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RIGA (Reuters Life!) - When Martins Ritins started a haute cuisine restaurant in post-Soviet Latvia a Caesar salad would get sent back because it had too little mayonnaise.
Eighteen years later, Ritins and his restaurant, Vincents, is one of the culinary bright spots of eastern Europe and he has entertained many visiting luminaries, from Britain's Queen Elizabeth and the Emperor of Japan to Elton John and BB King.
Ritins was born in a refugee camp in England after his parents fled Latvia ahead of the advancing Soviet Army in World War Two. He spent his youth in the industrial town of Corby, before moving to London to become a chef. He then spent many years in Toronto, where his fondness for organic food grew.
Back in Latvia after the small Baltic state regained its independence in 1991, he began catering and then opened Vincents in 1994.
One of his key goals now is to spread the philosophy of slow food, in contrast to fast food, as well as be involved in education programs for young people about food and cuisine. His restaurant is a highlight for many people's visit to Riga and he says his clients are about 70 percent tourists.
Q: Who is your biggest influence?
A: My guru is Alice Waters. Even before slow food, I always wanted to use the best, I wanted to use what was local and what was in the area. It is from the earth, your fingernails get dirty, digging for this, to give the best that you can.
Q: How would you describe your cuisine?
A: The roots here are still French because that is what I was brought up on. There is no fusion, it is really true down-to-earth French cuisine.
Q: What about Latvian cuisine?
A: It's pork, pork, pork, pork. I do like the grey peas and the spek (a traditional Latvian dish at Christmas time). But I do it all in a different way, acceptable for today. I make it much lighter, not so greasy and not all that fat. Before you always got the fat. I do have a Latvian tasting menu.
Q: What were the first years of post-Soviet Latvia like?
A: I got a lot of complaints in the beginning, "What the hell is this you're sending me? "How can you eat this?" It was difficult to feed people then. Like Caesar salad, they wanted it with the mayonnaise, the stodgy heavy stuff.
Q: So what has changed?
A: Now we do much finer food. Now it is much, much lighter, much, much cleaner.
Q: Latvia, like much of the rest of the world, is in an economic crisis. How are you faring?
A: If we compare to this time last year then we are a small percentage less.
Confit of suckling pig
1 x 6 kg suckling pig
Have the butcher bone the pig out, legs and shoulders also lay the pig flat out, skin side down on a board
500 g sea salt, 150 g sugar, 100 g paprika
Rub the meat legs and all with the curing mixture and leave to rest 1 hr. Rub off the cure, pat dry with paper towels
Thyme, Rosemary, red pepper corns
Place the herbs evenly across the suckling pig, place the boned legs and shoulder in the center as if it is a stuffing roll and tie the pig tightly
You need a long deep pan for the joint, or cut in half. It is important that when placed in pan that the pan can hold the pig and still have room at the top for the goose fat. It must be completely submerged.
Preheat the oven to 100 degrees Celsius
You will need a fat - we use goose fat that we have saved from November to January, but duck or pork fat can also be used.
Melt the fat and pour over the suckling pig to cover.
Add sage, garlic bulbs and cover with foil
Slowly bring to a simmer on top of the stove and then place in the oven and gently cook for 2 hours. Leave the suckling pig in the fat until cooled, and only then remove the pig.
At Vincents we portion the loin and vacuum (pack) individual portions with some of the fat until ready for the order.
This method is like confit of goose and we know that it has a long shelf life, therefore it's safe to order a whole suckling pig and use it on numerous dinner parties/occasions.
When ready to serve, take each portion and brush with a tablespoon of honey and 50 ml of vin de pays - red wine.
Put in hot oven aprox 180 Celsius and roast approx 10 minutes. The skin will brown and become brittle/crackle, the meat will melt in the mouth.
Editing by Paul Casciato