Say Italy, think spaghetti. Say France, think Champagne. Say Spain, think paella. What do you think about when you say Latvia? Despite not being considered a must amongst Europe's food traditions, the Baltic country's gastronomy deserves to be discovered. Indeed, its beautiful capital city, Riga, and the close-by area around the Gauja river with the homonymous National Park, will be the European Region of Gastronomy in 2017, along with East Lombardy in Italy and Aarhus in Denmark.
So, what is Latvian food about? As Māris Jansons, chef at the Bibliotēka NO.1 restaurant in Riga, explained to Hi-Europe, Latvia's chefs – and people – recently decided to go back to their roots, pretty much to the letter.
The country's main heritage is made by its wonderful forests and woods, uncontaminated rivers and the cold Baltic waters. Many popular products hail from here: river lampreys caught in the Gauja and the Salaca waters, Baltic herrings, beavers and deers, mushrooms and berries. A huge variety of super-healthy berries, which you have probably never heard of. According to season, you could taste cloudberries (rare forest berries, with a distinctive “cloud” shape and an aromatic taste) and sea-buckthorn (sour yellow berries) in summer, rowan berries (red-orange berries often used in marinades, dried and powdered) in winter and Aronia – or chockeberry, an astringent purple berry – in autumn. Aronia and sea-buckthorn berries are also used to make the so-called Latvian “wines”, alcholic beverages obtained from fermented fruits, while the different berries' jams are used to prepare rupjmaizes kartojums, a traditional Latvian dessert made with dark rye bread and whipped cream.
According to an old Latvian proverb, autumn is a rich man. So this is the season for quince, or better, cydonia, the yellow and tart fruit of shrub quince which is a popular ingredient of many traditional and contemporary Latvian recipes.
Mushrooms are another staple of local gastronomy, growing in the woods between late summer and early autumn. Latvian people are expert hunters and they are eager to show pictures of their Baravika (porcini mushrooms) harvest on social media and on their smartphones. An ingredient for many local dishes, mushrooms are also pickled as winter provisions. Other vegetables and roots, including garlic, cabbages and gherkins are also pickled.
The Riga Central Market is a bustling structure facing the Daugava river, formed by five huge pavilions surrounded by stalls selling fruits, berries and honey, and a visit will offer a broad view over Latvia's traditional food at a glance. The meat pavilion hosts an incredible display of smoked meat, mainly pork and poultry. The fish pavilion is full of suprises, displaying fresh and smoked fish, caviar, shellfish and the tasty river lampreys in jelly: grilled and then sautéed in either black tea or coffee. The lampreys are arranged in wooden containers with salt and pressed, thus creating a flavourful jelly to be eaten with the fish. In the vegetables pavilion you will find a multicoloured selection of roots and greens, including rutabaga, celery, Jerusalem artichokes and turnips in winter, sorrel and rhubarb in spring.
You can't leave Latvia without tasting the unique Riga Black Balsam, a traditional herbal liqueur whose original recipe was created in 1752 by local pharmacist Abraham Kunze. Made with 24 different plants, berries and roots, the elixir can be drunk on its own or added to coffee or cocktails. Black Balsam makes a great souvenir to bring back home, but if you dare, go drink it at the Black Magic Café in Riga Old Town, where Kunze's pharmacy stood: here you could even meet the pharmacist's ghost.