Cooking Food Lesson From The Latvian Countryside

These lessons include homemade sponge cake, bread croutons, and much more

My sister-in-law Sarah and I are walking through the art nouveau district of Latvia’s capital, Riga-though, extra correctly, in ways we are wobbling, having just toasted our arrival with many cups of Riga Balzams, the country’s famous tar-black botanical digestive. Its bitterness feels as though an adequately dour Eastern European tempering to the bald magnificence of this city. Riga is ancient with big modern ambitions, packed with manicured flower beds, a correctly restored Old Town, vendors who sell amber and Latvian runes and thick woolen mittens year-round, and particularly vicious cobblestones. As the stones strain the straps of my sandals, a woman in swank culottes and high-heeled booties, carrying an enormous bouquet of freesia, passes us like we’re standing up still. Actually, every third person on the sidewalk carries a bouquet of plants, headed to happy hour somewhere.

Riga is but a portal to our real vacation spot, the rural town of Aloja, where Sarah completed what she phone calls a good “relatively cushy” Peace Corps support from 1998 to 2000, and which she hasn’t returned to since. But really, this story starts in Brooklyn, when, after leaving Latvia, Sarah relocated into an apartment in Fort Greene with me and her brother, who eventually become my hubby. Whenever we fought-for sure, we fought-it was definitely about food. It had been no wonder we had trouble sharing a home. I was an ambitious small line cook practicing searing duck breasts, jogging up ridiculous grocery charges I predicted her to split. She was a returned Peace Corps volunteer who brought home dusty bottles of almost lethal 70 percent acid Russian vinegar, and merely wished to fry up several carrot cutlets on her behalf own supper. She had previously learned to make from the ladies in Aloja, and she even now resided and breathed its flavors, its ethics, and its own hardships.

Looking back, I can see that your woman hadn’t fully remaining Latvia, and instead this lady was drawing me into it: We drank Balzams and fizzy fermented birch sap, and discussed the famed “fats buns” of Aloja, the speķa pīrāgi, or bacon and onion buns. This, the unofficial nationwide dish of Latvia, features more and more become Sarah’s memory trigger. So while I’m below to finally head to Aloja with her, satisfy her friends, and taste these meals she hasn’t stopped discussing for the past 20 years, I’m also in this article to see the country through her eyes.

Latvia’s history is a complicated and somewhat disturbing roll call of conquests that finally ended in 1991, when it gained its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. For years and years previous-save a limited period of independence between the two Environment Wars-the Swedes, the Germans, and the Russians have all claimed this land as their unique. So it makes sense that aspect and symbols of the forest will always be incredibly vital that you the Latvian identification; unlike locations and towns, that can be occupied, wilderness can’t ever be fully won.

So I think we are on the right path, out of the metropolis, headed to the sleepy town of Aloja in the Vidzeme place. Unlike most of the united states, which is definitely half-populated by ethnic Russians, Vidzeme is normally ethnically and culturally Latvian. We stop primary in Saulkrasti, a coastal village of pale sand beaches, cabins, and seafood shacks along the frigid Baltic Ocean, to meet up with Vija Skudra, a pal of a friend of Sarah’s. We’ve been told that we’ve come to Latvia at the right time, during the three weeks of the year that she and her husband, Jānis, harvest and help to make smoked lucīši-tender baby sea eelpout, an exclamation stage of a seafood, whose bulbous heads taper neatly to a point-a seasonal Latvian delicacy.

We arrive two hours later than expected at Vija and Jānis’, a nice little region place surrounded by a neatly trimmed orchard of dark-colored currants, apples, and plums. In the backyard be seated homemade wooden smokers how big is lawn sheds, one of these exhaling smoke. On the picnic desk, fashioned from split logs and soaked in cheery reddish paint, Vija sets out what I’ll arrive to recognize as the usual Latvian spread: coffee, clean cows’-milk cheeses rolled in a variety of herbs, jars of homemade jam, canned fish, and a loaf of their good rupjmaize, a humid, black sour rye bread, its crust so caramelized it could have been baked in the campfire coals-and, of program, a vase of homegrown bouquets.

Jānis is sitting on a chair over a good bucket, expertly knifing the innards from baby lucīši. Less than a foot much time, they have excessive fat heads and full bellies that skinny into quill-designed tails. “In Soviet times,” he says, flipping the seafood right into a bucket, “just pensioners were permitted to go fishing, but I went with them early before work and learned from their website anyhow.” As he and Vija thread the seafood onto the metallic rods, he clarifies that the lucīšwe are smaller than these were years back. “In Soviet times, they took way too many,” Vija says, with an atmosphere of both irritability and inevitability. “They gave them all to the fox farms, to make the pelts shinier.” It makes me believe: If you’re a good conqueror whose aim is to tear apart the cultural fabric of the indigenous population, there’s very little better target than a beloved food traditions. The big stuff-collectivizing the market, transport landowners off to Siberia-delivers the key, life-changing blows, but messing with harmless seasonal fish celebrations, that’s the insidious fiberglass that really gets under people’s epidermis.

Vija displays us how exactly to eat the lucīšwe. It’s a lot like opening up simple pea: You bend it available at the tail, peel from the lime the spine using one area and the hard ridge of skin area along the other, after that open up it up to pluck out decision nuggets of sweet meat. As we eat in the garden, friends begin to reach carrying gifts-jars of pickled beets, cheeses, homemade schnapps, beer-some of it in trade for the seafood, some provisions for the get together to arrive. Jānis, who had run off on his motorized bicycle, has now returned using what our past due arrival warrants: a happy-hour bottle of Armenian brandy.

The Sarah I understand back is pretty careful about the drink-more so than me-but this Eastern European Sarah, speaking Latvian such as a native, does not hesitate to shoot back again obscure liquors. She ideas back her cup and slams it down with a thunk-the overseas cue for a refill. Jānis accumulates on it and tops her off.

Jānis doesn’t be a part of us to peel lucīši, but sits rear and smokes a cigarette. “I like to help to make the lucīši,” he shrugs, “but I’ve never liked to consume it. I’m just cheerful that other people like it so very much.” I try to believe what it will need to have felt prefer to keep my children traditions hidden from the federal government eye for as much years as they do, if the only way to keep them alive was through the meals I cooked, the music I sang to my kids at night, the original Latvian runic patterns I hid in my own knitting.

The next day, we meet up with the town baker of Aloja. Ruta Gailīte lives with her grown child, also known as Jānis, in a weather­worn property on the last block of the town’s short main street. As we walk there, Sarah points out the ghosts of stores behind shuttered storefronts, like the collective bakery where Ruta applied to job. When Sarah found its way to 1999, Latvia had received its independence from the USSR significantly less than 10 years prior, and persons were filled up with hope, but joining the world industry midstream has proved to be really difficult on Aloja. At Ruta’s house, we move the corner onto a picturesque farmyard-a place that neither modernity nor capitalism appear to have ever touched. In the space of a city block, she’s a cow, a yard, and an old stone water very well. The scene is both idyllic and heart-rendingly small in scale, a village pastoral right out of a Vermeer painting. When the Aloja bakery where she worked shut, Ruta continuing to bake for revenue in the home. Her prized possession is definitely Runcie, a literal dollars cow.

Ruta, a feminine girl with light blue eyes the color of a good distant horizon, speaks found in a high musical tone of voice without breaking stride. “She says you need a cow,” Sarah translates for me as we head into Ruta’s property. “She says that the building blocks of cooking is the cow.” After I see her small refrigerator filled up with luminous pans of cooling milk, We am momentarily convinced. Persons keep backyard chickens; you will want to a backyard cow?

In her kitchen, Ruta feeds wooden in to the firebox of her cepeškrāsns, the original Latvian wood stove this is the centerpiece of her house. An extraordinary beast made of stacked glazed bricks with a firebox at one end and an oven door in the centre, its stovetop is only much sheet of iron. On the stove’s hottest location, immediately over the oven, sits a broad pan of drinking water, perpetually hot, for cleaning dishes. Bricks go over the very best at varying amounts, some sitting low enough to hold a simmering pot, others substantial enough from the heat to dry her tidy cups and bowls.

Ruta speaks in an easy xylophonic spree, and Sarah struggles to translate-not because she doesn’t understand Latvian, but because Ruta is speaking the highly technical language of cooking food. Visually, I could translate. This is one way Ruta causes her sponge cake: She stands a tidy one-gallon metal coffee can in a pan of hot water on top of her solid wood stove, she provides five eggs, precisely five spoons of glucose, five spoons of flour. She runs on the hand mixer-possibly though she doesn’t have running normal water, she does have electricity-and whips the egg combination until it rises to the top of the coffee can.

She whips seven eggs into two liters of Runcie’s thick cream, making the dough for both klingeris-a lovely cake-and speķa pīrāgi, those fats buns. In the meantime, she moves her pan of dishwater aside, and sautés cubes of bacon excessive fat and onions on the stovetop’s spot until they melt and shimmer, in that case pours them over a pot of prepared pelēkie zirņwe, the large brown pea that is the pride of Latvia. With thick, chewy skins and delicate, cakey centers, the humble peas will be high-class when sauced with homegrown pork fat.

“Where did you obtain the bacon?” We talk to, loving its fruitwood tang. “From Līga!” she says, leaving an effusive litany of compliment about the cheesemaker we will meet the following day. They trade on a regular basis: Ruta’s cakes for Līga’s lard, Ruta’s biezpiens (fresh cow’s-milk cheese) for Līga’s siers (refreshing goat’s-milk cheese). When I question Ruta if she buys anything at the retail store, she says, “No, no, no, no. I’m allergic to the meals from the store.”

Given Ruta’s meager 100-euro-per-month pension, her optimism is inspiring. “An individual cake,” she boasts, “will pay for two months’ worthy of of firewood!” As though on cue, a female phone calls to Ruta from the doorway and drops off a box of back garden vegetables in the foyer. In a few hours, another woman can do the same, leaving a package of foraged crazy teas-clearly repayment in kind to the village baker. As Ruta cooks, I watch her put butter, cream, and bacon with a heavy hand, and get this to mental take note: In trading, as in baking, a consistently heaped-up cup definitely pays you again. There’s something uncommonly beautiful about this bartering market that modern capitalist societies lose out on. With money, the transaction is brief and direct: money for products. Bartering leaves some space for the exchange of different, more-human features, like kindness. Ruta “eats well” in an older sense, from when great living had more to do with creativity and know-how than it did with cash.

The now-risen sweet dough feels as whispery soft as a deflated balloon. She rolls it out and brushes it with homemade condensed milk-fresh cream and glucose, boiled and decreased, which keeps for days without refrigeration. The dough ratio reminds me of a German kugelhopf, and I request if she ever before adds other things to it-candied fruits or nuts. “No,” she says, “my close friends don’t have expensive tastes. Plus they don’t have one’s teeth any more for almonds.”

After feeding split logs in to the fire to improve the oven temperature, Ruta sits on a wooden bench before her oven, pops in the pan of speķa pīrāgi, and stays there to screen them-the only time today she’s stopped moving. Every short while, as she opens the oven and turns the pan, I could start to see the tops browning speedily in the waves of lumber heat. When they come out, burnished to a dark caramel, we tear into them, their centers molten with onions and bacon fats. Ruta’s wiry boy, Jānis, who has come back from his logging job, emerges wordlessly from the trunk room to grab a scorching bun from the tray. Ruta smiles, as mothers do when their males swipe pastries at any era. “I am hoping he finds a wife,” she says. “The difficulty is, young ladies today don’t want to milk a cow!”

The very next day, we meet Līga Kozaka, the cheesemaker. She lives with her hubby, Vasilijs Kozaks, her mom, daughter Marika, and grandson Rodgrigo in today’s farmhouse designed around a rustic central wooden post-and-beam structure. The home vibrates with Chopin enjoyed at top volume level, the piano music cleaning the area to its corners. As at Ruta’s, the centerpiece of Līga’s property is normally a hulking brick cepeškrāsns. On hers sits an enormous vase of flowers-tiger lilies and crazy roses and dianthus how big is tennis balls, so fresh they’re still damp and breathing.

Wearing leopard-printing pants and a pair of reading glasses perched on her behalf cropped gray-blond head, she slices her goat cheeses in thick slabs for us to try, showing me that she’s 60 goats, 38 of these milkers, and is creating a new cheesemaking service. Each of the cheeses I preference in Latvia are clean, do not require aged, and Līga’s goat cheese is definitely by far the very best of these: creamy and nice, its goaty muskiness simply an innuendo. Some will be rolled in caraway, others in dill, but the best is normally studded with tan fenugreek seeds, which pop in the mouth with the flavour of maple syrup.

She says proudly, “I am my very own boss.” And factors to Vasilijs, her hubby, a man with kind, attentive eye. “I am also his boss.” The area laughs.


The spread at the Aloja reunion party includes pickles, bloodstream sausage, a cucumber salad, Līga’s cheeses, and some particularly addictive rye-bakery croutons.

We hand Līga the many gifts Ruta sent around: a block of clean biezpiens, the double-layer biscuit cake, the braided loaves of caraway-seed bread. She sighs fondly and puts them apart with an appreciative murmur.

Līga has generously wanted to host a get together for us and a good crew of Sarah’s Aloja close friends from her Peace Corps days, and she’s assembled an impressive selection of meals, already stacked on top of her brick stovetop. There happen to be two batches of sizzling hot soup, a frigid blueberry soup with chewy drop dumplings, cracked prepared barley ready to be produced into asins desa (a traditional blood sausage), a cucumber salad to proceed with Ruta’s biezpiens, and a glistening plate of kiploku grauzdiņi, the addictive rye-breads croutons I’ve seen all over Latvia. I study, finally, that the secret with their deliciousness is much pour of vegetable oil and an incendiary amount of natural garlic. “We phone them narcoteek,” Liga says when she views that I can’t cease eating them. Narcotic they happen to be.