And now for something completely different.
I was looking through my travel photos some days ago. It made me think that I should put down some of my impressions and memories before I forget them. My first thought was not to record them here as much as to make an actual paper travel journal, with photos and a story to each photo that happens to inspire. While not abandoning this idea, some of it might henceforth end up here on the blog, if it seems unfitting for my photo commentary journal. Or if I simply want to write about it here.
Food is something I’ve grown to appreciate over the years and I see it as an on-going process. Currently, I reside somewhere in the comfortable in-between-land where people brought up on microwave food consider me a snob and people who’ve lived on high-quality Western or Mediterranean home-cooking call me a peasant. One thing I’ve always had though is curiosity. At restaurants, I prefer to pick meals containing ingredients I’ve never tasted in my life or familiar ingredients but in unusual company or form. It has to be more than just grilled beef or cheese and tomato pizza.
This tendency to avoid safe choices and not having a Michelin-star-only budget has led me to have many disappointments and some positive surprises. Overall, the average level of medium-priced restaurants in the Baltics and Eastern Europe has not been great, or I’ve just had incredibly bad luck selecting my foods. It is the sad truth that most of my food memories are either completely forgettable or very bad, with a few unexpected surprises thrown in.
Starting with the good:
Cold beetroot soup
I had this in Palanga in a place called 1925. Cold beetroot soup looks beautiful on photos. Just look at it. This shade of pink is really, really inviting.
Picture from here.
They often top it with egg, which makes it even more visually attractive. Nonetheless, I was really sceptical about enjoying this. Somehow a cold sour soup just didn’t seem like a good taste combination. But I enjoyed it. It was delicious. I’m going to try and make it at home at some point.
Kibinai and caraway seed juice
Kibinai are a traditional Lithuanian pastry filled with minced meat and onion, but vegetarian options are widespread. Kibinai can be had in Trakai, which is a small town close to Vilnius, known for the picturesque 14th century Trakai Island Castle. These pastries are quite similar to our local minced meat pies so the taste was no novelty, but it was interesting to learn about the Karaite people through them. I had never ever heard of Karaites before or could suspect that Lithuania had been home to cultures quite different from its own.
Another thing I enjoyed about Trakai was the caraway seed juice. I had it in one out of the way restaurant late in the evening, after wandering about aimlessly looking for some place to eat. The food was forgettable, but that juice. I later examined all the juice isles in Lithuanian supermarkets to find a buyable version to take home, but to no avail. In Latvia, I repeated the process, but no luck there either.
Latvian ice cream
The amount of choice is enough to make one slightly dizzy, going back and forth between the ice cream sections in supermarkets. There’s absolutely every flavour a person like me could ask for – there is always bread ice cream, often with cranberry – it got removed from our local market, probably too niche, but it was one of my favourites – there is everything from lemon sorbettos to toffee, apple, blueberry and the conventional vanilla and chocolate. And unlike our local ice cream – Latvians use milk or cream as the main ingredient in theirs.
Russian dessert in Warsaw
The restaurant was called Babooshka. It had one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. I would definitely go back.
Home-made potato chips in Cesis
I had not tried a home-made version before but it was really good. Sadly, that restaurant had closed down when I visited a year or two later. No chance of having those particular chips again.
Trout salad in Riga
This restaurant has also gone out of business by now, but it managed to make me a fan of trout after an abysmal experience I had with it some time before in Krakow, where it had tasted… mouldy.
Spring rolls in Vienna
I had them at a supermarket’s Asian restaurant. Spring rolls were an untasted food to me then, but I was instantly a fan. After that life-changing experience, every time I went out and the menu included spring rolls, I had to try it in the hopes of tasting their goodness again. But the spring rolls one can have in countries like Latvia are completely sub-par and I was always terribly disappointed every time, to the point of struggling to finish them. They don’t make them from scratch here. They use frozen ready-made ones imported from somewhere cheap. The quality has been abysmal and I’ve given up the search of finding good ones nearby.
And since I started on it already…
Cream soup in Riga
I’m not 100% sure what this soup was supposed to include as the main ingredient – cauliflower or pumpkin or mushroom, but they had used what tasted like margarine in it. This thing that tasted like margarine overpowered the flavour of the soup and made it feel and taste like you ate margarine soup. It was really hard to eat it and I struggled with being sick throughout.
I’m one of those people who does not like to waste food, so I make an effort to eat, even when I dislike it. Particularly so as a guest. It was an ordeal.
Home-made soup in Poland
Another great feat of bravery. I was a guest and was made meat soup for lunch by my perfectly friendly nice host, but I do not eat the fatty white bits of meat. They make me sick. They go round and round in my mouth and induce the vomiting reflex. But there I was, sitting at my host’s living room table and doing my best to eat it up and not let it show I hated it.
Burnt cake locally
I know this isn’t something I had abroad, but they actually had the audacity to serve burnt cake here! I thought it deserved a mention.
Notorious bright yellow pineapple sauce
This too was local, but while I’m at it, I cannot omit it. I ordered fish with pineapple sauce. What was served to me was frozen-defrosted-frozen-defrosted fish, completely watery and tasteless, full of bones. And instead of a nice tasty sauce with real pineapple pieces that I was expecting, I got this unnaturally yellow fake-tasting colourant and artificial flavouring overdosed nightmare. If one remembers Delboy’s luminous paint, then it was that shade. That time I could not eat it and most of it was sent back untouched.
Far too spicy. Not surprisingly. But yeah.
Heart soup in a road-side place in Croatia
The menu said lamb soup. I had never had lamb much, or I couldn’t remember its taste, so I figured I’d give it a go. What I was served was lamb heart soup. Needless to say, it was horrible. I could not eat it. It is also the only experience I have of a completely deceptive menu.
Not quite abysmal, but memorable disappointments:
It was served in a beautiful seashell and it was supposed to be a seafood salad, I think, but it was really mostly octopus salad and it was quite rubbery. In the end, I was struggling to finish it for the monotonousness of textures and the rubber-like feel of the octopus.
One of the things I enjoy doing abroad is looking at what is sold in supermarkets, but in my mostly Eastern European travels, I’ve not seen very impressive cake selections. Nothing really compares to what we got at home. Cake abroad is usually sponge cake of some type. You don’t really get a lot of variety in texture. Poland was the first country where I noticed it, but others have not been better. Latvia tries, but it does not compare. What many countries do have are special bakeries and people actually go and buy their breads and cakes from the bakery rather than a supermarket bread and cake section. It is much rarer here to do that, and practically unheard of for bread.
PS. Latvia has improved. I have to take back what I said about its cake options. They have surpassed ours. And ours have gone down lately as well. So not only do Latvians make better ice cream, they also seem to have things going for them in the cake department.