When telling friends and family I was going to Vilnius to sample its food, the responses I got broadly fell into the same category.

‘Where is that?’, followed by, ‘what do they eat?’

While I felt quite guilty about this, it comes as no surprise to those in the Lithuanian capital’s tourism industry.

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In fact, this ignorance formed the basis of many of Vilnius’ marketing campaigns, including an titillating comparison to the G Spot of Europe: ‘Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it, it’s amazing’.

It turns out they weren’t wrong – neither about the city, nor its own journey to reclaim and reinvent its culinary heritage.

Nestled in the corner of the Baltic Sea, north of Poland, Lithuania’s modern history is one of hard-fought independence: from the Russian Empire in 1918, followed by Nazi Germany and finally the Soviet Union in 1990, when Lithuania was the first to break away from the crumbling federation.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: The Vilnius skyline at sunsetThe Soviet occupation left its mark on the capital city, Brutalist towers punctuating the skyline next to the white and gold steeples of the city’s signature Baroque churches.

It also scarred the city’s gastronomy, as Lithuanian food researcher Anželika Laužikienė demonstrated while we wandered through the winding streets of the Old Town.

Next door to the building where the 1918 declaration of independence from the Russian Empire was signed, there used to be a coffee shop known as White Štral.

Founded at the end of the 19th Century, when the drink’s popularity among the upper classes soared, the café served priests and students from the nearby university with freshly-baked treats such as a saffron-enriched cake, which apparently inspired the French Rum Baba.

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But during the Soviet era, it was closed for good in an erasure of the city’s cafés and restaurants - meaning Lithuanian recipes were either lost or hidden away at home.

“That is the purpose of these tours,” Anželika said. “My husband is also a historian, and a professor of food. We are trying to incentivise businessmen to take over these traditions; we even have the recipes.

“You have to give them to people who are ready to continue, but people are not so interested up to now.”

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Lokys is in a medieval merchant houseOf course, there are exceptions to every rule.

Lokys is the longest continuously running restaurant in the Old Town; an oasis among Soviet canteens when it was founded in 1972.

But the menu’s inspiration goes back as far as the building it inhabits, a merchant’s house from the Middle Ages.

Devised by Le Cordon Bleu-trained Rita Keršulytė–Ryčkova, who consulted historians, the forest food concept features ingredients that would have graced the table of the Grand Duke of Lithuania: game meats, foraged mushrooms, berries and nuts.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Beaver stew at LokysOne dish leapt out at me in particular: beaver stew.

Popularised in the 14th Century, when the Grand Duchy was the largest country in Europe, the dish coincided with the late introduction of Christianity to Lithuania.

During periods of fasting, meat and poultry could not be eaten.

But because they swam in rivers and had a fin-like tail, beavers were classed as fish, making them a guilt-free aristocratic delicacy.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Apple cheese at LokysStewed with mushrooms and tomato and served with mashed potato – the staple carbohydrate – the meat was meltingly tender. It could have passed for beef, despite the historical classification.

Other local dishes I tried included pig's ear, the Lithuanian pork scratching; apple cheese (think posh fruit Winder); and arguably the national dish, Šaltibarščiai: a chilled beetroot soup blended with buttermilk and served with potato, cucumber, dill and egg.

Rich and refreshing, the pleasingly pink bowlful is so beloved that Vilnius hosted a festival in its honour earlier this year.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Å altibarščiai at LokysBut as popular as it is, another dish takes the crown as the country’s biggest gastronomical claim to fame.

The humble beigel.

The Grand Duchy’s expansion was due to its tolerance of many religions and cultures, including the Jewish, who settled there and later invented the unique bread which is boiled and then baked.

Sadly, this acceptance was not to last.

Forced to either flee or perish during the atrocities of the Second World War, Lithuania’s Jewish community was decimated along with its cuisine.

Those that fled - known as Litvaks - took the recipes with them to new shores, including America.

The rest is history.

Still, there are spots in Vilnius where the original can be found, if you know where to look.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: A rainbow of fermented vegetables at The Hall MarketIn the heart of the edgy ‘station district’, The Hall Market is a riot of colours.

Babushkas hawking bottles of honey in a spectrum of golden tones; a rainbow of fermented vegetables – carrot, red cabbage, cucumbers; cannonball-shaped sausages dangling from stands.

But underneath, accessed by an unassuming side door, is Baleboste: a Kosher-style café with moustachioed hipsters behind the counter and tea towel tablecloths.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Beigels with Baba Ganoush, left, and ForÅ¡makas, right, at BalebosteAfter dipping my beigel into a plate of Foršmakas – blended herring and apple – I was struck by the texture.

Unlike the stodgy supermarket version, this was a delicious paradox of lightness and density, thanks to the strange alchemy used to make it.

It is the best I’ve ever eaten - supplanting a smoked salmon beigel I had from a New York deli, funnily enough.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: A beef beigel outside BalebosteWhile the return to independence in 1990 was an opportunity to rediscover Lithuania’s culinary roots, like the beigel, it also marked a blossoming of Westernised food culture.

Perhaps no other restaurant in Vilnius signifies that better than Nineteen18.

This November, it was one of 45 businesses to take part in the capital’s 13th annual gastronomic week, which sees chefs devise bespoke menus at a pocket-friendly price of up to fifty euros.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: A courtyard in the Old Town's Glass Quarter where Nineteen18 can be found. Picture: Evaldas ÄŒingaTucked away in one of the city’s many beautiful hidden courtyards, the restaurant’s name harks back to the declaration of independence, and it fuses typical Lithuanian ingredients and food habits with modern fine dining techniques.

Foraged mushrooms, fondly known as ‘squirrels’ by locals, were pickled, emulsified and served on a dainty slice of the ubiquitous black rye bread eaten here for centuries.

Birch syrup was drizzled over a burnt butter ice cream – and the pesky ants which found their way into the sap were not wasted.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: The ice cream with ants at Nineteen18In the thrifty spirit of the Baltic tribes of yore, they were used as a topping by being fermented, an ancient tradition rooted in the country’s harsh winters.

For the main event, slow cooked pork, Lithuania’s flagship meat, was served with a heart-stopping chicken ‘caramel’ made by boiling 70 litres of chicken stock and 4kg of butter down to 1 litre of decadence.

“I hope you enjoy, and we will give you a blood test after”, quipped the colourful head chef Andrius Kubilius, named after his father – who just so happened to be a former Prime Minister of Lithuania.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: The pork with chicken caramel at Nineteen18Despite the Ukraine war bringing back bad memories - the man who harvested the birch sap is now fighting Russians in a tank, Andruis Jr said – the future is still looking bright for him and his contemporaries.

It was reported earlier this year that the Michelin Guide was in talks to visit Lithuania for the first time, and they are all vying to get the inaugural star: the first step onto the gastronomic world stage.

So hopefully, the next time I visit Vilnius, the question from family and friends won’t be ‘what do they eat?’, but instead: ‘what did you eat?’

Where to stay:

Artagonist Art Hotel, Pilies g. 34, Vilnius Old Town. A boutique hotel with a unique artwork in each room, modern facilities and a buffet breakfast. Rooms from £63 per night off season, according to booking.com

How to get there:

Ryanair has flights from Luton and Stansted Airport. Tickets from around £50 both ways, although prices do vary depending on when you fly.

Did you know?

Part of Stranger Things Season 4 was filmed in Vilnius’ Lukiškės Prison: the Siberian prisoner camp Hopper is trapped in. The city prison has now been converted into a bar, outdoor venue and tourist attraction. Visit the Go Vilnius website for more details.