Follow me… we’re taking a journey by plate and this time we’re off to Latvia, a country situated on the Baltic Sea. [Disclosure: this post is part of a paid partnership with Latvia Travel and Traverse Events.]
Three of my greatest passions in life go hand in hand; food, travel and storytelling. I’ve gone to ridiculous lengths of the years for delicious meals – nipped over to Paris for lunch, traipsed to 3 countries for 3 meals (well, I say traipsed, I really mean caught the tram), sat on a train for an hour just to get my hands on a proper Kiwi pie… I could go on, but your eyes would cross and my bounce rate would skyrocket.
This time I only had to wander to my laptop. No passport necessary.
Bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, Belarus to the southeast, and sharing a maritime border with Sweden to the west, the Latvian landscape is marked by wide beaches as well as dense, sprawling forests that cover more than half the country.
Back in the UK we gathered around our electronic devices, in kitchens filled with mushrooms, rye breads, marscapone, cinnamon and bottles of Riga Black Balsam, ready to cook a couple of traditonal Latvian Christmas dishes.
First made in Riga in 1752 by pharmacist Abraham Kunze as a “Life’s Elixir”, Riga Black Balsam has not essentially changed. The legend of it, a ‘most valued drink and the best gift of friendship’, includes Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, having fallen ill during a visit to Latvia, was cured after drinking Riga Black Balsam. The basic recipe is a blend of herbs, flowers and oils – ‘subtle hints of linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, bilberry, and ginger as well as touches of nutmeg and black peppercorn tease the palate and come alive in the glass.’ I had the blackcurrant version, and it works well as a long cocktail with lime and lemonade. (So well, that I didn’t realise I almost sipped too much and had to scale the dessert to half portions when I made it – oops!)
Top Latvian chef Mārtiņš Sirmais hosted a cook along, teaching us two of his favourite childhood dishes; a christmas dish of grey peas with porcini mushrooms, and a layered rye bread dessert. We were lucky to then see a performance of Latvian music by Katrīna Dimanta, a pop-folk singer, who has participated in Eurovision.
Mushrooms are a big part of Latvian cuisine and during the autumn, people rush to the forests to pick fresh mushrooms for the upcoming year (it’s so popular that Mārtiņš was telling us there’s a dedicated app, and that you often find brand new BMWs parked randomly on the side of forest roads and snazzily dressed locals picking mushrooms who spotted a cluster enroute somewhere). There are plenty of traditional Latvian dishes made from mushrooms, and I’m intrigued to try fried boletus with salt, rye bread, and herb-flavored butter one day.
Layered rye bread is a traditional Latvian dessert, made of rye breadcrumbs, blackcurrant or lingonberry jam, and whipped cream. Grated dark chocolate and/or cinnamon is put on top of the dish, and it is often served with fresh berries and cottage cheese ice cream.
But, onto the recipes!
GREY PEAS WITH PORCINI MUSHROOM
Oil or butter (optional)
3 medium onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
4 dried porcini mushroom soaked (or 1/2 a cup)
1/3 cup Hemp seeds
2 cups grey peas, pre-cooked or black beans *
1 cup room temperature water
Salt & pepper
Bread chips (crispy bread or croutons) or sliced vegetables
Bacon lardons to sprinkle on top/mix through
- Dice the onions and chop 3 garlic cloves. Heat the pan, add oil and cook the onions and garlic on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add salt, pepper.
- When onions are translucent, add chopped porcini mushrooms. Cook porcini for a few more minutes
- Add roasted crushed hemp seeds and warm them through.
- Then add pre cooked grey peas/black beans. Add water and simmer 10 minutes uncovered, until liquid is evaporated by half. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- If you want, add 1 tablespoon of butter, then transfer all in the blender and blend it smooth. Serve like a dip with bread, crisps or vegetables, and add/scatter fried bacon lardons.
Nb: I subbed in kidney beans here, and kept it a little more chunky than tradition as I fancied it as a lovely vegetarian lunch on a cold English day.
Layered Rye Bread Dessert Recipe
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup Riga Black Balsam
1 cup rye bread
1/4 tsp cardamon
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 cup mascarpone
1/2 cup cranberry jam
1 cup Apple juice
- Add the sugar, most of the brown sugar (reserve a tablespoon) and Black Balsam to the small sauce pan and heat on a medium high heat until liquid is evaporated by ¼ and it becomes syrupy, cool it down.
- Mince rye bread with fingers to make a crumble. Add cardamon and cinnamon to the bread crumble, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, then mix it, little by little adding the apple juice until bread is soaked and sugar melts. Leave it to rest.
- Mix mascarpone and the Black Balsam reduction syrup until it’s incorporated.
- Serve desert in layers. Soaked rye bread, Black Balsam mascarpone and jam. Admittedly, boujie coupe glass to serve is optional.
I’m off to learn more about Latvia’s “singing revolution” and eat my delicious meal… one day I’d love to go – maybe to enjoy the spas, the beautiful nature (I hear they have epic hiking trails) or for their nightlife. I need to go, if only to try the fried boletus in mushroom season!
Have you been to Latvia?
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