Where we're going this evening - Latvia
We are off tonight to right over the opposite side of Europe to the UK - in fact, so far to the east in Europe that Latvia was a part of the USSR, along with the other Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia. Now Latvia is part of the European Union having peacefully broken away from Russian rule about 30 years ago.
Latvia is a quarter of the size of the UK, but has a population of just 2 million people - one of the least populous European nations. The northern European climate is of cold winters and long cool summer days. The country is quite low lying, but is covered in swathes of forest and fertile arable land, with a long coastline to the Baltic sea with bright sandy beaches.
Latvia's landscape is mostly unspoiled with a high predominance of state protected national parks and reserves. Boy, it's pretty. Walk through those resinous fir forests and smell the turpentine.
So it's unspoilt and tranquil and has a strongly performing economy (even in these straightened times) - I'm liking the sound of this very much.
The good people of Latvia are said to be reserved, tall and blonde - the women pretty, the men with moustaches, and are called horse heads by their Baltic neighbours. The national sport is football, followed by ice hockey (as you might imagine with a country of such cold winters) and - more unexpectedly - basketball.
Although I'm struggling to come up with many household Latvian names (couple of footballers play in the Scottish league, but that's about it), the chap who came up with the idea of using rivets to strengthen denim seams in jeans is from Latvian (Jacob Davis), as is Arvids Blumentals who moved to Australia after the second world war, to mine opals, hunt reptiles and study the aborigines. There is a crocodile monument erected in his Latvian home town of Dundaga - and the film Crocodile Dundee is based on him.
With that, I think that we are more than ready to head northeast and say sveiki to our Latvian hosts...
Traditional Latvian cuisine tends towards the peasant-like - grey peas and ham hock, and rye bread a big fixture, but not to be put off, I find that there are also Russian and Scandinavian influences which are all to the good.
I would have like to have tried the traditional bacon-filled rolls, but I'm still unsure of my bread dough making skills, so settled for a salad with cured sausage instead, served with rye bread; along with a passing nod to tradition with baked onions.
Also on the menu is an apple loaf which looks good to be eaten as a desert or as cake. Excellent.
Rasols (Sausage Potato Salad) - recipe from Latvian Stuff
Combine cooled boiled chopped potatoes and chopped hard boiled eggs with cooked peas and chopped Polish sausage. Cover with a dressing made of sour cream and mustard & season to taste. Chill for a few hours to let the flavours develop.
Latvian Style Baked Onions - recipe from food.com
Thickly slice onions and saute in bacon dripping. Put into baking dish, cover with breadcrumbs (I used rye bread breadcrumbs, just to get into the spirit of the thing) and grated cheese. Bake until browned.
Apple Loaf- recipe from Latvian Stuff
Cream butter & sugar, them add egg yolks & vanilla then sift in flour and baking powder, combining with a little milk. Whisk egg whites until stiff then fold in. Put into a loaf tin then press apple slices into the batter. Sprinkle over sugar and cinnamon & bake in a moderate oven.
And what have we learnt?
- If you are boiling large potatoes in their skins, per the recipe, either the potato centres will remain semi raw with the outside cooked, or the centre will be cooked and the outside virtually mashed as the potatoes are cooled and the skin peeled off.
- Polish kabanos sausages are rather tasty, but then they damn well should be at £4.50 for six skinny peperami lookalikes.
- If you are making the dressing by using double cream and souring it by whisking in a little lemon juice, being too vigorous with the whisk will result in something not out of place served with a cream tea, as opposed to suitable to use as a dressing.
- Baked onions are unfussy. I felt like a Latvian peasant from the middle ages.
- Poking apple pieces into cake batter is extremely messy, with no discernible benefit over - for example - stirring the pieces into the mixture in the cake bowl before putting in the baking tin.
- If you've bought double cream with the duel purpose of using in the dressing (see above) as well as to serve with the apple cake, do remember to keep some to one side to use as intended, rather than forgetting and using it all up making the dressing.
And out of 10?
- for the sausage potato salad - a rather mediocre 5/10 - I'd use small salad potatoes if I did this again which would cook quickly and evenly in their skins and chop up cleanly without disintigrating.
- For the baked onion - a nice enough 6/10 - a seriously budget-concious dish, although it would be rather more tasty with a couple of sausages chopped in too.
- for the apple loaf - a lovely 8/10 - the apple pieces make it moist and cinnamon and sugar give a really crunchy topping. Yum. Even better, I suspect, with cream.