At the crossroads of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, the Baltic state of Latvia has an interesting culinary tradition influenced by neighboring countries but also shaped by longtime traditions and native ingredients.
Its capital city, Riga, is home to Europe’s biggest food market, housed in five former Zeppelin hangars.
Black Balsam is not a dish, but you can’t leave Riga without knocking back a shot of country’s national spirit and, in 2010, it was even declared the best brand in Latvia!
It was the end of 13th century when Marco Polo brings first balsams, or herbal extracts, to Europe from his China quests and, between 13th and 17th centuries via Hanseatic League they became known across the Europe and Russia thanks to European merchants.
In 1752, Riga pharmacist Abraham Kunze concocted the city’s beloved Black Balsam, basically a bitter herbal liqueur.
Or, as some said, he took inspiration from the drink from earlier versions, because it seems recipes for balsam had been documented in Riga as far back as the 1500s.
Either way, he produced his famous drink already at industrial volumes, and the earthy-tasting black liquid quickly gained a reputation as good medicine.
There’s even a legend that it saved an ailing Catherine the Great, the reigning empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, when she encountered stomach troubles during a visit to Riga.
According to the manufacturer Latvijas Balzams, the secret recipe for Black Balsam was known only by the chief liqueur maker and a handful of apprentices.
But this worked out fine until 1939, when the bulk of Latvia’s 62,000 Baltic Germans, and the balsam masters apparently among them, left the country ahead of the Soviet occupation.
As a result the recipe vanished along with them, but a few years after World War II, a group of former employees managed to piece it together, and since then the recipe is unchangeable.
The exact recipe itself is still a secret, but Black Balsam is made from 24 ingredients, including 17 botanicals including rare ingredients such as gentian, an herb believed to treat digestive issues, and Peruvian balsamic oil, but also valerian, traditionally used to relieve insomnia, wormwood, fruit juice, black pepper, burnt sugar, ginger, and honey.
All we know about it is that the herbs are mixed with vodka and water, and this mixture is kept in oak barrels for more than a month.
But the final ingredient in the Riga Black Balsam formula is the bottle.
Once the herbal infusion has matured and the rest of ingredients has been added, the resulting black liquid is bottled in the same type of clay bottle historically used for this purpose.
Clay is a natural material and for the first six months after bottling the flavour of Black Balsam continues to develop as the ingredients interact with the bottle itself.
The final result is bitter and spicy, with a tinge of sweetness, and It can be drunk in cocktails or drizzled over ice cream.
Latvians add it to their coffee or tea, and take it as medicine for colds, but It’s also mixed with hot blackcurrant or cranberry juice to make a winter warmer!
Images from web – Google Research