a café becomes a great place where people gather and meet up with friends to enjoy a night-out. Especially when it happens in an area like Karlova, where there are not many places to go by night.
“For me eating is all about taking time to cherish the flavours - you need to have time. […] Especially when I am with others, then I like to sit down at the table and spend time talking and tasting food, talking about the food. I am not the guy that likes to rush when it comes to eating. [In that case], I prefer not to eat at all!”
Liis: Aparaat is actually more of a restaurant, but also serves as a café during the day. Every now and then we also host concerts here — they create a cozy social atmosphere. I guess what attracted me to Tartu is the hometown charm — I live here myself. And of course the atmosphere the surrounding apparatus factory creates. So it just happened.
Simone: The bar allows you to be in a privileged position because you are not a customer, so you are allowed to speak to everyone and greet anyone, even people you don’t actually know. And maybe you don’t have to talk, but as a bartender you can! So, it’s a good opportunity to expand your social circle.
Liis: We had this idea [of having our own café] for a long while, and it took some time to take shape, but what helped is that we had a clear vision from the beginning, and that vision must have appealed to the public as well. We honestly didn’t expect to have so many guests so early on.
Every café has its own charm. What inspired the atmosphere at yours?
Liis: Aparaat has a kind of less-is-more vibe. We wanted to preserve the natural atmosphere of this site and, as you can see, we try to make all kinds of decorative elements ourselves, not to buy them from any general store. It definitely takes more time, and we’re still working on some things, like coat hangers, etc. The metal workshop, Nordic Metal Works, is a supporting partner of ours. Over there, you can see spiders on the walls. They’ve all been cut out with a laser. And there are puzzles on the window sills, also made of metal.
Simone: Definitely Karlova! The wooden houses and the people living here...I think Karlova is sort of a happy island in Tartu, because it’s home to many art students from the art school. So the mood that we were all in when building this place was just to create something that would fit the environment in Karlova.
“The best part is to be in contact with the many, many people you already know as guests, and especially to meet new people you haven’t met before — maybe they are completely different from you, but in front of a couple of cups of coffee or tea or a beer, it’s a little different scenario and energy.”
Liis: At Aparaat, we also try to recycle. For example, our chairs are old school-chairs, which have been repainted. We adamantly support Estonian design, for example, these plywood tables are by Kesselhaus. You can see plywood elsewhere too — in the children’s playroom, around the windows, also the counter. It’s a natural material that nicely balances out all the metal elements. We also value the durability of our furniture and decor. It is reflected in the way our dishes are served as well — handmade porcelain — every plate has it’s own feel!
Slow lifestyle cherishes the little moments in life. Ethical behaviour and going back to our roots and the nature, also plays a key role in it. Does your café follow similar principles? What’s your philosophy on time and food?
Simone: First of all, my philosophy about food is that it must to be good and I – as an Italian – I do give a lot of importance to excellent, good quality food. Surely, I cannot say that I am acting green, because I am importing food from Italy, and it requires transportation and energy and money. I’m thinking green every day, but at the same time for me it was very important to have a place in Estonia, where I could introduce people the importance of quality food and coffee.
Liis: Our philosophy is reflected in the way our dishes are prepared. We like pure flavours. That’s why we use only salt, pepper, honey and a variety of fresh herbs, like thyme and rosemary, to garnish the dishes. Our seasonal flavour-palette comes from all-natural ingredients. We might be in a robustious environment, but our food — the quality and presentation — is proper restaurant food.
Simone: The ugly truth is, we are not used to eating so well in Estonia; we don’t even care about food as much as we care about it in Italy. There we sometimes care even a little too much: we are truly strict and very fascist with the food, in a sense that we don’t even think that any other way of eating is possible — all the other ways of eating seem wrong to us.
“The sun was shining through the windows and ideas started flowing immediately. We’d been to many similar industrial environments, looking at the buildings. But here — the open space, the light, the history… Even though I hadn’t had personal contact with such factories before, there was something about this apparatus factory that enchanted me and attracted us to creating Aparaat.”
Liis: In our kitchen, we use as much Estonian produce as possible. Our vegetables are fresh, and everything is made from scratch from local raw produce. From meat, vegetables, cream and milk to the specific raw produce for vegans — nothing is pre-bought, so to say. If we make cutlets, we even grind the meat ourselves. All our meats and fish are fresh. We order our produce daily, so that we can ensure our customers get the best value out of our food.
Simone: For me eating is all about taking time to cherish the flavours — you need to have time. I mean, I don’t like to eat in a rush. Especially when I am with others, then I like to sit down at the table and spend time talking and tasting food, talking about the food. I am not the guy that likes to rush when it comes to eating. [In that case], I prefer not to eat at all!
Liis: We also try to vary our menu frequently, so that our regulars always have new, interesting dishes to try. And we do all this at lower prices than downtown eateries! This might be a part of the reason why we get so many customers. We want to continue to offer tasty, high-quality food at a lower price than elsewhere. So far it’s been working well for us.
What’s your favourite café-related memory? Why?
Liis: My favourite memory is probably quite recent, from when we first came into this old factory — we saw the potential the open factory space offered. The sun was shining through the windows and ideas started flowing immediately. We’d been to many similar industrial environments, looking at the buildings. But here — the open space, the light, the history… Even though I hadn’t had personal contact with such factories before, there was something about this apparatus factory that enchanted me and attracted us to creating Aparaat.
“We might be in a robustious environment, but our food — the quality and presentation — is proper restaurant food.”
Simone: I would say, perhaps memories that go back to the café at my university, when I was still living in Bari, Italy, because there you could have premium quality coffee for like... 60 cents – for a ridiculous price, that is. Also, the café at my school was a legendary meeting point [for us students] because teachers would have their coffee at the same time (we would even occasionally share a cigarette, laughs), which was a very memorable experience. And then, as I told you, the bar that completely changed my thinking about bars and cafés, was the one in Sevilla, [Spain], where I was working. There I met my dream of working in a café. And I made it happen.
Cafés used to provide a socialising scene for university students, but now the old and young alike embrace café-hopping as a way of slowing down the pace of life in the modern urban environment. The new variety of cafés hitting the streets of our beloved Tartu, like Aparaat and Barlova, surely help seize the day, one cup at a time.