Photo: Gatis Gierts, f64
In our previous blog post, an interview with Chef Martins Rītiņš, Wingtips introduced its readers to the man behind the delicious Business Class meals served aboard airBaltic flights. An adherence to the principles of Slow Food, support for local farmers, and the preservation of authentic recipes and endangered species—these are the ideas that Rītiņš brings to life in his cooking, and which airBaltic passengers support whenever they order a meal aboard Business Class. But the most important questions remains: How does it taste? How good is the goose?
Back to the Tasting Room
In order to find out, Wingtips returned to the LSG Sky Chefs kitchens inside the closed territory of Riga International Airport. As we explained in a previous blog post about the kitchens (The Biggest Restaurant in Latvia), the 150 employees at LSG Sky Chefs prepare almost 4,500 meals a day, making it the largest restaurant in the country, if not the entire Baltic region. These meals include the Business Class menus designed by Chef Rītiņš, employing farm-fresh products from the sixty farmers with whom he has established partnerships in Latvia.
At the LSG Sky Chefs kitchens, Wingtips was once again greeted by Rītiņš’s former student and colleague Andris Vasiļonoks, the Quality Chef at the kitchens who works on-site at the airport, making sure that the cooks carry out all of Rītiņš’s carefully crafted orders.
Duck, Duck, Duck…Goose!
This week has been especially busy at LSG, because airBaltic is featuring Latvia’s famous Martin’s Day goose in its Business Class menus. The bird will be served through November 18, Latvian Independence Day, and will make another appearance next month, at Christmas. For centuries, goose has traditionally been associated with the Martin’s Day feast, on November 10, though it is also served throughout the Christmas season, as the bird’s special taste and texture makes it a particularly beloved holiday treat.
A Classic Latvian Meal
“The goose is about as Latvian as you can get,” explained Vasiļonoks, as he brought in plates of this week’s Business Class special for Wingtips to take photos and taste. “It’s a classic Latvian meal.” In keeping with the goose’s classic place in the Latvian culinary consciousness, Vasiļonoks and his staff also prepare the bird in the most classic way possible—Slow Food-style. After the geese make the short trip from the farm to the airport, Vasiļonoks places each goose in the oven, covers it with foil, and cooks the bird for a full three hours. Afterward, the foil is removed and the bird is browned for another hour. The only ingredients added are a sprinkling of salt and pepper; the goose is so naturally succulent that it can cook in its own juices, and doesn’t need to be embellished in any way.
Cooking a bird for four hours would be tedious even for home-cooking standards. But for an airline serving thousands of meals a day, and catering to a grueling schedule of flights that demands up-to-the-minute precision, the endeavor seems downright Sisyphean. However, it is small touches like this that make traveling in airBaltic Business Class well worth the added charge (an upgrade can also be purchased before your flight). But the delicious, slowly prepared goose is complimented by appetizers and side dishes that round out the dining experience—making airBaltic’s Business Class just as good as dining at the best gourmet restaurant in town.
As an appetizer before the hearty goose, Rītiņš has called for another classic Latvian dish: soused herring. This is a regional specialty—also popular in Germany and Sweden, where it is known as matjes—but Rītiņš’s version is accompanied by cottage cheese and marinated beets, whose bright white and dark red colors, respectively, also reflect the colors of the Latvian flag, just in time for independence day on the eighteenth. But the patriotic colors serve another function, too: the creamy white cottage cheese provides a soft base for the biting taste of the briny fish, while the slivers of marinated cabbage smooth out the edges and pique the palate with the fresh taste of a country garden.
To accompany his goose, Rītiņš has called for red cabbage stewed with red bilberries (according to Vasiļonoks, this side dish is a personal favorite of airBaltic’s president and CEO, Bertolt Flick). This simple dish serves as a sauce for the goose, and can be spread atop every luscious bite of bird to create delectable mouthfuls of pure flavor. As for the side dish, airBaltic’s Business Class menus no longer include green salads, because the season for fresh lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes ended in August, when the summer gardens were cleared of summer produce. Therefore, the fall menus feature side dishes of seasonal vegetables, such as beets and pumpkins.
Passengers who order the goose are therefore treated with a real “fall salad” to accompany their goose—round slices of beets, carrots, and potatoes. They have been prepared in a minimalist style, simply boiled, bringing out their pure seasonal essence. Of course, the beets, carrots, and potatoes are 100% organic, and were specially ordered from farms in Latvia. Rītiņš’s style of preparing them, carried out at the LSG Kitchens by Vasiļonoks and his crew, remains faithful to the natural taste and flavor of seasonal produce.
The Taste of Home
A meal as grand as goose demands only the very best dessert. But anything too “exotic,” such as cheese cake or tiramisu, which aren’t traditional Latvian desserts, would throw off the entire local ethos of airBaltic’s holiday meals. Therefore, Rītiņš has called for one of the simplest, but also one of the tastiest and most popular Latvian deserts of all: rupjmaizes kārtojums, or black bread trifle, a special treat made from black bread, fresh whipped cream, and forest berries. Traditionally prepared in the winter, due to his dark and heavy flavors, the black bread trifle remains a local favorite that is easy to make but extremely difficult to perfect. Rītiņš’s trifle, prepared fresh every day by Vasiļonoks and his cooks, is certainly one of the best you’ll find this side of a Latvian farmhouse.
Free-Range Chickens and Slow-Cooked Stock
Though the goose is one of the most delicious birds known to man, the distinctive flavor of its meat may not be everyone’s taste. For this reason, airBaltic is also offering a free-range organic chicken as an alternative to the seasonal local goose. But since the Business Class meals are the same as you would find in a first-class gourmet restaurant, the free-range chicken also comes with its own special side dishes and garnishes, as its taste is fundamentally different from the woodsier, gamier goose. Chicken is juicier and sweeter, therefore Rītiņš has paired it with the equally sweet organic pumpkin and parsnip, as well as a plate of locally made mozzarella cheese named Martinelli, in Rītiņš’s honor.
To counter the overt sweetness of the chicken, pumpkin, and parsnip, Rītiņš has called for coating the dish in a light and juicy sauce of pure meat stock. The stock itself takes two whole days to prepare: fifty liters of bouillon are reduced to a single two-liter sauce. Coating the vegetables and meat, the stock is a velvety compliment to the sweet tones of the meal. But though the bouillon takes a long time to prepare, in order to bring out the flavor of the stock, Vasiļonoks oven-roasts the pumpkins and parsnips for just five minutes—the less time the better. As Vasiļonoks explains, Slow Food cooking sometimes demands the opposite of its name, calling for ingredients to be cooked as briefly as possible, in order to preserve their taste and flavor. After all, flavors are what linger on your tongue long after you have finished the meal.
A Heavenly Treat
The Business Class free-range chicken meal ends just as beautifully as it began—with a light wild berry and apple crumble, served with a vanilla cream. The ingredients of this cake couldn’t be simpler: dough, apples, red bilberries, sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Just like the black bread trifle, this dessert is also a Latvian country favorite, and tastes best when prepared in a real bread-baking oven. And like the organic goose and chicken, airBaltic’s crumble is an homage to the flavors of the countryside, and will introduce passengers to the culinary heritage of Latvia. By joining forces with Rītiņš, and enlisting the skilled hands of Andris Vasiļonoks and his team of cooks at LSG Sky Chefs, airBaltic is helping to raise Latvian cuisine to the level it should be—as close to the heavens as humanly possible.