Story and photos by Barbara Balfour
I’m known for my insatiable sweet tooth. I love a sticky caramel, would happily live inside a cheesecake and have never met a waffle I didn’t like. But on this cold, gloomy day in Riga, Latvia, something peculiar has come over me. I want fluorescent, fermented cabbage – I crave it with every fiber of my being, and nothing else will do.
Pickled cabbage at Riga Central Market
As I cross the lobby of the opulent five-star hotel where I am staying in the Latvian capital, I wonder if anyone else has ever smuggled plastic bag-fulls of every type of sauerkraut and coleslaw imaginable into their room.
Good thing I don’t have a roommate. But if I did, I would vigorously defend my newfound probiotic heaven, because this isn’t just any pickled cabbage. It has been treated with turmeric, beetroot and pomegranate marinades, creating both its distinctive bright colours and umami-bomb of flavours, while maintaining just the right amount of crunchy texture.
I found this treasure sold in bulk by the kilogram, along with pickled apples, mushrooms and entire heads of garlic, at the Riga Central Market. Spanning five massive pavilions that once housed Zeppelin airships during World War One, this is the largest market in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to 1930.
Touring the market with Chef Arturs Trinkuns
More than 3,000 vendors hawk their wares here, both indoors and spilling outside for blocks. While mostly locals shop here for their groceries, it’s also the perfect place to pick up a non-perishable souvenir – say, a Latvian invention such as a pair of mittens or blue jeans.
Wandering through the aisles on a food tour led by local chef Artūrs Trinkūns, of the innovative Riga hotspot, 3 Pavāru, I spot several unfamiliar creatures. One of those creatures is a coveted Latvian delicacy called the lamprey. Its slippery eel-like features strike terror in my heart, and little do I know, I will face it head-on soon enough.
Lamprey on the BBQ at Sia Krupis
And when I say head-on, I mean it quite literally, as this jawless, boneless parasitic fish is barbecued on the grill, then consumed whole, starting from the tail and ending with the head.
A few days later, on a tour of the countryside, I meet my slimy nemesis at Sia Krupis, a family-run business located in the tiny coastal town of Carnikava – the lamprey capital of Latvia. I muster only enough courage for a few bites above the tail, though I also taste it jellied and in the form of sushi. It makes for a rather unorthodox breakfast, but thankfully the overflowing shot glasses of Latvian whisky offered by our hosts, Zigrīda Skaveneca and Eduards Skavenecs, help it go down more smoothly.
What comes next is much more my style, as we head to another family-owned business in the countryside called Gogelmogels. Here Jānis and Eva Joma craft small batches of ice cream using egg yolks from the more than 200 chickens they raise on their farm.
Janis Joma at Gogelmogels
Their unique brand name is a play on words on kogel mogel, an egg-based desert that originated in the 17th century from Jewish communities in central and Eastern Europe. We’re treated to bowls of ice cream flavoured with sea buckthorn, halvah, bee pollen, stracciatella, and vanilla, then given a tour of the adjacent hen house where eggs are laid tidily on shelves and collected for the next batch – part of a thoughtful system the owners designed so as not to disturb their chickens.
Over the next few days, I’m treated to an assortment of meals at restaurants that can be best defined by their farm-to-table culture. It strikes me that the intimacy of Latvians’ relationship with nature and their treasured customs of pickling, foraging, hunting and fishing that go back for centuries, is what really sets their cuisine apart.
While it’s known for its heartiness, a growing openness towards innovation and experimentation is putting Latvian gastronomy on the culinary map – still a largely undiscovered gem, but in a world hungering for authentic experiences, it may not remain undiscovered for long.
Chef Artūrs Trinkūns, of the innovative Riga hotspot, 3 Pavāru, shares his recipe for Wagtail Cake.