Latvia is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, one of the three Baltic states. It is bordered by Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus, as well as a maritime border to the west with Sweden.
Latvia is a democratic parliamentary republic established in 1918. The capital city is Riga, and Latvian is an Indo-European language; it and Lithuanian are the only two surviving Baltic languages.
Despite foreign rule from the 13th to 20th centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. Traditional Latvian folklore, especially the dance of the folk songs, date back well over a thousand years. More than 1.2 million texts and 30,000 melodies of folk songs have been identified.
In 1944, part of the Latvian territory came under Soviet control. After the German surrender, it became clear that Soviet forces were there to stay, and Latvian national partisans, soon joined by German collaborators, began to fight against the new occupier.
The Soviets reoccupied the country in 1944–45, and further deportations followed as the country was collectivized. On March 25 1949, 43,000 rural residents (“kulaks”) and Latvian patriots (“nationalists”) were deported to Siberia in a sweeping Operation named “Priboi” in all three Baltic states, which was carefully planned and approved in Moscow.
Between 136,000 and 190,000 Latvians, depending on the sources, were imprisoned, repressed or deported to Soviet concentration camps (the Gulag) in the post war years, from 1945 to 1952. Some managed to escape arrest and joined the partisans.
The Republic of Latvia declared full independence from the Soviet Union on August 21, 1991, in the aftermath of the failed Soviet coup attempt.
Latvian cuisine typically consists of agricultural products, with meat featuring in most main meal dishes. Fish is commonly consumed due to Latvia’s location on the Baltic Sea. Latvian cuisine has been influenced by the neighbouring countries.
Common ingredients in Latvian recipes are found locally, such as potatoes, wheat, barley, cabbage, onions, eggs and pork. Latvian food is generally quite fatty, and uses few spices.
Pīrāgi are small bacon and onion pies that are a staple of Latvian festive tables. Traditionally, in Latvia, these would be made not with bacon, but Speck.
Speck is a distinctively juniper-flavored ham originally from Tyrol, a historical region that since 1918 partially lies in Austria and partially in Italy. Speck’s origins at the intersection of two culinary worlds is reflected in its synthesis of salt-curing and smoking.
Initially, speck was produced in order to preserve the meat for a long time. It was a method that allowed families to have access throughout the year to the meat of the pigs butchered around Yuletide. Over time it became one of the main courses for feasts and banquets.
Citizens – these are a truly delicious part of any feast, Latvian or otherwise. I hope you will try them for yourselves! My version adds a touch of ground Rosemary, as I find its piney, resinous flavor complements the Juniper aromas of the Speck.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
2 tbsp. active dry yeast
1 ½ c. lukewarm water
½ c. shortening
½ c. sugar
2 tsp. salt
5 – 6 c. Flour (use 5½ c. in the dough and the other ½ c. for kneading)
½ c. buttermilk
1 ½ lb. Speck (preferred) or bacon – cut into small strips and fried until golden
1 medium onion, minced
3 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. caraway seeds
½ tsp ground rosemary
generous sprinkling of black pepper
1 egg, beaten for brushing the prepped piragi.
Make the Dough:
1. Dissolve the yeast in warm water (109° F) . Add a pinch of the sugar and leave the yeast to ‘work’ for ten minutes.
2. Whisk the other dry ingredients together in a bowl.
3. Melt the shortening and set it aside to cool a bit.
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients, mix the buttermilk and shortening and pour into the well. Mix a bit and then add the yeast mix.
5. Stir until most of the flour is incorporated and then scrape the bowl’s contents onto a kneading surface.
6. Work the dough to incorporate the rest of the flour – use as much of the flour as needed to make the dough lose its ‘stickiness.
7. Grease a deep bowl and toss the dough ball to coat. Cover with a damp towel and place the dough in a warm place for 1 – 1 ½ hours.
Making the Filling:
1. Sauté the onion in the butter until it is semi-transparent, add the caraway seed, black pepper and rosemary. Scrape the contents into the Speck or bacon, mixing well.
Making the Piragi:
1. Pre-heat the oven to 375° F.
2. After the dough has risen, punch it down and divide the dough ball into 4 pieces.
3. Roll out each piece to about ¼ inch thickness.
4. Using a round cookie cutter that is 2 ½ to 3 inch in diameter, cut the dough into rounds.
5. Place a teaspoon of filling in the center of each round and roll them into little crescent shaped ‘torpedoes’. Pinch the seal closed and place on greased cookie sheets, seam side down.
6. Keep the piragi about an inch apart and brush with some of the beaten egg.
7. Bake for 14 minutes until golden brown.
8. Remove from cookie sheets promptly and store in sealed plastic bags. Piragi can be re-heated in a warm oven.