Where to stay
A country house reminiscent of a hunting lodge that styles itself as a palace. It’s a romantic place to escape to, and the breakfasts, especially the potato and cottage cheese pancakes, are excellent. Doubles from £40. Dikli, Koceni, 00 371 6420 7480, http://www.diklupils.lv
A Relais & Châteaux hotel with tasteful rooms and an excellent restaurant, Le Dome. The latter is overseen by Maris Astics, whose cooking, especially the fish, is generous, rustic and prepared from the best produce that Latvia can offer. Doubles from £200. 4 Miesnieku Iela, 00 371 6750 9010, http://www.domehotel.lv
Gallery Park Hotel
This glitzy, five-star hotel has many rooms and suites decorated in a Napoleon III style, while others feature a contemporary Italian design. Doubles from £114. 7 Krisjana Valdemara Iela, 00 371 6733 8830, http://www.galleryparkhotel.co...
If you want to learn how to prepare Latvian bread in cosseted surroundings, this small chateau is the place to do it. Comfortable rooms and genuine antiques all around. The wine cellar is beautiful. Doubles from £73. Liepupe Village, 00 371 6728 9730, http://www.liepupesmuiza.lv
Neiburgs A chic Old Town hotel that is minimalist, modern and friendly. Doubles from £112. 25/27 Jaun Iela, 00 371 6711 5522, http://www.neiburgs.com
Currency in Latvia is the euro and the time is two hours ahead of the UK. Summers are warm, and you can expect average highs of 20°C in June. Flight duration from the UK is about 2 hours 30 minutes.
Latvia’s tourist board has a wealth of information about Riga and the country as a whole, including shopping, entertainment and sightseeing. You can also find hotels, restaurants and bars. http://www.latvia.travel
The Food and Cooking of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by Silvena Johen Lauta (Aquamarine, £15.99). A Baltic bible of classic cuisine, which contains more than 60 traditional Latvian recipes.
Return flights from London Heathrow to Riga produce 0.38 tonnes of CO2, which can be offset via Climate Care at a cost of £2.83.
Donations will go towards supporting environmental projects around the world. For more information, visit http://www.climatecare.org
Where to eat
If this is the face of Riga in the making, then bring it on. Relaxed, clever and tasty, it borrows tricks from other star chefs across the globe, but never loses sight of its roots. £33. 4 Torna Iela, Jekaba Kazarmas 2b, 00 371 2037 0537, http://www.3pavari.lv
Biblioteka No 1
Probably Riga’s most polished restaurant, it overlooks a park and the local materials are handled carefully and with precision. £48. 2 Terbatas Iela, 00 371 2022 5000, http://www.restoransbiblioteka...
Sit with Latvians and barely a foreigner. Young and hip, with good, unadulterated grub. Brunch from £5; dinner £15, both excluding drinks. 8 Matisa Iela, 00 371 2037 1170, http://www.ecocatering.lv/en/
If you can find it on the map (off the A1), stop here for home cooking that’s fresh and unashamedly Latvian. £15. Limbazu Nov, Skultes Pag, Lauci, 00 371 6406 5423, http://www.laucakmens.lv
Next to Dome Hotel, this bistro-restaurant has a modern setting, a dedicated chef-patron and an experienced maître d’. £29. 8 Miesnieku Iela, 00 371 2952 9200, http://www.valterarestorans.lv...
The flagship of Martins Ritins, who is Riga’s best-known chef and a champion of Slow Food. Ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers wherever possible and the menu changes each week. £44. Karla Ulmana Gatve 114a, 00 371 6750 0200, http://www.vincents.lv/en
- Auksta zupa
- Translates as ‘cold soup’ but usually means beetroot with gherkin, dill and kefir
- Medus kuka
- Classic honey cake, with a soured cream and walnut filling, between five thin layers of honey-flavoured sponge
- Rupjmaizes kartojums
- Speciality dessert of crumbled rye bread with berry juices or jam, cream or cottage cheese
- Sourdough rye bread, often flavoured with caraway seeds
- Siers cheese
- Sour cheese, also containing caraway, traditionally eaten during the festival of Jani
Food and Travel Review
‘They tell me Riga is the nicest place in the world,’ wrote the composer Richard Wagner, before adding, ‘especially when it comes to earning money.’ Latvia’s capital certainly prospered back in 1837. When Wagner settled here it was the most important port in the Russian empire. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and resulting independence, it has regained its vitality and chutzpah, to the extent that last year it was crowned European Capital of Culture. Through those long summer nights, it never seems to sleep.
However much Rigans love their city – and nearly a third of Latvia’s population beds down here – their affection also extends to the landscape of forests, lakes and sandy beaches edging the Baltic Sea that surrounds them. They are citizens who have kept in touch with the myths and magic of their pagan past.
A green core of parks separates the Old Town to the east of the Daugava River from one of the city’s most beautiful streets, Alberta Iela, where the extravagant jugendstil (art nouveau) apartments were designed by architect Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Battleship Potemkin filmmaker Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein. In an area small enough to navigate on foot, these masterpieces are the legacy of Riga’s past as a global trading hub that supplied hemp for ropes and timber masts for Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar. Their elegance is a counterpoint to the city’s stark, grid-like Soviet blocks.
Spared the backdrop of traffic noise, the Old Town is a quarter where music is always bubbling to the surface and echoing down alleys. By the Freedom Monument, built to honour those who fell in the 1918-1920 Latvian War of Independence, a busker squeezes his accordion. Along the esplanade, a snake of schoolchildren on their way to choir practice bang out a Buena Vista Social Club ditty. In front of St Peter’s Church, dating from 1209, a trio improvises cool jazz for revellers drinking beer and vodka at tables set out on the cobbled square. By the Powder Tower, all that remains of Riga’s walled fortifications, folk singers look like musicians at a Breugel wedding. Theirs could be the traditional Latvian drinking song: ‘while brewing the beer/I put a bee in my pocket/So that the ale-drinkers would sing/like bees buzzing in a hive.’
Riga’s Central Market, the largest in Europe, was built during the 1920s from redundant Zeppelin hangars. One area specialises in meat, another dairy produce and a third pickles. Maris Astics, chef at one of Riga’s top hotels, dome, comes here to buy fish: ‘I want local, local, local. I’m here today and I’ll be here tomorrow and the next day. we can buy fish from the sea, from the lake and the river.’
This is in no way an idle boast. Under the arched roof, he can indeed find fresh Baltic cod, Arctic char, wild catfish from the Daugava river, sturgeon, pike-perch, eels and fresh, pickled or dried herrings: ‘when people go to the sauna, they take these.’ Maris prefers to buy his eels live, skewering and smoking them with wood shavings that his parents bring from their farm near the Lithuanian border. This bucolic childhood has definitely shaped him, Maris explains. ‘My life was very different from chefs who have always lived in town. They don’t know how animals are raised, or what they eat, but I know everything about them from when they are born until they get to a restaurant kitchen. we had cows, rabbits, pigs, chickens. every summer we would go to the forest for mushrooms and we would hunt deer and elk or wild boar and catch fish in the lake.’
Outside the vast covered market, fruit and vegetable stalls groan under the weight of berries. To Latvians, ‘fruits of the forest’ means just that. In season, wild blueberries, button-sized strawberries or raspberries, cranberries and cloudberries all carpet the forest floor. Foraging for these comes second only to mushrooming. The price of a kilo of chanterelles, only about £3, should be a clue as to how abundant they are. Latvia’s government-controlled Forestry Commission holds annual competitions for fungi hunters, who scavenge through the night armed with torch and knife.
One of them, lawyer Janis Gutmanis, uses the commission’s app when taking a morning out of his office to unearth mushrooms. It lists 300 edible species, balanced against 30 poisonous ones, but Janis sticks to what he knows. Today, he says, the weather is too dry; it should be warm and damp. However, adverse conditions don’t prevent him from gathering enough yellow chanterelles for a meal. He still has some from the previous season, pickled with juniper berries, cloves and onion rings. Next month, porcini will be in season: he’ll dry those he can’t eat fresh, or powder them for soups.
Honey is another passion for Janis. In Ramava, 20 minutes’ drive from Riga, he keeps two beehives in a cousin’s garden. with luck, they will yield enough honey for family and friends. He belongs to a generation that’s shaping the country’s future. Under communism, shelves were bare. A typical joke of the time goes: ‘Two Latvians look at a cloud. One sees the impossible dream; the other sees a potato. It’s the same cloud.’ when that era was over, people rushed to the supermarkets that were opening everywhere. Now, they skip backwards to embrace the nation’s pre-Soviet customs.
Produce markets are another way of acknowledging this food heritage. In Riga’s Kalnciema quarter – a neighbourhood of wooden clapboard houses, some decaying, some restored and a few new-builds – there is a weekly gastronomic fair. It brings together characters like Gurta, who slaughters her own pigs and cures the meat in her chimney; a New Age hemp-seed butter producer; a man making sea buckthorn berry sweets; and celebrity chef Martins Ritins, who sells beef burgers from his herd of Highland cattle.
At Straupe Farmers’ Market in Placis, on the main A3 road to Valmiera, the malted fruit bread baked in a wood-fired oven is remarkable. So is the chokeberry jam, the aged, two-year-old gouda, the buttermilk ice cream, the uniflora wild raspberry honey, the soured cream, and the cottage cheese. This renaissance in artisan production isn’t confined to food. Fruit wine makers are also burgeoning. One of them specialises in apple eiswein; another sells sparkling wine made from birch sap; Zilver winery really does make a semi-sweet lilac wine as well as a quince varietal. Beer, too, is innovative and exciting: Labietis microbrewery flavours its hoppy brews with heather, coriander, juniper and lemongrass, while Valmiermuiza brewery, based on the site of a 17th-century Swedish mansion, brews a mahogany signature beer from malt smoked over wood shavings. It tastes a little bit like Laphroaig – peaty and delicious.
Bread is another staple of Latvian life. But dense, dark rye bread, its crust the colour of molasses, is more than simply the ‘staff of life’. It links old and new; it’s a wedding gift. when a couple moves into a new home, guests bring a loaf as a blessing. Eaten with caraway cheese, it helps soak up the alcohol downed during Ligo, the midsummer solstice festivities. when Iveta Ludina bought the rundown 18th-century Liepupe Manor to convert into a country house hotel, she installed a wood oven – just for the bread. It takes a day to fire until it’s hot enough for baking. ‘When I was small, if I dropped my bread, I had to kiss it,’ she says.
Such reverence extends to recipes. Rupjmaizes Kartojums, layered bread pudding, has as many versions as there are cooks. Combine the crumbled rye with berry juice or jam, cream or cottage cheese, that’s it. Latvia’s celebrity chefs are also bringing their nation’s food bang up to date. Martins Sirmais travels the world as a TV chef but when he’s in Latvia he cooks with partners Juris Dukalkis and Eriks Dreibants at 3Pavaru in the Old Town of Riga. From splashes of coloured sauces painted on a paper sheet at the dining table to cooks doubling as waiters, it’s the nearest thing Riga has to cutting-edge cuisine. His other restaurant is called 3 Naži (3 knives). Needless to say, it attracts comments.
‘Until the recession struck in 2008,’ Martins says, ‘Russians financed the restaurants. They came, made designs, hired chefs and laundered the money or did it for pleasure so they could say “this is mine”. After the financial crisis they went back to Moscow.’
Martins and his two friends set up shop with second-hand furniture, a couple of coats of paint and no backers. They had the key advantage of having worked abroad. He believes that the current training for youngsters who want to cook professionally falls short. ‘Colleges still teach the recipes from Soviet times, so there are no roots for the younger generation.’
Martins’ cuisine relies on the gadgetry and cooking style of global restaurants the world over: Thermomix, sous-vide packaging and slow-cooked trickery are in evidence. So it’s disarming when he shakes a siphon like a barista and shoots frothy crab bisque over cod and scallops for a customer, or spoons hemp-seed dressing over slices of goat’s cheese. Dining out in Latvia can reveal eclectic edible surprises: poached strawberries with roast veal, or rye waffles with caviar-filled pockets. ecocatering Telpa uses organic ingredients grown on local farms and the restaurant is among the most palatable of this new wave. The entrance is an adventure in itself, taking you through a courtyard and above a bicycle repair shop.
The dining area (open in summer) is a wooden gallery, clamped to the side of the building. Before it opens to the public, the kitchen prepares and delivers organic food to kindergarten. Its £5 brunch is self-service and comes with delicious salads like sticky caramelised onions mixed with berries or wild mushrooms, new potatoes baked in their skins with herbs, and the best-ever salted cucumber. On the table is one bowl of tiny carrots and another of gooseberries.
Further afield, finding Laucu Akmens is a test without sat-nav. An hour from the city, it’s then 2km along a track to a campsite and guesthouse by a sandy beach. Here they serve chilled beetroot soup made with kefir, dill and pickled gherkin. This is practically Latvia’s national dish. It certainly deserves to be. The fisherman has just brought some pike-perch and it’s dished up fried whole with roasted parsnips. A buttery slab of sturgeon is lightly browned and meaty.
Surprisingly, Latvia’s rollercoaster economy has had a positive effect on the modern mindset. Although the recession wiped out 20 per cent of the economy, recovery has been dramatic. The traditional outlets remain, such as the Black Magic Bar, selling the almost medicinal herbal liqueur Riga Black Balsam to tourists, but as a counterpoint to these there are sleek café-shops like Pienene, where fresh herb teas and wild berry smoothies sell alongside buckwheat pillows and edible-sounding cosmetics – ‘All day and night cream with birch and blueberry extracts.’
This new era has spawned a new breed of entrepreneurs. Anna Panna describes herself as ‘a graduate of the YouTube academy’. daughter of a famous designer, she gives bespoke cookery courses on Latvian baking from a studio kitchen (her layered honey cake alone deserves a feature). Desa & Co, a bistro-charcuterie in a restored warehouse abutting the Daugava, is the retail outlet of a reindeer rancher, while winemaker Janis Zilvers admits that before the downturn he was planning a career in a cushy office job. Rigans learn fast, an essential skill for survivors. Martins Sirmais isn’t joking when he says: ‘My son is six and already knows more about the ingredients in the kitchen than I did when I was 16.’ They also share a ‘united we stand’ mentality. If the 3Pavaru runs out of salt (it can happen), Maris Astics at dome helps out.
This ‘work in progress’ approach is reflected in a local proverbial saying: ‘when Riga is completed, it will fall into the Daugava.’ like its architecture, where Hanseatic gothic spires jostle with High Dutch townhouses and art nouveau apartment blocks, the city is restless and changing. Someone will soon coin the phrase New Baltic Cuisine. It will probably be an astute Latvian chef.
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