You should have seen my face when I chose Lithuania. I felt slightly panicked; I don't know anything about Lithuania. But as I pondered my choice on the way home, I started to feel a bit excited. After all, it's an opportunity to learn about a new country, do some exploring, and hopefully meet some fun people. So the next day, I put a plea for help out on Twitter. I got several leads, including a link to a dodgy-looking caff in the East End but the one that helped the most was the link for Lituanica, a small chain of Lithuanian groceries. When I called them, the nice lady recommended Juoda Balta, which although was in Barking, was indeed Lithuanian. Having had no luck with the Lithuanian Embassy as to any further adventures, I duly booked a table, taking note that they seemed less than interested when I told them I was researching Lithuanian food.
We set off into the night. We arrived at Gallion's Reach DLR station; the torrential rain had just finished, but the wind howled around us. We circumnavigated an extremely big roundabout only to find the road we needed to walk down had an ominous 'No Pedestrians' sign. There was nothing around us; no shops, no cab ranks - only wind and wasteland. "I think we're in Hell", remarked my companion. I agreed. Finally we flagged down a black cab. The cabbie was dubious as to whether or not we had the right directions, but set off at our insistence. He swung down a road marked 'Buses Only', straight into an industrial estate. I gulped. "Girls, I ent letting you out here, I'm not too sure of this". And then, like a beacon in the mist, I spotted Juoda Balta in amongst the Cineplex.
When we walked in, we had to stifle fits of hysterical laughter. It was amazing. A band on stage sang Lithuanian ballads, the black laquered tables were accompanied by faux cow hide chairs, and all the women had waist-length platinum blonde hair, 5" heels and were supping Champagne. All the men were muscled and had the same short, back n' sides haircut. I suppose this is where they get stereotypes from, eh? We were greeted by a big, burly man who I assume was the owner, and we were seated.
It went pretty much downhill from here - warm beer, requests for water ignored. We decided to order some bar snacks and just one dish to share. I'd seen the portions coming out, and although I'm not a girl of a slight appetite, we had just finished a Danish dinner an hour previously. 'Smoked pigs ears, cheese slices, roast bread' - rinkinukas prie alaus (kepta duona,sūrio juostelės ir rukytos kiaulės ausys) in Lithuanian - sounded pretty interesting.
Oh, it was interesting alright. Cold deep fried bread soldiers were so crunchy it hurt my head, yet chewy. The cheese was lightly smoked and tasted like Dairy Lea. The pigs ears were a crime against pork; it had the texture of really old jellyfish. Along the centre of each slice ran a tasty sliver of cartilege, and this was surrounded by pork skin and pork jelly. We tried our best, but we left most of it.
Feeling slightly despondent, we waited for our 'cepelinai', a traditional Lithuanian potato dish, to arrive. Some time passed before this glory landed on our table:
We were gobsmacked. They were gigantic - and this was one portion! They looked like a pair of steamed suet sponges, garnished with sour cream and bacon. We tentatively cut into the zeppelins:
They were bready, stodgy, slightly sticky and filled with a non-descript unseasoned meat. Oh, for some herbs in the sour cream! Or maybe even just some vegetables for a texture contrast. I think I did quite well to eat half of one.
My companion looked a little upset. The euphoric rush of having arrived was a distant memory. All hopes of having a jolly good knees-up were dashed upon sitting down as table after table looked at us with slight disdain. We tried desperately to finish at least one dish, but to no avail. In the end, we gave up trying to get the waitress' attention, and went to the bar to pay. The lady owner of the joint glanced over. "You didn't like it, did you?" I insisted it was just very filling, but she gave a short laugh and told us that although it was their most popular dish, it was food men eat. Having seen the size of the men in there, I wasn't surprised.
Standing outside in the carpark, smoking a cigarette and being rejected by several taxi firms to pick us up, a young Lithuanian man approached us and asked for a lighter. We told him we were English - he asked if we'd just been to Frankie & Benny's. No, we said - we've just been to Juoda Balta, same place as you. "Really?!" he exclaimed, "fucking hell!"