Food and Heritage through the Baltics and Eastern Europe

ESTONIA

My original plan was to start further south in Belarus, until their – pro-war, Putin-lapdog – leader turned the state more into Bellicose.

Estonia is the most northerly of the three Baltic states that lie on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Among the planet’s inland seas, it is second in size only to the Mediterranean. All three countries are part of the EU and NATO (and have the world’s greatest proportion of supermodels).

Estonia looks, sounds and eats more Finnish than Slavic. Beautifully dotted with castles, domed churches and over 2,000 islands, it is far more temperate than its big bear neighbour, Russia. 

Starting with the Vikings, it was dominated by foreign powers throughout much of its history. The originator of Skype, Estonia became the first country in the world to offer online voting. It now has one of the most liberal economies in Europe with a flat income tax, free public transport and balanced budget. Standout achievements for a region with democracy and a market economy since only 1991. Send Marx a memo.

 It produces substantial thermal power for the entire Baltic region and northwest Russia. The Russian oil industry makes heavy use of Baltic ports. Perhaps not unrelated, military service is compulsory for young men.

Listen to the superbly spacious modern composer, Arvo Part, while enjoying specialties such as crayfish; marinated eel; potato and barley or buckwheat porridge; brawn (headcheese); herbal liqueurs; semolina, rhubarb and marzipan desserts. For breakfast I love their thin, rolled pancakes filled with soft cheese, apple and honey.

Capital Tallinn’s inner medieval core has 700 year old cobblestones, classy crafts, quirky jewellery, art galleries and vegan restaurants. 

LATVIA

One of the last parts of Europe to join Christendom, pagan rituals remain honoured, and many of its citizens are named after birds, animals and trees.

 They are tall people with the average height for women at 170 cm. The old port of Liepaja offers a night in a military jail with Soviet-style treatment. I stroll through the capital Riga, its 800-plus brightly ornamented Art Nouveau buildings, and Europe’s largest market with many food tastings. This is the arty, innovative part of the Baltics.

There are 500 kilometres of wide, white sand beaches. Each spring day of this trip is warm and sunny. Foraging is popular for birch sap juice, blueberries and chanterelle mushrooms.

In 1871 America, Latvian-born tailor, Jacob Davis, invented riveted denim work pants (later known as blue jeans). He made a fortune in partnership with fabric merchant Levi Strauss. 

About a quarter of the population speaks Russian. However, since the invasion of Ukraine, Latvia has banned all Russian broadcast channels. Latvia and Estonia both claim the world’s first decorated Christmas tree in 1510.

Favourite foods are pelmeni (dumplings with meat or mushrooms); pink, cold beet soup, tart with kefir; meatballs in sorrel broth; cranberry mousse; kvass (fermented grain alcohol); balls with lard, peas, bacon and onion (unexpectedly delicious); blood sausage with barley. 

Maizes zupa (bread soup) is a dessert that looks like a chocolate parfait: rye bread is boiled until smooth and sweetened with spices, brown sugar, apricots, prunes and served topped with whipped cream. 

Even more impressive throughout the Baltics is the absence of rubbish in cities, roads and countryside. A small, significant statement of pride and community. 

LITHUANIA

The coastline is a rich source of amber showcased in elegant jewellery. Keeping with the colour theme, beehives and honey production are extensive. Many fields are bright yellow with rapeseed/canola.

Lithuania has the oldest surviving Indo-European language (similar to Sanskrit) and once had a vast empire. During the Holocaust, over 90% of the Jewish population died. Lithuania was the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union.

Before escaping purges and moving to Britain, my father’s paternal Jewish relatives were from the fluctuating borderlands of Lithuania and Poland. I have a lot of regional bloodlines here from both parents. Each side fled regularly scheduled pogroms. Thankfully, these gene pools were marked more by resourceful determination than victimhood. 

Forests and five spectacular national parks – home to wild boar, lynx, fox, wolves and deer – take up a third of the land. The capital, Vilnius, is a World Heritage site, resplendent with ornate churches.

Commonly available are wild mushrooms; beetroot dishes even at breakfast; local beer; mead; fruit wine; curd cheese doughnuts; poppy seed cookies; smoked sausage; and sweet, silky herring. 

I also try bulviniai blynai – potato pancakes with sour cream and dill; kepta duona – chip-like fried, rye bread strips with garlic; kibinai – crescent-shaped lamb pies; and cepelinai – fist-sized dumplings made from potato dough, heavy with pork. These are designed to feed workers during freezing, snowy weather, which can start in September and last until May. 

 Respectively, these three Baltic nations have just one, two and three million people. Yet humanely each has taken in over 50,000 Ukrainian refugees. More keep coming. 

Surrounded by 200 lakes, is the medieval Trakai Castle. I visit the dungeon which houses only one symbolic prisoner: a life-size, cardboard replica of Putin. 

FINLAND

There are many claims to being the first democracy.

The Greeks gave us the term (translating as citizen power). America too asserts early primacy, yet both states ignored the sizeable population of women and slaves. 

New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, but had a racially divided system. Astonishingly, it was 1952 before Chinese people could vote and work in our state sector. In contrast, Finland in 1906, stands out as the first country to abolish racial and gender requirements for voting and serving in government.

The population is about 5.5 million and almost half of them have saunas. Often ranked as the world’s happiest country and with the best air quality, it is also the biggest consumer of coffee. Decaf isn’t even listed on menus and requests achieve stunned incomprehension. It’s like asking to spit on their flag. Also absent is a size approaching small.

75% of Finland is forest with almost 200,000 lakes, the untamed wilderness of Lapland and the magical northern lights. Long a part of Sweden and then the Russian empire, the nation gained independence in 1917. Their Uralic language is less Scandinavian and more like Hungarian. Tolkien’s Elvish in Lord of the Rings was based on Finnish.

The food is as fresh and clean as the landscape. Everywhere there ; muikku – tiny fish fried until crisp; cured salmon; bilberry pie; and reindeer with lingonberries. For a traditional breakfast try karjalanpiirakka – rye pastries filled with creamed barley, butter and chopped egg. Geography on a plate. 

I explore by ferry, tram and walking tour. Towns showcase sleek contemporary architecture, ancient log buildings and tributes to composer, Sibelius. Listen to the passionate opening bars of Finlandia for unstoppable patriotism. 

POLAND

Whatever their heritage, Canadians are fans of eating pan-Slavic pierogi. There is a national meme which declares, “I’m so Polish, I can spell pierogi”. These ravioli-like dough parcels are filled with cheese and potato; mushroom and cabbage; or with sauerkraut. Half-moon shaped with edges crimped, they are served boiled, or later fried.

I was named after my Polish grandmother, Baba Mary. She would be thrilled that for many months before my trip, I studied Polish. She smothered pierogi with diced fatty pork and onions – cooked slowly in butter until caramelised, and then topped further with generous amounts of sour cream. This is not a Heart Foundation recipe. 

When my mother died, we split her ashes into three. One part is buried under my daughter’s lemon tree. Eventually she will take another portion to Canada.

Baba Mary’s parents were from eastern Poland. Mum always wanted to visit the region. So I brought a third of her remains to spread there. Authorities were not advised. The ashes travelled discreetly in a vitamin C powder container with a plastic spoon inside for authenticity. Mum would laugh! 

Poland was once the largest state in Europe. It disappeared from the world map for over 100 years – carved into portions by hungry neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria. It finally regained nationhood in 1918, only to become a satellite state under Soviet control when World War II ended. 

Warsaw is the largest Polish city (by population, second is Chicago) and is termed the phoenix. In retribution for the ghetto uprising and later resistance, Hitler put dynamite in every major inner city building. All that history and beauty became rubble. 

I took photos there of gorgeous, meticulously reconstructed cathedrals, palaces, museums along broad, busy, flower and cafe lined avenues. Now it is the Reich that is rubble. Take that, Adolf. 

During the war, all the grand buildings’ inner doors were used as stretchers to transport precious art and furniture into hiding. These were eventually reinstated – including the doors. With a nod to dark humour, Poland is now similarly storing Ukrainian treasures. The effects of war and communism are never far from the stories of these lands. 

Poland is the originator of the bagel, home of vodka (I tried my first shots), Chopin, Copernicus (boundary shattering astronomer and symbol of their renaissance), Oscar Schindler’s Factory, Pope John Paul II (85% of the country remains Catholic), Lech Walesa (workers’ rights activist and eventually the first democratically elected president). 

Local girl, Marie Curie, became the first woman to win one, then two Nobel prizes. It has the world’s biggest castle, Malbork, Europe’s last primeval forest and one of its oldest restaurants since 1273.

And it is the home of Auschwitz. The exhibitions are quietly harrowing. Discarded family suitcases, a mountain of shoes, lopped off human hair, and empty gas cannisters tell the story by association, as much as the ovens and showers do. Before the Nazi invasion there were 3.3 million Jews resident in Poland. By the end of the war, 3 million had died.

More spectacular than grim are the revered and profitable, salt mines of Wieliczka (if in doubt when spelling in Polish, sprinkle in at least three Zs; some words have no vowels at all). Seven hundred years old and deep enough to easily house the Eifel Tower. Some chambers have chandeliers and host weddings. Deep within, over centuries, grand religious icons and mythological statues have been skilfully carved out of salt by reverential miners.

 I revel in the poetic, innovative music of Chopin at a concert in a suitably Romantic era venue, almost equally as magnificent. Dance the polka and mazurka. Admire Krakow with architecture miraculously unscathed since the 7th century. Watching locals, I see my face and figure mirrored in our shared roots.

Courtesy of visits to my grandparents’ Saskatchewan farm, I know the food specialties well: Kielbasa (spicy, garlicky sausage, which my Ukrainian grandfather, Paul Bazowski, used to make); Golabki (fragrant, meat and mushroom stuffed cabbage rolls); Babka (soft, buttery bread, braided with poppy seeds). There are hearty soups, potato pancakes; pickles, beetroot and fish dishes with dill; and dumplings filled with buckwheat. 

Mum’s ashes now lie in the spiritual capital, Czestochowa, famed for its views, art and cathedral. This has been a poignant visit. Ancestrally, it is good to go home. 

HUNGARY

Although the country has slimmed to one third of its empire size, this is not a dieter’s destination. 

If you are suffering from insufficient body fat, try fried, breaded cheese dipped in mayonnaise. Or choose the more delicate classic starter of chilled sour cherry soup. I had cabbage leaves stuffed with sauerkraut; crepes filled with veal in paprika sauce; wild mushroom soup and of course, goulash, fiery with chilli. 

While listening to local achiever, Franz Liszt, I enjoyed small chestnut noodles sweetened with rum and vanilla, covered with whipped cream. Also the challenging, seven layered Dobos Torte. It alternates biscuity lemon cake and chocolate, adorned with shimmering caramel triangles. Knowing how to make it, got me a pastry chef job in the ‘70s at Konditorei Telle in Mt Eden. For street food try langos: a circle of puffy, pastry-like bread topped with cheese, garlic and the ever-present garnish of sour cream.

Waddle forth to soak in mineral spas, courtesy of Turkish and Roman influences. There are mountains, caves, quaint villages. The wide, gracious curves of the Danube meander through ten countries and bisects the capital into Buda and Pest. I recommend an evening dinner cruise passing glorious architecture and monuments, elegant bridges, compelling lights, sights and flavours. 

Their alphabet has a mere 44 letters. The country has universal healthcare and tuition-free education, yet people struggle.  Especially the elderly, who along with Roma, beg on the street. Compared to other countries on this trip, Hungary has more grubby grandeur, homelessness and tales of corruption. Edgy ‘ruin bars’ are situated in ancient, crumbling buildings where hipsters come to drink cocktails. Visit the former secret police headquarters and a sculpture park of Communist era heroes. 

Hungary was staunchly pro-German before and during World War II. The economy, general population and especially the Jewish one were seriously destroyed. The country gained the status of the highest inflation rates ever recorded. By the time a shopper took a wheelbarrow of cash to buy groceries, the barrow was worth more than the money. After becoming a Soviet satellite, there were periods of violent rebellion. Current hardliner Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is pro-Putin and has limited many democratic freedoms and election rights.

More enjoyable is its wine region, which is older than the French. I remember my parents drinking sweet, golden Tokay. Hungarians designed the Volkswagen Beetle, Rubik’s Cube, and from Laszlo Biro, the ballpoint pen. In Hollywood, others influentially started Paramount Pictures and the Fox Film Corporation. They don’t just eat.

CZECH REPUBLIC and SLOVAKIA

Formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – which collapsed with dramatic speed after World War One – this landlocked territory south of Poland became democratic Czechoslovakia.

 But not for long. After the Second World War, a coup put them under Soviet rule – a sadly shared regional story. In 1968 the “Prague Spring” tried to liberalise and create “socialism with a human face”. I remember the news coverage as tanks rather than talks, ensued. 

Finally in 1989, the Communists were swept from power during the Velvet Revolution with its massive, peaceful protests. Democracy and a market economy returned. In 1993 an amicable “velvet divorce” split the country into two republics. Each joined the EU and NATO.

In the Slovak Republic the capital is Bratislava. Vienna is but an hour away. Many Slovaks spend the work week there as they can earn two to three times more. I walk the vast High Tatras with alpine mountains, ski resorts, glacial lakes and ice caves. Towns on green, hilly slopes have ominous castles where Dracula movies get filmed, splendid monasteries and thermal pools.

Prague is romantic, literary, Gothic – the original Bohemian. Listen to Smetana and Dvorak as you wind along their muse, the Vltava River. A walking bridge lined with notable statuary and a climbable tower, crosses it. Explore over 1,000 years of history at the Prague Castle. 

Visit the Strahov, other cathedral-like libraries, and the medieval Astronomical clock – the world’s oldest. Ride the funicular to the top of the ancient city, which escaped World War II bombing. Take the tram past futuristic galleries, Art Nouveau and Cubist landmarks. Jewellery stores feature local, semi-precious green moldavite and burgundy garnet.

Stop for bread dumplings with pork knuckles and mustard that make a New Zealand lamb shank meal look like Thumbelina fare; potato and dill soup with quail egg; roast goose with sauerkraut and gingerbread. Throughout Eastern Europe their house wines probably come from the Czech Moravia fields. 

For breakfast I try potato latkes; pastry with cream cheese and apricots; sweet yeasted rolls filled with poppy seeds and plums. A deservedly popular street food is chimney cake: sugary dough shaped and cooked around rods over a grill, cooled, then filled with ice cream. ‘Light fare’ is not in their culinary dictionary.

Time now to head homeward. Soon I will start studying Japanese. Next year, I have a date with cherry blossoms.

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