Friday, October 15, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 4 (Centraltirgus)

by Zinta Aistars

One of the best parts of coming home is eating the food one recalls from childhood days. While I’d grown up in the States, the table my mother spread was distinctly Latvian. I’d come to call it “glorious peasant food.” Latvian cuisine is the food of the peasant, and I mean that in the best way: basic, hearty, earthy and nutritious. Dark rye bread is the staple of the Latvian diet, and it comes in various flavors, depending on region and mix of flour. All of these breads, however, are of the stick-to-the-ribs sort, and if one thing has stood out from my Latvian friends and family coming to the States to visit, it is the baffled look on all their faces when confronted with … Wonderbread.

Mind you, I don’t touch the stuff. Wonderbread, that is. For me, it’s a wonder anyone can. This white, bleached, cottony stuff that turns to a sticky paste and glues itself to the roof of the mouth is hardly what I would call bread. And I don’t mean to pick on just one brand. I pick on all those fluffy brands. Thank goodness in recent years, Americans are gradually coming to their senses and realizing that this is not bread, and it is certainly not good for you. Over processed, any nutrition in these spongy slices comes from being artificially added back in again after the processing has first taken all nutritional value out. General rule: the more processed a food item, the less good for you.

I enjoy a crusty white bread, a baguette, a bagel, as much as most. But there is a special pleasure in slicing off a hearty brown slice of Latvian rye bread—and it takes a bit of elbow grease to do so—and slathering butter onto it, fresh from the farm, and biting in. A slice of this bread is a meal in itself.

As the organic food movement has taken hold in the United States, especially in Michigan (kudos to my home state, which ranks among the top in the United States for farmer’s markets that offer fresh produce, free of pesticides and weird additives and preservatives), people are rediscovering food. Good food. Real food. I am among these people. More than a year now, I have been bypassing supermarkets and shopping at farmer’s markets instead, or taking trips out to area farms to buy poultry, eggs, berries, vegetables straight from the farmer. Not only is it better for me, shopping this way has helped my local economy, added enriching relationships to my life as I have made new friends involved in the food movement, helped the environment in which I live, and simply tasted really, really good.

It’s been a little like coming back to the table where I sat as a child. Mama wasn’t a fancy cook, but she was a good cook. Our meals were hearty and delicious: a lot of pork roasts and chops, usually served with sauerkraut made slightly sweet, with apples, and sprinkled with caraway seeds; kotletes or meat cutlets made from ground beef; rosols or a potato salad made of potatoes, eggs, cucumbers and pickles; rich and creamy mushroom sauces with onions and bacon over boiled potatoes; a variety of fish, including marinated herring, sprats, eel and salmon; galerts, or a gelatin made of pigs knuckles (tastier than you might think, it’s one of my particular favorites); thin crepes with either fresh fruit or a meat stuffing, served with homemade cranberry sauce to the side; a range of vegetable soups, borscht, spinach soup, sauerkraut soup; salads of cucumbers and tomatoes in sour cream and sprinkled with dill.

On holidays, there were tortes in an endless variety, sheer works of art for the eye as well as the palate; piparkukas, resembling an almost paper-thin gingerbread cookie; pascha for Easter, made of farmer’s cheese with eggs, butter, sugar, almonds and various fruits; abolkukas and biezpienmaizites, coffee cakes made of thin layers of dough and topped with apple slices or layers of something akin to cream cheese and dotted with raisins; klingeris or a saffron-flavored sweet bread shaped in a large pretzel; and the ultimate treat any Latvian loves—piragi. A pirags (see above) is a crescent made out of dough, stuffed with diced bacon, onion, pepper, brushed with egg and baked to a golden brown. Rausis is a similar treat, with varying meat stuffings, and a side dish of pelekie zirni, gray peas cooked to still slightly firm and mixed with sour cream and bacon bits, and perhaps a slice of dark bread spread with kanepu sviests, a butter with a nutty taste made from, yes, marijuana plants, or kanepes (hemp).

Since going organic, I’d marveled at all the flavors I’d been missing due to over processing. It was like discovering food all over again, or for the first time. Buying local also ensured freshness, with a good example being tomatoes that were sun-ripened rather than reddened artificially in greenhouses and left tasting like cardboard. Varieties were astounding at the farmer’s markets. While supermarkets offered just a few types, fresh food markets offered a dazzling variety of red, yellow, green, purple, striped tomatoes, many of which I hadn’t even known existed. And that was just tomatoes…

Returning to Latvia, one of the first items on my agenda was to walk to Central tirgus, or the Central Market, in Riga. Here, Latvians never seemed to have lost the idea of eating organic in the first place. I’d gone there to shop most every time I’d been in Latvia—and if not in Riga, then smaller counterparts in whatever town, village or city I was in. The Central Market is a mix of outdoor kiosks and indoor counters, separated by food category in a row of what had once been airplane hangars. These huge buildings now hold fish fresh from the sea or the many rivers and lakes throughout Latvia; dairy products and cheeses; vegetables and fruits and mushrooms; flowers, because the Latvian table is not complete without them; breads and cakes; and even clothing. Latvian shoppers often come with their own tiklini, bags made out of thin but durable netting, easily stuffed into a coat pocket or purse, ever ready for the bargain buy one spots in passing.

What bounty! This had to be one of my favorite shopping sprees in Latvia. At first, all I did was wander. This was a treat for all the senses—colors, smells, textures, tastes. Ready to spend a few lati, I asked for slivers of cheese to taste and chose a mild farmer’s cheese dotted with caraway seeds, called janu siers. A loaf of rich, dark bread, of course. A bag full of an assortment of mushrooms, my particular “fetish” as anyone who knows me knows too well that I drop all for a meal of ‘shrooms. Here, the assortment and variety is astounding. When meat is too rare or expensive, one can often dine on mushrooms, and the sizes, colors, flavor varieties are endless. In mushroom season, every good and rational Latvian can be found with a bucket or basket roaming the woods, sharp little knife in hand, hunting down these tiny and not so tiny marvels. Baravikas, gailenes, sampinjonu, bekas (see Daina Savage’s blog on mushroom hunting and preparation in Latvia) are just a few of these forest delicacies. All I needed to complete the meal was butter, fresh from the farm, and milk, also organic. I was beginning to understand, making the connection, on why going organic back in the States had seemed like such a natural change for me to make…

My treasure from the market safely stored in the refrigerator at the Pils Ielas apartment, I would enjoy cooking a meal or two, but also dining in local establishments, always choosing local cuisine. A great part of any culture comes from the kitchen—the foods, the style of preparation, the hospitality of the hosts, the table manners. The Latvian table shows its roots of a nation that may not always have been able to afford gourmet foods, but instead has found a way to make the most basic foods taste gourmet.

Completing that Latvian table are not only fresh flowers, but also song. Add a shot glass of snabis (vodka), a pitcher of home-brewed alus (beer), tejas (teas) and sulas (juice) made from berries, herbs and flowers grown around the home garden, kvass (a naturally sweet carbonated drink made from fermented dark rye bread), kefirs or ruguspiens or paninas, varieties of buttermilk or milk-based drinks similar to yogurt, and the table becomes a gathering place for people to share the simplest joy of living—by sharing their bounty.

(To be continued…)

Valmiermuizas alus, my local favorite 

Baravika sviesta ar rupjmaizi (boletus mushroom sauteed in butter, with dark rye bread)

Central tirgus at dusk

1 comment:

  1. Love this post! We share so many of the same memories, sensibilities! I've been craving kvass every since I got back to the states.