Agrotourism in Latvia | Making Latvian Dark Rye Bread & Farmers’ Cheese in Latgale County (Recipes)
Food is a particularly fun way to discover a country and agrotourism is a real treat for kids. When we visited Latvia in 2016, I knew nothing of the country but I’d heard wonders about Latvian rye bread. After searching for food trails or cooking classes in November during my girls’ school holidays, I found a farm and booked a day of bread- and cheese-making day in Latgale county, eastern Latvia.
I expected to bake a loaf to bring home and a small cheese. I should have read the small print. We had no idea we were getting into a foraging and ethnological masterclass.
Culinary Heritage of Latgale County
This is Tatjana Kozačuka to my right. She works in the city of Kraslava for the tourism board and connects people like us with a culinary heritage program through Latgale county. Without her, we would never have been able to do any of this. Very few people spoke either English or French in that rural part of Latvia, and the only other reasonable alternative was Russian, which was not an option for us. Tatjana spoke English well and by email, arranged for us to visit a guest house near Agiona for a culinary tour, as well as a guest house in central Kraslava to stay overnight. She was, in other words, a champion.
That day, we started by visiting Kraslava, a small unremarkable town surrounded by dense pine forests, before climbing up a watchtower (where I took this photo) in freezing temperatures and finding refuge in the small (but heated) city museum. Kraslava had an interesting history and fine wood-carved houses, but it didn’t offer much in the way of tourism or restaurants. In fact, TripAdvisor listed one thing to do and one restaurant in Kraslava. We did the thing to do–the manor house of Earls Platery–but the restaurant was closed when we arrived the previous day, so we tried the only other food option, a sushi bar whose chef knows nothing about fish and a bit about starchy rice.
The guest house/bed & breakfast was nice and the owner insisted on speaking to us in Russian, which was amusing. With a lot of miming, we understood each other and breakfast was a Gargantuan affair of bread and cold cuts.
After a morning of walking outside in Kraslava, we were getting hungry. Tatjana gave us driving directions for our next adventure, the bread and cheese farm. Food! Honestly, we couldn’t wait. Lo and behold, we would still have to wait 3 hours before eating but sometimes, patience is rewarded a thousandfold.
Meet Grand-Mother, the Latvian Caraway Seed Dark Rye Bread Goddess of Agiona. I’m sorry that I don’t have her real name, as this woman should be a national treasure. When we arrived at the farm, her grand-son ushered us to a small brick hut with a roaring fire in a brick oven. She arrived shortly after, wiping her hands on her apron before showing us a mighty wooden bucket full of bread dough, ready for us. We looked at each other. This much bread dough? Yes. If I had read Tatjana’s email more closely, I would have noticed the part about 6 – 7 loaves of bread.
Fascinated, I took my journal out of my backpack and started scribbling notes. I asked the grand-son what the bread recipe was, hoping to reproduce it at home. I’ve transcribed it below as faithfully as I could but clearly, Grand-Mother was not a stickler for precise measurements. She was also a very patient woman. The whole recipe took 8 days from start to finish and required a wood-fired oven as well as wood bucket for proofing.
As she was shaping the loaves, Grand-Mother showed us four giant dried tree leaves. She was going to bake each loaf on a leaf. Why? I wish I understood Latvian traditions better but it sounded like a mixture of rustic witchcraft and ancestral wisdom. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had added good luck words in Latvian. This was pure ethnology in the making, right in front of us. Whichever it was, it is fascinating and I really hoped that someone had recorded these wonderful rituals in a scientific manner, as there was no knowing how long they would survive.
Finally, Grand-Mother used her wet finger to draw a cross atop each loaf of bread (more witchcraft? superstitions?) and the bread went inside the brick oven, along with a local bacon and onion focaccia (same dough) called Kakorka.
Now came the cheese making.
Latvian Farmers’ Cheese
This is how you make 2 kg of farmers’ cheese in Latgale county.
Wake up early. Milk 10 cows. Heat fresh milk in cauldron above wood fire. Simmer for an hour at least. Add buttermilk and vinegar. Add salt. Stir until it curdles. Add a few handfuls of sunflower seeds. Strain in cheese cloth. Shape by hand into long rectangular loaf.
It was surreal. We followed Grand-Mother to a big field beyond the sauna–every Latvian home has a sauna–and found a wood fire crackling outside with a giant cauldron above it. Oh my, the size of the wooden spoon! I didn’t even know spoons could be that big. It was half my size at least and as we watched the milk simmering, I discussed with the grand-son. He knew so much about nature, it was simply amazing. When the cheese was strained and shaped, it waited for us on a big cardboard box until we had finished lunch. We couldn’t believe the size of it when we opened the box.
Just for perspective, this was the cheese on the table as we ate it the following day (and weeks). It was roughly the size of a large pizza and at least an inch thick. To bring it back to London, we had to get very creative and buy multiple plastic containers.
Foraging & Hunting in Latvia
A word about foraging and hunting, as I discovered that Latvia (and Estonia, where we traveled after Latvia) is a country where foraging is the norm, rather than an occasional fun family trip. To put it plainly, foraging is how people eat.
For instance, when we ate a delicious mushroom dip for lunch, I asked the grand-son what kind of mushrooms they were and where they came from. He looked at me like I was asking the obvious. The mushrooms were wild. He picked them all in the forest next to their farm. He laughed when I suggested that he could buy mushrooms in supermarkets. Why would he buy foods that you can forage for free?
True enough. He had a point.
After, we ate a delicious soup with vegetables and pork. The vegetables came from his farm. The pig came from his farm and he butchered it himself.
Game, venison? It came from outside in the forest. Again, he couldn’t fathom why anybody would not go hunt for game themselves.
Potato croquettes? Made with the potatoes he planted.
Tea? His family made it with dried nettle leaves and wild fennel seeds.
Buttermilk? Butter? Cream? You guessed it, home-made.
There was no food that the grand-son would have bought unless they could make it themselves. It was awesome. The recipe for the Latvian dark rye bread is below.
Agrotourism in Latvia | Kids’ Review
While my girls regretted not being able to take part in the actual cooking, they loved watching the process and they absolutely loved the meal that followed. It was excellent. After the bread- and cheese-making, we were directed to the farm’s banquet for lunch. Eerily, we were the only ones sitting at the edge of a big empty room and browsed the wedding photo album of the guest house in between courses.
After lunch, the grand-son showed us the farm buildings and his impressive line-up of tractors, while my girls kicked off their shoes and started dancing and running around on the wooden floor inside. Overall, my girls’ best memory is probably watching the culinary processes at work. Even my youngest, who doesn’t eat cheese, was fascinated by the farmers’ cheese-making. I should also add that the farm grounds is great fun for kids as they can run around on a vast grassy meadow as well as explore the home-made wooden play structures. The grand-son also hand-carved a series of animal totem poles at the edge of the forest, which schools use when they come for the nature trail.
I would totally recommend this activity for kids who enjoy learning about new cultures and new foods.
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Latvian Dark Rye Bread Recipe
- 3 kg rye flour
- 5 l water (lukewarm)
- 1 handful salt
- 2 handfuls honey or sugar
- 2 handfuls caraway seeds (or cumin seeds)
- 2 kg wheat flour
- 2 handfuls salt
- 500g brown sugar
- 1 egg
- Mix together the rye flour, water, 1 handful of salt, 2 handfuls of honey and 2 handfuls of caraaway seeds. Knead very hard and let sit at room temperature, covered with a cloth, in a bucket during 4 days.
- After 4 days, knead again and add the wheat flour, remaining salt and brown sugar and wait 3 more days.
- After 3 days, the bread dough should be ready to shape into loaves.
- Heat bread oven at 300C.
- Wet your hands with warm water. Divide the dough into 4 equal parts and form 4 round loaves.
- If you are using a wood-fired oven, remove ashes and coals before baking.
- Make an egg wash with the egg and brush the loaves. Use a knife to cut a cross across the top of each loaf.
- If you want to use a traditional Latvian leaf (don't know the name), set each loaf on a leaf.
- Bake in the oven during 1 hour 10 minutes.
- Check that the bread is baked by knocking on the underside. It should sound hollow.
- Wait until it has cooled down. Store in cloth or plastic bags.