Welcome to Estonia

So how do you find yourself flying out to Estonia, to stay with the country’s First Lady? It’s a story that involves delicious food, photography and the rebranding of a nation…

Flying into Tallinn, after a horribly early start from Luton, I’m picked up at the airport and driven way out into the wilds of Estonia to the President’s farm at Ärma, where I’m warmly met and greeted by the country’s First Lady, Evelin Ilves. I’m here to take the photographs for a cookery book that Evelin is writing, and we have a packed shooting schedule over the next few days. I love Estonia and its people, and this is not my first time here. In a former life, as a Global Creative Director, I led the creative brand strategy for the Estonian country brand. That was ten years ago, when this small Baltic state was still in the process of getting back on its feet as an independent nation after half a century of Soviet occupation. It was a time of rapid political change and rebuilding on a massive scale; and, determined to show the world that the country was putting its grim past behind it, the government decided to embark on a major national rebranding exercise.

Evelin (not yet married) was a project director on the Estonia Enterprise client team. Working together then was a memorable experience, and something of a category-breaker too. At a time when most country branding seemed to end up with a logo of the country’s name accompanied by an abstract symbol, we decided to create an icon that integrated the name of the country with a strong campaigning idea, summed up in the simple message – Welcome to Estonia.

We begin shooting at 10am and don’t finish till gone 10pm.


Since then, the idea of national branding has become quite familiar. But, at the time, the Estonians showed real vision in believing that identifying and expressing the essence of a country brand had a vital part to play in their emergence as a modern nation-state. We’ve been involved much more recently with the Estonian Enterprise team under new leadership, with ASHA having carried out a major review of the brand, before developing a programme of communications to update and refocus the country’s key messages.

Meanwhile, back on the Presidential farm, I’ve had a good night’s sleep – and a bracing early morning dip in a fresh pond heaving with frogs – and we’re ready to start work. We begin shooting at 10am and don’t finish till gone 10pm. Evelin is a blur, serving up a series of incredibly appetising-looking dishes from around the world (a few of which you see here).

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As you might expect, one of the aims of the book is to introduce the world to modern Estonian cuisine. But, having travelled very extensively in her role as First Lady, Evelin has wider horizons, and her recipes mouth-wateringly represent the very best of what she has eaten and enjoyed all over the world, from Azerbaijan to North America.

Over the next three days, we work pretty much flat out, shooting dish after dish – our labours punctuated by moments of downtime, relaxing with Evelin and friends.

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By the fourth day we’ve taken the final shot of a truly gorgeous-looking key lime pie, and my too-short stay in the paradise that is Ärma is over. It’s time for me to leave for Tallinn, and for my flight home. After fond farewells, we drive up the farm track onto the highway as two storks fly gracefully low across the road, almost as if in slow motion. They look like I feel. Calm, free, content.

It’s been a really wonderful, if exhausting, few days. Touching down in Luton, I feel… yes, happy to be home. But I’m already missing Ärma. I seem to have fallen rather heavily in love with Estonia, its food, and its people.