Cookbook author and photographer Simon Bajada explores the surprisingly modern, locavore flavor of a stunning Baltic city.

By Simon Bajada
April 21, 2020
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Simon Bajada

Weaving through the twisted, labyrinthine streets of Vilnius offers visitors to the Lithuanian capital a lesson in history. Adjacent to the city’s medieval center, beautifully intricate baroque buildings will suddenly give way to splashes of brutal Soviet-style architecture as well as more familiar modernism. They serve as a time line of the country’s past: Its capital was a grand cosmopolitan city and part of a vast empire—the largest in Europe—before 50-odd years of Soviet occupation made time and progress stand still.

Emerging out of this turbulent history is a unique and dynamic moment in Lithuanian culture and cuisine, as well as a culinary renaissance driven by Vilnius’ chefs and restaurants. I’ve made many trips to the region while researching my book Baltic ($35, Hardie Grant), and a favorite stop is the farmers market, Tymo Turgus, on the Vilnia River. It’s not as hip as the indoor Halės Market, but Tymo is where the action is.

Simon Bajada

I’m here in June, and it’s a pleasantly warm summer’s day. A queue has formed at a stall for highly prized Baltic black bread. Pillow-size loaves with varying interiors of caraway, hemp seed, and linseed all share a common attribute: an almost black crust. This is the result of long cooking, where the exterior needs to almost burn to allow heat to penetrate the dough. The loaves are so large that they are portioned and placed on scales to be sold by weight. A few stalls down, the dairy seller tells me about his recent escapades in France to expand his cheesemaking skills. I’m excited by the selection of bottled whey and a variety of curd cheeses, sour creams, and sour milks, testament to the Baltics’ love of tangy dairy.

I bump into Agnė Marcinauskaitė, co-owner of the restaurant Sweet Root. She’s catching up with stall holders while snacking on a small tray of odd-looking elongated blueberries. They’re called haskap berries and taste like the love child of a raspberry and an apple. They’re only available for a short period of time (from mid-June to mid-July), as is the case with many of the intensely seasonal ingredients Sweet Root sources and showcases throughout the year. Eating there reminds me of the life-changing meal I had at Noma in 2006; a meal of locally foraged food requires clever, considered technique to make those ingredients sing, and Sweet Root executes this with perfect precision.

Simon Bajada

From the market, I walk across town to Ertlio Namas, where you can dine on a set historical menu inspired by the countries that have, at some point in time, influenced Lithuanian cuisine. Chef Tomas Rimydis consults local historians to formulate dishes. Today, he lets me try a savory Italian pie—delicate pastry filled with Lithuanian forest mushrooms. It’s delicious.

I head back to the Hotel Pacai, a 17th-century Baroque palace that has been converted into a stunning Design Hotel. It’s one of my favorite places to stay in Vilnius. Until recently, it was also one of my favorite places to eat: At its restaurant, Nineteen18, chef Matas Paulinas explored the possibilities of the new Lithuanian kitchen with fervor, sourcing vegetables from within 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) of the restaurant. This summer, it’s moving to a new location that’s about a five-minute walk from the hotel.

While the above restaurants are all great examples of new and exciting Baltic cuisine, you often need to dip into the past to understand the present. Šnekutis is a rough-and-tumble bar that serves traditional, hearty Lithuanian food, where the potato plays the starring role in myriad ways. The vibe here is gregarious, a little edgy, and an outright hoot, and the decor and food transport me to another time. I eat a giant zeppelin-shaped dumpling wrapped in potato puree and wash it down with a towering cold beer, and my love for Vilnius continues to grow.

Roasted Carrot Soup with Fresh Cheese and Black Bread

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Baltic black bread, traditionally made with rye flour and sourdough starter, is dense and sour, with a tight crumb. Its lush rye flavor gives this vegetarian soup earthy depth. A sprinkle of homemade cheese curds and fresh herbs lighten up each bowl

Potato and Smoked Fish Cabbage Rolls

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Unsalted butter adds a creamy richness to the lean whitefish and potato filling, making it easier to spread into the cabbage leaves, and keeping the rolls moist through browning and simmering.

Cardamom–Poppy Seed Cookies

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

A generous ratio of butter to flour helps the dough spread in the oven, resulting in thin, crispy cookies with lacy golden brown edges. Chill the dough before baking to control spreading and concentrate the flavor of the cookies.