A foodie adventure in Latvia
When I found out I was going to Riga in Latvia for my birthday last year, I certainly hadn’t expected anything exciting in terms of food, but our whole trip there turned out to be a totally unexpected culinary adventure of discovery.
This was very evident on our first morning when we went for ‘brunch’ at our local Innocent cafe, recommended by our Airbnb host. We walked in to see a buffet of colourful, creamy and unrecognisable platters of food, and our curiosity was piqued. There were no descriptions (not that we could read it anyway) so it was a matter of just jumping in a trying everything we could.
Let me tell you, what a sensory adventure that was – it was like doing a blind eating test. A lot of it seemed fresh, packed with vegetables, meats and cheese, mixed with a good proportion of pickled and smoked delights, such as seafood, beetroot and gherkin.
Lunch at the Christmas markets
The Christmas markets served thick, tomato based stews, lots of sausages and hot smoked meats which they cooked over open wood fires in the square, served by folk in traditional garb and robes. The aromas were incredible, but I could imagine vegetarians might not appreciate some of the more interesting meats out on display!
Traditional Baltic food for dinner
On the night of my birthday we had dinner in an underground restuarant/bar called Folkklubs ALA that was serving up traditional folk music as well as authentic Baltic cuisine and local beers. As it started to snow that night, the cave-like warm atmosphere was very welcome, as was the rich tasty beer.
The Baltic dishes could only be described as ‘hearty’; probably originally made to warm the bellies of peasants during the bone-chilling Baltic winters. Expect plenty of carbohydrates, potatoes and meats, served in epic portions and with lashings and lashings of bacon seemingly on almost everything (not that I’m complaining!).
‘Traditional’ is certainly what you feel you’re experiencing at this joint, especially with the foot-stomping, beer-waving folk tunes to enjoy once your belly is full and your cheeks are glowing warm. I highly recommend a visit here.
So what is ‘typical’ Latvian food?
To be honest, its hard to pin down a description of what exactly the Latvian culinary style is. But I think that reflects the hotchpotch cultural identity that Latvia has struggled with for many years. It has almost constantly been under foreign occupation, with its neighboring heavyweight countries – Sweden, Poland and Russia – constantly fighting to keep possession of this land like bickering siblings, until Latvia officially marked its independence the 1990’s.
Overall, I could recognise in the foods we had there a definite Scandinavian influence, with the smoked and pickled fish, cheese, diaries and the dark breads. The Polish influence also shines through in their borderline obsession with pork and potato.
I’ve never experienced Russian/ Soviet food, but suspect the lavish use of beetroot (in dishes such as Borscht), and the surprisingly delicious and tantilising sour soups are borne from Latvia’s many years of Soviet occupation, and the significant Russian community that still resides in Riga.
Regional specialties seem to emerge around seasonal harvesting. In summer months, its all about the berries, while come autumn mushrooms and nuts are all the rage. This I can attest to, as even in early December mushrooms crept up a lot in our dishes or on the menu.
A post about Latvian cuisine wouldn’t be complete without a special mention about Black Balsam. Its an alcoholic drink only found in Latvia, a fact the citizens are very proud of.
This insidious jet-black, 45% proof concoction is a secret recipe created by Riga druggist Abraham Kunze in the 18th century. Orange peel, oak bar, wormwood and linden blossoms are among some 14 fairy-tale ingredients known to stew in the wicket witch’s cooking pot. A shot a day keeps the doctor away, so say most of Latvia’s pensioners.Lonley Planet Guide to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, 2016
Personally, I loved it, and is unlike anything I’ve had before. I could easily drink it neat, or to flavour a nice glass of champagne or in a nice tall latte. It comes in various flavours too, like cherry and black currant (my favourite). I even had a Black Balsam birthday cake! Its a must-try if you’re ever there.
Do you think Latvian cuisine has a distinct style? Describe what you think it is in the comments below!