Vastlakuklid: The history of Estonia's traditional Shrove Tuesday treat

An extra large lenten bun on Shrove Tuesday in Tartu. Feb. 13, 2018.
An extra large lenten bun on Shrove Tuesday in Tartu. Feb. 13, 2018. Source: (Aili Vahtla/ERR)

On Vastlapäev (Shrove Tuesday), thousands of buns — vastlakuklid — topped with whipped cream, marzipan, jam and many other things will be sold and eaten across Estonia. But where did they come from?

This article was first published in 2022.

ERR News spoke to Reet Bender, associate professor of German Language and Culture and the head of the Department of German Studies at the University of Tartu to find out more.

Vastlakuklid have been in the shops for several weeks already, but they are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent and the start of the 40-day fasting period.

Traditionally, this means fresh ingredients had to be used up before fasting began so they were used to make extravagant desserts. Variations of the bun are also found in most Nordic countries, such as semlor in Sweden or fastelavnsboller in Denmark.

Vastlakuklid were introduced to the region by the Baltic Germans who dominated the cultural space from the middle ages onwards. In what would become the Baltic states, the Baltic Germans were very influential, Bender said, as Estonians worked for them.

"Estonians and Latvians were peasants and took many words, traditions and food culture elements from them," she told ERR News.

Extra large lenten buns with strawberry and drizzled chocolate at Saiapood in Central Tartu on Shrove Tuesday. Feb. 13, 2018. Source: (Aili Vahtla/ERR)

One of these was vastlakuklid — although there are quite a few differences between the buns of the past and the present. While the buns we buy today are typically served cold they used to be served hot and were known as "heiße Wecken" or "hot little breads".

Bender said there are recipes dating back from the 18th century which show how luxurious these sweet treats were.

"Nowadays we are eating this very simple variant - this pastry is hollowed out and whipped cream is added inside of it," the expert said.

"But in older Baltic German times there were many recipes actually and the upper part was cut off and the inside was hollowed out and it was made into a new filling with rose water, butter, milk, almonds, vanilla, sugar, raisins. This new filling was put back into the little bread, covered and put back into the oven. And this is why they were called "hot breads" because there was served fresh from the oven."

Vastlapäev at the Open Air Museum. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Cream started to be used before the Second World War and archival documents show it was possible to buy cold buns with this filling from bakers at this time.

The use of cream in Estonian and Latvian desserts is very common because these societies have been agrarian so it has always been available "even during the bad times".

Bender says this may have been because it was easier for them to be mass-produced. "But at home, everyone could make it hot with all these wonderful fillings," she said.

The reason the buns are still sold in this simpler format is that it is possible people do not know that there was another way to make them, Bender added. Although in recent years they have been becoming more extravagant again.

"Maybe its because of our history too. We are used to this easier and simpler ways," she said.

The 'Stopfkuchen' (vastlakuklid) card from the Baltic German "homesickness" card set designed by Heinz Pirang. Source: Reet Bender / Carl-Schirren-Gesellschaft, Lüneburg/Germany.

The buns had a special place in the hearts of Baltic Germans, Bender said, and this is evident from packets of "homesickness" cards made by a Baltic-German artist called Heinz Pirang in 1947.

The artist made the cards when he was a refugee in post-war Germany and they included 40 "important objects" from Estonia and Latvia such as churches, cities, foods and people.

One of the four foods included in the pack is the vastlakukkel, also known as the Stopfkuchen. "They associated it with their lost homeland."


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Editor: Helen Wright

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