In Vilnius, Food Provides A Path Into The Past And A Taste Of The Future

The Lithuanian capital is reclaiming (and reinventing) its gastronomic heritage in cafés, restaurants and farmers’ markets

I didn't expect my first time eating ants to be in Lithuania, but looking down at the alabaster-coloured curl of burnt butter ice cream drizzled in birch syrup in front of me, the curled-up black insects scattered across it are unmistakable. The pesky creatures like to gorge on the sweet, aromatic sap of the birch tree, and so have become a byproduct of the sap-harvesting process. The taste? Each bronzed bug adds a lightly lemony accent to the toffeed sweetness of the ice cream. They're big ants - evidently, Baltic ones are larger than the garden variety I'm used to.

It's with a hefty dose of black humour that chef Andrius Kubilius, the son of a former Lithuanian prime minister, explains why his ant stores are running low right now. His syrup supplier (and therefore, ant harvester) is currently "somewhere in Ukraine" fighting against Russian forces. Even in one of Vilnius' best restaurants, Nineteen18, the shadow of Europe's war front lurks.

Ninteen18, Vilnius, Lithuania

Nineteen18, left, and Vilnius

Defiance in the face of oppressive forces runs keenly through the Lithuanian capital - a few centuries under the thumbs of Tsarism and Sovietism will do that to a city. On my way to dinner, I'd noticed Ukrainian flags hanging from balconies. The destination signs of local buses flip between announcing final stops and the simple message "Vilnius [hearts] Ukrainą". Now, across the capital, chefs and food producers are reclaiming and reinventing Lithuanian cuisine, and it doesn't seem a stretch to think that the ongoing conflict might be reigniting Lithuanians' sense of identity through food, too.

The name of Nineteen18 refers to the country's first fleeting encounter with independence, when it escaped the clutches of the Russian empire. The history of the Baltic country is one of independence, against the odds. Later, in the 1990s, it threw off the yoke of Soviet rule - but in the rush and roar of that 20th-century event, many of the country's recipes and food customs were lost, or erased, as a culture, a people and a cuisine were stripped bare. Kubilius' menu is a celebration of Lithuania's larder, and so, also, of its identity. In the kitchen, traditional ingredients are cooked using modern cooking techniques. Venison tartare is served in an elegant cheese-infused pastry studded with black trumpet mushrooms; a creamy Jerusalem artichoke dollop arrives hugging a small heap of pike caviar. Despite the dizzying elegance of the tasting menu, each dish bears a resemblance to the dishes cooked in family kitchens across the country. It's a similar story at Hotel Pacai's restaurant. There, within the former baroque residence of the aristocratic Pacai family, the nostalgic nods continue. As I careen through a tasting menu, one dish is introduced as "a little taste of a Lithuanian childhood": it's sweet baked beetroot hidden beneath foamed curd cheese and puffed barley.

In the rush and roar of that 20th-century event, many of the country’s recipes and food customs were lost, or erased

"The Soviets destroyed everything," food researcher Anželika Laužikienė says, as we wander through the city's old town the next day. We walk past buildings that once housed 19th-century coffee houses brimming with enlightened intellectuals, and peer through barred windows into deserted chocolate factories. All were victims of a ban on private businesses during the Soviet era. Laužikienė and her husband, a historian, are trying to change that, by rediscovering old recipes and histories relating to food in the city. They reach back through the concrete walls that surround the Soviet period to find remnants of an earlier Lithuanian cuisine.

You can get a taste of it at Lokys, a restaurant tucked into the stone arches of a medieval merchant's house in the old town. Loky's menu looks like an ancient manuscript: the dishes, devised by Rita Keršulytė-Ryčkova with help from historians, are those that would have appeared on the table of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Vilnius was once the co-capital of one of the continent's largest empires, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 1300s, it became an important trading city on the continent.

Vilnius, Lithuania
Lokys, Vilnius

A corner of the city, left, and dinner at Lokys | Photo credit (L): Lucy Kehoe

Šaltibarščiai, a creamy, chilled beetroot soup served with cucumber, potato and egg, is slightly sour and shockingly pink. Dried pig's ear is tough and chewy, like biltong. Wild boar, catfish and even beaver stew are also on the menu - the latter is reminiscent of beef in its texture, cooked until tender in a tomato and mushroom sauce - all served over buttery mashed potato. Beavers, once classed as fish thanks to their swimming abilities and fin-like tail, became popular in the Grand Duchy when the aristocracy realised they could bend the rules and eat them on Christian fasting days. Despite only being founded in 1972, Lokys is the longest continuously running restaurant in Vilnius. When it opened, the city's only other eating establishments were Soviet canteens.

Later, I head to a farmers' market. A white van has parked up beside the wooden stalls where traders are selling fresh white cheeses and hefty rye breads. The van is surrounded on two sides by tables packed with plastic crates, each crammed with jars of all sizes, topped with colourful lids in red, yellow, white and green. Inside the jars are pickles. There are chunks of sunshine-yellow squash and slices of tomato stacked beside onion rings. Fiery red peppers, bundled strings of carrots, whole apples in a cherry-red liquid and plump garlic cloves. Food historian and writer Christina Ward once wrote that food preservation is a direct link to history, a skill passed down mother to daughter, that brings the hungry times of eras past into the modern kitchen - in Vilnius, with limited fresh produce in the shops during the Soviet era, residents were reliant on pickling, fermenting and drying. Where professional kitchens were closed, the food traditions of the country moved into private homes.

At the Halés Market in Vilnius' Station Quarter, the city's older generations sell old-school food products under soaring glass and metal architecture: smoked sausages hang in braces, and tables buckle under the weight of huge tubs of sauerkraut. There are stalls overflowing with Balkan ingredients: migration during the Soviet era brought the colourful strands of churchkhela (strings of nuts dipped in thickened fruit juices) from Georgia to the Lithuanian capital. Fruit wines are popular, too. But it's a tucked-away spot beneath the historic food market where a heritage nearly lost is clinging on.

Pickles at the Halés Market, left, and Nick & Nora | Photo credit (L): Lucy Kehoe

Accessed by nondescript stairs leading down into a subterranean dining space, Baleboste would be easy to miss were it not for the sign hung within a weatherworn picture frame above the door: a cartoon representation of a Jewish hoiche hat; "Baleboste" written below in a font reminiscent of Hebrew's thick glyphs.

Inside, it feels like a grandparents' home. The embroidered, well-washed tablecloths covering two communal tables are soft beneath my fingertips. Framed old black and white photographs of Vilnius hang at jaunty angles on the walls. The menu is squeezed onto a blackboard. We order bagels - pillowy, soft and sweet, and so rounded that the signature hole of the bake has been swallowed up by the generous folds of the surrounding dough. A faint dimple remains. They're served with bowls of smoky baba ganoush and apple-studded chopped herring.

Vilnius' Jewish community grew under the Grand Duchy, during a period of religious tolerance. Before the Second World War, the Jewish Lithuanian population numbered around 160,000, A sizable refugee community fled into Lithuania from Poland, swelling the population to around 250,000. Following the German invasion of the country in June 1941, 141,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators. As of 2006, the country's Jewish population is estimated to be just 2,700. Litvaks - Jewish individuals of Lithuanian descent - took their bagel recipes beyond the country's borders. Balboste's enriched bagels are the ancestors of New York's deli bakes.

Later, taking a window seat at Nick & Nora, a moodily lit cocktail spot in the old town, I order a thyme sour. The bar is known for adding seasonal and local ingredients to classic cocktails; also on the menu is a "starka man", a mezcal-based drink that features Starka, a maligned Lithuanian spirit, alongside honey and lemon. Produced in Poland and Lithuania since at least the 15th century, Starka is made from fermented rye mash, and infused with apple and pear leaves. This old man's drink, reinvented, seems an apt metaphor for Vilnius itself, evolving and adapting as it races into the future, a proud city on the rise, with a raft of restaurants helping to fuel the adventure.

Vilnius, LIthuania
Discover More
A Pocket Guide To Vilnius – Lithuania’s Bold, Defiant Capital