The stories underpinning the culinary renaissance in Vilnius, Lithuania
Chefs in the Lithuanian capital are reanimating the country’s rich gastronomic heritage — almost lost amid the tragedies of the Soviet occupation.
"For 400 years, our cooking had been based on multiculturality: we had influences from German crusaders, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Russia, from Eastern Europeans passing by when they were going to the Black Sea and the Italian architects who built our baroque palaces. And then the Soviets came. We lost our identity and our history, and we forgot to be proud of ourselves. We weren’t allowed. All we had were bones, milk, potatoes and sour cream.”
Liutauras Čeprackas is moved to anger as he speaks about the Soviet occupation of his country in 1944, which ravaged its culture, its people and its larder until Lithuania became independent in 1990. One of Vilnius’s most high-profile chefs, Liutauras recalls that “they sent all the best produce to Moscow” and how “during the occupation all the dishes in the restaurants were the same”. Now, he says, the capital city is seeing a new generation of cooks who look to the country’s rich past for dishes forgotten by a generation, while also embracing modernity. “Right now we’re reclaiming our culinary identity. We aren’t some primitive people with no history of creativity with food.”
That reclamation isn’t just happening with the food, but the city too. There’s a buzz that’s drawing back many of the young who left in search of jobs in other parts of Europe. That same lure has also resulted in a boom in tourism in this elegant, UNESCO-listed city where the baroque and medieval harmonise. Now it seems that, in spite of the trauma that lies in the bloodlines of its people, it’s a vibrant, multicultural place with great food once again.
At Džiaugsmas, a bistro ranked number one in the 30 Best Restaurants in Lithuania guide, I tuck in to a dinner of zander beignets, where fat chunks of fish are served in crisp sepia batter. I’m dining with Raminta and Kristina, two women who have returned from the United States to the city of their birth. “Lithuania has changed so much in the last five years. Chefs who have worked in Michelin-starred places are returning,” explains Raminta. “After independence, we wanted to copy and try things we hadn’t had access to — it was all pizza and burgers. Now, however, we’re actually starting to search for our own authenticity.”
With very little food in the shops for more than 60 years, Lithuanian families had been reliant on small-garden produce. Fruits and vegetables would be pickled, fermented, juiced or dried and laid down in a cellar for winter. A love of foraging, particularly for mushrooms and berries, is still embedded in the national psyche. “Now, in Vilnius, we’re turning back to grandmother’s cooking. We have to rush to hear their stories and learn their recipes; our grandmothers won’t be around for too much longer. People are starting to value their own roots — both kinds, because root vegetables used to be peasant food, but now we’re experimenting with them. We were actually eating farm-to-table without appreciating it.” Her friend Kristina laughs: “It’s like growing out of your teens: first you rebel, then you remember what your mum told you.”
In a 17th-century house in the heart of the Old Town, the history of Lithuanian cuisine is laid out on the plate. Ertlio Namas is where chef Tomas Rimydis has collaborated with historian Rimvydas Laužikas to research what their countrymen ate across the centuries before Soviet occupation. “Nobles brought a lot of expensive spices from abroad, ate a lot of different dishes: from capon, guinea fowl and quails to snails, crayfish and false morel mushrooms,” says Rimydis.
Traditional, maybe, but this restaurant isn’t fusty. Working with the seasons, the menu changes every two months and, crucially, there aren’t any potatoes or pork — two of the most popular ingredients in most of the city’s restaurants. “We’re serving food where you can feel the flavour, and learn about its history,” explains Rimydis.
The importance of story is at the heart of another restaurant, Sweet Root, though here it’s more about the nostalgia evoked by ingredients. The menu is subtitled ‘A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root’ and is prefaced by a list that includes stinging nettles, gooseberries, strawberries, brain mushrooms, elderberries and wild cabbage blossoms, and, if you look closely, there in the middle of the menu are the words ‘emotions & memories’. Bread is presented with grated butter so, the maitre d’ explains, “you feel and taste it more”. And it’s true, I do. The fresh, seasonal dishes include common carp with cucumbers and kohlrabi (two crucial staples of Lithuanian cooking), eel with ground elder and stinging nettle, and blueberries with lemon catnip. The maitre d’ tells me: “We have beautiful traditions in Lithuania, but they’re sometimes forgotten or undervalued. Our inspiration comes from our childhood memories, stories of our grandparents and simple everyday eating habits. The oldest dish on the menu is stinging nettles and ground elder with Lithuanian potatoes underneath.”
Another place to find people with tales to tell is Halés Market, housed in a grand building dating back to 1906, where the older generation still sells traditional products like salted and smoked country bacon, sauerkraut, pickled herring, sea buckthorn berries, chanterelles — alongside millennials hawking nut milk and avocado toast. My guide here is food blogger Urtė Mikelevičiūtė, who buys black bread and farm butter, slices of meat, cheeses and pickled cucumbers for me to taste.
But it’s when Urtė takes me for a fruit wine tasting that my eyes and taste buds are truly opened. A trained sommelier, she leads me on a journey through what’s an old Lithuanian tradition — making alcohol from fruits and berries — that’s been modernised to make exciting wines. There’s wine made from rhubarb, blackberry, chokeberry and dandelion. Tasting it, Urtė says: “This wine is just full of history for me. I only have to taste it and it takes me right back to childhood and the good old days. Fruit wines aren’t table wines, they’re an adventure.”
A 40-minute drive from Vilnius is Vilkiné Gastro Fields, a restaurant with its own farm. This offers the chance to see the incredible forests that are so important to Lithuanians — it’s here generations have foraged for berries and mushrooms. Over a five-course brunch, which begins with a glass of home-brewed beer and features dishes of locally grown catfish and tomatoes from the garden, I meet Mykolas Lepeška, who calls himself a ‘foodpreneur’. “People come here to disconnect from the city and reconnect with nature,” he explains.
Back in the city, at Nineteen18, a 13-course tasting menu again lays its emphasis on story. It begins with kohlrabi ice cream with caraway seeds, progresses to oscietra caviar (a legacy from the Russians) with patty pan squash cream, then moves through flavours such as black garlic, carrot and cider reduction to plum kernel ice cream. Chef Matas Paulinas tells me: “Every dish has a story to tell, from the culture surrounding that product to the role it has in our culture today. First we need a really good product, then we tell a story in the background. There’s a lot of story hunting going on.” And he’s right, there is a lot of story hunting going on, but these are incredible stories and they’re well worth telling.
Five food finds in Vilnius
Pickles & ferments
Herrings, cucumbers, cabbage: pickling and fermenting is still very much at the heart of cooking in Lithuania.
A ‘branch cake’ that looks almost like a Christmas tree made from butter, egg whites and yolks, flour, sugar and cream, and is cooked on a rotating spit.
Cucumbers with honey and curd cheese
The taste of childhood to locals: knobbly little cucumbers sliced lengthways and spread with cheese and honey
Not sticky, sweet, syrupy wine like you might expect — instead, exquisite-tasting alcohol made from berries, fruits, plants and vegetables.
This rye bread, which is made without yeast, is a national staple in Lithuania.
How to do it
Polish airline LOT flies to Vilnius from London City Airport from £105 return. Double rooms at the Hotel Pacai from £146.
More information: govilnius.lt
Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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