Delta fishy deal?
Why would anyone want to drive for hours through flat soulless countryside, spend a night in one of Romania’s more ugly towns, then six hours on a small, open boat in the freezing cold wind, in order to have one dinner of fish, followed by sour fish soup, followed by fish, in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, and a night in a room so icy cold you can’t sleep, then back on the boat, and another night in the ugly town (and all for more Euros than you’d care to mention)??
Well, despite asking ourselves this question several times, we are extremely glad we spent two days visiting the Danube delta in Romania. If we hadn’t, we’d never have seen what an incredible landscape the delta forms. Nor would we have learnt how to make the unusual and delicious, traditional delta fish soup.
When the road to Tulcea came to an abrupt end at the banks of the Danube, we nearly gave up and turned round. But then we noticed a few cars parked on what looked like it might be a low-lying raft-ferry and realised that despite the total lack of signs, this was indeed the way to Tulcea. We were amazed at how wide the river is here (especially given the apparent robustness of our ferry).
We’d crossed it several times before earlier along its journey: in the Black Forest mountains in Germany where it starts, in Budapest where it separates Buda from Pest, and in southern Hungary as we drove from Pécs to Szeged. It’s the second longest river in Europe, after the Volga, and delivers an incredible 23.5 million tonnes of water into the Black Sea per hour. What a lot of water.
After an unmemorable night in the concrete jungle of Tulcea, we boarded our little open-sided boat (with our driver Gabi securely at the helm) to find out what happens to the Danube on its last leg to the sea.
Our boat chug-chugged its way slowly along the side of the huge grey river, past scores of seemingly retired and rusting freight and naval ships. As the icy air started sinking into our bones, we wondered why on earth we were here. It had been so cosy sitting by the fire with the bunici in Transylvania!
But then we turned off to the left and suddenly found ourselves in a beautiful landscape, unlike anything we’ve seen before, of small canals, rivers and streams meandering through forests of bright yellow-green willow trees, all the brighter for having just burst into leaf. Immediately, my twitcher instincts came flooding back to me. I admit to having been a keen member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists Club, a very long time ago. It seems these things never quite leave you.
First we saw cormorants, of several different varieties, striking very cormoranty poses. Then majestic grey herons, pure white egrets, glossy black ibis, and many hundreds of swans, ducks, coots, geese and gulls. Most exciting (even enough to get the otherwise silent and unresponsive Gabi out of his little cabin) were several potential and at least two confirmed sightings of white-tailed sea eagles. These birds of prey are absolutely huge and somewhat rare, so even Matt was quite excited.
Two or three hours of such ornithological excitement would probably have been enough, but the journey to the little village of Crişan, only reachable by boat, took six. Which would have been fine, had it not been the coldest day since the last ice age.
From under the pile of coats and blankets I’d managed to cocoon myself in, I watched as the landscape opened up – banks of willows gave way to vast beds of towering gently swaying reeds.
In some places it seemed as if there was more water around than land, as the channels became smaller and smaller, yet more closely linked in a web of waterways.
We later learnt that many delta folk round here make a living from harvesting the reeds, drying them and binding them into thatch for roofs and fences. Some areas were previously over-harvested, to the detriment of the very special ecosystem, but now the delta – all 5165 km² of it – is regulated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Finally we re-joined one of the three main branches of the Danube and arrived at the bizarre little village of Crişan. Bizarre to us anyway, as I couldn’t imagine living in this long string of thatched cottages stretched along one side of the river, miles from anywhere and with no road in or out.
Like many villages in the delta, Crisan is populated by Ukrainians and Lipovani as well as Romanians. The Lipovani are an ethnic group descended from the Orthodox Old Rite followers who fled from religious persecution in Russia in the 18th century.
After spending some time trying to moor the boat without rupturing it on the rocks, we found our host family. Or at least we thought we had, but given that the only member at home – a rather sullen (grown-up) daughter – claimed to know nothing about our visit, we couldn’t be entirely sure. Again, we wondered what we were doing out here
All was resolved and much improved when Doamna Ioana returned from her part-time job at the post office. She immediately busied herself making the evening meal, and was keen that we watched and understood every step. On the menu was fish soup, and fish – ie a typical delta dinner. We observed it all, and marvelled at how Ioana deftly dispatched onions into perfect dice and potatoes into perfect batons without the use of a chopping surface of any kind, and practically one-handed. She’d clearly made fish soup before.
Almost all the ingredients for our meal came from within yards of the mud-floored, open-air kitchen we were in. The potatoes, onions and garlic for the meal came from the cellar, where they’d been stored since being harvested from the garden last year. The eggs came from the chickens out back (“of course we have chickens; you can’t live without chickens!”), and the peppers and tomatoes were also home-grown last summer, kept in li
ttle bags in the freezer. The fish, of course, were from the Danube just a stone’s throw away, caught earlier today. And the herbs – two Romanian cuisine classics: parsley and lovage – were picked as needed.
Ciorba de peşte, delta style, is a simple soup made with a mix of the local catch – pike perch, sheat fish and freshwater sturgeon (we think – you can never really be sure with fish classification). Several large spoonfuls of vinegar are added when the fish pieces (heads, tails, bones and all) are added to the vegetables and water in the pot. Ioana explained this was to help the fish retain its texture. Romanians like their ‘ciorba-style’ soups sour anyway, much like they do elsewhere in central and eastern Europe. Other kinds of soups may be soured with lemon juice or borş (fermented wheat juice). Right at the end, a couple of eggs yolks are mixed into a ladle-full of the broth and then stirred in, along with a large handful of chopped lovage. The result is a pleasantly sour, slightly enriched, milky-looking, aromatic fish soup.
But what is most interesting is how it is served. First we ate the pieces of fish (not the heads and tails, thank goodness) together with bread and mujdei. Mujdei is made by crushing a tonne of garlic and then emulsifying it with a drop of vinegar and some vegetable oil – a bit like an extremely garlicky aioli. Following this came bowls of the fishy broth and its vegetable bits, with more bread and mujdei. You can’t help but draw parallels with the traditional Provençale dish of bouillabaisse, which is also traditionally eaten as two courses and with a garlicky aioli or rouille. We all thought it tasted fantastic, although Gabi grumbled about the lack of ţuica (the ubiquitous Romanian plum firewater), with which it is supposed to come.
Dinner continued with another fish course, this time pieces of previously fried fish reheated in a freshly made oniony, tomatoey, slightly spicy sauce. We’d heard rumours that even the desserts in the delta were fish-based so were relieved when presented with some delicious cheese-filled baked pancakes topped with icing sugar.
By eight o’clock dinner was cleared away and all went cold, quiet and dark. Nobody seemed to be around, so we went to bed. Unfortunately the little electric heater in the corner did not manage to even dent the winter’s worth of cold Danube delta air which had sunk into our bedroom (in particular, it seemed, into the mattress of our bed). So despite wearing all our clothes, and all our other clothes from our rucksack, it took hours for the shivers to die down enough to allow sleep. Was the fish soup really that good?
Gabi looked a little worse for wear at breakfast too. He claimed it was the cold, but Ioana insisted he’d been out all night drinking in the local fishermen’s bar and had just got back. (Perhaps we should have joined him?) After some sugary tea to resuscitate us, we left Ioana and family weeding their newly sprouted pepper, tomato, melon and aubergine seedlings and boarded our little boat once more. Gabi warned us to wrap up warm as the journey back would be longer as we’d be chugging upstream. Oh joy! Good thing I was wearing everything I brought with me, including my pyjamas.
We were lucky – the sun came out a few times and once or twice I felt only ‘chilly’. And it was beautiful. We took a slightly different route back, through a vast lake full of swans and other birds. We even saw a hoopoe and some pelicans soaring high above. They must have been early arrivals, out on a limb, as we heard the main flocks are still on their way here from warmer climes to the south. We felt a bit like the early pelicans, ahead of the thousands of tourists who apparently flock here in the summer, when it’s warm. Poor Gabi was even quieter than yesterday, which I’d previously thought impossible.
After another night in the wonderful Tulcea, we had the chance to chat to Costica Vadineanu, co-owner of our little hotel and the delta tour company we’d used. He was a font of information on local culinary customs, so we learnt how the Dobrogea region’s cuisine differs to that elsewhere in Romania:
There is more lamb and less pork; all soups are sour, not just some; and sour lamb soup with lovage is a speciality. And of course there are 101 ways to prepare fish, including a Lipovani dish called scordalia, which sounds like the Greek skordalia (garlic-nut-bread sauce) but is made more like the French brandade (salt cod-potato-garlic puree). Is there some kind of unlikely Danube delta-Provençale connection?
We left clutching a bottle of Costica’s neighbour’s borş (fermented wheat juice) with which to make our own sour soups, glad that we had had this unique experience, that we’ll probably never repeat.
You can see some of our photos from Romania here.