One of the best things about travelling is discovering the local cuisine in every country you visit. France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey to name but a few – take your taste buds on a trip to any of these places and you won’t be disappointed. Then you arrive in Latvia – home of grey peas and lard. You may have to drag your taste buds off the plane, kicking and screaming.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know what ‘zirņi ar speķi’ was when I first got here, and the friend I was with couldn’t think of what the English word for ‘speķi’ was. But we were in LIDO restaurant (after a few beers and on the way to a few more) so I was feeling brave. It looked harmless enough – sort of like a dry stew – and at around 1 lat for a bowl, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. Famous last words.
So there I was, chewing away, growing increasingly confused by the texture of the cubed ‘potatoes’. I mentioned this to my friend who gaily explained ‘Oh, they’re not potatoes, that’s the speķi’. On closer inspection, I realised I was actually eating cubed lard. After muddling on for a little longer, trying to avoid the lard and pick out the good stuff, my efforts were eventually rewarded by the gravel-like grey peas lurking at the bottom of the bowl. I gave up.
As national dishes go, grey peas and lard isn’t great, but if you’ve got a curious mind, it does raise a couple of questions.
1. Why would anybody willingly eat lard? I remember my summers in West Cork on my granny’s farm when I was a kid. A massive lump of ham would be boiled, the fat cut off and given to the dog. Topped off with potato skins, carrot peelings and anything else the humans wouldn’t eat, then some milk would be sloshed over it to help the mountain of skins and fat go down a little easier. (Bear in mind that this was back in the day, before dogs ate better than people.) Lassie eventually died after squeezing out through the gaps in the gate and being hit by a car. A cynical person might think that this was a deliberate act on the poor dog’s part. Especially as we went through about 8 ‘Lassies’ over the course of my childhood…
2. What exactly are grey peas? I’d certainly never heard of them before I moved to Latvia. Do they start off as normal, happy, green peas in another country, then as soon as they hit the Latvian cold, they shrivel, harden and turn grey? I know the Latvian winters have this effect on me so I guess it’s possible.
In general, meat isn’t of a particularly high quality in Latvia. Take sliced ham, for instance – something as simple as making a ham and cheese toastie can take up to 20 minutes. You have to start by cutting off the fat around the edges. Then cut out the fat that is meandering its way through the ‘meat’. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with a few irregularly shaped circles, triangles and squares which you then have to arrange in such a fashion as to cover the surface of the slice of bread. The result looks a little like Frankenstein’s monster so add some tasteless cheddar to cover the meaty mess, place under the grill and wait until the cheese sweats and wilts. Remove from the grill and enjoy! (I might copyright this.)
Sliced bread here is also largely inedible unless toasted. As a result, I have adopted a rather Marie Antoinette approach to my eating, as cakes are something Latvians do very well.
Other tasty treats include cold beetroot soup, black bread, black bread ice-cream and pickled mushrooms. Hungry yet? Before you book your plane ticket, make sure that you like dill and curds. I don’t think I’ve come across a dish yet that doesn’t contain one or the other. And as someone whose only previous dealings with curds came from a nursery rhyme, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that they’re actually quite tasty. Little Miss Muffet knew her stuff – arachnophobia aside.
Tea is also very popular here. But my unadventurous Irish choice of black tea with milk and sugar is usually met with great disappointment. Fruity tea is big here. While trying to stave off a cold, a Russian will drink vodka with pepper, an Irish person will drink hot whiskey, a Latvian will drink fruity tea. After pretending they didn’t have black tea, some of my students have proudly presented me with a cup of tea with things floating around in it and twigs sticking out of it. Seemingly it’s very good for you, but I don’t really understand how a tea that can take your eye out can be in any way good for your health.
And finally, back to the aforementioned LIDO Recreation Centre, a must for any visitor to Riga. They have an incredible selection of food and all at very reasonable prices. Their serving approach, however, calls to mind my mother’s motto as she heaped dinners onto our groaning plates – ‘sure it all goes down the same way’.
My Lonely Planet guidebook has this to say ‘If Latvia and Disney Land had a lovechild, it would be the LIDO Atpūtas Centrs – an enormous wooden palace dedicated to the country’s coronary-inducing cuisine…’ I guess that makes it Disney Lard then?