Food tour of Riga, Latvia: The Eastern European town that freedom built

"We are going to start with dessert," declares Anda, placing two slices of cake in front of me. The first is a Napoleon cake, a Russian derivative of the French mille-feuille, with multiple layers of buttery pastry and decadent whipped cream. The second is a honey cake, a traditional Latvian dessert made using honey, sour cream and sugar. Both are deliciously rich but eye-wateringly sweet. After three bites, I have to admit defeat. Anda laughs: "We Latvians have a very sweet tooth."

To reach this bakery, we've walked away from Riga's World Heritage-listed centre ("locals never go out in the Old Town," says Anda) and are heading instead towards one of the creative neighbourhoods that have sprung up in the last 10 years. Conveniently, the street we're on provides a potted summary of Latvia's history. Originally called Alexander (when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire), it changed to Adolf Hitler (during Nazi occupation), then Lenin (when the Soviets retook power after World War II) and is now called Brivibas, meaning freedom. 

"Hopefully, it stays that way," says Anda.

Although this Urban Adventures' Real Taste of Riga tour is marketed as a food experience, it's impossible to talk about food – or pretty much anything else in Latvia – without touching on the country's tumultuous history. After pinging back and forth between Germany and the Soviet Union for the last 150 years, it finally gained independence from Russia (for the second time) in 1991. 

Before we turn into Miera (Peace) Street, Anda points out where she stood in the Baltic Way, a political protest in which around 2 million people joined hands on 23 August 1989 to form a 600-kilometre-long human chain across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Our next stop is a product of the freedom that independence has brought. With its mismatched furniture, retro vibe and extensive craft beer selection, Taka bar could be a hipster hangout in Berlin or Brooklyn. After consulting the extravagantly-bearded barman, I choose an East Coast-style milkshake IPA and Anda orders us some tasty deep-fried rye bread with garlic, sour cream and dill. We're in Miera Street Republic, a district of old factories and storehouses that have  found a new lease of life as bars, boutiques and restaurants. 

Anda then leads us through the gates of a former industrial complex to a beer garden hidden among several grim-looking brick edifices. A DJ plays upbeat dance music and the courtyard is packed with fashionable creative types, many of whom also work in the area.

After a refreshing juniper-flavoured red ale from Labietis, a craft brewery that makes all its beers onsite, plus another bowl of deep-fried rye bread (Latvians really like rye bread), we head to our last stop – the small restaurant Anda runs with her husband, Uldis.

We start with a chest-thumping shot of Riga Black Balsam, a fiery, tar-coloured herbal liqueur, then try some pickled herring with cottage cheese on – you guessed it – rye bread, followed by a hearty home-cooked meal of pork cutlets, fried potatoes, sauerkraut and sour cream. 

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Over dinner Anda tells us about her grandmother, who was reported to the authorities by her neighbours for secretly adopting a Jewish child during World War II and was only saved from execution by the intervention of a passing priest. We also hear how her father, a lawyer, helped a German family reclaim their home after they were deported and it was seized by the Soviets.

She explains that despite 30 years of independence, the relationship between Latvia and Russia is tense. There are still Russians in the city who refuse to speak Latvian and who insist on commemorating the day Russia seized control again after the Nazis surrendered.

"We're the last generation who remembers," she says, wistfully. "That's why we have to tell these stories, so the young people understand."

TRIP NOTES

Rob McFarland was a guest of Intrepid Travel.

MORE

traveller.com.au/riga

liveriga.com

TOUR

The Real Taste of Riga tour lasts four hours and costs $117 for adults, $107 for children. See urbanadventures.com

VISIT

Intrepid Travel's 11-day Northern Poland and the Baltics trip visits Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and includes stays in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. From $2886 a person. See intrepidtravel.com

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