Latvia is an enchanting country, and Riga is one of my favorite cities. After a few of my colleagues and I visited the expansive market in Riga last year, I knew that we had to share this with our guests as a Culinary Discovery Tour.
On our recent tour, we rode along the boulevard of Art Nouveau buildings that are so much a part of the personality of Riga. Each one has an intriguing character all its own. It was a sunny day, and people were already picking their spots in the many parks for a Saturday of lounging and picnicking. There had been a festival the previous weekend celebrating the pig (everything’s better with bacon… right?), so the parks were decorated with beautiful rustic statues of pigs made from wood.
After a quick bus tour of the city, we took a short walk to the cooking school. I had been emailing the school’s chef about potential recipes for our time together and was excited to see what local seasonal fare we would find today. I had a chuckle at the sign outside the restaurant that read, “99% Latvian Food.” (I later found out from the chef that his love of olive oil accounts for the other 1%.)
We were warmly greeted by Master Chef Karlis and the owner of Viesistaba, Agate Luse. Their facility occupies the second floor of a trendy restaurant and boutique hotel and is a brightly lit, fully equipped teaching kitchen. Cooking schools like this are popping up all over the world, and this one is perfect for a group of 24, the size of our Bon Appétit Culinary Center class.
After the cooking program and menu were explained, our guests were given several stations and knives to begin preparing the salad, a watermelon and fresh tomato mix with rhubarb vinaigrette and a local Latvian cow cheese, brinza, which has a tart finish similar to feta. Both in season, the tomatoes and watermelon were so flavorful. Chef Karlis pointed out that this is why his menu changes weekly and seasonally. The climate in Latvia is typically very cold in winter with long seasonal summers when bumper crops produce fruits and vegetables that are either consumed or pickled and dried.
With the salad, Chef Karlis served a Latvian meatball with a homemade harissa yogurt sauce. Chef explained that the peppers in Latvia are plentiful, and chefs have their own variety of harissa they use to add a warmth and spiciness to their yogurt sauce. Chef served the meatball with fresh beans and carrots he found at the market earlier that morning.
With our lunch we tasted three beers. Chef explained that beer is very popular in Latvia because of a strong Germanic influence and that wines are an emerging trend.
The table was beautifully set and we enjoyed the food, beer tasting and company. As Jacques Pépin says, it is not just about the food – a great meal is a memory of good company, good wine and good food. That was certainly the case on this day.
After lunch we hopped back on the bus with Chef Karlis as our guide and ventured into the sprawling market of Riga. The market is mostly covered and also has several
outdoor stalls, referred to as the “private sector,” that locals can rent to sell the week’s bumper crop. The stalls inside are owned and operated by butchers and vendors who have been in the same spot for generations. There are five pavilions, all former zeppelin hangers from another era.
The first pavilion we visited was the fish market. Chef Karlis explained that fish in Riga is largely from the Baltic, and that the selection is not as varied as it is in the Mediterranean or in Seattle, where he was a chef for many years. There are both fresh and salt-water fish available, but nothing huge like the swordfish or tuna we have seen in Sicily. What they do have in abundance here is smoked fish – aisles and aisles of it! There is so much fish they make arrangements of them in baskets – like flowers! We did spy some sturgeon and caviar, but as Chef explains, the prices have shot so high that caviar is not affordable for even the wealthiest citizens of Riga.
Before exiting the fish pavilion, we noted the beer stand with a tap right into an enormous drum.
After the fish pavilion came fresh produce. We scurried on to the pavilion with the picked vegetables…wow, was that a feast for the mouth and eyes! Chef had arranged for us to have a few tastings, so we stopped at a stall owned and operated by two sisters. They offered us sliced pickles to start followed by curried cabbage and slaws from large, mounded displays. This pavilion also had legumes, dried fruits, cucumbers and dill, ready for this season’s pickling.
Before leaving the pavilion, we stopped by a vendor who specializes in garlic. He pickles fresh garlic, including the stalks, which are considered a delicacy in Latvia. It seems they pickle and smoke just about anything! In fact, the underground floors of the market not only have lockers to store food at night but smoking and pickling rooms as well.
Fortified by the various tastings, we moved on to the dairy pavilion where we were treated to cheeses with caraway and sun-dried tomato. Dairy is very important in the Latvian diet, and it is clear that Latvians appreciate both fresh and aged cheeses in their diverse cuisine.
We popped outside to the “private sector” to check out what the local farmers had to offer at this Saturday’s market. What a feast for the eyes: cherries, berries, potatoes (and not just one variety – dozens of new potatoes, fresh and unscrubbed from the garden).
But what stopped me in my tracks were the chanterelle mushrooms at 2.50 euro per kilo! On the next tour on July 17, I am hoping they are still in season, as I know Chef Noelle and her tour will want to make a stop and take a few bags back to the ship for class. I didn’t have time to stop and purchase some, and I am still kicking myself a day later!
Before heading into the meat pavilion, we stopped in a section of the market that sells flowers. My mother is a master gardener, and I always think of her when I see lobelia, begonias and hanging fuchsia – as was the case today. Thanks to Mom’s instructions over the years, I am actually as good at identifying flowers as I am produce! Thanks, Mom!
We moved on to the meat pavilion where we saw many beautiful cuts of meat – smoked meats, sausages and my personal find, lardo. There was also a conveniently located vinoteca, where we could wash down the local smoked sausage with a glass of wine.
Invigorated by our walk through the market, we headed to the bus and back to the cooking school to taste a beet soup that chef prepared for us as a bon voyage offering.
To cap off our day, we met in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center for our Flavors of the Sea class. It is a technique class where I focus on moist heat methods (shallow poach and deep poach) and dry heat methods (sauté and pan fry) so that our guests can master the art of fish cookery. For this class I took out a salmon I had cured the day before and shared it with the group. They were so intrigued that I got out a fresh piece of salmon and made another gravlax. Guests often email me when they try these techniques at home, and I’m expecting to hear many success stories about their adventures curing lox. Given the price of gravlax these days, it should help save some pennies for the next Oceania Cruises adventure and Culinary Discovery Tour!