For Simon Bajada, a food writer and travel photographer, the Baltic states are a source of fascination. Often grouped together as one conglomerate, the three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—are hardly interchangeable. Each country offers its own history, culture, landscape, and food. Bajada tackles those differences in “Baltic: New and Old Recipes From Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania,” a new cookbook celebrating all that we can discover about the Baltics through what’s shepherded to the table.
In his book, Bajada serves up a historical look at the three countries, peppered with almost 70 recipes, from potato pancakes and curd doughnuts to rye and carrot pies. Below, you’ll find a dive into what makes each country unique, as well as a recipe for black bread, a hardy, dense bread dotted with flax, sunflower, and caraway seeds. The Balts can’t get enough of rye, which makes sense: Its popularity is in large part thanks to rye, barley, and buckwheat’s ability to grow in the region’s cold climates. So it should come as no surprise that the Balts liberally use these grains to make bread.
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This version of black bread gets its distinctive color from a blending of rye flour and oat bran, and the finished product is often slathered with a swipe of jam and butter or a heaping of soft cheese. This is the kind of bread whose presence transcends boundaries and kitchen tables. It’s found just about everywhere, from bread shops and restaurants to home cooks’ ovens. The best part? The dense crust keeps the inside soft and fresh, making the bread last longer.
Baltic: New and Old Recipes from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, $32.62 on Amazon
Excerpted with permission from “Baltic” by Simon Bajada, published by Hardie Grant October 2019
Given their proximity, shared histories, cuisine and overlapping cultures, to my mind it’s understandable that the world tends to group Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania similarly. But of course no two countries are the same, and it’s the small differences that help to shape the character of each nation. Over the next few pages is a taste of these countries and their differences, along with what they contribute to the Baltic table.
The northernmost of the three countries, Estonia is arguably the most progressive of the lot. Dedicated to moving on from any stigma attached to being a former Soviet country, Estonia was the first to join the EU post-independence and has a strong startup culture (this is the country where Skype was developed), as well as being the first country in the world to o.er e-residency to foreigners interested in operating businesses from there.
‘He who eats quickly works quickly’ is an old Estonian proverb and, typically speaking, Estonians are a practical, no-nonsense people who work diligently (as well as quickly) with an egalitarian mindset. The Uralic language spoken here, which shares roots with Hungarian, is similar to that of their northern neighbour, Finland – though if a Fin were to converse with an Estonian, they would most likely end up speaking together in English! Religion doesn’t carry much weight here, with Estonians investing their beliefs more in folk and cultural heritage in general and in the power of traditional song in particular. The more than 133,000 pieces of traditional music that have been documented within the country are a testament to the latter, as is the Singing Revolution of 1987–1991, when a subdued protest that began with people singing a patriotic song in the presence of Russian military grew into a mass protest that led to the restoration of the country’s independence.
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As well as being a kind of European Silicon Valley, Estonia also has one of the most beautiful medieval capital cities in Europe, Tallinn. With a name thought to be derived from Taani linna, meaning ‘Danish town’ and once described as the ‘window to the west’ by Russia’s Peter the Great due to its ice-free port (which happened to be the closest to St Petersburg), Tallinn is an attractive destination for leisure and business travelers alike – a factor that has certainly influenced the country’s cuisine. The city’s inhabitants are more aware of the global palate now than ever before and this is reflected not just in how they eat but also in what they offer visitors to their country. Being the most Nordic feeling of the three countries, seeing the success of New Nordic cuisine and sharing a similar array of produce, Estonian chefs were quick to embrace the ideology of the New Nordic manifesto and create their own interpretation in their restaurants. The fruits of this can now be experienced both in the capital and the country as a whole.
South of Estonia and north of Lithuania lies Latvia. Possessing a large coastline similar to Estonia’s (a fact reflected in the nation’s love of fresh and preserved fish), Latvia is also extremely wooded – no matter where you find yourself in the country you will always be within thirty minutes’ drive of a forest.
The influences tend to be more Russian in origin, unsurprising given the country’s demographics (of the three Baltic countries, Latvia is where the most Russian families have remained post-independence; they make up a quarter of the population).
Like their neighbours, Latvians have both a very real respect for nature and hold close their time-honoured folk beliefs (for example, Latvians believe good fortune will come for the year ahead if they place the scales of an eaten fish in their wallet on New Year’s eve.) Linguistically, along with Lithuanian, Latvian is one of the last spoken Indo-European languages. While not known to be the most gregarious of people, once Latvians get to know and trust you, they open up to be some of the warmest, most welcoming people you are likely to meet. They are also known for their frankness, something that is reflected in the length of their constitution, the Satversme, which is one of the shortest in Europe.
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Riga, the nation’s capital, is home to beautiful art nouveau architecture, a medieval old town and a stunning central market. Like Tallinn, Riga has opened up to the outside world and its food while at the same time respecting its own traditions and culture. Yes, locals love to enjoy various dishes from around the world (sushi is particularly popular, for example) but they are just as likely to be found converging at the buffets of traditional Latvian restaurants to enjoy their own cuisine. The wide range of food available can be seen at the capital’s central market, where five old zeppelin hangers now house a kaleidoscope of fresh and pickled vegetables, dried flowers as well as dairy producers, butchers and fishmongers. It’s a UNESCO heritage site and one of the largest markets in Europe.
The southernmost Baltic country, Lithuania was once one of the largest European powers with a territory that extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea close to the Ottoman Empire. A sizeable part of this historic land is now incorporated into the Russia we know today.
Although modern day Lithuania is both much smaller and the most ethnically homogenous of the Baltics, its beautiful capital, Vilnius, has a history of multiculturalism. As early as the fourteenth century, Gediminas the Grand. Duke of Lithuania invited western Europeans to establish themselves in the city, and there was once such a large Jewish community in the capital that Napoleon named it the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. The Jewish merchants who took to the city opened some of its earliest restaurants and, as a result, it is hard to overlook the influence of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking in Vilnius. English, German and French cuisines have also influenced the kitchens of Lithuania at various times in history, indeed to such an extent that the city’s esteemed restaurant Ertlio Namas has developed a series of menus that showcase these influences.
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Given its position at the crossroads of so many cultures, there are a number of small subtleties that differentiate Lithuanian cuisine from that of its Baltic neighbours. Here Nordic cuisine has less influence, with culinary inspiration more likely to be drawn from nearby Poland. Due to its relative lack of coastal shoreline and the capital’s distance from the sea, seafood is not quite as commonplace as it is throughout the rest of the region – though great-quality fish can still be found and is highly prized – while its southerly location enables a slightly different range of produce to be grown (I. remember eating wild mint with honey and cheese in a garden, for example – something that I can’t imagine doing in Estonia).
Once Lithuanians open their doors to you, their hospitality is generous and memorable. They pride themselves on making sure you leave with a satisfied appetite, and also very likely a little light headed – a tipsy guest is a happy guest! Finally, as elsewhere in the region, the potato is widely loved, however given the many distinct cultures that have influenced its cuisine, Lithuanian recipes truly celebrate the diversity of this particular vegetable.
Black Bread Recipe
Rye has such a presence in the Baltics that the black bread made from its flour has come to define the cuisine of this region. Hardy, the bread keeps fresh for days thanks to a thick crust that gives way to a pleasant, slightly sour-tasting interior. It is enjoyed everywhere and at all times of day. Technically, making black bread differs from making an everyday white loaf in that elasticity doesn’t play such an important role in the process, so less kneading and more folding is required to manage the dough.
- 250 g (9 oz) natural bread starter (see below, or use your own if you are an experienced baker)
- approx. 675 ml (23 fl oz) water, plus extra if necessary
- 800 g (1 lb 12 oz/8 cups) coarse rye flour, plus extra if necessary
- 80 g (2 ¾ oz/ 1/3 cup) soft brown sugar
- 60 g (2 oz) oat bran
- 2 tablespoons linseeds (flax seeds)
- 3 tablespoons sunflower seeds
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- sunflower oil, for greasing
- NATURAL BREAD STARTER approx. 200 g (7 oz/2 cups) rye flour
- approx. 200 ml (7 fl oz) lukewarm water
- To make the starter, mix 50 g (1 ¾ oz/ ½ cup) of rye flour and 50 ml (1 ¾ fl oz) water in a large clean glass jar. Cover with plastic wrap and store in a warmish place. After a day, ‘feed’ the starter by stirring in the same quantities of rye flour and water. Do this for a few days more, stirring the starter on occasion as you go – when a foam appears on the top of the starter and it smells a bit like yeasty apples, it’s ready.
- When you’re ready to make the bread, mix 250 g (9 oz) of the starter, 300 ml (10 fl oz) of the water and 400 g (14 oz/4 cups) of the rye flour in a large bowl. Cover with a tea towel (dish towel) and leave in a warmish place for 12–16 hours.
- Add the remaining rye flour together with the sugar and oat bran and mix with 375 ml (12 ½ fl/1 ½ cups) or so of the water until all the flour is incorporated and you have a heavy, cement-like dough. You want a dough that comes together but is sticky, so add a little more water if you need to, or some extra flour as necessary to make it easier to handle.
- Setting aside 200 g (7 oz) of the mixture to keep as a starter for next time (see note), add the seeds and salt to the remainder and fold five or so times into a rough rectangle, or until you have a dough that no longer sticks to your hands and is slightly elastic.
- Oil a 30 x 14 cm (12 x 5 ½ in) loaf (bar) tin. Place the dough in the tin, lightly oil the top. Leave to rise in a warm place for 5 hours, or until the dough has increased in size by around a quarter and has a little spring when touched.
- When you’re ready to bake the bread, preheat the oven to 230°C (445°F) and place an ovenproof bowl of water on the bottom shelf. Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 190°C (375°F) and bake for a further 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the loaf comes out clean.
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 30 minutes before covering with a slightly damp tea towel to help keep the moisture in. Leave to cool completely before slicing.
- Note: The bread starter gives its best after four or five bakes so be patient – you’ll soon be achieving optimal results. Store it in the refrigerator, topping it up every week with 125 ml (4 fl oz/ ½ cup) water and 220 g (8 oz) rye flour. It’s also important you use coarse rye flour to make the loaf, as water quantities will vary greatly depending on the density of flour used.
Header image by Simon Bajada