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Chef on Tour: The Latvian food entrepreneurs combining innovation with tradition

19 Sep 2019
EIT Food North & East
7 min reading time

Riga Edition: For this edition of the Chef on Tour series Josh is in Riga, exploring Europe’s largest bazaar with Latvia’s inspiring food entrepreneurs involved in everything from cheese, to beer, to cooking in the great outdoors.

Myself and the guests of the day (from right to left): Martins Sirmais, Dana Gritane, Inga Āriņa-Vilne, Liene Briede, Renars Purmalis and Aigars Ruņģis.

Firstly I met Martins Sirmais, on a drizzly Wednesday morning in Riga, at his restaurant 3 Pavorans (3 chefs) just around the corner from my hotel. A swift espresso and tour of the kitchen where the team were developing a new menu, and we were straight out the door towards the Riga Central Market - Europe’s largest and oldest market and bazaar. Liene Briede from Riga Technical University Design Factory joined us for the tour once she had welcomed an EIT Climate KIC group to the city early that morning. Liene works with local innovators and startups and facilitated this event along with Dana Gritane from 3 Pavorans.

Martins grew up with the kitchen as the heart of the home and is now a restaurateur, television chef, and walking encyclopedia of food history. Having him as a local tour guide was a true education in the history of Latvian food and culture. He glided effortlessly through the stalls, as comfortably as you can imagine a man whom has spent the majority of his life moving in and out of this place, learning its price fluctuations, vendors and ingredients by heart. Often we had to stop for him to take pictures with fans, or simply for him to catch up with old friends - of which there were many!

Myself and Martins exploring the bazaar before we had to stop for his fans!

As well as running some of Riga’s most popular restaurants, Martins has travelled around the world for the past 15 years producing a food and travel programme for Latvian television. “Kulta Edieni” (Cult Food) educates the viewer on different ingredients and dishes, aiming to encourage Latvians to cook new and novel meals. Martins speaks fondly, if a little sarcastically, of post-soviet times in Latvia where food such as the microwave pizza and tomato ketchup started to become widely available. He spent years as a teenager being infatuated with these sorts of processed foods, until he started to realise the damage that they can do to health compared to the more traditional methods.

Exploring the flavours of Europe’s largest bazaar

We wandered through the vast fruit and vegetable stalls in the market, with the farmers finally being able to make use of the warmer summer months. An array of different species of mint, huge heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, wild raspberries, gooseberries and cranberries were offered to us. Martins asked the farmer to cut open one of the tomatoes for us, to prove its similarity to its more famous relatives down in Italy. Perhaps not quite as sweet but delicious nevertheless.

Next was a pharmacy stall with the widest selection of herbs and spices that I have ever seen, all to be made into different teas with different healing properties. I picked up some ‘blood herb’ (to translate directly), with the pharmacist behind the counter telling me that it would lower my blood pressure and increase my energy. I smelled river mint, spearmint, apple mint. Massive bouquets of dill hung from the tent. I tasted the aforementioned tiny, bright and sweet wild raspberries, the sharpest cranberries I’ve ever put in my mouth, and explosive green gooseberries. If it’s healing properties are as good as its taste then I’m going to be a healthy man!

Another stall, where again Martins seemed to have grown up with the vendor as an extended member of his family, was full of buckets and jars of pickles. Pickled cabbage, beets, garlic, cucumbers - all different colours depending on which spice or vegetable was used to die the vinegar.

A burst of colour at the pickle stalls in the market

The fish and meat stalls of the market were a historical tour of Latvian culture. From preservation techniques to the cuts of meat, one can appreciate the effort Latvians have had to go to to adapt to their extreme winters, so they can still get the nutrients they need. The smoked meat section is where a significant theme of the day would be introduced, the Black Sauna. Previously, Latvians would use their saunas for many different purposes aside from relaxing and warming their bones, including washing themselves as well as their dishes and also smoking their meat and fish. By stuffing the chimney and filling the sauna with burning wood, they transformed them into smokehouses. The result was incredibly soft and moist meat. Martins was behind the counter cutting off chunks of pork and chicken and explaining the Latvian love for moist smoked meat. Latvians have apparently still not found their love for dry prosciutto or jamon - such is their pride in the quality of their own local delicacies.

Exploring the smoked meat stalls in Riga’s central market

Meeting Riga’s local food innovators and entrepreneurs

After a few hours of enjoying the sights and smells of the market, we meandered back through the old town to one of Martins’ 3 Pavorans restaurant. We were greeted by Dana Gritane - Martins’ business partner and our amazing host for the afternoon. Soon after, the other guests arrived, whom were all an inspiring collection of local food and drink producers and chefs. We were greeted by Aigars Ruņģis, the founder of Valmiermuiza Brewery, one of the most successful craft breweries in the country; Inga Āriņa-Vilne, the founder of the one-and-only artisan cheesemaker in Latvia; and Renars Purmalis, an outdoor chef running a catering business focussed on taking people into nature to experience their food - as well as being a local oyster expert and advocate.

Aigars arrived slightly late adorned with bags full of his beer. He had rushed to the meal from the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Latvian army where he was invited to brew a special beer to commemorate the occasion. It was from here that Aigars began the very interesting story behind his inspiration to begin brewing in Latvia. One of his main passions within the business is to recrown beer as the chosen drink of celebration and festivity in the country. After Latvian independence in 1990 and the influx of more ‘exotic’ types of drinks like champagne, beer lost its position as the drink of choice at large celebrations. Valmiermuiza Brewery is heavily involved in growing the craft beer community within Riga, and a member of the Beer District which is a collection of brewpubs and bars with a route through the city and over 200 beers to choose from! He spent the entire meal pairing different beers from his bag with whatever was placed on the table in front of us, dark smoked lagers, Baltic porters, distilled lager and malt liquor!

During the meal, we were served the last asparagus of the season, zander fish with an outrageously good cauliflower and pineapple puree. A small pot of fermented and smoked red pepper was the reference to the sauna smokehouses which, as I have said, was a theme of the day. The dark smoked lager brought by Aigars was deliciously paired with this course, much to his excitement.

The beautifully presented last asparagus of the season

Inga had spent years in the IT industry, similar to our friend Bogdan from Apiary Book in my previous article, who decided to completely shift career into something artisanal and closer to nature. Now Inga is an award-winning cheese producer, and the only artisan cheesemaker in Latvia. The country lacks a cheese culture and this is due to the long and harsh winters, where the grass lacks the proteins necessary to make rich, tasty milk suitable for cheese production. Despite this, we were served delicious cheeses at the end of our meal, demonstrating how harsh climatic conditions doesn’t have to stop cheesemakers producing great produce.

Enjoying the delicious artisan cheese at our meal

The final guest was Renars a young chef who, inspired by watching Martins on television as a child, had headed into the woods to find his own niche in the food world. He takes groups into the outdoors and cooks with ingredients he has foraged or carried in himself, often using open fire or fire pits. Softly spoken, he is steely in his promotion of oysters and the sustainability of this “gift from the ocean”. He runs oyster masterclasses in Riga to educate people on this mollusc he loves so much.

Myself with Renars Purmalis in between discussing oysters and outdoor cooking

Proudly promoting Latvian food and culture

Once again, I was inspired by the innovation in food and drink production from each guest. Everyone is promoting Latvian food and culture by working uncompromisingly to create sustainable products for the future whilst striving to keep traditions alive. For example, Renars’ catering business enables people to reconnect with nature, while Martins uses the medium of television to encourage others to cook with unfamiliar foods. Aigars is loyal to Latvia’s beer history and is working hard to bring back the tradition of drinking local beer.

Dana is promoting Latvian food culture throughout Europe at events and conferences, while Inga is a trailblazer who is leading the way in the cheese industry, hoping to inspire others to work in this artisanal way. Finally, Liene helps to educate new, young startups across the globe, helping them to secure investment.

From this event I have learned that combining innovation and tradition is perhaps the best way to improve the food industry. It is local entrepreneurs like those in Riga who are leading the way for a more sustainable food future.

Stay tuned for my next Chef on Tour edition where I’ll be in Iceland, hosted by MATIS - an Icelandic Food and Biotech organisation. I will be shown 3D-printed food and meet more inspiring food and drink innovators in Reykjavik. Organic gin, beer brewed from potato waste, foraged herbs and Icelandic grown wasabi will all be involved!

Want to know more about Josh? Check out our exclusive interview where Josh explains his passion for food and sustainability and how EIT Food is helping him promote his food mission.

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