Estonia's native folklore survived centuries of foreign domination thanks largely to a rich oral tradition of songs, verses and chants on subjects like the seasonal cycle, farming the land, family life, love and myths. The oldest Estonian song type, going back to the first millennium BC, is the runic chant, based on lines of 8 syllables with a theme gradually developing from line to line.
Modern Estonian literature began in the early 19th century with the poems of Kristjan Jaak Peterson. The national epic poem, Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), was written in the mid-19th century by Freidrich Reinhold Kreutzwald. The giant of 20th century Estonian literature is novelist Anton Hansen Tammsaare. Novelist Jan Kross and poet Jaan Kaplinski have recently received international acclaim.
Like Finnish, Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, which sets it apart from Latvian, Lithuanian and Russian (all members of the Indo-European language family). It's a very Nordic-sounding language with lots of deep 'oos' and 'uus'. Lutheranism and Orthodoxy are the main religions, but only a minority of Estonians profess any religious beliefs.
Smoked fish, especially trout (suitsukala) is an Estonian speciality and, when it comes to sausages, you can be excused for thinking that the country caters more to vampires than vegetarians. At Christmas time, sausages are prepared from fresh blood and wrapped in pig's intestine. Blood sausages (verevorst) and blood pancakes (vere pannkoogid) are served in most traditional Estonian restaurants.
No one quite knows what the syrupy Vana Tallinn liqueur is made from. It's sickly sweet, very strong and an essential part of any Estonian table. It's best served in coffee, over ice with milk or, if you feel up to it, with champagne. Estonia's best beers are the light Saku beer and the heavier Saare beer from the island of Saaremaa, while some cafes and bars serve tasty, warming hõõgvein (mulled wine).