In my recent piece on Lithuania—in the pages of DRAFT and also here—I suggest that truly rustic beers are the next best thing to time travel.
I’d like to add: Old World breads have nearly as much power to evoke the past, not to mention feelings of home and comfort. They lack only a bit of alcohol to lube the brain for temporal displacement. (Although I reckon we all know how to adjust for that.)
The kaimiskas beers were entertaining, for sure, but they were not the part of Lithuanian gastronomy that made the deepest impression on me. That would be quality of bread there, its varied uses, and how deeply the stuff seemed to be ingrained in the cultural DNA. Dark rye bread appears to form the base of the Lithuanian food pyramid.
It’s also the main ingredient in two very common treats, both of which are easier to make at home than the raw farmhouse beers: kepta duona and gira.
Listen: We should all be eating kepta duona (pictured at left). Every pub, I am now convinced, should serve them as an option in place of fries. I can’t think of many treats that are more compatible with beer than this one.
This is kepta duona: strips of dark rye bread, fried until crispy, then salted and rubbed plenty of garlic. That’s pretty much it. Oh: You can add a dipping sauce, often some combination of mayo, cheese, pepper and other spices. You can find a reasonably credible recipe here.
What if this is the secret to the cult of Lithuania’s farm beers? Because, frankly, any beer would taste good with it.
The other treat I wanted to mention is gira. This is the Lithuanian version of kvass, a low-strength beer made from rye bread. When visiting Lithuania I saw gira everywhere—bottled in shops, restaurants and bars, and occasionally on draft.
Like the Russians with their kvass, Lithuanians view gira as a soft drink. Kids drink it, their parents apparently unbothered about the 1%-ish alcohol content. My local companions were bemused by my fascination with it; for them, it’s nothing special.
Oh, but it is special. Typically made with the sort of deep, dark spicy bread that Lithuanians love, gira tends to be a foamy, fizzy dark brown drink with the rich aroma of freshly toasted rye and raisins. It has a sweet taste, but not cloying like cola, balanced by a mild sourdoughlike acidity. It’s fulsome bread in a glass. And, like kepta duona, it’s pretty easy to make.
Here is the gist: Toast some dark rye bread in the oven, then pour boiling water over it—you can also add raisins or other fruit, or caraway—and let it cool overnight. Add some sugar and yeast and leave it to ferment for a couple of days. Strain and pour into clear plastic bottles (and sometimes the raisins are added to the bottles). Wait as long as you dare, then drink. I think that’s it.
A realistic-sounding gira recipe is here.
Any Lithuanians out there want to share their own, more authentic recipes?
Other Lithuanian treats: Cepelinai is Lithuania’s national dish, combining the local love for potatoes, bacon and sour cream on one plate. Don’t miss any local cheeses or cured meats you find. You might even see smoked pig’s ears. I wish I had.