Ahhhh, back home to Latvia: now we can enjoy some real food! I have said this so many times, including just recently after two weeks of award-winning fine dining aboard a cruise ship and after tasting our way through East Asia. I have even said it after spending 3 weeks in Italy back in 2008. Latvian food is my idea of proper home cooking, and that’s understandable, since we ate Latvian dishes quite often in my childhood home. The sweet sour bread that we get at our corner store in Mežaparks is simply the best in the world, as are many local smoked meats and fish. Latvian beer is excellent and so is Kvass, which is kind of like Root beer and Coke mixed, with most of the sugar and carbonation removed.
It has been interesting watching the food culture in Latvia change over the two decades that we have been coming here regularly. Until about 5 years ago, take-out coffee was unheard of and you never, ever saw anyone eating on the street, and those are still relatively rare to this day. Young Latvians used to be noticeably thin compared to Canadians, since basically no-one ever ate between meals. That’s unfortunately no longer the case. We see more and more kids snacking on junk food and they look a few pounds heavier than they used to. Kind of sad.
Still, Latvians eat way less processed food than Canadians do. Actually, most processed food tastes pretty bad here, so maybe that’s why. It’s also an important and positive part of the Latvian food culture and psyche to cook everything from scratch, and if it’s from your own garden that’s even better. The Latvian diet is generally higher in fat than a typical Canadian diet, but I find that it works out, since I feel full sooner. I tend to eat a bit less volume here and can go longer between meals.
Starting with the understanding that I do love Latvian food, I thought it would be fun to mention some of the weirder things about it. Pork and chicken are cheap and good quality, but the beef is another story. It’s either ground or cut into unidentifiable hunks that have different names than I’m used to, such as the thigh or the neck. To this day I’ve never figured out what they do with the rest of the cow. The cuts that you can buy in the grocery store are always tough as shoe leather, but tasty and even tender if you know how to slow cook it. Doing this totally amazes the locals, who generally have never eaten good beef, or even soft beef in their lives. Probably much of the beef is actually from old dairy cows, since the beef cattle industry here is in its infancy. We have heard that good beef for steaks and roasts can be found, but you have to know someone. Guess I’ll just wait ‘til I’m back in Toronto.
Daily meal organization is different here. If you’re invited to someone’s house for lunch, it’s likely to be at 3:30 or 4. This took me a while to figure out, since I was never sure if it was actually a late lunch or an early dinner… turns out it’s both in one. We really enjoy the traditional dishes at these home cooked family meals. To supplement their standard Latvian dishes (all learned by rote from their mother), Latvians also really go in for food fads. Every year it seems to be something different that you just can’t seem to get away from. Last year it was pink tomatoes. A couple of years before that it was smoked chicken. Everyone seems to eat the fad food at least once a week until they’re sick of it a few months later, and then it is rarely heard from again.
Attitudes and forms of vegetarianism are a little different in Latvia. I notice that here, the main determining factor for being a “vegetarian” seems to be that you like vegetables, rather than you don’t want to eat meat. Very often there’s a simple choice of “meat with no vegetables” or “vegetables with no meat”. Heck, based on that choice, I’d be “vegetarian” here most of the time too, I guess.
When I can’t find an ingredient that I’m looking for in a regular store or at the big Riga market, I head to Stockmann. It’s a department store downtown that also has a comprehensive grocery store. Here you can find many non-Latvian foods, although I still have never found fresh bean sprouts (for pad thai). Stockmann is the place to find cane sugar, and even peanut butter. Funny story about peanut butter. Nutella made it to Latvia first. It has been available here for at least 20 years, whereas peanut butter has been here only for the last 5 years. So on the shelves there are maybe 8 brands of Nutella-type spread versus one or two types of peanut butter. Many locals think they are the same thing: that peanut butter is simply a peanut-flavoured Nutella, full of sugar and not very healthy, and they are shocked that Andris and I would eat such terrible junk food.
Eggs everywhere are sold in 10’s not in dozens. There is a word for dozen in Latvian, “ducis”, but many Latvians don’t know it since they always use 10 and 10’s as their way of counting and expressing that level of quantity. Sugar, unless specified otherwise, is beet sugar here, and proudly proclaims on the package: “from sugar beets, with large crystals,” whereas sugar in Canada advertises that it is “fine cane sugar,” with small crystals. I find the cane sugar better for my baking, and so I’m happy to be able to find it at Stockmann.
Latvia is a dairy country, and most of the dairy products here are good. There are many excellent fermented milk products: sour cream, kefir, yogourt and buttermilk. However sour cream is the real star: it tastes ever-so-gently sour, and comes in 15-35% butterfat, the latter known as “real” sour cream, with a yellowish tinge. Sour cream is so prevalent in Latvia, that the word “krējums,” cream, actually means sour cream. If you want sweet cream, you have to specify “saldais krējums.” The unfortunate glaring exception to the high quality dairy products is ice cream. We couldn’t figure out why it tasted so weird until we read the label: water, butter and skim milk powder. It has gotten somewhat better lately, but we still haven’t noticed a brand that has cream as the first ingredient. If I lived here permanently, I would probably learn to make my own.
The other weird thing about Latvian dairy is the milk. It tastes great, but the shelf life length can be extremely varied. Some companies, we’ll call one of them company B, give almost 3 weeks between the date of production and the date of expiry, but other companies, such as company T, give only 6 days. Through experience I have found that these shelf life recommendations are completely accurate: Company T’s milk really does go sour after exactly 6 days. Of course, for most Latvians this isn’t a problem: they just wait until sours completely, then shake it up and use it for cooking as “rugušpiens/soured milk.” However I did start to wonder why. The milk all says right on the label that it’s pasteurized. Our milk in Ontario lasts around 2.5 weeks for regular milk, and 4 weeks for micro filtered. Why is Latvian milk so different? The answer seems to be that there are different methods or temperatures of pasteurization. As far as I can figure out, from the information that I gathered online, the method used by company T apparently kills fewer bacteria than the one used by company B. I’m pretty sure the company T method would not be considered a complete pasteurization method in Ontario. The company T milk does taste a little different, so I guess some people prefer it.
However the most interesting part of all this were the answers I got when I asked local merchants about the differences in shelf life. The lady at our local store summed them up when she explained: Of course most people buy company T milk. That’s natural milk after all. The brands of milk that last almost 3 weeks obviously have some kind of chemicals added. Milk couldn’t possibly ever really last 3 weeks, could it? I explained that all the milk in Ontario lasts that long, and doesn’t contain chemicals. The return look on her face said it all… we North Americans may be simply deluded about many things… Unfortunately, as is so often the case among Latvians, a healthy distrust of chemicals in food has blossomed into an unhealthy distrust of all chemistry and science. Not to mention a world-wide conspiracy theory to put chemicals in milk and keep the practice hidden from the public.
Spring is upon us now, and Rhubarb is popping up in gardens everywhere. It’s one of my absolute favourite fruits. While relatively rare and very seasonal in Ontario, rhubarb is commonly used all year round in baking here. In the fall, the big local activity will be mushroom hunting. There are some important distinctions in the naming of mushrooms. “Sēnes” is the main word for mushrooms, but those are only the ones that you pick in the forest. The small round ones, either white or brown, that you find in the grocery store are not “Sēnes” at all, but “Šampiņoni.”
My daughter was due to arrive for a visit in mid-May, and we were so looking forward to grocery shopping and cooking together, as well as touring Riga. However my lung problems, mentioned in a previous post, developed an alarming new shortness-of-breath aspect. We cancelled her air ticket and I came home rather suddenly to Toronto for 3 weeks to see my specialist here. We recently tried again for her trip, since I am returning to Riga briefly for an important June 9th world premiere concert of one of my song cycles, but unfortunately this time she came down with severe tonsillitis and had to cancel again. Sometimes life deals you weird strings of bad luck. But then, I must remember how many other things went so well this year, and be thankful for all the good luck I have had.