Since this blog is about my life as an American-Swede, the posts usually focus on one of those two cultures. But I thought it would be interesting to spend one post (and maybe more in the future) writing about some of the surrounding countries that we’ve been privileged to visit. Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark), the Nordics (add Finland and Iceland), and the Baltic countries (Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) all have cultural characteristics that bind them together, as well as major differences that set them apart. For this post, I’ve decided to focus on the Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia – two hidden gems of this part of the world.
Estonia and Latvia are also just a “quick” overnight boat ride from Stockholm, with many of these cruise companies offering a two-night, one-day trip to the capitals (Tallinn and Riga). These overnight cruises are great fun and wonderful way to see other parts of the region if you are on a visit to Stockholm (and have a few days to spare). I’ll share about my trips to Riga and Tallinn, as well as some recommendations of what to do. I will not pretend to be an expert – I was only in each of these cities for a day, and most of what I did was based on reading other blogs – but maybe it’ll provide some inspiration :).
I’ll start with Latvia. Last winter, I was fortunate enough to travel to Riga with a BIG group of girlfriends from school (think 13+ girls… it was a blast!). With a group that big, and with the winter weather, we didn’t get to see as much as I’d like, but what we did see was amazing.
1. The Central Market: This was definitely a highlight of the trip to Riga and by far my number one recommendation. It is supposedly one of Europe’s largest markets, housed inside of five GIANT zeppelin hangers. Each of the five hangers has a different theme, with local produce in one, fish and meats in the next, clothing and trinkets in another, and so on. It was so fun to wander through all the stalls (especially on a cold day) and I could have spent hours here. Everything was incredibly affordable (especially compared to Stockholm) and you could find anything and everything you might need. In fact, next time I come, I’m bringing a shopping list! The building itself is also incredible – with enormously tall ceilings and glass windows all around that make the area feel nice and bright.
2. Pelemenu Sturitis: In the market, you’ll find lots of little mini-restaurants and it makes a great place to pick up a cheap and quick meal. We found this pierogy place towards the back of one of the first hangers, and it was AMAZING (and obviously part of the inspiration for this post). Pierogies are are an Eastern European-style dumpling, usually filled with meat or potatoes. It was also very cheap (about 1.5 euros for a big bowl of potato dumplings) and it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious – you could even watch the workers rolling out the dough and making them fresh behind the counter. If you can find this place, I highly recommend it!
3. Old Riga: Besides the market, most of our time was just spent wandering around the streets of Old Riga. The buildings are full of beautiful colors and are fun to look at on their own. It reminded me a lot of Gamla Stan in Stockholm, which is not a surprise considering Sweden ruled over Latvia for a bit of time in the 16th century. There were also lots of cute little shops and cafes were we could stop in to warm up when we needed a break from the cold. The main square is probably the most iconic, but you can’t really go wrong just wandering through the streets.
4. The Cat House: Somewhere in the old town is a yellow building with a two giant cats perched on top. They have their backs arched and their tails up, apparently showing their bottoms towards either the building of a Tradesman Guild or the old City Hall. I don’t remember which version we were told, but a lady in one of the shops told us how they were erected with their bottoms up and their backs arched, as a sort of protest and sign of hatred. Apparently the builder had beef with somebody! As you may know from my post of Mormor’s salad a while back, I love cats, so this was a highlight for me. Although, it’s ironic because a cat showing you his/her bum is actually a sign that they trust and like you :).
So that’s what we were able to squeeze into the trip to Riga! I’m sure there is much more to see, so let me know if you have any recommendations for my next trip :). One tip to know is that the entire country has free wifi! It wasn’t always working well, but it was a great resource for us tourists as we wandered our way around the city.
Then, only a few weekends ago, my husband and I were fortunate enough to get a trip from my dad (thanks, dad!) to Tallinn, Estonia. With summer(ish) weather and just two of us, we were able to squeeze in a bit more in this trip.
1. Kompressor Pancakes: This was one of the BEST meals I’ve had in a long time. This place serves thick, Estonian-style pancakes filled with either savory toppings (Chris got feta, tomato, and pesto) or sweet toppings (I got raspberries with condensed milk), which are a filling meal on their own (neither of us were able to finish!). However, we also just had to try their garlic bread made out of traditional dark bread, served with a sort of sour cream sauce. We had no regrets ordering those either! If you do go here, go early – we arrived just before opening at 11am and there was already a line!
2. Old Town: Once again, just wandering around the Old Town was a highlight of our visit (seems to be a trend in these old European cities!). Just like Riga, the colorful buildings and narrow streets reminded me a lot of Gamla Stan, but this time with a bit more medieval flair. The old town was full of little shops selling amber items or knitting supplies, but also many shops with a medieval theme to them. Sometimes it felt a bit over the top, but it was still a fun experience :).
3. Town Hall Pharmacy: This is Europe’s oldest working pharmacy, started in the early 1400s. Since it is still working, you can definitely come here just to get some medicine, but they also have a little room in the back filled with relics of their earlier days. There were old pill making machines, scrolls with how to treat certain ailments, and jars of interesting medieval “medicines” like dried dog feces and scorched porcupine (not sure what those treat, but no thank you!). It was cool to see the history of this pharmacy and imagine what it was like back in the day – plus it was free!
4. Ill Draakon: This is a little medieval restaurant in the city square. It is VERY themed (everyone working pretends to be in medieval times, even hiding the card reader and calling it a “witch craft” machine). It is small place that’s dimly lit with candles (or you can sit outside like we did) and has a giant barrel of homemade pickles in the corner. They are famous for their traditional filled pastries, so we had to get two of those (for only 1 euro each!) – Chris tried the “wild meat” one and I went for the more safe carrot-filled. Chris also tried some of their beer (and I got their lingon juice) which came in a heavy ceramic mug. It was the perfect place for a little pit stop snack!
5. St. Catherine’s Passage: We almost didn’t make it here because we had a hard time finding this little street, but I am glad we did! It is a very small street, but it is filled with so much history (it looks like something right out of medieval ages). There is an old church that lines one side of it with gigantic tombstones hanging along this wall, some dating back to even before the 14th century. Further down this passage, are more artisan-style shops with hand-blown glass and hand-made ceramics – a bit more spendy, but fun to look at!
6. KGB Prison Cells: This was a very moving museum and definitely worth the 5 euro to see. It is a well-preserved part of the prison cells used by the KGB during Estonia’s time in the USSR. It was full of dark history of this time, with each cell highlighting a different aspect – one room was set-up like a prison cell, another like a interrogation room, and another filled with real stories of people who were held in the cells. Tens of thousands of Estonians went through these cells – some eventually to their deaths or to work camps in Russia. I also didn’t realize that Russia had occupied Estonia before, up until the 1920s, meaning the country only really had independence for twenty years before being swallowed into the USSR again. Although the other Baltic countries share a lot in common with Sweden, a big difference is whether they were under Russian rule – something that shaped their history, culture, and architecture. This was a bit of a depressing museum, but I think it was important to hear its story.
One thing we were planning to do but skipped was walking around the old city walls. It was cash only (which we did not have) and didn’t look nearly as long or as impressive as other walls we’ve walked (like in Dubrovnik). Maybe next time we’ll give it a try :).
We also had plans to go to a Pierogy place, because ever since I’d eaten those amazing potato dumplings in Riga, I had been waiting to visit Eastern Europe again to get my hands on some more! Alas, we were exhausted after a long day of walking and skipped the dumplings. So when I got home, I knew I needed to make my own.
One of my oldest friends is from Russia and she makes the most amazing Pierogies, so this recipe is actually from her! I’ve made them with her a few times, so I felt confident I could do her proud on this post :). Although Pierogies are traditional to pretty much all Eastern European countries, which I’m sure each have their own take on them, I feel like these reminded me a lot of the ones I had in Latvia.
This recipe isn’t necessarily hard, but it can take a lot of time to fill and shape all the dumplings – but trust me, it’s worth it. There is one shape for the potato ones (the half circle shape) and one for the meat ones (the more circular shape) so you can easily keep track of which is which.
There is also a difference in how you cook the two dumplings. The meat ones are usually just boiled, then served, while the potato ones are boiled and then quickly fried for a crispy outer shell. Both are best served with a large dollop of sour cream and some sort of spicy sauce or cayenne pepper for dipping.
This recipe makes a LOT of perogies, so we ended up freezing quite a few of them and now have a quick meal ready for a busy evening!
Hope this post has inspired you to try a recipe you’ve maybe never braved before… and maybe even got you thinking about adding the Baltic countries to your next travel list :).
Maria's Meat and Potato Perogies
- 1¼ cup water / 3 dl vatten
- 1 egg / ägg
- 3¾ cup flour / 8.9 dl vetemjöl
- 1 teaspoon salt / salt Meat Filling:
- 8oz ground pork-beef mixture / 0.3kg blandfärs (fläsk och kött)
- ¼ cup chopped parsley / 0.6dl persilja
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder / vitlökspulver
- ½ teaspoon paprika / paprika
- ½ teaspoon salt / salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper / peppar
- 2 tablespoons water / vatten Potato Filling:
- About 10 small yellow potatoes / vanliga potatis
- 1 tablespoon butter / smör
- ¼ cup milk
- salt and pepper
- 1 yellow onion / gullök
- Make the meat filling by stirring together all the ingredients in a bowl – cover and set in the fridge for at least one hour.
- Make the potato filling by cutting the potatoes into quarters, then boiling for about 12 minutes or until soft.
- Chop the onion and saute in a bit of oil for a few minutes, until golden brown.
- Add the cooked potatoes, sauteed onions, milk, butter and seasoning in a bowl and mash together (consistency should be a bit less moist than mashed potatoes) – cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.
- Start making the dough by beating together the water and egg.
- Add in the flour and salt, then use a stand-mixer to knead the dough for about 5 minutes on medium speed.
- Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and set in the fridge until the fillings are ready.
- Start shaping the dumplings by rolling out chunks of the dough on a well-floured surface – roll the dough as thin as you can without it breaking.
- Using a 3inch glass (or biscuit cutter), cut the dough into circles.
- Add about 1 tablespoon of one of the fillings to the center of each circle.
- To fold the potato dumplings, simply fold the circle in half over the filling and pinch all the sides.
- To fold the meat dumplings, start by folding the same way as the potato dumplings except at the end you should connect the two ends together (pressing tightly).
- Get a large pot of water boiling.
- Boil the meat dumplings in small batches for at least 15 minutes, then set aside to drain.
- Boil the potato dumplings in small batches for about 12 minutes, then fry in a pan with a bit of oil for a few extra minutes.
- Serve with sour cream and hot sauce (or cayenne)!