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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 February 2007, 13:44 GMT
The bitter Baltic sprat spat
By Laura Sheeter
BBC, Latvia

Latvia's Riga Sprats are a well-known and loved food in many countries of the former Soviet Union. But a recent ban by the Russian Government has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Baltic state.

People tasting sprats at Brivais Vilnis
Sprat manufacturer Brivais Vilnis employs around 800 people
It is ten o'clock in the morning and I am feeling less than equal to the task before me.

Lined up on the table at which I am sitting are 40 tins of various shapes and sizes, bearing labels in an assortment of different languages, but all containing sprats.

There are smoked sprats in oil, sprats with added dill, or lemon, or spices, sprats in tomato sauce and sprat pate.

There are whole small sprats, chunks of big sprats, fillets, and one can of what seem to be just heads and tails. There are a lot of sprats.

I am at the weekly tasting session at Brivais Vilnis. The biggest canned fish producer in Latvia.

This is a serious process, with most of the tasting taking place in near silence
And though I am relieved to count 20 or so people sitting around the long table ready to sample this week's products - it still works out at about two cans each - and I am really not sure that sprats are my kind of mid-morning snack.

Fortunately, it seems sprat tasting is like wine tasting, and though it would not do to spit it out, taking just a morsel from each can is deemed enough to be able to give the fish a mark for its flavour, consistency and appearance.

This is a serious process, with most of the tasting taking place in near silence and at the end a detailed discussion of exactly how deep a shade of gold is desirable in the firm's gourmet range 'Smoked Tsar's Sprats in Oil'.

The staff at Brivais Vilnis are fiercely proud of their products. The firm has been trading for just over 50 years, but smoked sprats have a far longer heritage.

Often known simply as 'Riga Sprats' they have been produced in Latvia since the 19th Century, and they have become one of the country's most famous brands.

'Gourmet's choice'

The Baltic Sprat is a small, herring-like fish, found mainly in the Baltic Sea.

A party is not a party in Russia without a can of Riga Sprats
But while other countries along the Baltic coast also catch and smoke the fish, it is Latvian sprats that have become a byword for delicacy and sophistication. The gourmet's choice.

When Latvia was part of the Soviet Union its sprats travelled to the furthest ends of the USSR, and it is the Russians who are still their most enthusiastic consumers.

At big celebrations, when the food's laid out, a party is not a party in Russia without a can of Riga Sprats.

'Protectionism'

But that tradition has come under threat in recent months.

In October, the Russian Government banned imports of Latvian sprats, saying they contained too much benzopyrene, a carcinogenic chemical that has produced in the smoking process.

Overnight Brivais Vilnis lost 40% of its market. It halved the number of shifts at its factory and sacked more than 100 workers.

Sprats
Will Latvian sprats become popular in Western Europe?
At what would normally be boom time - as Russians stocked up for their New Year celebrations - Latvian sprat producers were tightening their belts.

Discussions between the two countries did get the ban lifted in mid-January. But the two companies which make most of Latvia's sprats still have not had their export licences back, and they do not know when, or if, Russia will return them.

The Latvian Government says it is still negotiating, working with the Russians on technical issues, and it hopes that Russia will eventually alter its rules on benzopyrene.

But the companies are crying foul. They say that Russian limits on benzopyrene, which are five times stricter than EU rules, are unrealistically low. And in any case, they say, monthly checks by the Russian authorities had never revealed a problem before.

The Latvian manufacturers point down the road to Russia's Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, where, they say, sprat production is being boosted and the ban is nothing more than economic protectionism.

So, as Arnold Babris, the director of Brivais Vilnis tells me, they have decided to fight back. If the Russians do not want their sprats, they will sell them to the rest of the world.

But while Riga Sprats can rely on their traditional charms in their established market, it seems that Western Europeans and the Chinese are not quite so keen.

New flavours

At the tasting, I pick up a can of sprats in spicy jelly and I find all eyes suddenly on me.

Map of Latvia
"That's our new range," says Arnold.

"We started making them six weeks ago. They're for Western women, who're more worried about their weight than Latvians are. We'd like to know what you think."

So I take a bite. "Mmm... tasty," I say.

And they are. But somehow the sprats in jelly seem sad to me. I cannot imagine them becoming a party essential in Britain or Beijing, and I say so to Arnold.

"'Yes," he says. But, then with a twinkle, he adds: "You shouldn't feel sorry for us though. I've been getting calls from Russia asking how they can celebrate without Riga Sprats... I tell them to come to Latvia for their parties."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 15 February, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Latvia
03 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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