A Fairy Tale about Lithuania

Interviewed by Agnė Žemaitytė

In the early autumn, when nature has matured and is at its best, a fairy tale more than a year in the making will be born: Proud of Lithuania: A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root. Sweet Root is a restaurant deeply in love with the flavours of ingredients grown in Lithuanian soil; a restaurant that takes joy in the discovery of the profoundness of its’ roots. Founder Sigitas Žemaitis is looking forward to holding this book, first and foremost, as a present to himself and his girlfriend Agnė Marcinauskaitė, co-owner of the restaurant. This book embodies the values, vision, and discoveries they and their team hold dear, and will be an acknowledgment and a reminder they have chosen the right path.

The nettles that grow on the windowsills of this restaurant on a hot summer afternoon tell me more about the essence of this restaurant than I have heard or read about anywhere else. We sit down with Sigitas in truthfulness and agree to share three courses. An introduction about the restaurant and the book will stand for breakfast. For lunch, we will enjoy a genuine discussion about what is this fairy tale, Proud of Lithuania: A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root, and to whom it is dedicated. Dinner will consist of a portion of prospective; Sigitas’s vision of the future kitchen and his growing pride for his country – Lithuania.

When did you start to consider it’s time to commit to paper your vision for the restaurant, and the legend and your view of local Lithuanian cuisine?

The restaurant wasn’t born over night. We did not wake up one day and think, “Wow, it’s fashionable, romantic and fun to open a restaurant, let’s be fashionable and open one!” The idea about this kind of restaurant was maturing for a long time; it was developing in our thoughts for about ten years. When we started Sweet Root, everyone was curious about our concept. Many times we had to define for others and ourselves the vision of authentic and modern seasonally inspired Lithuanian cuisine. It took two years for the kernel of our values to shape naturally, mature, develop, and settle.

The same with this book. We did not plan that after being open for two years, we would start writing a book about the restaurant’s food philosophy. It all began with our trips to the fields, meadows, and forests where we were looking for ingredients. We were spending a lot of time in nature. When we first got the idea that we should capture these moments and the story of how each course begins, we invited photographer Šarūnė Zurba to join us on our excursions. We’ve collected a lot of great pictures, which have been used in our communications. As the restaurant approached its third anniversary, we began to sense that finally we’d found what we really are. We’ve discovered our strengths and our primary message of what kind of plate we offer, what it’s about, and why it follows this way. We started to consider why we couldn’t tell this all-embracing story before. Day by day, we have discovered what we want to say and why our kitchen is inspired by local products and seasons. We don’t have to be considered the best restaurant in the world to publish a book, do we? Proud of Lithuania: A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root is not dedicated to praising our achievements; we simply want to give a body to our story, which is revealed little by little each evening as we work in the restaurant.

What is the message about Lithuania in this fairy tale?

We want to erase the shallow stereotypes about Lithuanian cuisine. We are known as a country of potatoes and it seems that only dishes from and with potatoes find a place on our tables. People think best our cuisine has to offer is potato cake and cold beetroot soup. These dishes are good, but are they the only ones? While the whole world is going back to its culture through its gastronomic heritage, from Estonia and to Australia, we don’t have a feeling of pride for what our country offers us. We simply say we are the country of rye bread and that’s it.

We intended to create a story that would reveal a more extensive palette of what Lithuania provides us. We prove it every evening in our restaurant: In our seven-course tasting menu and five additional bites, only one is made of potatoes. Only one! We want to show that our cuisine can be not only archaic, but also modern and forward thinking as well. The good news is that during the last 25 years of independence, we haven’t run so far from nature that we can’t go back. Yes, we forgot seasonality. Yes, we grabbed tomatoes during winter. Sweet Root wants to create a fairy tale, which will inject a feeling of pride about Lithuania through the dinner table spectrum back into our consciousness. It is not intended to be a historic food encyclopaedia or book of recipes. It is be a fairy tale about how beautiful Lithuania is, which we are all creating together.

To whom this book is dedicated, who will be the readers?

We anticipate two primary audiences for Proud of Lithuania: A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root. Foremost, we think our readers will be people who are open and interested in the food experience at home, who are no longer seeking happiness from exotic foreign foods. We want to remind that reader of the forgotten Lithuania. We would be delighted if someone reading this fairy tale would come to know their homeland in a new way, and would realize that they are not alone; there are more and more people who are discovering our country.

Our goal is for these enthusiastic people to come together and for the ideas about Lithuania’s native treasures to be spread far and wide, with ever-greater intensity. This is how we could mature and cherish the feeling of pride of our land, which is not so inherent. It would be good to add to the feeling of pride for Lithuania a little bit every day. For example, we should be proud of a bowl of Lithuanian wild strawberries, blueberries and milk, and we should present it to our foreign guests as a symbol of our uniqueness.

Foreigners who are eager to know about another country not only through its most famous dish, but also through its authentic gastronomy are the other part of our book’s audience.

We wish to reach Lithuanians who live abroad, whose families expatriated from Lithuania recently, during the Interwar period, or earlier. We believe they feel sentimental about their homeland and are wiling to tell others what Lithuania is about and how they remember it. This book can be a source to recreate these beautiful elements in order to share them. We hope that this different kind of knowledge could provide a balance to messages about being the leading country in alcohol consumption in Europe.

It could also be an impressive gift, especially for government institutions and international companies who are deal with foreign countries and would like to pass on a message about the unique truthfulness of our country.

It’s not common to have this kind of feeling of pride for Lithuanians; the book has its work cut out for it. Sigitas, what are you personally proud of in Lithuania?

There is no difference between my personal and professional values. What I say in this book, during the dinner service in the restaurant, and each day at home emerges from my personal experience. This is what is real and important to me; I have realised it and discovered it over again. When and what we taste, what kind of plant we put in a dish, which season we harvest vegetables, how well we know the ingredient, where it comes from, and who has created it – I am truly proud of everything I do in the restaurant.

When guests from foreign countries explore dried reeds in the interior of our restaurant, when they reach for the lilac branch or examine a strawflower, drink thyme and wild strawberry tea, taste beetroot or parsnip and say that this is beautiful, it’s the most fascinating moment for me as well. They say we have a wonderful country. I am proud that I live here, that we are not distanced from nature, and we all feel connected with it.

There are a lot of wonderful things in our land of Lithuania. Ingredients and their combinations, our habits and friendship at the table. We, Lithuanians, have to reveal ourselves and show our uniqueness. It is time to stop hiding behind our perceived insufficiencies, despising ourselves for not having bananas, mangos or avocado. We have to stop thinking, “What a life they lead over there; what a flavours they’ve got!” I am proud about the flavours we have here, in Lithuania. They all are extraordinary and delightful to me.

Sigitas, thank you for this kind of experience. To conclude, I will ask you to share more practical details about the book: How many pages it will be and where it will be available for purchase? Will it contain recipes?

We will publish Proud of Lithuania: A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root in Lithuanian and English. The book will be more than 200 pages and wrapped in hard canvas cover. It will be available at our restaurant, and to order online at knygos.lt, amazon.com. Of course, everyone will have a chance to leaf through it in bookshops in Lithuania. There will be a few recipes at the end of the book, but they will be more like technical information, which will show that a fairy tale is not only a fairy tale. It will be an acknowledgement that Sweet Root certainly exists and these courses we talk about were indeed created. This part of the book is intended for professional chefs – ideas, combinations, textures. However, the most important message of this book is the majesty of Lithuania’s particular nature and its treasures.

Is there a fairy tale you cherish from your childhood?

A fairy tale associated with my grandmother, who is no longer with us, and the times when all five of us kids would get in the bed and listen to her fairy tale. Though I’ve heard the fairy tale so many times already, even on the 105th time it sounded like the first time to me. I don’t recall the details; it may have been the fairy tale about the one who climbed to the sky on a bean or a pea stem.

Even the brightest memory of Sigitas’s childhood is related to a Lithuanian vegetable. And he is climbing to his sky in this seedling, which is hidden deeply in the roots. We are looking forward to seeing this book and we are proud of those with a profound insight.

Photos: Sarune Zurba Photography