Latvians toast spring with birch sap
By Mike Collier Apr 16, 2011, 2:06 GMT
Riga - It may be Friday afternoon in the Latvian capital Riga, but it is not just the usual end-of-week rush hour causing congestion on Valdemara street, one of the city's main thoroughfares.
A troop of formidable looking older women have set up three rickety tables on the side of the road. On top of them stand dozens of water bottles full of clear liquid. Every few seconds, motorists swerve to the side of the road, jump from their vehicles, throw a few coins down, grab a bottle and drive away.
The stopping vehicles cause a huge tailback, but no-one seems to mind. It's birch juice season in the Baltic states, and a few minutes' delay is a small price to pay for a long, cool draught of freshly tapped birch sap.
Latvia's mania for autumn mushrooming expeditions in its vast forests has been well documented, but the springtime birch juice season comes a close second as a national pastime.
Armed with special hand drills, collecting buckets and wooden plugs, hundreds of people head into the woods throughout April to tap the slightly sweet sap.
A few kilometres from the hamlet of Lielstraupe, Gints and his teenage daughter Laura are on their way home, weighed down with bottles that gleam in the spring sunshine.
They are reluctant to give their full names because they have been tapping trees in the protected Gauja National Park, but they insist they are careful not to do any harm.
'We never use the same trees two years in a row, and we always seal them properly afterwards,' Gints told the German Press Agency dpa. 'It's like when humans give blood - it can actually make the tree stronger.'
The buckets that collect the sap are kept chilled using the winter snow that still lies in shaded areas.
Birch trees can grow to an enormous size in the park, and they have a prodigious capacity to produce sap, which is why Gints is prepared to walk nine kilometres to his favourite location.
'I once watched an old birch being felled near here. The stump pumped juice like a fountain!' he said. 'A good tree will give 15 litres in a day, no problem.'
The simple seasonal treat has no trouble finding a sophisticated audience in the capital city.
TV chef Martins Ritins, owner of the high-class Vincents restaurant in Riga, is a keen advocate of birch juice's culinary properties and recently dedicated a whole TV show to the subject, with a birch juice mojito cocktail on the menu.
Member of parliament Ingmars Lidaka has become a hit on YouTube with his instruction video on how to trap trees properly. It shows him drilling away on his knees in the forest, then drinking birch juice straight from the tree.
But perhaps the ultimate sign that birch juice has become fashionable is its presence at the Berga Bazaars, a twice-monthly food and drink market inspired by the Slow Food movement that is popular with trendy, upwardly mobile Riga residents.
Farmer Peteris Paparinskis from the town of Tukums is among the vendors. Though he usually specializes in products made from buckthorn berries, at this time of year he also produces some of the best birch juice in the country.
Like fine wine, birch juice is a product of its environment, he told dpa.
'The taste depends upon the soil, the weather and even the elevation. Trees on higher ground tend to be sweeter than those lower down, particularly this year, when the late floods mean much of the juice is a little watery,' he said.
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