Before setting out to explore more of Latvia beyond Riga, I knew nothing about its traditional cuisine or its food culture, but as we started traveling around the region, dipping in and out of various local kitchens, the “P”s started emerging for me – Potatoes, Pork, Pierogis, and Pickles.
But first, a quick primer:
A Look at Latvian Food
Latvia’s proximity to the Baltic Sea means fish like herring is a part of the Latvian diet. But even more important are potatoes, cucumbers in all its forms (Latgale is known for its cucumbers), and all manner of pork products. From pork fat called spēks (spekis) to rolled pork stuffed with vegetables.
The food in Latgale is rich, heavy, and most definitely, soul food with an emphasis on heartiness as opposed to aesthetics. Thick soups served with dollops of cream. Brown rye bread called Rupjmaize topped with butter and thin slices of pork fat, chickpeas sautéed in fat… Very greasy dishes with mild seasoning. Root vegetables, grains such as barley as well as leafy vegetables like cabbage are also heavily used in various dishes.
Latvian food makes the perfect Sunday afternoon meal where you just want to cozy up and sleep after a hearty dish as rain falls outside your window.
In 2013, the Latgale Culinary Heritage Network was established and it has roughly 30 members – from guesthouse kitchens and restaurants to museums and Agro-tourism farms. It was created to preserve the country’s unique food traditions and slow food gastronomy culture across its different regions. It is also part of the European Culinary Heritage Network.
Here are some of my favourite food and drink moments from my time exploring the Latgale region of Latvia.
Moonshine at the Smakovka Museum in Daugavpils
Arguably Daugavpils’ most innovative museum is dedicated to this potent spirit “Shmakovka” that is synonymous with the region. There, you can learn about the oldest Latgalian alcohol also called “moonshine”. The beautifully laid-out museum takes you through the process of how it was refined and produced over several centuries.
Kurmisi Herbal Tea Farm in Rakuti
Visiting this offbeat farm is one of the reasons I love traveling slowly and off the well-trodden path, getting closer into everyday lifestyles and meeting people who are passionately creating products with love.
We almost missed Kurmisi as we’d driven off the main road and a couple kilometers down a dirt road without finding what it was we were looking for. After turning around to go back, we spotted a field with beautiful lavender flowers and other herbs and hopped out of the car to take pictures. A few minutes later, and Ivars – owner of Kurmisi Tea Farm – walked up to us out of the blue from a side road. Across another field, I spotted a few kids picking summer strawberries. Looking all around us, the smell of savoury herbs and sweet flowers wafted softly.
Founded in 1994, “Kurmīši” has been making herbal and medicinal teas using over 30 different flavours and spices, which they deliver around the countryside to various shops and boutiques in the region. They also make honey and candles from their bees.
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Potato soup and stuffed pork in Kraslava
Within the fairytale-like compound of Counts Platers Castle in Kraslava is where you’ll find the main office of Latgales Kulinārais mantojums (Latgale’s Culinary Heritage Network). Upon our late arrival into the town, we were treated to a wonderful spread that included slices of smoked pork, a savory potato-tomato-celery soup, slices of cheese with anise seeds, as well as stuff rolled pork. This was one of many times during our road trip when I gladly overate.
Cheese workshop at Upenīte guest house in Aglona
This adorable agro-farm on the shores of Lake Cirīša in Aglona district is the kind of place you’d like to retreat to for a long weekend to finally work on that novel you’ve been struggling to finish. Surrounded by tranquility prime for long walks as well as the hearty fresh meals prepared by owner Inese Survilo herself.
The word “Upenīte” itself means “blackcurrant” in Latgalian and the tarty berries appear in a lot dishes too. In season, Inese uses the freshest blackcurrants to make jams, as well as making her own sour cream, butter, and cottage cheese to create and garnish heavy potato and pork-based dishes, alongside homemade bread. After a memorable lunch in a stone-walled basement with a fireplace in a corner, Inese took us into her kitchen to show us how to prepare some traditional cheese.
There’s a black sauna on the property as well as a bathhouse, spots for tenting and fire pits. So, her farm is also perfect for weekend retreats, weddings, and other group festivities.
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The traditional Latgalian Kitchen in Ludza
I wrote a separate post dedicated to my absolute favourite spot along our roadtrip – Ludza. Beyond preserving cultural elements that span several centuries, Līga Kondrāte and her husband, Ēriks Kondrāts also run a traditional kitchen where local dishes endemic to the region are served up for guests who can lodge overnight there.
As I mentioned earlier, if you love fatty foods (think, bacon), you will certainly love Latgalian cuisine as almost everything we dined on had a touch of – well, was essentially marinated in – pork fat (spēks /speķis).
From brown beans cooked in speķis to actual chunks of speķis which you can eat with brown multigrain organic bread, topped with cucumbers as well. From beet soup to flour dumplings served with berries, Latgalian gastronomy is comfort-filling food.
Read more – Latvia Files: Preserving culture in Ludza
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Latgolys šmakovkys moonshine distillery in Malnava
We met Janis at a weekend brunch at Dzīles Bakery (more below). Janis recently bought a rundown property – an old traditional moonshine distillery – in the small town which he is currently renovating and plans to turn into a museum.
It was exciting exploring the grounds of the property including looking into an underground bunker where the skull of an army officer wearing a helmet was discovered and still resides till today. From what I could glean so far, Janis was doing a fantastic job of peeling back layers of rust and crust and time-weathered facades to create a modern dedication to moonshine – which all Latgalians hold very dear to their hearts.
Weekend brunch at Dzīles Bakery in Malnava
Heading to Dzīles Bakery felt like walking into a mini-weekend carnival. Accordions and violins were being played, children were running around beautifully-manicured gardens, a tent with local artisans selling handmade jewelry and fresh strawberries was set up, and of course, wonderful homemade breads, cakes, and traditional dishes made by beautiful Aina.
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Local fish soup at Rūķīši holiday home
I’ve already written about my relaxing experience at Rukisi. One of our memorable food experiences at Latgale was dining on traditional fish soup which was cooked over open flames in a cauldron and presented simply with a beautifully laid out table in an outdoor setting. It was served alongside some local Latvian brew, a variety of cucumbers and pickles which the region is known for, as well as fresh vegetables and salads, all grown on the property.
Read more here – Latvia Files: Sauna, soup, and solace at Rukisi
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Bread baking at Mezabeles
I have already written about the Forestry heritage in Mezabeles where we met the absolutely vivacious and passionate Aldis Puspurs who was our guide.
Well, Aldis treated us to newly baked Latgalian bread which is heavy yet so soft you could use it as a pillow. Topped with strawberry jam and butter or cream cheese, you really don’t need anything more to enjoy its quality. That was all we had for lunch and it was more than enough.
The bread was so good I bought a whole loaf the size of my head and flew with it all the way back to Stockholm.
I needed to bring this very special taste of Latgale home with me to share with the most important people in my life.
Photo gallery from Latvia
You can view more photos in my Latvia image bank below.
I explored the Latgale region of Latvia as part of the #LatviaRoadtrip campaign in collaboration with Latvia Tourism and NordicTB Collective. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and travel content I share on here are my very own.