I believe in Western medicine! I also believe that what we eat and how we live has a direct effect on our health and wellbeing. When we start to see less of the Sun I, like many Latvians, resort to eating copious amounts of garlic, honey and ginger, and engaging in several health-enhancing activities to better cope with the winter. Physically and mentally. If you too are faced with the prospect of a dark, grey and grim winter, here are some tips on how to boost your immune system the Latvian way!
September and October are the time for fresh seabuckthorn berries in Latvia. However, once the season is over, juice and powder are easy to get your hands on. I add powdered berries to my morning porridge or make a warm drink with a dash of the potent juice, hot water and honey. But every year sees new seabuckthorn products come onto the market. Lollipops, beer and ice cream are just some I’ve seen, not to mention non-consumables like soap, body lotion and lip balm. For the purpose of getting more vitamins into your system, sticking to the pure thing might be best.
Latvia’s own probiotic dairy product from the kefir, ryazhenka and yoghurt family. Quite bland, so good for smoothies, lassi and the like. It has its own weird kind of texture and can set into layers – a goopy one and liquid.
The loaded vats of sauerkraut cause queues at one particular stall at Riga Central Market. The scent of fermented cabbage really hits you in the veggie pavilion where you can buy it by the kilo and get a separate side of kraut “juice”. Brimming with friendly bacteria and vitamin C.
Garlic and garlic products
Garlic for breakfast? Aha. A few slices on your breakfast desmaize (open sausage sandwich) is just the norm. Garlic candy is more subtle, but you can’t do much to hide the smell. Maybe chew on a bit of parsley afterwards for the sake of colleagues and loved ones.
Honey and other bee products
With the abundance of honey producers in Latvia it can be hard to imagine that the world is experiencing a bee crisis. We’re blessed to have easy and relatively affordable access to such a quality and sought-after product. In addition to pure honey, it’s not unusual to eat pollen by the teaspoon.
Herbal tea – straight and blends
I’m a former pharmacist’s daughter, but my great grandmother was a herbalist. I respect both worlds. I’m a fan of vērmele (Artemisia absinthium) for stomach cramps, and asinszāle (St John’s Wort) is said to help keep the winter blues at bay. If you’re open to that sort of thing, even pharmacies in Latvia stock shelf-loads of herbal teas to help prevent and overcome disorders. Zāļu sievas/vīri (herbalists) are well respected here and may even surprise the more sceptically minded.
The “lemon of the north”. Quince syrup is a delicious base for warming winter drinks and dried quince is a moreish treat on the healthier side of the snack scale.
If by the end of the summer I haven’t stocked up on strawberries, bilberries and raspberries to freeze I know I can rely on getting fresh cranberries. They last very well submerged in water. This year I picked my own down at the bog! Until now I’ve relied on the supermarket where they stock small buckets in the fruit and veg refrigerators. Sour to eat on their own, cranberries are good to mix into drinks or porridge with a bit of honey.
Literally small pine cones. The intense flavour of the woods doused in sugary syrup. I find them overpoweringly sweet and tangy, so I wash them down with water or tea. It’s the kind of thing you feel must be healthy and therefore worth the brief struggle.
Homebrewing isn’t just a recent trend in Latvia. Ask any older Latvian and they’re likely to have had their own tējas sēne (literally – tea fungus) growing in a jar at some point in their life. There are Instagram profiles and a Facebook group dedicated to the art of brewing where people share tips, recipes and scobies. The homemade, less sugary version is a real gut-pleaser.
Mineral bombs. The flavour of the earth. A vegetable, which doesn’t need to be flown in to be enjoyed in winter. Ever tried pickled beetroot?
I’ll dare say it’s a staple in the average fridge in Latvia. Imported from afar, yet somehow it’s become a local legend. Go to any cafe in winter and they’re bound to have fresh ginger tea on the menu.
Pirts and cold water dipping
Therapy for the body and soul, pirts or sauna-going involves exchanging the intense heat of the pirts for the chilly waters of the nearest pond, lake, river, sea or pool, and repeating multiple times over the course of a few hours you quickly lose track of. Best done under the guidance of a professional pirtnieks (sauna master), at least once to get the complete experience.
Lately, cold water swimming is becoming more and more of a thing, too. Groups like the Lucavsalas Ledus Lāči (Polar bears of Lucavsala) and Ādažu pingvīni (Penguins of Ādaži) gather enthusiasts who encourage one another to enter the freezing waters and stay a while.
I’ve outlined just a few routes Latvians take to better cope with the winter, cold temperatures and general sense of melancholy it brings. What do you do to boost your immune system? Feel free to add to the list in the comments section below!
Photos by Jānis Lungevičs and Lelde Beņķe