The Baltic nations include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which nestle around the Baltic Sea. The cuisine of this region is characterised by its love of rye bread, fish, dill, dairy, root vegetables, cabbage, pickled vegetables, pork and mushrooms. These flavours are particularly nostalgic to me, because I had a cherished family friend and babysitter growing up who had Lithuanian heritage: Anna. Apart from being great fun and having an adorable manx cat, she is an incredible cook. I therefore spent many very happy days and nights of my childhood pattering around after her in the kitchen, surrounded by the smells of bacon, cabbage and dill. To this day I think of Anna whenever I smell bacon and cabbage frying. Under her careful instruction, I also learned to love some of the flavours that would be considered strange by Australian standards, such as cold beetroot soup and preserved fish. We would sometimes have a Lithuanian Christmas all together, which is traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve. This celebration mandates that exactly twelve meatless dishes, representing the twelve months of the year, be laid out on the table for supper. I don’t remember precisely, but I think that the “meatless” rule was not always strictly followed at our Christmases, and there was much laughter about counting the salt shaker, sauce bowl and wine bottle as the 10th, 11th and 12th dishes when everyone had run out of energy and ingredients. Many of the dishes this week are Anna’s greatest hits that I tried to replicate, although, of course, none of them were quite as good!
Saltibarsciai is a Lithuanian cold beetroot soup, the colour of which could be conservatively described as “violently pink”. People who tried my soup all pronounced it “surprisingly delicious” despite looking “slightly unsettling” and like “a bowl of paint”. I made mine by boiling beetroot in stock and vinegar, then peeling and grating it once it had cooled. I then combined the beetroot, a little stock, red onion, chives, dill, buttermilk, sour cream, cream, hard boiled egg, cucumbers, salt and white pepper. I’ve always loved the taste – earthy and sweet, with lovely aromatics from the dill and chives. It goes very well with dark rye bread, which I usually buy from a Russian deli, as it doesn’t taste as good from supermarkets. Personally, I adore the colour of this soup; it makes me happy to eat something so bright. I’ve noticed that, contrary to what you might expect, a lot of northern European countries take great care to incorporate bright colours into their food. I suppose that in places where food and the surrounds are always colourful, less care is taken with gastronomic brilliance. I appreciate the effort, and encourage you to make this soup yourself – it’s not too difficult and is wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
Balandeliai means “little doves” in Lithuanian, likely referring to the shape of the parcels. These cabbage rolls are a great favourite of mine and I’ve made them many times. They are prevalent throughout north eastern Europe, with the recipes and names varying from place to place. However, my introduction and love for them began from the Lithuanian tradition, so I stand by that version. I started by sautéing onion, celery, capsicum, carrot and garlic in butter, then added pork mince and stirring until cooked through. After the mix had cooled, I added dill, cooked rice and an egg to bind. I then blanched a big head of cabbage and peeled off the leaves, wrapping the mince mixture up in tight little parcels. I placed these in a pressure cooker with tomato passata, chicken stock and bacon, then cooked it all together until the cabbage rolls were cooked through and had absorbed some of the liquid. I then removed the rolls and reduced the sauce, finally stirring through some sour cream to create a lovely rich flavour and consistency. This recipe definitely takes some time and effort, but is the sort of dish that screams of love and devotion. I’m sure every Lithuanian living abroad can’t wait to get back home and eat Mama’s version of the recipe.
Cepelinai and sprat sandwich
Cepelinai means “zeppelins” and describes dirigible-shaped potato dumplings that are often said to be the national dish of Lithuania. Although from the outside they look roughly like a potato, they are actually intricately manufactured. The outside is made of a mix of finely grated raw potato, riced boiled potato, minced onion and salt. This is mixed up to form a wet dough, then wrapped around a filling of minced meat (I used pork), onion and egg to bind and shaped into the classic zeppelins. The gravy can vary slightly between recipes, but mandatorily must involve bacon and dairy. I also added porcini mushroom, onion and plenty of black pepper to mine. Cepelinai are certainly delicious, but worth all of the effort? I think if faced with the choice of making them again, I would be tempted to just roast a potato and eat it with a bacon sauce – the tastes would be similar and it would take 1/100th of the time. However, this is definitely an ideal meal if you really want to impress your dinner guests! The sprat open sandwiches are typical of Estonia, where sprat (a herring-like Baltic fish) is commonly eaten. I bought my sprats marinated in a baltic spice mixture of black pepper, allspice, cloves and nutmeg. I made the sandwich with dark rye bread and butter, topped with sprat fillet, red onion, shallot, dill and half a hard-boiled egg. This simple fare is served at every kind of celebration in Estonia, including birthdays, funerals and Christmas. In fact, in 2014, Estonia’s obsession with the sprat sandwich was recorded in perpetuity in the Guinness book of records, when cooks from 20 restaurants in the country’s capital banded together to make the world’s longest sprat sandwich, with concurrent workshops and exhibitions on the subject open to the public for months. All of the recipes for this dish say something akin to “surprisingly delicious” or “don’t be put off by its looks”. I actually love its aesthetic, but it’s true that this sandwich is more delicious than the sum of its parts – and so easy to make!
Sklandrausis is a Latvian hand pie, featuring more examples of the opportunistic showcasing of bright colours in food from this region. It originated in Western Latvia between the 16th and 17th centuries, and is so important that it was the first Latvian dish to be awarded “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed” status by the European Commission. This means that authorised traditional makers of these products can advertise them with a registered logo, ensuring consumers that it is not imitation or inauthentic. My pies didn’t have a logo, but I had a good try at making them traditionally nonetheless. Sklandrausis are a mix between sweet and savoury, with a dark rye crust made with butter and water, filled with a layer of mashed potato, butter, sour cream and egg, then another layer of mashed carrot and sour cream on top. This is then seasoned with caraway seeds and baked until the case is crispy and the filling is hardened and becoming golden on top. The rye crust was very crumbly and therefore difficult to shape into any form that wasn’t “rustic”, but I really enjoyed the taste: it was much more flavoursome than regular pie crusts, and complemented the relatively subtle vegetable fillings.