Delightfully Delicious Destination – Rīga
Today, on Holy Thursday, we shall close at four and I shall rush to the big Rīga Central Market to shop for Easter and cook for two days for our family’s Easter holidays.
Usually we get together at our country house, some of us after church – children, their children, parents, grandparents, five generations of relatives – to find what the Easter Bunny has left in the garden for the small ones. We have a big Easter meal with eggs, cold meats, and marinated fish, pas-ha of three kinds from each family, and lots of laughter and talking, until the smaller children get tired.
In March, when Rīga city publicized its Delightfully Delicious Gastronomic offer for tourists, with a special topic for each coming month, I was asked to say something at the press conference. And at that moment a whole series of associations popped up in my mind.
Food has a very important meaning in our life; it is connected with rituals and influenced by cultural and social circumstances. Also, the story of Rīga finally ending up as a North-East European Star and a wonderful tourist and gastronomic attraction is not a story of today. It has a longer history. And every family harbors stories that tell more than just the history of the family.
In our family, we have been connected with the hospitality business for several generations.
My great grandfather Dāvis Pētersons was an inn-keeper near Smiltene in the north of Latvia, in Brutuļi, where he also ran a flax and salt store. He was in fact the first generation of the urban middle class who could give his offspring an academic education. They in their turn were the builders of the sovereign Latvian state.
The family moved to Smiltene, where he erected a three-story house with a stage for the first theatre performances in the town. Thus my grandfather Jūlijs, though educated as an apothecary in Moscow, became a playwright. He later paid with his life for Latvia in Siberia, because he had signed the famous 1944 Petition addressed to the Allies to save Latvia as a democratic and independent country and not let the Soviets return.
During the inter-war period, when my family became Rīga intellectuals, Rīgans enjoyed a western type of café and restaurant culture, probably not yet surpassed. I will always remember my mother’s stories of that era, called the “Latvian times,” when they had relished raspberry ice cream in cup-like wafers, coconut milk, and bananas (in our Soviet childhood these things existed only in myths and legends). She told us of the famous Otto Schwarz in front of the Opera house, of the Milk restaurant for less grandeur, and we also heard funny stories about the Shiron foodstore on the corner of Tērbatas and Lāčplēša streets, where actors dined and supped until early morning.
However, the legends and skills inherited and passed down by the feminine line in the family helped us to survive the Soviet period and not lose face. The misery of the wartime had also taught its lessons of cooking. The housewives could conjure wonders from nothing, or at least from very little. We had elegant parties with a variety of salads and meats, even stuffed smoked plums and hand-made truffles from Red-Marka cocoa powder.
The timid offer of Rīga cafés nevertheless attracted specific groups of people and became a certain cult venues for artists, students, musicians, and even the komsomol elite. So one always knew where he or she belonged – be it at the cafés Kaza, Skapis, Rostoka, Pingvīns, Edgars un Kristīne, Mārīte, or Pingvīns. As a schoolgirl I shifted my likes from Mārīte to Rostoka, to Edgars, to Rīga Hotel, then probably even Hotel Latvia, where you certainly were noted by the regular KGB “customer” in the corner. So our Soviet-era café culture is a record of a certain resistance movement, of bubbling undercurrents and daring exposures.
Now, when we are again back in Europe, our previously rather closed cuisine has been brightened by burgeoning multicultural influences.
The typically Latvian cuisine is difficult to pin down, because in its pure form it only existed in the countryside. The city had for several centuries fancied a mixture of Russian and German influence flavored with a touch of French.
Today restaurant culture in Latvia has introduced several new things for us, the first being a man in the kitchen. In our family it is manifested only in my children’s generation.
The second thing is spices. This is something that I have yet to learn, but my sons have mastered it well enough. My eldest son, Dāvis, has brought it into his restaurant business, thus following in the steps of his great-great-grandfather.
And the third thing is – we have completed the multicultural journey through French, Italian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and Caucasian cuisine to come back to the appreciation of our local farmers’ produce. Rīga offers dairy products in March, and sap in April, passing on to greens in May. For more go to http://www.liveRiga.com/en/5090
But meanwhile, I am getting ready for my Easter cooking. My crown piece, cooked pas-ha, after the Russian name of the Holiday itself, can be seen at http://www.garsigalatvija.lv/551/.
I can give you the English version of the recipe, although I am afraid you are already too late. You should have started on Tuesday already – it is a five-day-long process!
The recipe is inherited from my husband’s grandmother Varvara Auškāps, born Šujeva, a Russian from Tver who married a Rīga district forester and raised three Latvian children.
Take 1 kilo of cottage cheese, 500 grams of sour cream, 4 eggs, 200 grams of butter, 400-500 grams of sugar, raisins, almonds, lemon peel, orange peel, and vanilla sugar, as well as some salt.
Melt the butter slowly in a big pot. Add soaked raisins, soaked and peeled almonds, finely ground lemon peel surface (1-2 lemons), and previously caramelized orange peel (3-4 oranges are peeled and the peel is soaked for three days in cold water, cooked on a slow flame with sugar, a little water, and a spoonful of butter until the water evaporates (45 min. approximately)). Then add two hard boiled and crumbled eggs, vanilla, a pinch of salt and part of the sugar.
The cottage cheese is blended before using, whipped together with cream and two fresh eggs, some sugar, and slowly stirred into the pot, where it is warmed almost to boiling. Remember to constantly stir the substance. Take it off the oven just before it gets really hot; it should not give off liquid or become grained – better when you can feel the pot and not have your hand burned.
Then the main thing is to leave it in a cold space until the next day. The next morning, fill it cold into a pillow case and hang it to give off the unnecessary liquid. On Easter morning you put it into a bowl and enjoy it with your family.