On a cold February afternoon, we meet him at the old Zeppelin hangar. We – are Lola, Janicke, and myself, three Scandinavian travel bloggers. He – is Mārtiņš Sirmais, Latvia’s super-chef. We’re about to learn Latvian cooking. Innovative Latvian cooking, it turns out.
The old hangar is where Riga’s huge central market is located. And when I say huge, I mean humongous: we’re talking 72 300 m2 (that’s nearly 18 acres, Americans), and with more than 3000 trade stands. 80 – 100 000 people visit every day. Count on a good 1.5 hour to cover this market.
The market is divided into five massive pavilions. Delightful word, isn’t it! The vegetable pavilion, the meat pavilion, and so on. (Word of warning: If you’re sensitive to the pain of others, you may want to avoid the fish pavilion. Live fish are tossed on the counters to show how fresh from the sea it is. Air asphyxiation!)
Better then, to head to the milk pavilion, where we taste Jāņu siers, jānis cheese, made of raw quark, fresh milk and a touch of caraway seeds. It’s originally meant to be eaten at jāni, the Latvian summer solstice, but is now available all year. Luckily for us. Soft, slightly spicy and very tasty! We continue past pastries, exotic fruits, spices, honeys, nuts, berries, hemp butter… There’s handicrafts, flowers and much more.
As we walk through the market, people stop, point, and gawk at us. Much as we’d like to think our blogs have made an impact in the Latvian capital, we reluctantly have to admit we’re not the headline act here.
Then it’s down to business. We walk – that is, we don’t, we take a taxi, as it’s freezing cold out (so much for being Vikings!) – but Mārtiņš walks, and arrives when we do, at 3 pavāru restorāns – 3 Chefs – in Riga’s old military barracks. Mārtiņš opened the restaurant in 2011 together with fellow chef Ēriks Dreibants.
Mārtiņš is the country’s celebrity chef. The Gordon Ramsey of Latvia. At first, he seems a bit moody, just like Ramsey. Something about famous chefs, perhaps…? But that is soon forgotten. As we are about to find out, our chef has a much better sense of humour.
We are going to make a three-course meal in his kitchen.
To start with, one of his helping hands sets out bread for the table. Or rather, decorates the table. In fact, the entire table is turned into bread bliss. Soft, delicious Latvian bread in the middle, and sauces sprinkled all over the tabletop: pesto, hemp, and other dippy goodness. Taking baked goods to a new level.
‘Just imagine a couple sitting at a restaurant table,’ says Mārtiņš. ‘They’ve been together for years and have nothing more to talk about. Or a couple on a first, awkward date. This will give them something to talk about.’ This table is an ice breaker, no doubt about it.
Then it’s our turn to put on the toque blanche (tall chef’s hat) and get to work.
Starter is smoked eel. Hm… eel, not sure about that. I’m the first to admit I’m a picky eater. But I get my hands in, arranging the eel – with pickled onion, yoghurt and apple butter – on coloured, art deco glass plates. And it does look pretty, doesn’t it?
The main course is venison with black-salsify purée, honey-roasted parsnip and wild thyme demi-glace sauce. This one is easy, just needs a searing. We leave that to the end of preps.
Dessert is a work of art. Mārtiņš has already made flat, round meringues – like little white burgers. Our job is to assemble these two pieces of light airy sweetness, using a rich ganache (chocolate / butter combination), and add hazelnut. This is a Latvian speciality: torte cielaviņa (meaning wagtail), a hazelnut meringue chocolate cake – made in small individual portions.
And then, the pièce de résistance. Now, the thought of ice cream doesn’t normally excite me, not even if you call it gelato. Nothing against it, mind. Just… nothing special. But this – this is delightfully, childishly wonderful: ice cream made with liquid nitrogen! Where +100º meets -200º. Witches’ brew!
Cuisine moléculaire; we’re in the world of Heston Blumenthal now (Gordon is long forgotten). Although, Mārtiņš says, that’s inadvertent. It’s just a more convenient way of making ice cream, since an ice cream machine costs around 20 000 EUR. I can’t help but hope he’ll keep doing it this way, though. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in a kitchen.
Our ice cream is based on a reduction of Riga Black Balsam and black currant juice, another traditional Latvian favourite. The combination goes very well with the sweet confectionary.
PS: Rīgas Balzams is proper witches’ brew if you drink it – bittersweet, with 24 ingredients, including birch bud, valerian root and black peppercorn – and 45 % alcohol!
All through the food prepping experience, Mārtiņš relates funny anecdotes and offers the services of his assistants as our personal masseurs. Jokingly. (Though that would be a great business idea.)
Time flies much too fast. The three of us are a bit short on it, as the over-night ferry back to Stockholm probably won’t wait for us. As a result, we eat much too fast. (Skipping this dessert is not an option!) To save time, Mārtiņš takes the venison downstairs into the main kitchen so the meat can briefly kiss the pan, while we get started. The bread is long gone, so now
- first, there’s the smoked eel: tastes as good as it looks, no longer on my no-no list,
- then, venison: perfectly cooked (though not by us),
- and finally: torte cielaviņa with magical ice cream: mind-blowing, as expected.
Mārtiņš on TEDx Riga:
The cooking process is like a meditation. You concentrate on this.one.piece of steak. And then you imagine something, imagination is the next one, so you imagine how you want to cook. And creativity. So all this energy goes on just this one piece of steak.. It’s just your process. It’s about the food. If somebody says to you, eating is just how the people get the calories they want, then sex is just a process how to get the babies…
Cooking together with chefs can be booked for 5 – 80 people – for EUR 75 per person (min. price EUR 400). A cool alternative for a work team building, or family team building, or an not-your-ordinary hen- or stag do.
Take a lesson from us, though – and set aside plenty of time for this!
Disclosure: This experience was a part of a #NordicTBSummit campaign, in cooperation with the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (LIAA), Tallink and LiveRiga.
Video editing by Catarina Redisch.