Dinner With Ivars

There are many times so far on this trip that the Lonely Planet has led us astray. First was the day trip to the Russian missile silo that has been closed for the past two years. Next, a promise of a beachside restaurant that, if visited during berry season, would serve us a ticket to “gastronomic heaven” – but turned out to serve us just pancakes stuffed with cheese curd, no berries in sight. There was the restaurant “worth the trip out of town” that had been closed for so long there were weeds growing from under the door, and the “coolest teahouse ever” that appeared not to exist. But one place mentioned by the guide book actually exceeded expectations: a restored manor house south of Kandava, where the owner’s “piece de resistance is [his] made-to-order dinner menu, which caters to very guest’s whim and only features locally grown organic produce.”

After two weeks of potatoes and pig ears, this sounded like true gastronomic heaven – so we programmed the restaurant into the GPS and planned our itinerary specifically so that we could stay in a nearby village for the night. We’d spent the previous two days in Kuldiga, a charming town where we’d had the misfortune of arriving in a rainstorm — leading us to agree, out of drenched desperation, to stay the night in the only Soviet-era hotel in town. (As the Lonely Planet rightly pointed out, the bathrooms had not been renovated since the Russians left in 1991.) We spent several days tooling around Kuldiga, including a misguided excursion to a local sand cave where I realized, as soon as we entered the narrow subterranean passageway on a 20-person tour given entirely in Latvian, that caves make me claustrophobic (go figure).

Please get me out of here.

So we were excited for our 70 km ride to Kandava. En route, we stopped by Renda, a small town noted by Lonely Planet for its organic garden (which we couldn’t find) and dropped by Sabile, home of the world’ northermost vineyard. (You can only taste the wine during the yearly wine weekend – which that weekend happened to be – but all the wine had been drunk the day before.)

Sabile was also home to a weird open-air art museum.

We arrived at Kandava just before a thunderstorm, and upon learning that the restaurant was 10 km away on an unpaved road, made a clever arrangement with the inn’s bartender to have someone drive us there. It was a brilliant move. Our chauffeur – a guy in Umbros and a backwards baseball cap named Boris – picked us up as scheduled, and, after 10 kilometers on the gravel equivalent of a washing board, dropped us off in front of a mansion in the middle of nowhere. “I think this is it?” he said, as we pulled into the driveway of a yellow stucco building backed by a private lake.

It was indeed. Inside, a young man – whose name turned out to be Ivars – was giving a tour to a group of open-shirted, mustacho’ed men. He fetched Daniel, the owner of the mansion who also was its cook, whom we’d been speaking with on the phone. True to Lonely Planet’s description, Daniel greeted us by asking what we felt like eating that night.

Peter didn’t know this, but I’d actually been thinking about the answer to that question since lunch, when I’d eaten an artery-clogging fried egg sandwich at a weird open-air art museum in Sabile.

“Fish!” I announced decisively, before he had a chance to think.

“Fish it is,” said Daniel, and instructed Ivars – who clearly preferred giving tours in his native tongue – to explain the house to us in English. Ivars, a neatly dressed, gay-seeming young man with a small stud in one ear, sheepishly obliged, telling us he was “shy” before proudly showing off a case of crystal glasses and a set of living room chairs with golden arms carved to look like swans.

It didn’t take long for us to become quite enamored of Ivars, whose English was actually quite good, and who had the cute habit of asking for new words when his vocabulary faltered. I never knew that one could bond over “tapestry” and “last will and testament,” but by the end of the tour  we had moved beyond 18th century furniture to the subject of Ivars’s personal life. How had he ended up here, as the guide and maitre’d to this estate?

It turned out that Ivars and I had more in common than would at first appear – for before working at the mansion, he had been an inspector for Latvian wastewater treatment plants. In fact, he still gave lectures on environmental responsibility twice a week to local schoolchildren. “No kidding!,” I said.  I had spent a year working on an article about American wastewater treatment plants — we had so much to discuss!

It’s important to note here that Ivars was about as unlikely a candidate for a wastewater treatment plant inspector as could be imagined – a fact that he owned up to himself. “My boss, he was always teasing me,” he explained, as we stood in the foyer underneath a glittering chandelier and a wall hanging known in Latvian by a word that sounded like “goblin.”

“I was supposed to be stern, you know, when I delivered the . . .” he paused.

“Fines?” I suggested.

“Yes. Fines. But instead,” Ivars grinned impishly, “I was always smiling.” He wagged his finger at us with mock opprobrium. “For this . . . violation? Five hundred lats!”

But before I could ask him more – what kind of wastewater treatment plants were there in Latvia? Did they have secondary treatment systems? Tertiary? – it was time for dinner.

Effortlessly switching from wastewater enforcer to host, Ivars led us to a bright blue dining room decorated with water buffalo horns and presented us with a basket of warm bread and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. As for the meal itself? Suffice it to say that it was indeed a slice of gastronomic heaven – homemade goulash followed by a salad with the “special dressing of the chef” (it involved strawberries), then trout garnished with local chanterelles, then a break to tour the upstairs of the mansion (see photos) and finally, a dessert to end all desserts, fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries with some sort of vanilla cream concoction that left Peter saying it was the best dessert he had ever had.

“This cream, it is from our neighbor’s cow – it is very fresh,” said Ivars, using code-speak for “it is not pasteurized.” We nodded in approval – hell, we just came from a dairy farm where we drank milk straight out of an udder. Ivars smiled, our bond sealed.

“Good,” he said. “Because some city people – they do not like this kind of milk. You know, from Riiga.” He stretched out the name of the Latvian capital – clearly the home of germaphobic snobs. None of those at the estate tonight! If Boris hadn’t been waiting, I would have hugged him.

Peter making himself at home.

At the end of the evening, Boris met us in the driveway and took us back to the guesthouse, where we collapsed into well-deserved sleep.But heaven can only last for so long and the next morning, the guesthouse’s complimentary breakfast jolted us back to earth: a plate of shredded cheese and sliced tomatoes, slathered in a mixture of ketchup and sweet cream and – for good measure – garnished with a flower.

This old thing?

We loved everything about this.

Shredded cheese with ketchup sauce. Make it stop.

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