Cheese in Latvia is like the weather in the UK. Mostly slightly bland, often a little disappointing, but every so often it’s truly wonderful and you forget all the bad experiences, even if just for a day or two.
If you’re even half as excited about cheese as I am, then you may require a few pointers when it comes to cheese in Latvia. This country isn’t home to the strongest cheddars, and often the smoked cheeses may lack the depth you’re looking for. But, hopefully, with some guidance you can nail down the cheeses that you’re after, and those who take a bit of time to delve deeper than the first row of stalls at the central market may just be rewarded with some gems.
The first stop is the supermarket. It’s convenient for most, and will likely stock a fairly decent selection of cheeses. Our local Rimi has a pretty impressive cheese section, despite being one of the smaller branches.
The other day at Rimi, I noticed (amongst many others) the following: Brie, Camembert, Cambazola, Feta, Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Halloumi, and a wonderful hard Parmesan-like Lithuanian cheese called Džiugas.
All of that, right next to a selection of film-wrapped chunks of cheese including the likes of Wensleydale (with ginger and mango, berries and even “apple pie” style), Swiss cheeses in various formats, Wasabi cheese, and Mexican-style cheese with chilli.
So if all these are available, then why the depressing opening paragraph I hear you ask. Well, because finding this treasure trove of cheese took a good bit of time and effort and a growing selection of cheeses may be something that has only happened in the past few years. It’s easy to overlook supermarkets, assuming the best cheese is only to be found at the local or central markets.
Let’s consider Riga Central Market for a minute. There’s a dairy pavilion, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that sheer scale and presence should give way to selection, but alas, this isn’t entirely true. Many of the stalls stock a similar selection of Latvian cheese, which may cater for those who don’t crave the strong flavours of the UK, but for a British cheese-lover like myself, the only “stinky mature” you’ll find is less likely to be cheese, and more likely to be your pal Pēteris stumbling towards the sauerkraut.
For those market-goers hunting for a more caprine delight, Latvian goat’s cheese is well worth trying. You’ll find it at select stalls in both the dairy and fruit & veg pavilions. It’s definitely worth getting a chunk and enjoying a soft, smooth possibly even herb-flavoured cheese that’s not so prevalent in the UK.
The other thing to note when visiting Centrāltirgus is the French cheese stall. Francophiles can pick up a fine Brique or Chèvre for their “vīna vakars” (wine night). You can also snap up some blue cheese at both the French stall and others in the pavilion.
Something of a Latvian staple to be found in abundance is biezpiens or cottage cheese. Available by the bucket-load in smooth and grainy formats, this cornerstone of Latvian dairy products can be sweet or savoury, and is used in a multitude of recipes from pancake fillings to creamy dips.
And what post about cheese and Latvia would be complete without mention of the Jāņi or Midsummer celebrations, for which a special cheese is created (Jāņu siers). Mild in flavour and packed full of caraway seeds, it’s a popular cheese best bought and consumed around June 23 and 24 (although available much of the year – sometimes under the name of Ķimenu siers).
Still wondering where to find a strong cheddar? Wonder no more. I was delighted to discover proper British cheddar at the Sky supermarket, found on Duntes iela (an extension of Krišjāņa Valdemāra ilea heading north out of town) as well as the bigger Rimi stores and Stockmann.
Those visiting Stockmann will find a variety of imported British cheese, and some of the bigger branches of Rimi and Maxima will have good selections.
How about Baltic cheeses worth trying? Well, here are some I’d say are worth a slice:
This is a Finnish style cheese – it comes in a blue box with a deer on the front and has a squeaky texture, much like Halloumi, although nowhere near as salty.
The Latvian equivalent of Parmesan, this one comes in a variety of ages, and is a solid replacement if you’re struggling to find Džiugas to try.
Translated as “Hunter’s cheese”, this one is considered a manly, smokey number. With an edible brown outer layer, perhaps an alternative for anyone looking for Applewood.
An age-old treat, translated as “barely cheeses” these little marshmallow-sized blobs of cheese are homemade, and often infused with herbs. Very mild, and made using Biezpiens.
Essentially cheese spread, but not just your average Philadelphia, this translates as “melted cheese” – it’s thicker and gooier. Made in a big range of flavours including mushroom and crab stick, this stuff is very easy to find. One of the best known brands is “Dzintars” (amber).
A Lithuanian Parmesan equivalent, pretty easy to pick up in most supermarkets in Latvia, and definitely one to try with your pasta.
Estonian smoked cheese. Not quite sure where you’ll be able to pick this up in Latvia, but if you find yourself north of the border, it’s worth looking for. (Update: I found some of this at the central market today! – 23rd Feb 2014)
Latvian cheese is not for everyone, and you may find that by blindly selecting a few local brands at the market or taking a pot-luck style approach at the dairy counter, you end up with a handful of very mild flavours. The thing to remember is that much like the weather in the UK, there are some great moments out there, you just have to know when and where to look.
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