Being Proud of Your Roots

Simple doesn't mean easy. The success of the matter is determined not by what ends up on the plate but by the elimination of excess and by creating serenity in essential form and space. It is the essence and the purity of philosophy, the simplicity of form and values.

Elegance and beauty on a plate, as in life, may be deceptive, illusionary. Not once nor twice it turns out to be blank, inhospitable and boring. Merely sometimes, in those rare cases, the beauty of the outside carries so much more – a very clear idea, direction and philosophy. As well as the hard work and a choice to take the difficult route, the different path which results in a feeling on a plate.
To get to know food and philosophy that is living behind the restaurant's name and interior which looks like a perfect picture, you have to take your time, sit down at the table with the owners and talk hours about why this way and not another. 


I wrote these words in my notebook almost two years ago, enchanted by the Lithuanian character and northern simplicity,  inspired by the calmness that hosts brought to the table and their beliefs that everything comes in its own time. Be it seasonal ingredients or success. 

Located in the very heart of chic but bohemian Užupis district in Vilnius, Sweet Root has been serving patrons since the summer of 2014. Last year, Sweet Root received a best restaurant reward in Master Class among top Lithuania’s restaurants and was voted the fourth best restaurant in the Baltic states by The White Guide Nordic. Nevertheless, the restaurant over time has become a perennial favourite in Vilnius’s bustling restaurant scene.

Strictly local, seasonal only – the way Sweet Root's owners describe their food philosophy. "When choosing ingredients we focus on locally sourced produce that grows around us at that particular time of a year. Large part of the produce we get from our own garden, forests and meadows. The rest come from people we know and trust. From farmers that have the same believes like we do. You don’t have to travel the seven seas to experience something subtle and magical at your home", says Sigitas.

This fall Sigitas Žemaitis and Agnė Marcinauskaitė, the owners of Sweet Root, together with a talented and creative team of chefs, photographer Šarunė Zurba, graphic designer Miglė Rudaitytė (Boy Creative Studio), writers and editors (Algė Ramanauskienė, Jenn Virskus, Jurgita Jačėnaitė) are bringing a book to the table. "Proud of Lithuania. A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root" – a fairy tale that we are all a part of. A book on local seasonal and a very Lithuanian feast.

"This story begins at a dinner table, on a plate full of magical flavours, tastes, emotions, and memories, in the rough woods of our little country called Lithuania. In its bright fields and cold blue rivers. In its soils and lakes. From the soil up to the sky. At a time when our life narrative was formed by a chain of connected happenings: birth, maturation, death, and rebirth of nature." [From the introduction].

Before Sweet Root, I’d say, Lithuanian cuisine was a world full of untold culinary stories and now your book "Proud of Lithuania. A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root” is at the printing house already. How do you feel to be the deal breakers and pioneers of representing real Lithuania on a plate?
Well, we don’t really feel being the heroic deal breakers or even more – pioneers of the Lithuanian cuisine (smiles). We simply understood that something was missing around our local dinner table - i.e. pure and sincere pride of what we have around and what we have in a plate. That was the stimulus for starting up a restaurant and choosing to use only what’s local – ingredients, combinations, habits, emotions, etc.

Could you introduce the ones who are not so familiar with Sweet Root, the philosophy of yours that lies behind everything you do? 
We care for simplicity and bringing back some slightly forgotten or undervalued local ingredients back to life. We want to remind the natural and true taste. We are eager to show the plate does not start at the restaurant – it starts in the woods, fields, farms and someone, first of all, has to take care of the ingredient. That said, we strongly believe each and every single plate should give genuine emotions or bring back memories.

Without a doubt, the team of Sweet Root was the first one focusing only on local, seasonal Lithuanian ingredients. What kind of experience do you aim to give guests at the restaurant?
As we mentioned earlier – we really wanna bring back the pride of who we, Lithuanians, are as well as bring the sincere emotion to the plate. Therefore, at the restaurant, we are striving that each guest would experience the magical simplicity of the local ingredients in the plate and would start listening to the stories that food is telling us. 

Would you say that reinventing Lithuanian cuisine is what you do?
It is really hard to tell what is or what is not Lithuanian cuisine. It would be too brave to say that we are reinventing or constructing the ‘new’ Lithuanian cuisine. It’s too abstract. We are making our own cuisine which is based on who we are, on the memories we have, the ingredients we posses and treasure as well as the gastronomic habits of our land. 

To us, Lithuania stands for cucumber and honey, blueberries and milk, dills and cucumbers, tomatoes and sour cream, mushrooms and potatoes, just to name a few.

I believe food is like language; it identifies a culture and, therefore, also differentiates it. How would you say Lithuanian food is different from our southern and northern neighbors?
The south and the north as well as the west and the east are so interrelated (smiles). It is not an easy task to show clear and specific boundaries of cuisine. What makes us all different and gives so much information – our cultures and identities are the combinations of ingredients that we use. So, to us, Lithuania stands for cucumber and honey, blueberries and milk, dills and cucumbers, tomatoes and sour cream, mushrooms and potatoes, just to name a few.

The title of your book “Proud of Lithuania. A Fairy Tale by Sweet Root” surely has a romantic and nostalgic note. What is this fairy tale all about and where does it begin?
It is all about Lithuania and it starts here, in our land (smiles). We really wanted to put together a fairy tale as if a simple and clear message – let’s finally be proud of our country at a dinner table! And the title of the book reveals it really obviously (smiles).

Your earliest memories of being interested in food?
Extreme delicacies at the grandma’s – bread, butter and sugar; radishes, onions, dills and cucumbers; rhubarb and sugar, cold pork belly and onions…

Growing up and living in Lithuania, what does it mean to you?
It does mean a lot - it gave us feeling of living in line with the nature and showing the utmost respect to it; it gave us self confidence and strength of never giving up even you are surrounded by the one that are bigger, taller or faster; it gave us the traditions and habits that we have now. And that’s what we are proud of – of our Lithuanian identity.

We believe that one should live here and now, showing all respect to the past and having no fair for the future. The past brings us the roots, the future – ensures those roots do not end. That is why it is important for us. It gives you understanding of whom you are, what is your true identity. It brings you back to the ingredients, to the natural cycle of nature. And then you adapt it and bring it to the future.
What excites you about Lithuania’s food culture right now?
Development that is truly fast. That is so exciting to be part of it and to play a tiny role in this movement.

Your previous life before diving into the world full of taste and flavors, and restaurant business, what was it all about?
It was about ties and shinning shoes, about formal dresses and business meetings. But it was also all about enjoying food and making people happy.

What your Lithuania of today on plate looks like?
Well, it depends on the season (smiles). Right now, it is the end of summer and the beginning of golden autumn - not too cold, just brisk and bright yellow, brown and red, earthy, rich and sweet, with the aromas of grains, apples and hazelnuts...

The past, the nowness, the future. It is all connected in your book. How much the traditions and respect for the old way of doing things are important to you?
We believe that one should live here and now, showing all respect to the past and having no fair for the future. The past brings us the roots, the future – ensures those roots do not end. That is why it is important for us. It gives you understanding of whom you are, what is your true identity. It brings you back to the ingredients, to the natural cycle of nature. And then you adapt it and bring it to the future.

Let’s finally be proud of our country at a dinner table!

In the introduction of your book you invites to “bring back to the table some of the forgotten heroes we once knew and the different combinations of local ingredients that define the culture and manner of the place we live”. Who they are, your most aspired heroes?
Some of the combinations we revealed already above – like the cucumber and honey, blueberries and milk, etc. As it comes to the hero ingredients – rowan berries, quince, beetroots, turnips, black currant leaves, linden blossoms, wild strawberries, wild thyme…we could go on and on (smiles).

You grow your own veggies, pick wild herbs by yourselves and treat your guests by being present in a restaurant. It looks like you’re involved in most of the parts of Sweet Root’s food chain process, except for something you can’t be involved by yourselves, like having trustworthy meat or fish suppliers, the head chef who is collecting ideas into plate. What does trust mean to you? 
It is all about sharing the same values and having similar philosophical background. And then you simply share trust. It is crucial – you could not work on similar projects if you would not be able to trust people around you.

Pure and natural taste of ingredients is very true and sensible when dining at Sweet Root. Was it hard to transfer them into stories and written recipes, where you don’t get to taste while flipping through pages?
Every single ingredients has a long story to tell. You only need to listen (smiles). So it was not a difficult part. True ingredients speak for themselves!

How does the creation process in the restaurant differ from the one of creating a book? 
The book project seems to be somehow more finite – you work hard, pull it together and then it comes from the printing house. You cannot change much after that (smiles). With the restaurant – in it a never ending fairy tale that you are trying to make more genuine, true and emotional everyday..

The idea of different covers for a single cookbook. What is this concept all about?
Different covers stand for every single letter in a word L ` I ` T ` H ` U ` A ` N ` I ` A. It also shows diversity and gives a change for a reader to personalize the book a little by choosing the cover.

Do you think Lithuanian cuisine is exportable? Why would people be interested in how this small country eats like?
We should appreciate it locally first. Then it’s gonna become of an interest to others also.

Can you give us some behind the scenes of the process of book creation? How long did it take from the initial idea to the finished product?
It was not a quick process. It definitely took time. The photoshoots span over 3 years of time. And those were not planned for the books specifically. We simply wanted to capture the moments that would remind others and us how beautiful it is here. Some day last year we laughed that we already had so many photos that it would be possible to make a book. A year has passed since that day. And it is really coming out!

It is commonly known that fairy tales usually have good endings, does the one of yours?
Indeed! We have even 4 happy endings in the book:) One of those - “The lake. The days at the lake are calm. The air is chilly and the shimmering water captivating. Early morning feels foggy and fresh. As the clock ticks round, a shy sunbeam breaks through the clouds. A sheng boat approaches the shore, and the fish are laid down in the cooling shadow of the nettles. When the evening falls, the fire flames dance and a hearty meal of fish and potatoes is ready to be served."

Photos courtesy of Sarune Zurba Photography for Sweet Root

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