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Food and Drinks and Local Specialties

Help File
well, interesting blabla is written here, but all food that counts in riga is selled in pelmeni xl!!! whatever u do in riga, dont miss it :-)

Latvia is located in a temperate climatic zone with fairly long and cold winters and warm, short summers. Due to the harsh climate and relatively poor soil quality Latvians have always worked hard to provide food for themselves and their families. Food has thus always been assigned great value by Latvians. Bread has a special place in the Latvian consciousness, and respect for it is encouraged from early childhood.

Although Latvian cuisine has traditionally been based on agricultural produce, meat also features prominently in the Latvian diet. People living along the 500 km of Latvian coastline have always been involved in fishing, and fish has been an integral part of their diet. Fish are also caught inland, but these freshwater species are considered more of a delicacy, in the same way as crayfish are.

Food Preparation
Women were the cooks in traditional Latvian homes and responsible for feeding the household three times a day. Longer days in summer meant that people worked for longer, and thus ate four meals a day. At first, food was prepared in clay pots which were placed in the fire or on the open hearth. Over time, cauldrons hung above the hearth and bread ovens for baking leavened bread became popular.

Latvian foods are characteristically bland, without a use of strong spices, and have a reasonably high fat content. As a result of the territory of Latvia being ruled by the German aristocracy for seven centuries, Latvian peasants learned to use new ingredients and to prepare food in different ways. For example, one of the most popular Latvian foods today - sautéed sauerkraut - is a tradition inherited from the Germans.

Ancient cooking traditions
If we look back over 1000 years, then we learn that the Baltic and Finno-Ugric tribes inhabiting the territory of Latvia subsisted mainly from grains - rye, wheat, barley, oats, millet and hemp. Porridges, patties and leavened bread were made from these grains. People also ate peas, beans, turnips, black radishes, linseed and its oil, wild carrots and garlic. Stock farming developed alongside agriculture, and the Latvian diet thus also consisted of fowl, beef, horse meat and pork. Of course, game meat - beaver, deer, wild boar, duck, goose - and over 25 different species of fish were also eaten. As there are no sources of salt in Latvia, it was obtained through trade or barter and was used sparingly. Food was also made more flavoursome through the use of caraway seeds, onions, garlic and white mustard. It is probable that if we tasted these ancient foods today, they would seem to us to lack salt and other spices. The only sweetener used was honey, but the most popular desserts were probably wild berries and hazelnuts.

Cooking 100 years ago
More detailed information about the traditional Latvian diet stems from the 19th century. At this time a plant from North America was spreading quickly - the potato. Thanks to potato farming, Latvian peasants no longer had food shortages in winter and spring, when stores of grain had been depleted. It is believed that the most common meal for Latvian coastal fishing families in the 19th century was boiled potatoes with cottage cheese and herring or pilchards. Today potatoes, prepared in different ways, are still a very popular component of the Latvian diet.

In autumn, the cellar of each farm was used to store dried sausages and pork, and barrels of salted cabbage, cucumbers, mushrooms, meat and herring. These were used as ingredients for meals throughout winter.

In summer, when there was a lot of outdoor work to be done further away from home, people would eat a moderate breakfast, for example, milk porridge. Lunch consisted of food brought from home such as rye bread, cottage cheese, rūgušpiens (curdled milk), and sometimes also fried meat or patties. After lunch, people would usually have a nap before beginning work again. On returning home in the afternoon, soup or porridge was eaten with a drink of rūgušpiens. On Sundays the diet consisted of stewed meat, white bread, pīrāgi (bacon rolls), pancakes, sweetened cottage cheese or berry jelly with milk.

Latvian eating customs
Similar eating customs were widely spread in rural areas up until World War II. After the War, more and more country dwellers came to live in cities, and Latvians began to structure their eating schedules around work, as is the case in many other industrialised countries. Today people often no longer prepare meals at home. However, many ancient eating customs are still practiced today, and ancient foods are still eaten by Latvians daily and on special occasions.

Latvians have always been great fans of dairy products. Milk, rūgušpiens, cottage cheese, cream, cheese and butter used to be eaten in every house almost at every meal, and this tradition has continued. Latvians have always been able to find many delicious edible foods in the wild: foods that do not need to be cultivated, only gathered. Since long ago people in Latvia pick berries in the summer time - wild strawberries, bilberries, raspberries, loganberries - and cranberries, mushrooms and nuts in the autumn. Many Latvians like to eat honey, and bee-keeping traditions have developed over the centuries. Today Latvian farms often have their own bee hives, and honey production is the business of many farms. In turn, among coastal dwelling families, smoking fish at home is still popular, and in many areas people eat smoked eel-pout, flounder, eel, lamprey and cod.

Food at traditional Latvian celebrations
The most typical ancient foods eaten by Latvians are still found today at traditional Latvian celebrations. These celebrations are related to annual seasonal events, and to the rhythm of farming in the northern hemisphere, which is dependent on the solar year. This is why Latvian food and drink at traditional celebrations are those which are the most convenient to prepare at any given time of year. Food and drink were also traditionally assigned mythological significance, although few Latvians would be able to talk about this significance today.

The harvest festival
In autumn, when the harvest had been brought in and food was abundant, farms would usually celebrate the harvest festival. Because of this, weddings were usually held in autumn. After the harvest, a piglet or ram was often slaughtered and a feast was organised. The new season's sauerkraut was eaten and bread was baked from the newly harvested grains. Bread baked from the flour made from the first harvest was assigned particular powers. When eating this bread, a wish was made, which would be fulfilled. Whenever a domestic animal was slaughtered, the meat which could not be eaten straight away was salted and dried, or made into sausages. Blood and pearl barley were used to make special blood sausage, and brawn was made by boiling meat off-cuts.

Pīrāgi (bacon rolls) filled with diced fatty bacon and onion are still baked today for almost all Latvian celebrations. Various sweet platter breads are also baked, which are topped with rhubarb, apples, berries in summer and sweetened cottage cheese or dried apples in autumn.

Christmas dinner
Special foods were eaten at the winter solstice, a celebration to mark the days becoming longer. Many of these foods can still be found on contemporary Latvian Christmas tables. A popular dish used to be a boiled pigs head with boiled pearl barley, although today the most popular traditional Christmas dish is boiled grey peas with pieces of fried meat and fatty bacon, usually eaten accompanied by a drink of rūgušpiens or kefīrs (curdled or cultured milk). This dish can be found in many restaurants and cafés in Latvia all year around. All of the peas boiled at Christmas must be eaten by the morning, otherwise there will be a lot tears shed in the new year. Another special Christmas food is the once-popular blood sausage with pearl barley, because its rounded bend is reminiscent of a circle, symbolising the solar year. In western Latvia a traditional Christmas snack is sklandu rauši (tarts filled with a mashed potato and carrot). In the last 100 years it has also become popular to bake gingerbread at Christmas, another tradition inherited from the Germans. Today one of the most popular Christmas meals is roast pork with sautéed sauerkraut. A modern festive table also often includes carp, and fish scales are placed in pockets and purses, so that the new year brings a lot of money. According to Latvian tradition you should eat nine meals at Christmas for the coming year to be rich, although today this ritual is performed only rarely.

Easter eggs
At the time of the spring solstice, or Easter, food stores would usually have been running low, so eggs were saved for some time before Easter. Boiled eggs, coloured with brown onion skins and decorated with scratched designs have been the main Easter food for many centuries. Many families still boil and eat their own home coloured eggs at Easter. Another once popular Easter food - sprouted grain - today no longer appears on the table as a festive delicacy, but is used as décor instead.

Celebrating the summer solstice
Today the most popular celebration in Latvia is Jāņi or the summer solstice. This marks the shortest night of the year, when throughout Latvia special Jāņi folk songs are sung, floral wreaths are made, and countless bonfires burn until the morning. The main Jāņi foods are fresh caraway cheese and beer, which is found on every Jāņi festive table. Usually the table will also be laden with pīrāgi, sweet platter breads, various meats and many other modern foods, which suit contemporary Latvian celebrations.

Because it is an outdoor celebration, an increasing list of modern picnic foods are being eaten at Jāņi, for example, fried sausages, barbecued meat and various salads.
At the Latvian Wedding Table
Another Latvian celebration that should be mentioned are weddings, which since ancient times have been associated with an abundance of food. Also today food is a large component of a Latvian wedding. It is hard to imagine a Latvian wedding without the ancient festive dishes - pīrāgi, sweet platter breads and beer. There are also usually at least five types of salad on the table, various meat-based snacks and a lot of fruit. It is traditional to eat ground meat pīrāgi together with broth or meatball soup as a first course at weddings. This is followed by the main course, which at a Latvian wedding and birthdays can be sautéed pork ribs, pork chops, schnitzel, roast, steak, rolled veal or rissoles with boiled potatoes and sautéed sauerkraut. These are served with a sauce made from a milk or cream base. Dessert is usually made of berries or a milk jelly with a sweet sauce. After midnight the guests are offered the "New Wife's Torte", which is served with coffee.

If you find yourself at a large Latvian party, then assume that you will have to do a lot of eating, drinking and singing. In many homes you will have the opportunity to drink herbal tea (made from a range of herbs, not just peppermint or camomile), which will possibly have been gathered by your hosts during the summer.

The contemporary Latvian menu
On an average day Latvians usually eat a moderate breakfast before going to work. People drink a morning coffee or tea and eat sandwiches with cheese, sausage, tomatoes or cucumber. For many Latvians the day is not imaginable without a drink of milk, which is usually drunk at breakfast. A boiled egg or omelette is also a popular breakfast dish for many.

Lunch in Latvia is eaten between midday and three: this is dependent on what time the day has begun. People usually eat a hot lunch, which consists of a type of fried meat (pork chops, rissoles, sautéed fillet, steak, chicken) or fish (salmon, trout, cod, pilchard), potatoes (boiled, fried, or mashed), boiled rice or buckwheat, and a fresh salad. Sour cream is usually eaten as an accompaniment, or a sauce using cream as a base. Some people also eat soup as an entrée, which in Latvia is usually made with pork (or can also be made with a fish stock), adding onions and carrots. Meat soups may also contain potatoes, beets, sauerkraut, beans, peas, sorrel or fresh nettles. Many different kind of desserts are eaten. These usually are made of dairy products and fruit, with gelatine or potato starch added.

At lunch time Latvians drink fruit juices, kefīrs (cultured milk), milk, tea or coffee.

On arriving home from work, a second lunch, or supper, is made. This is eaten around six or seven in the evening. At this time there is a large diversity in the Latvian home - supper can consist of soup, various salads, or can be a hot meal (similar to lunch), or a more traditional food, for example, a milk-based soup. However, many people who do not wish to spend a lot of time preparing food after work buy ready-made or frozen foods, or eat a number of sandwiches or buns together with a cup of tea. Latvians also enjoy eating pastries and other bakery products, and pizza has also become a popular and easy meal to prepare.

Many Latvians drink innumerable cups of tea or coffee during the day, usually without milk. Fruit juices or spring water are also drunk. Spring water has now become so popular that it can be found in almost every office. In the last ten years more and more families do not purchase spring water from the shop, but rather collect water for the whole week from natural springs instead. Two of the most popular traditional Latvian drinks today are rūgušpiens (curdled milk with no other additives) and kefīrs (cultured milk). Other popular traditional drinks include kvass (a non-alcoholic drink made from yeast), fresh or fermented birch juice and beer.

Beer is a traditional Latvian beverage - it is impossible to imagine ancient or contemporary Latvian celebrations without it. Beer is the most commonly mentioned drink in Latvian folklore, and has innumerable folksongs dedicated to it. In Latvia beer was traditionally brewed from barley and hops. Honey was also often added during the brewing process, and the product was then called medalus (honey beer). Juniper berries or wormwood were also added to give the beer flavour. Today there are many types of beer which are products of breweries throughout Latvia. The most popular are Aldaris, Cēsu, Piebalgas, Tērvetes, Užavas, Bauskas and Lāčplēša beers. Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage drunk when friends meet in a tavern in the evening, celebrate a wedding or the summer solstice.
Another special strong alcoholic beverage made in Latvia is Rīga Black Balsam, first made in the 18th century and based on an ancient recipe used by Rigan pharmacists. The ingredients include various herbs, and because of this the liqueur is dark, has a thick consistency, is fragrant and is considered medicinal.
Beliefs associated with eating
There are many beliefs and customs associated with food and eating in Latvia. One of the most important features of Latvian "eating etiquette" is to offer food to others around you if you yourself are eating.
Latvians are enthusiastic bread eaters, and in many homes, when cutting the first slice from a loaf of bread, the end is called a 'farmer's son'. Young women compete to eat this slice, so that they may marry a 'farmer's son' - someone who has their own home and farm. Another belief is that a loaf of bread should be sliced from the fatter end, in order for the eldest daughter to be the first to marry.
Today people still hold a number of beliefs about salt. Each Latvian knows that if a food has too much salt added, the cook is in love. If salt is spilled on the table or on the floor, then there will be a quarrel in the house.
Sitting down to a meal is a serious business, which requires people to be calm and act with decorum, to demonstrate respect for the food and for those who have worked to put it on the table - the ploughman and the cook. The place of honour is at the head of the table, where the head of the house usually sits. Those who sit at the corner of the table should be afraid of being cursed - that they will not be married for seven years. And everyone knows that if a spoon or fork fall to the ground, a female visitor will arrive, whereas if a knife falls, the visitor will be a male.
You are welcome at our table and we wish you Labu apetīti!

Edited bywired-wokman on 15.11.2005 msnice on 22.04.2005

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