Category Archives: Lithuania

Baltic Amber

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest movies ever made. From a pair of spunky kids outsmarting a herd of velociraptors to a T-rex seriously ruining someone’s toilet time, the movie has it all. But one of the most underrated aspects of the flick is how it pushed amber into the public conscious. The Baltic region produces the vast majority of the world’s amber so the odds that fly with the dinosaur DNA was Northern European is pretty high.

Since the dawn of humans, amber has been marveled at and desired for it’s beauty. Then golden color can just mesmerize a person. The tourist industries in the Baltic states have taken full advantage of this. Walk through any tourist area in Gdansk or Vilnius (also probably Kaliningrad, Tallinn, and Riga) and you’ll see hundreds of amber trinkets for sale. You can also get them in Germany, but according to a German friend I toured Poland, Polish prices are less than half of German prices. Whether it’s just a little necklace for a special girl in your life or a huge ship that can dominate your mantle, amber artisans are still able to practice their craft.

Carry-on?  Vilnius, Lithuania

Carry-on baggage? Vilnius, Lithuania

Amber just isn’t for looking pretty. It has left it’s mark on European history. After the Crusades the Teutonic Knights conquered the amber rich Baltic region eventually building Malbork Castle. As the seat of the Teutonic power, it was where the knights enforced their monopoly over the amber trade. Amber was used for rosaries and by controlling the production and supply of the precious materials, the Teutonic Order was able to leverage concessions and power from various other world leaders. Kind of like OPEC. Eventually this license to print money collapsed with the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran lack of rosaries.

The history of amber in Poland is shown through a surprisingly modern and well equipped museum located in Malbork Castle. You can see how amber is born millions of years ago and all the exact geologic processes that have to occur in order to complete the formation. You’ll also find dozens of pieces of jewelry stretching from the Neolithic time right up until today. The evolution of the craft as tools got stronger, smaller, and more precise is great to see. It’s like two attractions for the price of one. Just another reason you should visit one of the best draws in Poland.

Hill of Witches (Raganu Kalnas)

I adore Lithuania. It’s my favorite country I’ve ever visited. There’s something in the air that’s intoxicating. I felt like I was high the entire time I was there. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but somehow I felt like Lithuania was the OLD country. If fairies and gnomes and elves existed they would live in Lithuania. The only way I could describe it to myself was that it felt like what I imagined the North to be like in A Song of Ice and Fire. I made comparisons to Lord of the Rings earlier; I’m kind of a nerd.

One of the most interesting things in Lithuania and by extension the rest of the world is Raganu Kalnas, or Hill of Witches. It’s a sculpture garden out in Juodkrante on the Curonion Spit (more on that later). A winding patch takes you up a small forested hill where you’re free to explore dozens of carved wooden images involving characters from Lithuanian folk lore.

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Rural Cepelinai

While I was visiting my friend Toma in Klaipeda, she made plans for us to go see her family out in the country. She wanted to introduce me to her parents and siblings and show me where she grew up. Never one to turn a chance like this down I immediately agreed.

Her mother and father met us at the train station in the afternoon. During the ride Toma was excited to inform me that her mother had ordered cepelinai for dinner. There’s a restaurant in her village that’s famous for it’s cepelinai, she told me. They’re delicious, huge, and cheap.

Her parents met us at the train station to give us a ride back to their house. I was getting pretty amped for lunch. We stopped at the house just long enough to drop our bags off then set out to the restaurant to bring the food back.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

It was finally time to eat, Toma’s mother had set the table and served out everything. It was heavenly. A cepelinai is basically nothing more than a huge egg made of meat and potatoes. Hidden inside is a delicious core of ground meat seasoned just perfectly surrounded by a shell of mashed potatoes. I’ve eaten a lot of food while traveling and cepelinai is one of the best I’ve ever tried.

I enjoy cooking so I asked Toma’s mother if she knew how to make the cepelinai. Toma translated for us because her mother didn’t speak English and I can speak Martian better than Lithuanian. Of course she knew how to make them. All Lithuanian women do. Cepelinai are a special dish, very time consuming and difficult to make so they only come out for special occasions. Like visiting Americans I guess. She described the process to me and I thought that was the end of that.

We spent most of the next day working in their fields harvesting potatoes for the winter. It was a bit chilly out but the work kept us warm. The mother left a bit early and when the rest of us returned to the house she called me over. I walked into the kitchen and it was ready for some serious use. There were pots and pans and ingredients strewn all over the place. With a whole bunch of hand gestures and three or four words of English she indicated her and I were going to make cepelinai.

The process was very time consuming. Together we made enough to feed six people and it took close to four hours. It’s surprisingly easy to get past a language barrier with someone as talkative and outgoing as my friend’s mother. We held a number of good conversations ranging from my family back home to where me and Toma met to their family history complete with photo albums and other trinkets.

To make cepelinai you need potatoes. Boil, chop, then mash them up like you’d do for regular mash potatoes. After that you want to take around three quarters of the mashed potatoes and squeeze the liquid out with a cheese cloth. Pour off the excess water and the white liquid you collect is potato starch you need to save. This step takes the longest, it helps to have an extra set of hands. Put a little of the starch to the side. Mix all the potatoes in with the starch. Now it’s time to start making the cepelinai. Take a bit of the potatoes and flatten it in your hand. Then add a bit of the ground meat mixture you made ahead of time. Since this is such a long process many people make the meat earlier in the day, maybe the night before. You add the meat in the middle of the flatten potatoes then wrap the sides around to make a football shape. Or zeppelin shape, where the name comes from. Dip your finger in the starch set aside, brush the whole thing to help it stick together. Boil them in a large pot of water, it might help to add more starch here to prevent them from galling apart. When they float they’re ready to eat.

Cepelinai are often served with a white gravy. Just chop up some onions and bacon and fry them up. Add sour cream (this is heavy peasant food) to the pan with some black pepper and allow it to heat up.

Dinner with the family.

Dinner with the family.