Dear David Beckham, here’s 6 Estonian essentials for your new sauna
You’ll need a new hat for a start.
The eye-catching wooden sauna was built in the small village of Leie, which is in Viljandimaa along the northern shore of Võrtsjärve, the largest lake entirely in Estonia.
This made headlines both in the UK – where the press marvelled at his seemingly extravagant purchase and its unusual igloo-style design – and in Estonia where saunas are a way of life and there is enormous pride that it will be part of his life too.
As a fellow Brit who has learned to love Estonian saunas (and also owns an Iglucraft sauna), I thought I should point out a few more things you might want to buy next from Estonia… just in case you happen to be reading this, David.
By the way, I chose the suitsusaun (smoke sauna) version, which is based on an older heating technique used in Estonia and I’d also recommend getting one of these next. Here’s what it looks like inside when it’s heating up:
You are definitely welcome to come and try it at Rangi saun next time you are visiting Tallinn.
For now though, here’s my advice about a few more items you might want:
(a sauna hat)
David, you’re the last person in the world that needs fashion advice – and I’m probably the last person in the world who can give it. But I can’t help but notice that you need a new hat.
Your new sauna will heat up to about 80 to 100 degrees Celsius, although it’s actually the humidity that makes the temperature feel hotter when you throw water on the rocks and generate leil (sauna steam).
Your hair and the top of your ears will feel it the most so a good felt hat will keep them both cool and enable your whole body to enjoy and benefit from the hotter temperatures more comfortably. Felt sauna hats are a tradition that originates in Russia, although it’s become more popular in Estonia too in recent years.
I recommend buying sauna hats for your family and guests from Maarja küla, which has a very varied and creative selection for sale so it’s always fun to see who chooses which hat. Maarja küla is a community that provides welfare and employment to people in Estonia with mental disabilities so producing and selling these sauna hats is just one way that they are able to sustain fulfilling lives.
After leil, the most revered element of a good Estonian sauna is viht (or vihad in plural). These are the branches that Estonians have been using to beat themselves – and each other – inside the sauna since longer than records can recall.
The affect is somewhere between massage and exfoliation, although using them also circulates warm air around the sauna with the rich aroma of the forest. Plus, it’s nice to keep ancient traditions alive and that includes the process of venturing into the forest to prepare them.
Birch is most commonly used, although oak and juniper are also popular in Estonia. You can actually use any branches that are neither thorny nor toxic – including nettles if you are really brave!
Most types of branches need to be collected at a specific time of year then preserved for use throughout the year. This is usually just before jaanipäev (midsummer’s night) when the stems are firm but the leaves are soft. We put together a guide for doing that here:
Here's how sauna whisks are made in the forests of Estonia
Estonians have been beating themselves in the sauna with bundles of branches for longer than records recall.
I’m not sure how easy it is to collect branches around your sauna in the English Cotswolds, but we collect our own from a forest in Viljandimaa, not far from where your sauna was built in Estonia. You are welcome to join us next year!
A cold plunge pool
A good way to assess whether you’ve been in the leiliruum (hot room) long enough is if you start thinking there would be no better feeling in the world than jumping into ice cold water.
A lot of Brits think of saunas as just those hot rooms, but the sauna is actually the entire experience around it too. So cooling down is just as important as warming up.
David, it’s not clear from your photo if you have some nice cool water to jump into between those sessions in the hot room, but we’ve got a good idea if not. Estonians also love a tünnisaun (wood-fired hot tub), but if you don’t heat it then it’s also the perfect place to cool down while using the sauna.
Don’t be fooled by those warm smiles in the picture above. The temperature was proper Baltic – but it’s also one of the best and most exhilarating feelings in the world. The only thing that comes close was watching the 93rd minute of England vs Greece in 2002 when you bent the final goal into the back of the net and enabled England to qualify for the World Cup.
Saunasnäkid ja -joogid
Sauna snacks and drinks
You probably already understand the importance of drinking plenty of water while enjoying the sauna. In addition though, Estonians traditionally sat down for a meal after their Saturday sauna and often like to enjoy snacks and other drinks (in moderation along with lots of water) in-between sessions too.
Estonians can sometimes seem reserved in public, but that’s because they are straight talkers who tend to be efficient with their words. Over food and drink in the sauna however, this is when we really open up and raise the volume.
Some of the best Estonian sauna snacks include smoked fish, smoked cheeses, and open sandwiches made with black bread and topped with herring or sprats followed by a big dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill. For the meal afterwards, we’d recommend something fairly light but rich in goodness, such as hapukapsasupp (sauerkraut soup).
To understand the significance of food and drink at an Estonian sauna, there’s a brilliantly researched book by Tamara Habicht (currently only printed in Estonian) called Eesti saun.
EESTI SAUN. SAUNAKOMBED MEIE PÄRIMUSKULTUURIS: Tamara Habicht - Raamat | Rahva Raamat
EESTI SAUN. SAUNAKOMBED MEIE PÄRIMUSKULTUURIS [TAMARA HABICHT] Rahva Raamatust. Kohaletoimetamine alates 24h ja tasuta.…
Estonian sauna culture is very similar to Finnish sauna culture because both share a Finno-Ugric origin. However, Habicht documented some of the interesting ways that Estonian sauna culture was affected by the country’s more turbulent 20th century. Under the Soviet occupation, Estonians had less resources to modernise their saunas but many did keep adding larger eesruumid (pre-rooms) next to their leiliruumid (hot rooms) so there was more space for food and drink. There was one particularly good reason for this: Under the planned economy of the Soviet regime, the sauna became a particularly useful place to engage local officials involved in the allocation of resources.
Fortunately, those days are long over and we can enjoy good Estonian food and drink without having to invite a local official over.
Estonians traditionally used their saunas to smoke their food too before going into bathe themselves, although you can also choose from a great selection of outdoor smoke ovens and fire pits to use alongside your sauna. Our fire pit was made in Tartu by Stoveman:
By the way, Estonia may have a small population but it has a huge selection of good craft beer. One of our favourite (and perhaps the most unique) craft beer is made by Tanker Brewery and is called Sauna Session.
Sauna Session is made with birch leaves, like those we use to beat ourselves in the sauna, so it has a very authentic sauna taste.
It’s not clear from the picture whether you have a wood-burning or electric stove, but you might want to consider having both – especially after you see this.
HUUM is another excellent company that represents the very best of modern Nordic design and innovation for our ancient sauna tradition. They make beautiful sauna stoves and their electric ones come with both an app and an ‘UKU’ remote control.
You can leave the remote control in the main house to heat it up without venturing outside or you can use the app while you are on your way home so that the sauna is ready by the time you arrive.
This one isn’t strictly about saunas, David, but you are already sharing Estonian culture so you might want to actually join our country too.
Estonia is a digital country where almost everything can be done online from anywhere in the world (even inside a sauna) using our secure digital identities. To prove it, last year I established my own company from inside a sauna and just this week I took part in a public test of our e-voting system inside a sauna.
These digital identities were first issued by Estonia in 2002 to citizens and residents, but Estonia then also became the first country to offer ‘e-Residency’ in 2014 so that anyone else in the world could apply to obtain one. Our very first e-resident was another Brit — the Economist Senior Editor Edward Lucas — and he’s also a big fan of Estonian saunas. He’s got one in his British garden too!
The primary reason that so many people apply for e-Residency though is because they can then establish and manage a trusted EU company entirely online from anywhere in the world, not necessarily in a sauna. As you can imagine, that’s been particularly popular with Brits since Brexit begun.
Just this week though, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid unveiled the future direction of e-Residency and a significant part of that will involve helping e-residents share more of Estonian culture. You are already one step ahead, but I know Estonians would love to help you learn even more. You can read more about e-Residency 2.0 from the head of the programme, Kaspar Korjus here or you can apply for e-Residency here.
You can then collect your Estonian digital ID card from the Estonian Embassy in London. In fact, they were the ones that nudged me to write this article and if you need another incentive then I understand that there is plenty of Sauna Session craft beer there too..
About ‘Estonian Saunas’
Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.
Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.
Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.
We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.
In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.
Finally, you can email us at email@example.com.