Up until the middle of the 20th century farmers used food produced on their own farms: cereals (rye, wheat, barley, buckwhest, oats), milk (fresh milk, sour milk, cottage cheese), meat, fish, vegetables (potatoes, cabbage, betroots, carrots), legumes (mostly kidney beans), fruit and mushrooms. Honey was a highly appreciated delicacy, to flavour food Lithuanians used caraway, garlic, onion, mustard, horseradish, fennel, They used to process their food products at home, except for the grain which they used to take to the mill to be ground into meal or flour.
Breads and Cereals
Lithuanians are very fond of brown bread which is made from dark rye flour. They have bread practically at every meal and hold it in great esteem.
Up until the middle of the 20th century every farmer's wife used to make her own bread. Dark rye flour was mixed in lukewarm water in a wooden pail or bucket (oak, if possible) and that thin rye mixture was left overnight. In the morning more flour was stirred into the thin rye mixture to make a stiff dough which was kneaded vigorously and left to rise. Then the dough was turned out and shaped into loaves on a board with a long handle which was covered with cabbage, marple or sweet-flag leaves to give the bread a special flavour. Before pushing it into the oven, the farmer's wife used to make the sign of cross over the first loaf and press the sign of cross into the last one. From the dough scraped from the sides of the bucket she usually made a little loaf for the baby of the family.
Before the abolition of serfdom in 1861 serfs used to make bread from unsifted coarse rye meal mixed with chaff. In the second half of the 19th century Lithuanians discovered sweetish bread which was ma- de by mixing flour in boiling hot water and leaving it to ferment for 3 days.
There are a lot of Lithuanian customs related to bread. A piece of bread used to be inserted under the foundations of a new house to ensure that the family should never run short of bread. While moving into a new house, a loaf of bread was brought in first together with a cross and pictures of saints. A loaf of bread covered with a towel was always kept in the most honourable place in the house - on the table in the corner of the best room under the pictures of saints. A piece of bread was always ploughed into the first furrow in spring, and the farmer's wife placed a piece of bread under the first sheaf of rye during the harvest time. Newlyweds were greeted at the threshold by their parents with bread and salt, and brides always took a loaf of bread and some leaven from their mother's mixture to their husband's home. Children were taught: if they dropped a crumb of bread on the ground, they were to pick it up, cross themselves, kiss the bread and eat it. Even now there is a tradition in Lithuania to greet an important visitor with a loaf of bread on a towel. To mark some special occasion Lithuanian emigrants bake their own brown bread, Cutting bread has always been the duty of the head of the family.
Pork dishes take the second place of importance in the traditional Lithuanian menu. Even at the present time almost every family who lives in the country keeps pigs. Pigs are usually killed before Christmas and Easter. The meat from a pig is preserved by salting and smoking.
The most popular products of preserved pork are flitches and skilandis, a kind of Lithuanian sausage. After having been kept in brine for about 2 weeks, flitches are hung in the chimney or a specially constructed smoke house and smoked for 3 or 4 weeks. For this purpose Lithuanians mostly use alder and juniper wood. In the ethnic regions of Dzukija and Suvalkija smoked flitches are less popular. After having be- en kept in brine for some time, flitches are hung in the attic where the fresh cold air makes them ready for use after some time. Slices of salted or smoked flitches are served with brown bread oh trips or when- ever people have to do some hard physical work. Cubed flitches are fried and used in soups or they may be fried with eggs.
Skilandis is made by smoking a pig's stomach filled with minced meat, salted and seasoned with pepper and garlic. Sometimes it is ma- de by filling a pig's bladder in the same way. Skilandis was the traditional dish, served with bread or cooked in beetroot soup, during rye-harvesting.
Dairy product. Lithuanians use both fresh and sour milk. Very popular is soft and hard cottage cheese. Hard cottage cheese is made by heating sour milk, straining the curds in a triangle linen bag and pressing them into a hard piece. In Zemaitija a pinch of caraway is usually mixed into the curds. There is another kind of cottage cheese - sweet cheese - which is made by bringing fresh milk to boil and then adding some sour milk to turn it into curds. After straining the curds, some eggs, sugar, sometimes some caraway are added and the mixture pressed into a cheese. Cheese used to be served with coffee on special festive occasions, usually it was placed on a piece of buttered bread. Cheese was very often given as a present while visiting. Shepherds were always treated to cheese on Whitsunday. During the honey-taking season cheese was always served with honey. This way of serving cheese is still considered to be a special treat.
Kastinis is a kind of butter known only in Zemaitija. A few tablespoons of sour cream with a small piece of butter are whipped in a warm earthenware bowl with a spoon till the cream thickens, then the bowl is warmed up again, some more sour cream is added and whipped again till it thickens. In this way sourish white butter is churned without producing any butter milk. It is seasoned with salt, onion, sometimes pepper and cooled. It is served with hot potatoes or brown bread.
Potato dishes. Potatoes came to Lithuania in the 18th century. Very soon they were to become the most popular vegetable, Lithuanians love boiled potatoes served with sour milk and even with fresh milk. A typical Zemaitian dish is boiled potatoes served with pounded and fried hemp seeds, Sometimes potatoes are boiled in jackets. Potatoes are used to make soups and porridge. There are a lot of dishes made from grated potatoes such as pancakes, porridges, small balls cooked in milk, a potato pie, which has become a particular favorite among the Dzukians. Each housewife has her own pet recipe: so- me add chopped onion, hot milk, melted butter and other ingredients. Potato pie is baked in a hot oven and served with sour milk, cottage cheese, sour cream or fried cubed bacon.
Another dish made from grated potatoes which has become a special favorite since the turn of the century is zeppelins. Grated potatoes are strained through cloth, combined with some mashed boiled potatoes, salt, pepper and eggs. This mixture is folded around minced meat, shaped into oblongs and boiled in salted water. Meat can be substituted for by soft cottage cheese.
Grated potatoes are also used to make sausages which are baked. in oven. This is a very ancient Lithuanian dish.
Pancakes are popular all over Lithuania. Usually one tablespoon of batter is used per pancake, but in Aukstaitija pancakes are also made by spreading the batter over the whole pan. Such pancakes are the traditional breakfast dish in Aukstaitija served with butter, fried bacon or sour cream. Sometimes, especially in towns, they are folded over a tablespoon of cottage cheese or minced boiled meat.
Mushroom dishes. In Lithuania about 20 species of mushrooms are used as food. Up until the first decades of the 20th century mushrooms had been an important food product. They were fried and served with potatoes, they were also used to make milk soups. Mushrooms were preserved for the winter by salting and pressing them in wooden pails. Those of the highest quality were dried in ovens and used to flavour various dishes, for example, beetroot soup during fasting periods.
Fresh water fish make an important part of the diet of people residing near rivers and lakes. Smoked eels are considered o be a delicatessen. Eels inhabit the Curonian Lagoon, some rivers and lakes, and they grow to be 1.2 meters long and up to 4 kilograms in weight.
Beetroot and cabbage soups are popular among village people. Up until the middle of the 20th century every farmer's wife used to prepare a pail of pickled beetroots and sauerkraut for winter. To improve the taste, sauerkraut is mixed with caraway, carrot, sour apples and cranberries. During fasting periods soup used to be flavoured with dried mushrooms. In summer Lithuanians, both in town and in the country, are fond of cold beetroot soup, flavoured with raw onion and cucumbers and served with hot boiled potatoes.
For supper Lithuanians often have milk soup with vegetables - potatoes, carrots, cabbage, peas, sometimes with pasta pinched into small bits.
Drinks. One kind of soft drinks, called salde, is made from simple or germinated rye. Rye meal is mixed with scalding hot water. When it cools, yeast is added and the mixture is left to ferment for several days. Then it is strained and diluted with water. A similar kind of drink is also made from brown rye bread.
Birch sap was also very popular. It used to be flavoured with black currant leaves, crusts of brown bread, germinated barley or oats, and it was stored in wooden vessels in a cool place.
Lithuanians learnt to brew beer in the 16th century. Even nowadays homemade beer is brewed in the district of Birzai and Central Lithuania. In Zemaitija homemade beer is less popular and not so strong as in Aukstaitija. Midus is an ancient alcoholic drink made from honey. At present it is produced commercially by the wine distillery in Stakliskes.
Recently the Lithuanian diet has become more uniform throughout Lithuania, although we can still note certain differences between different ethnic regions. Zemaitians are still fond of all kinds of porridges and kastinis. Dzukians specialize in buckwheat and mushroom dishes, Suvalkians in smoked skilandis and sweet cottage cheese. Aukstaitians love to have large pancakes for breakfast; eels remain a special treat among the inhabitants on the Baltic coast.
J. Kudirka "THE LITHUANIANS"