Have you ever wondered what our Latvian ancestors used to eat? Are you curious when the staples we recognise today were introduced? How did they create and cook dishes we all know and love? What did Latvian farmers buy and what did they grow themselves? When were potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce was introduced? What did farmers know about coffee and what did they consider as dessert?
Sanita Stinkule, the Head of Ethnography Department of the National History Museum of Latvia, offers a quick glimpse in the history of Latvian food. This series of articles was originally published on delfi.lv, and they have been translated and republished with the permission from the author.
Part 3. Meat, fish, mushrooms and native plants
One of the important and nutritious parts of the Latvian diet used to be meat and lard. It was especially critical in winter when lack of milk led to eating more meat and lard as the sources of fat. Animals were slaughtered in autumn because it was hard to feed them through the winter. Sheep were slaughtered around Miķeļi (September 29) and pigs around Mārtiņi (November 10).
Pork was the favourite – the fattier, the better. Pigs were raised in every household, be it rich or poor. A large proportion of the meat was prepared for consumption throughout the year by salting and smoking it.
Fattened pigs were slaughtered in the autumn – three, four at a time. Slaughter, as well as butchering of the pig, was a skilled task. Butcher had to know how to separate the head, how to take out, divide and clean entrails, where to split the spine and how to separate the legs. The most coveted piece was the leg ham, followed by shoulder ham, loin, ribs, neck, trotters, and head.
Meat was salted in large barrels – meat was layered with salt and covered with a wooden plank. Weight was placed on top, barrel wrapped in cloth, and covered with nettle to deter pests. Meat was salted twice – after the first salting, meat was taken out of barrels, pink juices that had run from the meat were discarded and the salting process was repeated for the second time. Well salted meat could last for 2 to 3 years.
How lard porridge and bull horn sausages were made
When meat had been salted for 2 to 3 months, it was smoked. First smoking was done with fresh juniper. Meat was smoked in closed smokers so the meat absorbs the smoke. Second smoking was done for 24 hours with alder wood. Trays were placed under the meat. First, the salting liquid ran off. That was discarded. Then the rendered fat was collected in the trays. Salted and smoked meat was hung in the granary or stored with the rye, that way it kept until the next summer. Cured meat was used as a base for soups, or eaten sliced with milk-based dishes, porridge, and boiled potatoes. Even in the 20th century, fried, salted pork slices with eggs were considered the best meal to offer to guests.
Various sausages – barley, meat, and blood – were made from lesser quality cuts and internal organs. Minced meat was seasoned with pepper and onion and filled in the intestines of slaughtered animals. Before filling, intestines were divided into 1m long pieces and cleaned by rinsing them with water and rubbing with salt from inside and out. Then they were kept in water for a couple of days.
To help with filling intestines cow’s horn was used. It was around 7cm in length (just under 3 inches); cleaned intestines were put on the narrower end of the horn, while the wider end was used to insert the meat mixture. When the filling was done, both ends were tied with yarn, and sausages were boiled in salted water, fried on a pan, or smoked. Sausages were stored in the granary with the rest of the meat. They were not an everyday dish – sausages were served during large celebrations, for special guests or Christmas mummers (ķekatnieki).
Lard was the most coveted ingredient for everyday use. Animal fat was cleaned, softened by beating it with an axe handle, salted, rolled, covered with wooden sticks, and hung from the rafters. When the need arose, a piece was cut off – lard porridge was the main meal in the winter.
Blood was also used. Coagulated blood was sliced into large pieces, boiled in salted water, then fried in lard and served with boiled potatoes. Blood and barley were used to make black porridge, bread, and sausages. Paltis were made during pig slaughter – fresh blood and barley flour were mixed to create a hard dough that was shaped as buns and fried in lard or added to the porridge. Blood was also mixed with dumplings and pancakes. Blood sausage (black pudding) was saved for celebrations.
Mārtiņi geese and egg dishes
Poultry was a rare treat at celebrations. According to a long-standing tradition, a hen or a rooster was slaughtered at Mārtiņi (November 10). When keeping geese became more popular at the end of the 20th century, roasted geese replaced chicken.
Eggs dishes were not common in Latvian cuisine. Eggs were used as an addition to a meal or to feed unexpected visitors. In the spring, when hens laid more eggs, eggs were served in the dishes that would mark a new working year – boiled eggs were eaten at Easter (end of winter) and first days of cow-herding were marked by cooking pantags – scrambled eggs fried in a pan on an open fire outdoors.
Fish – long loved ingredient
Fish was a favourite ingredient all year round to add substance to the food. Until 1920 manors maintained the right to fish in lakes, rivers, and the sea; when some properties were divided and sold after the 1860s, landlords refused to sell the fishing rights in lakes and rivers. Unauthorised fishing was thriving; some manors hired guards to protect lakes from fishers. Therefore fish on the farmer’s tables was mostly from the sea caught by professional fishermen and sold by fishmongers by a barrel and eaten all year round.
Fresh fish was served after a successful catch – usually, it was a fish soup, commonly served by adding milk to it. Soup was made from all sorts of fish, but most commonly from small fish – snapper, chub, and roach. Fish was also sauteed with milk and cream and served with boiled potatoes. If a hot oven was available, fish was roasted on hay or wood planks. The most favourite were oven-baked plaices, Baltic herrings, and sprats. When stoves became more widely available at the end of the 19th century, the most common way of cooking fish was pan-frying them. Fried fish was served with potatoes and curdled milk (rūgušpiens). Cold fried fish was great on bread.
As all the fish could not be eaten at once, the majority was salted, dried, or smoked.
How many barrels of herring one family consumed per year?
The ancient way how to preserve fish was drying by hanging fish in the wind and sun. It was also the most popular way as salt was expensive and farmers couldn’t afford it. In more recent times, salt became more available and drying became less meaningful. However, smoked fish, both hot-smoked and cold smoked, became increasingly popular.
Cold smoking involved lightly salting the fish, then hanging it in medium hot smoke for up to three days. Fish dried out and stiffened and could be kept for a long time without spoiling. Cold smoked fish had high demand in markets and barters.
Hot smoking occurred much quicker and in hotter smoke. Fish were ready in a couple of hours, they were soft and juicy, and they had to be consumed immediately.
Fishermen constructed special buildings – smokehouses or pits – from old boats. Fire was lit from the wood that had a lot of sap and would not burn well with an open flame, but smoke more. Alder wood was very popular as it also added a “pleasant brown” colour, while pine twigs, needles, and cones were the best to create “cold smoke”.
Barrels of salted herring were imported in the Baltics since medieval times. Farmers brought them by a barrel, not by a piece. Each household consumed two to three barrels of herring every year.
River basins of Daugava, Gauja, and Lielupe contained a lot of lampreys that were fished since medieval times. Without gutting the fish, lamprey was washed, placed on the iron grill in the very hot oven. Baked lampreys were pressed and cubed, covered with cold marinade of water, pepper, salt, and bay leaves, and taken to the markets.
Ancestor’s mushroom foraging habits
Mushrooms were another significant addition to the winter dishes. The entire family was involved in mushroom foraging. They left the house early, took potato baskets and yokes to help them carry full baskets back home. Ceps (baravikas), bare-toothed russulas (bērzlapes), saffron milk caps (rudmieses), wooly milk caps (vilnīši), leaden milk caps (cūcenes), rufous milk caps (alksnenes), common honey fungus (celmenes), boletes (bekas) and greenish-yellow milk caps (krimildes) were considered the best mushrooms.
Foraged mushrooms were cleaned, boiled, and salted in barrels for consumption in winter. In the winter, mushrooms were fried with meat and served with potatoes. Ceps and baby russulas were roasted in the coal, strung, and dried near the oven or in the sun.
Nettle pies and ash baked horsetails
Every spring it was common to eat native wild plants. Before every other plant made the appearance, nettles were going strong in sunny corners and ditches. Roughly finger long nettles were collected, lightly boiled, salted, mixed with barley and lard to create a thin porridge. Nettles were also added to soups, sautéed, just like cabbage, and used as a filling in pies. Similar dishes were created from sorrel, lamb’s quarters, baby thistle, coltsfoot, and ground elder. Baby horsetails were roasted in hot ashes, while baby beetroot leaves were cooked in a soup.
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