Winter is Coming, Let’s Make Some Kugelis

23 October, 2023, Kotryna Lingienė / Kaunas Full of Culture | Interviews, News, Topic of the month

“We will have to have an auto-da-fé, to sacrifice an artwork,” Vida Bliumkienė points to the bonfire with a roll of wrapping paper designed by her daughter Austėja. I rushed to P.A.R.A.K.A.S as it was 27 degrees Celsius in mid-September to eat kugelis, or potato pudding. The fire is still going and Vida, having put the paper to the side (it did turn to ashes in the end), is already preparing the pink cans. Why pink? “I wanted them to match.” They are not big, maybe 200 ml, which means we won’t be staying for a long time.

Photo by Arvydas Čiukšys

P.A.R.A.K.A.S is the former gunpowder magazine of the Kaunas fortress. Like the main ring of forts surrounding the city, the history of this structure goes back to the 19th century. Vida is, of course, much younger, but she has lived near this place and the railway tracks leading to Šančiai, since birth. Some time ago she sort of naturally became responsible for a place that attracts different artists and people of culture. Until the end of October, you can see several works of the 14th Kaunas Biennale in and around the gunpowder magazine spaces. For example, the Angolan artists Yonamine and Ihosvanny held a war exorcism ceremony here; their work is unexpectedly but organically connected to the history of the area.

Contemporary art is only part of the activities there. Cocoa ceremonies and raves blend well with traditional Lithuanian celebrations in P.A.R.A.K.A.S. One of them is Goat Day. On this occasion, potato pudding is baked both on the fire and in the oven. It is not authentic, but it has been reproduced rather accurately. VšĮ Kauno tvirtovės parkas has installed such stoves not only in this gunpowder magazine but also in the third fort.

Dalia Šaumanienė – you can find her on Facebook as gidė Dalia – was the person who started celebrating Goat Day (celebrated in November) in P.A.R.A.K.A.S in 2018. “I belong to the Kaunas Fortress Association, and the association is made up of crews. I am the captain of the Šančiai crew and Dalia is a member of the association and my crew. Every member of the crew, and not only them, always does something good for this place, so Dalia took it upon herself to come up with a celebration,” Vida explains. And why is it necessary to celebrate Goat Day at all?

Vida says that in ancient times, this day was about welcoming winter. Shepherds who had been herding animals in the fields all summer were already tired and did not want to wade through the marshy fields anymore. The animals, including the goats, were adorned and led around the trees. The mood was festive because the animals would be put in barns – no more grazing in the fields. Traditions in Šančiai are, of course, modernized and freely interpreted. Vida waves her hand towards the trees where a wooden goat is standing. Not the one with the horns and the beard, but the one for cutting firewood. The festivities are attended by locals and adventure seekers as well as the free riflemen of the Kaunas County with their cannons (they present the military heritage for those who are interested).

Photo by Arvydas Čiukšys

However, there is no exact recipe for this kugelis, the ingredients of which are brought one by one on a Saturday in the middle of November and baked by the whole community. The heroine of the article generally does not follow recipes either in the kitchen or in other rooms of life, “Life is a game, a process, and a living organism.”  However, she does have one recipe book – a manti-making guide brought from Uzbekistan.

Photos by Arvydas Čiukšys

Vida does not rule out the possibility that one day a kugelis-making marathon will take place in the gunpowder warehouse, where the tastiest version will be selected, and its recipe will become the official Goat Day potato pudding’s recipe. On November 11, perhaps?

But on September 11, the process was something like this, “I found some potatoes in the fridge. I peeled them and grated them. By hand because my grater is missing a screw. I got tired of grating it finely and finished with a ribbon grater. I added pumpkin which made it too watery, so then I thickened it with dried pumpkin flour. Fresh pumpkin is from the plains of Suvalkija, brought by a friend. Dried pumpkin is very local. Kazimieras Bliumkys dries pumpkins (you cut them into slices, hang them over the stove like socks, and dry them), grinds them, and orders everyone to put it into every dish.”

Photo by Arvydas Čiukšys

You will need both fried and raw onions. Then cracklings (Hungarian, sprinkled with red pepper, a little ham – all that was in the fridge) and boiling milk to pour into the mix. You can add eggs, of course, if you want.

Cans for baking can be bigger, not these pink ones. Only half a liter of the pudding will take longer to bake. After cutting off the top of the can, it should be filled with grated potato mix and carefully wrapped in foil. Vida does it twice, just to be safe, and tells you to pay attention to where the top and the bottom are. You need to make a hole at the top, then place the can in the coals. How long should it take? Until it’s done. “If you get into a conversation and talk for too long, the pudding turns black.” There’s nothing that a spoonful of sour cream couldn’t fix.

After the potato pudding session, we visited the family’s home located near P.A.R.A.K.A.S. The home as well as the golden stream that flows nearby were already described in the pages of this magazine by our heroine’s daughter Austėja Bliumkytė-Padgurskienė. Vida and I talked about gastronomy for a bit. It turns out that her mother used to make wonderful stuffed carp and bake very tasty yeast rolls with rice and eggs.

Vida admits that she doesn’t know how to make yeast dough, but she likes to invite the people she likes the most, including her grandchildren, for waffle pancakes, “Because I have a special pan at home.” How to make pancakes so tasty that they wouldn’t need any condiments? “I add melted butter, sour cream, and the same pumpkin flour to the mix.” She had prepared the waffle pancake dinner during the campaign organized on the occasion of Vilnius’ 695th birthday, in January 2018, when the people of Kaunas invited the people of Vilnius to their homes for dinner. 25 people gathered at Vida’s house, it was a delicious and cozy dinner.

When asked to recall more delicious dishes from Šančiai, Vida points to the restaurant Kaukazas on the map, located on A. Juozapavičius Avenue. She says that they have delicious khachapuri with curd. In 2015, the newly gathered community of Žemieji Šančiai borrowed pots to make a fermented cabbage soup. The community came together in a place called Cabbage Field reminiscent of the unbridled fantasies of the Russian tsar. The Cabbage Field and its feasts are also an important element of the gastronomic map of Šančiai.

Vida also has the keys to the Kastytis restaurant, which opens its doors for seniors’ dance and other occasions (the jam session of the Kaunas Blues festival will be held there, on October 7). It has a fascinating marine-like interior and many legends. For example, in Soviet times, its kitchen prepared precooked foods for 54 eateries in Kaunas. Vida says that crepes with curd were very tasty, indeed. When she studied in Stepžukis (now J. Vienožinskis Arts Faculty of Kaunas College), Vida, like other students of that time, used to spend a lot of time on Laisvės Avenue. However, food in such establishments of the time like Tulpė, Rambynas, or Metropolis where not so important for a young girl and did not stick in her memory. Yet she confirms that my vague childhood memory of delicious Tulpė’s fries is no fantasy, they really existed. 

P.S. The Napoleon cake is a thing of Šančiai. What, you didn’t know? In 1812, the emperor was crossing the Nemunas during St. John’s Day and left the recipe for the Napoleon cake in Šančiai. If you don’t believe in this legend, you will find a historically accurate dessert at the Cukrinis arkliukas bakery in Šančiai. However, you probably won’t be able to figure out the exact recipe. But why burden your daily life with such a difficult task as cake making?