Queens of the Coun­try

After decades of for­eign rule, Latvia holds on to its culi­nary iden­tity by way of its coun­try­side kitchens. Amy Thie­len ex­pe­ri­ences a taste from the vil­lage bak­ers, cheese­mak­ers, and gen­er­ous home cooks of the tiny town of Aloja


In ru­ral Latvia, rus­tic cook­ing— ba­con buns and hot beet soup—is the heart of vil­lage life

MY SIS­TER-IN-LAW SARAH AND I ARE WALK­ING THROUGH the art nou­veau district of Latvia’s cap­i­tal, Riga—though, more cor­rectly, you might say we are wob­bling, hav­ing just toasted our ar­rival with many glasses of Riga Balzams, the coun­try’s fa­mous tar-black botan­i­cal di­ges­tif. Its bit­ter­ness feels like a prop­erly dour Eastern Euro­pean tem­per­ing to the bald beauty of this city. Riga is ancient with big mod­ern am­bi­tions, full of man­i­cured flower beds, a per­fectly re­stored Old Town, ven­dors who sell am­ber and Lat­vian runes and thick woolen mit­tens year-round, and par­tic­u­larly vi­cious cob­ble­stones. As the stones strain the straps of my san­dals, a woman in swank cu­lottes and high-heeled booties, car­ry­ing a huge bou­quet of freesia, passes us like we’re stand­ing still. In fact, ev­ery third per­son on the side­walk car­ries a bou­quet of flow­ers, headed to happy hour some­where.

Riga is but a por­tal to our real des­ti­na­tion, the ru­ral town of Aloja, where Sarah com­pleted what she calls a “rel­a­tively cushy” Peace Corps ser­vice from 1998 to 2000, and which she hasn’t re­turned to since. But re­ally, this story be­gins in Brook­lyn, when, after leav­ing Latvia, Sarah moved into an apart­ment in Fort Greene with me and her brother, who would even­tu­ally be­come my hus­band. When we fought—for sure, we fought—it was al­ways about food. It was no won­der we had a hard time shar­ing a kitchen. I was an am­bi­tious young line cook prac­tic­ing sear­ing duck breasts, run­ning up ridicu­lous gro­cery bills I ex­pected her to split. She was a re­turned Peace Corps vol­un­teer who brought home dusty bot­tles of prac­ti­cally lethal 70 per­cent acid Rus­sian vine­gar, and just wanted to fry up a cou­ple of car­rot cut­lets for her own din­ner. She had al­ready learned to cook from the women in Aloja, and she still lived and breathed its fla­vors, its ethics, and its hard­ships.

Look­ing back, I can see that she hadn’t fully left Latvia, and in­stead she was draw­ing me into it: We drank Balzams and fizzy fer­mented birch sap, and talked about the famed “fat buns” of Aloja, the speķa pīrāgi, or ba­con and onion buns. This, the un­of­fi­cial na­tional dish of Latvia, has in­creas­ingly be­come Sarah’s mem­ory trig­ger. So while I’m here to fi­nally go to Aloja with her, meet her friends, and taste th­ese dishes she hasn’t stopped talk­ing about for the past 20 years, I’m also here to see the coun­try through her eyes.

LATVIA’S HIS­TORY IS A COM­PLI­CATED AND SOME­WHAT dis­turb­ing roll call of con­quests that fi­nally ended in 1991, when it gained its in­de­pen­dence from the col­laps­ing So­viet Union. For cen­turies pre­vi­ous—save a brief pe­riod of in­de­pen­dence be­tween the two World Wars—the Swedes, the Ger­mans, and the Rus­sians have all claimed this land as their own. So it makes sense that na­ture and sym­bols of the for­est have al­ways been in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to the Lat­vian iden­tity; un­like cities and towns, which can be oc­cu­pied, wilder­ness can never be fully won.

So I think we are on the right path, out of the city, headed to the sleepy town of Aloja in the Vidzeme re­gion. Un­like most of the coun­try, which is half-pop­u­lated by eth­nic Rus­sians, Vidzeme is eth­ni­cally and cul­tur­ally Lat­vian. We stop first in Saulkrasti, a coastal town of pale sand beaches, cab­ins, and fish shacks along the cold Baltic Sea, to meet up with Vija Sku­dra, a friend of a friend of Sarah’s. We’ve been told that we’ve come to Latvia at the right time, dur­ing the three weeks of the year that she and her hus­band, Jā­nis, har­vest and make smoked lucīši—ten­der baby ocean eelpout, an ex­cla­ma­tion point of a fish, whose bul­bous heads ta­per neatly to a point—a sea­sonal Lat­vian del­i­cacy.

We ar­rive two hours later than ex­pected at Vija and Jā­nis’, a sweet lit­tle coun­try place sur­rounded by a neatly trimmed or­chard of black cur­rants, ap­ples, and plums. In the back­yard sit home­made wooden smokers the size of gar­den sheds, one of them ex­hal­ing smoke. On the pic­nic ta­ble, fash­ioned from split logs and soaked in cheery red paint, Vija sets out what I’ll come to rec­og­nize as the usual Lat­vian spread: cof­fee, fresh cows’-milk cheeses rolled in var­i­ous herbs, jars of home­made jam, canned fish, and a loaf of their ex­cel­lent

rupj­maize, a hu­mid, black sour rye bread, its crust so caramelized it could have been

baked in the camp­fire coals—and, of course, a vase of home­grown flow­ers.

Jā­nis is sit­ting on a chair over a bucket, ex­pertly knif­ing the in­nards from baby lucīši. Less than a foot long, they have fat heads and full bel­lies that thin into quill-shaped tails. “In So­viet times,” he says, flip­ping the fish into a bucket, “only pen­sion­ers were al­lowed to go fish­ing, but I went out with them early be­fore work and learned from them any­way.” As he and Vija thread the fish onto the metal rods, he ex­plains that the lucīši are smaller than they were years ago. “In So­viet times, they took too many,” Vija says, with an air of both ir­ri­tabil­ity and in­evitabil­ity. “They gave them all to the fox farms, to make the pelts shinier.” It makes me think: If you’re a conqueror whose aim is to tear apart the cul­tural fabric of the na­tive pop­u­la­tion, there’s no bet­ter tar­get than a beloved food tra­di­tion. The big stuff—col­lec­tiviz­ing the econ­omy, ship­ping landown­ers off to Siberia—de­liv­ers the ma­jor, life-chang­ing blows, but mess­ing with harm­less sea­sonal fish cel­e­bra­tions, that’s the in­sid­i­ous fiber­glass that re­ally gets un­der peo­ple’s skin.

Vija shows us how to eat the lucīši. It’s a lot like open­ing up a snap pea: You bend it open at the tail, peel off the spine on one side and the hard ridge of skin along the other, then open it up to pluck out choice nuggets of sweet meat. As we eat in the gar­den, friends be­gin to ar­rive car­ry­ing gifts—jars of pick­led beets, cheeses, home­made schnapps, beer—some of it in trade for the fish, some pro­vi­sions for the party to come. Jā­nis, who had run off on his mo­tor­ized bike, has now re­turned with what our late ar­rival war­rants: a happy-hour bot­tle of Ar­me­nian brandy.

The Sarah I know back home is pretty care­ful about the drink— more so than me—but this Eastern Euro­pean Sarah, speak­ing Lat­vian like a na­tive, does not hes­i­tate to shoot back ob­scure liquors. She tips back her glass and slams it down with a thunk— the in­ter­na­tional cue for a re­fill. Jā­nis picks up on it and tops her off.

Jā­nis doesn’t join us to peel lucīši, but sits back and smokes a cig­a­rette. “I like to make the lucīši,” he shrugs, “but I’ve never liked to eat it. I’m just happy that other peo­ple like it so much.” I try to think what it must have felt like to keep my fam­ily tra­di­tions hid­den from the govern­ment eye for as many years as they did, if the only way to keep them alive was through the food I cooked, the songs I sang to my chil­dren at night, the tra­di­tional Lat­vian runic pat­terns I hid in my knit­ting.

THE NEXT DAY, WE MEET THE TOWN BAKER OF ALOJA. Ruta Gailīte lives with her grown son, also named Jā­nis, in a weath­er­worn house on the last block of the town’s short main street. As we walk there, Sarah points out the ghosts of stores be­hind shut­tered store­fronts, in­clud­ing the col­lec­tive bak­ery where Ruta used to work. When Sarah ar­rived in 1999, Latvia had gained its in­de­pen­dence from the USSR less than 10 years prior, and peo­ple were filled with hope, but join­ing the world mar­ket mid­stream has proved to be hard on Aloja. At Ruta’s house, we turn the cor­ner onto a pic­turesque farm­yard—a place that nei­ther moder­nity nor cap­i­tal­ism seem to have ever touched. In the space of a city block, she has a cow, a gar­den, and an old stone wa­ter well. The scene is both idyl­lic and heart-rend­ingly small in scale, a vil­lage pas­toral straight out of a Ver­meer paint­ing. When the Aloja bak­ery in which she worked closed, Ruta con­tin­ued to bake for profit at home. Her prized pos­ses­sion is Run­cie, a lit­eral cash cow.

Ruta, a fem­i­nine woman with light blue eyes the color of a dis­tant hori­zon, speaks in a high mu­si­cal voice with­out break­ing stride. “She says you need a cow,” Sarah trans­lates for me as we walk into Ruta’s house. “She says that the foun­da­tion of cook­ing is the cow.” After I see her small re­frig­er­a­tor filled with lu­mi­nous pans of cool­ing milk, I am mo­men­tar­ily con­vinced. Peo­ple keep back­yard chick­ens; why not a back­yard cow?

In her kitchen, Ruta feeds wood into the fire­box of her cepeškrāsns, the tra­di­tional Lat­vian wood stove that is the cen­ter­piece of her house. An im­pres­sive beast made of stacked glazed bricks with a fire­box at one end and an oven door in the mid­dle, its stove­top is noth­ing more than a heavy sheet of iron. On the stove’s hottest spot, di­rectly over the oven, sits a wide pan of wa­ter, per­pet­u­ally hot, for wash­ing dishes. Bricks cover the top at vary­ing lev­els, some sit­ting low enough to hold a sim­mer­ing pot, oth­ers high enough from the heat to dry her clean cups and bowls.

Ruta speaks in a fast xy­lo­phonic spree, and Sarah strug­gles to trans­late—not be­cause she doesn’t un­der­stand Lat­vian, but be­cause Ruta is speak­ing the highly tech­ni­cal lan­guage of cook­ing. Vis­ually, I can trans­late. This is how Ruta makes her sponge cake: She stands a clean one-gal­lon metal cof­fee can in a pan of hot wa­ter on top of her wood stove, she adds five eggs, ex­actly five spoons of su­gar, five spoons of flour. She uses a hand mixer—even though she doesn’t have run­ning wa­ter, she does have elec­tric­ity—and whips the egg mix­ture un­til it rises to the very top of the cof­fee can.

She whips seven eggs into two liters of Run­cie’s thick cream, mak­ing the dough for both klin­geris—a sweet cake—and speķa pīrāgi, those fat buns. In the mean­time, she moves her pan of dish­wa­ter aside, and sautés cubes of ba­con fat and onions on the stove­top’s hot spot un­til they melt and shim­mer, then pours them over a pot of cooked pelēkie zirņi, the large brown pea that is the pride of Latvia. With thick, chewy skins and soft, cakey cen­ters, the hum­ble peas are lux­u­ri­ous when sauced with home­grown pork fat.

“Where did you get the ba­con?” I ask, loving its fruit­wood tang. “From Līga!” she says, set­ting off an ef­fu­sive litany of praise about the cheese­maker we will meet the next day. They trade reg­u­larly: Ruta’s cakes for

Līga’s lard, Ruta’s biezpi­ens (fresh cow’s-milk cheese) for Līga’s siers (fresh goat’s-milk cheese). When I ask Ruta if she buys any­thing at the store, she says, “No, no, no, no. I’m al­ler­gic to the food from the store.”

Given Ruta’s mea­ger 100-euro-per­month pen­sion, her op­ti­mism is in­spir­ing. “A sin­gle cake,” she boasts, “pays for two months’ worth of fire­wood!” As if on cue, a woman calls to Ruta from the door­way and drops off a box of gar­den veg­eta­bles in the foyer. In a few hours, an­other woman will do the same, leav­ing a box of for­aged wild teas—clearly pay­ment in kind to the vil­lage baker. As Ruta cooks, I watch her add but­ter, cream, and ba­con with a heavy hand, and make this men­tal note: In trad­ing, as in bak­ing, a con­sis­tently heaped-up cup al­ways pays you back. There’s some­thing un­com­monly beau­ti­ful about this bar­ter­ing econ­omy that mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­eties miss out on. With money, the trans­ac­tion is short and direct: money for goods. Bar­ter­ing leaves some space for the ex­change of other, more-hu­man qual­i­ties, like kind­ness. Ruta “eats well” in an older sense, from when good liv­ing had more to do with cre­ativ­ity and know-how than it did with money.

The now-risen sweet dough feels as whis­pery soft as a de­flated bal­loon. She rolls it out and brushes it with home­made con­densed milk—fresh cream and su­gar, boiled and re­duced, which will keep for days with­out re­frig­er­a­tion. The dough ra­tio re­minds me of a Ger­man kugel­hopf, and I ask if she ever adds any­thing else to it—candied fruits or nuts. “No,” she says, “my friends don’t have ex­pen­sive tastes. And they don’t have the teeth any­more for al­monds.”

After feed­ing split logs into the fire to raise the oven tem­per­a­ture, Ruta sits on a wooden bench in front of her oven, pops in the pan of speķa pīrāgi, and stays there to mon­i­tor them—the only time to­day she has stopped mov­ing. Ev­ery few min­utes, as she opens the oven and turns the pan, I can see the tops brown­ing rapidly in the waves of wood heat. When they come out, bur­nished to a dark caramel, we tear into them, their cen­ters molten with onions and ba­con fat. Ruta’s wiry son, Jā­nis, who has come back from his log­ging job, emerges word­lessly from the back room to grab a hot bun from the tray. Ruta smiles, as moth­ers do when their boys swipe pas­tries at any age. “I hope he finds a wife,” she says. “The prob­lem is, girls to­day don’t want to milk a cow!”

THE NEXT DAY, WE MEET LĪGA KOZAKA, the cheese­maker. She lives with her hus­band, Vasil­ijs Kozaks, her mother, daugh­ter Marika, and grand­son Rod­grigo in a mod­ern farm­house built around a rus­tic cen­tral wooden post-and-beam struc­ture. The house vi­brates with Chopin played at top vol­ume, the piano mu­sic cleans­ing the room to its cor­ners. As at Ruta’s, the cen­ter­piece of Līga’s house is a hulk­ing brick cepeškrāsns. On hers sits a huge vase of flow­ers—tiger lilies and wild roses and di­anthus the size of golf balls, so fresh they’re still damp and breath­ing.

Wear­ing leop­ard-print pants and a pair of read­ing glasses perched on her cropped gray-blond head, she slices her goat cheeses into thick slabs for us to try, telling me that she has 60 goats, 38 of them milk­ers, and is build­ing a new cheese­mak­ing fa­cil­ity. All of the cheeses I taste in Latvia are fresh, none of them aged, and Līga’s goat cheese is by far the best of them: creamy and sweet, its goaty musk­i­ness just an in­nu­endo. Some are rolled in car­away, oth­ers in dill, but my fa­vorite is stud­ded with tan fenu­greek seeds, which pop in the mouth with the taste of maple syrup.

She says proudly, “I am my own boss.” And then points to Vasil­ijs, her hus­band, a man with kind, attentive eyes. “I am also his boss.” The room laughs.

We hand Līga the many gifts Ruta sent with us: a block of fresh biezpi­ens, the dou­ble-layer bis­cuit cake, the braided loaves of car­away-seed bread. She sighs fondly and puts them away with an ap­pre­cia­tive mur­mur.

Līga has gen­er­ously of­fered to host a party for us and a crew of Sarah’s Aloja friends from her Peace Corps days, and she has as­sem­bled an im­pres­sive ar­ray of dishes, al­ready stacked high on her brick stove­top. There are two batches of hot soup, a cold blue­berry soup with chewy drop dumplings, cracked cooked bar­ley ready to be made into asins desa (a tra­di­tional blood sausage), a cu­cum­ber salad to go with Ruta’s biezpi­ens, and a glis­ten­ing bowl of kiploku grauzdiņi, the ad­dic­tive rye-bread crou­tons I’ve seen all over Latvia. I learn, fi­nally, that the se­cret to their de­li­cious­ness is a heavy pour of veg­etable oil and an in­cen­di­ary amount of raw gar­lic. “We call them nar­co­teek,” Liga says when she sees that I can’t stop eat­ing them. Nar­cotic they are.

Liga pours a bag of glow­ing ma­genta pigs’ blood onto the bar­ley for the asins

desa. “I’ve been mak­ing this sausage for more than 30 years. Th­ese days I use spices like this,” she says, shak­ing a large plas­tic can­is­ter of spice mix, “but when I was a kid, we al­ways added pep­per­mint.” With their short grow­ing sea­son, Lat­vians make ex­ten­sive use of peren­nial fla­vor­ings, herbs that need to be planted only once to come back with a vengeance ev­ery year: sor­rel, chives, fresh horse­rad­ish, and the worst col­o­nizer of them all, mint, which will spread across a gar­den faster than spilled wa­ter on a ta­ble. I ask if her goats like mint, and she re­sponds with a tilted head and bugged eyes. Ob­vi­ously, yes, the goats eat every­thing.

She needs no fur­ther prompt­ing to show me and Sarah her “ba­bies,” as she calls the goats, and we head to the barn, an airy wooden struc­ture newly built on top of a cen­turies-old split-rock foun­da­tion. The an­i­mals im­me­di­ately cir­cle around her in a tight mosh pit. So anx­ious is the group to con­nect with Līga that I imag­ine she could leap onto her back from the rafters and crowd-surf around the barn.

“As I milk them,” Līga says, “we talk. Some­times I even cry with them. They’re my best friends.” Then she yelps sud­denly, slap­ping at one par­tic­u­larly naughty gray­beard, who has snuck over and be­gun to nib­ble on the loose end of Sarah’s belt. “They’re also a bunch of hooli­gans.”

Back in the kitchen, I help Līga bring food out­side to the ta­ble, which has been set with a del­i­cate lace table­cloth and a vase of fresh flow­ers. I pour her chunky beet soup—stud­ded with melt­ing cubes of fresh pork belly—into pots, and open a jar of rowan­berry pre­serve to serve with the blood sausage, its skin caramelized, pop­ping, and crisp. Līga sprays a hand­ful of chopped dill on the tiny hot dogs one of Sarah’s friends has brought—which Liga’s 5-year-old grand­son Rod­grigo snatches in hand­fuls from the bowl.

Fol­low­ing his cue, I filch a cu­cum­ber coin from the salad and pop it into my mouth. The grow­ing sea­son has been dry this year, and we’ve seen very lit­tle fresh pro­duce, but it seems that the en­tirety of Latvia’s col­lec­tive green thumb has been fun­neled into this sin­gle cu­cum­ber. Grassy and al­ka­line, fe­ro­ciously green, it has the in­ten­sity par­tic­u­lar to veg­eta­bles grown with care but with­out ir­ri­ga­tion—a stub­born, tena­cious cu­cum­ber-ness, made strong from hard­ship.

Ruta Gailīte, the town baker of Aloja, Latvia, at home in her kitchen.

Clock­wise from top left: Vija and Jā­nis Sku­dra and their back­yard smoker; Līga Kozaka with one of her goats; no ta­ble in Latvia is com­plete with­out some fresh­cut flow­ers; Vija pre­pares a rod of lucīši for the smoker.

The spread at the Aloja re­union party in­cludes pick­les, blood sausage, a cu­cum­ber salad, Līga’s cheeses, and some par­tic­u­larly ad­dic­tive rye-bread crou­tons.

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