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December 2002
The Latvian Christmas Table
Silvija Davidson

The Latvian Christmas Table

By: Silvija Davidson

A stubborn bunch of traditionalists, Latvians persisted in celebrating the winter solstice, and having no truck with Christmas, for centuries after the Teutonic knights attempted to impose Christianity on this heathen outpost of northeastern Europe in the 13th century. And so, until rather recently, the festive winter table would comprise baked or roast pig’s head, previously smoked and cured, its snout symbolising the plough; as generous a platter of charcuterie as could be mustered; a roast barley bake by way of accompaniment; a dessert made of dried, dark rye bread moistened with honey, and sometimes lingonberry juice, then fermented, and baked apples sweetened with honey. This despite an agricultural abundance that saw the fresh produce market in Riga renowned throughout Europe during the inter-war years of Independence, second only to Les Halles in size, richness and indeed style.
Of course Germanic (and to a lesser extent Slavonic and Scandinavian) influences infiltrated ‘city’ cuisine in particular, and my childhood Christmases (albeit in Lancashire) were filled with the pungent scents of a Baltic variant on Pfefferkuchen (I’ve resisted giving the recipe on the grounds that these require an immense amount of elbow grease, two weeks’ ripening of the dough, and are probably less appealing than the Zimtsterne you can find in Waitrose…). Otherwise, Christmas meant roast goose, the most unctuous sauerkraut (yes, you read that correctly), home-fermented in great barrels by my grandfather, then baked inside the goose, or separately, for hours, with smoked pork and goose fat; potatoes roasted in goose fat; and maybe a soured cream based wild mushroom sauce, the mushrooms again hooked out of barrels stored in the cellar – in those days, a single mushrooming foray into Cheshire forests would yield many kilos of ceps, russulas and the like, which we assiduously blanched and brined for year-round provision.
The recipe I’ve chosen is for (slightly) lighter party fare, as popular, truth to tell, at midsummer as midwinter festivities, but in its own way paying homage to the pig, the great provider, mainstay of peasant culinary tradition. And not just the peasant: as Jane Grigson famously noted, it could well be said that European civilization has been founded on the pig.

Festive Baltic Piragi
Enriched yeast-raised (by definition time-consuming) doughs invariably have a festive air – and aroma – about them. No Latvian festivity, winter or summer, would be complete without trays full of warm piragi – savoury smoked-bacon, nutmeg and caraway-scented rolls-cum-pasties, quite distinct from Slavonic pirozhki, generally dumpling-like accompaniments to soup. Piragi are the sine qua non party snack of every Latvian function I’ve ever attended.
Makes around four dozen

Ingredients:

Filling
250g smoked, quite fatty pork such as speck or smoked pancetta
250g streaky bacon (can be green if pork is well smoked)
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg (about 1/3 to 1/2 whole small nutmeg)
Pepper and a little salt, as needed

Dough and glaze
25g fresh yeast
2 tbsp warm water
250ml milk
65g unsalted butter
500g strong, unbleached wheat flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp thick, soured cream
1 egg, beaten
Additional egg, beaten with 2 tbsp water
Sprinkling of caraway seeds

Instructions:

1.Finely dice the pork and bacon (discarding rind). Fry gently in a heavy, ungreased pan until the fat runs. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Soften the onion in the bacon fat then add, along with 1 tbsp of the rendered fat, to the drained meat. Season the mixture with nutmeg, pepper, and a little salt if needed. Set aside to cool (or, even better, chill).

2. Cream the yeast and water and set aside for 10 minutes to activate. Scald milk and butter, then cool to blood temperature. Sift flour and salt into a warm mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour the milk mixture, the soured cream and the single beaten egg into the well, and gradually incorporate liquid into flour with a wooden spoon or the dough hook of a food mixer. Leave the dough to rest for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a floured surface and knead vigorously for 10 minutes (or use the dough hook). Once the dough feels elastic, place it in a greased bowl, cover and leave to prove for about 1_ hours, until doubled in volume.

3. Knock back the dough, knead briefly, then roll and stretch the dough on a floured surface to form a large rectangle, say 40cm x 55cm. Facing the shorter side of the rectangle, make 8 rows of 4 or 5 small mounds of filling, starting 2-3cm from the edge. Fold the dough-edge nearest you over the first row and filling, and using a 5cm round pastry cutter or rim of a glass, cut a semi-circle round each dough-covered mound. Press firmly to seal the edges and transfer to a greased baking sheet. Neaten the dough edge, retaining trimmings, before repeating the procedure. Re-knead, roll and fill trimmings if you have the patience and leftover filling.

4. Bend the piragi into crescent shapes if you wish. Ensure there is a little space around each one before brushing with egg wash and sprinkling with caraway seeds. Leave to rise while the oven is heating. Bake at a fairly hot temperature – 200°C, Gas 6 for 10-12 minutes, until golden-brown. Serve warm if possible – ideally with a strong Christmas ale; but cold piragi are still remarkably good.

© Recipe copyright 2002 Silvija Davidson

 

Author: Silvija Davidson Email:


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