“Bunică ştie” is something you might find yourself observing on numerous occasions while spending time in the villages of Transylvania. For every grandmother you would have the good fortune to meet would know an awful lot, about everything. And everybody knows that granny knows (best).
She knows about looking after animals, and bringing up the grandchildren. She knows how to milk the cows and turn the milk into butter and cheese. She knows how to butcher the pig and turn it into bacon, ham, salami and more. She can make …
… pasta, bread and cakes. She can grow and preserve fruits and vegetables of all kinds, and turn wild berries into delicious liqueurs and syrups. She knows how to spin wool and weave beautiful rugs. And she plays a mean tune on the tulnic – a very long, wooden, mountainfolk horn. (Mini version of which pictured here.)
We had the good fortune to spend time with several village bunici during our time in Romania, and learnt a great deal from them thanks to our modest Romanian skills.
In the tiny isolated hamlets on the lofty mountain plateaux around the village of Arieşeni in the Apuseni mountains in western Transylvania, we came to realise that no rural homestead is complete without 10-20 chickens, 3-4 pigs, 2-3 cows and 1 very strong horse. Here we met our first two bunici, who are both Moţi, that is to say, Apuseni Highlanders.
Bunică number one – Doamna Aurica Petruse – gave us our first lessons in home-made pig products. Every year, just before Christmas, every family will kill one or more pigs (that they’ve been fattening up all year), and turn the various parts into cured hams, salamis and slanina (bacon which is 90-100% fat).
Each house has a small fumatorie – a small hut in which to smoke cuts of pork and pork fat that have been previously salted or brined for 1-2 weeks. Salamis of ground meat, fat, garlic, salt, pepper and paprika are also hung to smoke here. Most people seem to smoke them for 2 months, but just a very little each day, but Doamna Petruse likes to smoke hers heavily for just a couple of days. The smoked meats are then left to hang in a cool breeze either in the same hut or up in the draughty attic of the house to finish curing. We sampled plenty of house-cured pork products, slanina and all, and found them to taste particularly fantastic when eaten high up in the mountain hamlet where they were made.
These days, according to official EU regulations, you are supposed to have your pig killed by a certified vet (to ensure the pig receives a dignified end). But in reality there aren’t nearly enough certified vets to go round during the run-up to Christmas when almost every household in almost every village in Transylvania needs to kill and butcher at least one pig to supply them with most of the meat they will eat for the whole of the next year. When some Transylvanian villagers still don’t have electricity and running drinking water themselves, this seems like an unlikely regulation to be taken seriously. All the pigs we saw seemed remarkably happy with life, and all the sausage we tasted was delicious.
Doamna Petruse also enlightened us with her method of turning afine (blueberries, both the blue and – previously unknown to us – red varieties) into delicious liqueurs. It’s very easy really – you just mix the fruit with sugar, leave it to macerate and then ferment in a large jar in the sun for a while, then strain off portions of fruity syrup and mix it with pure alcoholic spirit as needed.
A small glass of afinată makes a fantastic aperitif. Doamna Petruse’s son Felician serves it in his well-appointed, EU-funded guesthouse down in the main village, where we stayed for a couple of nights and drank plenty of it. This is definitely something I need to try making at home …
Bunică number two – Doamna Ana Gligor – was our pasta, pickling and cheese guru. Together we made taieţe, or laşcă as they’re known locally, which is basically angel’s hair pasta made simply with flour, egg and salt. The dough is kneaded for a while – until it’s smooth and springy – rolled, cut into pieces and then passed through a pasta machine, first to make sheets and then to make thin strands. Doamna Gligor was extremely impressed with Matt’s willingness to participate (as a man) and quite considerable pasta-making skills.
In Romania such pasta is used in soups, chiefly chicken noodle soup, which is a whole lot better than the packet version I used as a student. This is probably because, in the villages at least, it’s made with very happy, free-range, healthy chickens who yield tasty corn-fed meat and eggs with deep orange yolks.
Doamna Gligor also shared her recipe for preserved gogoşari with us. Gogoşari are one of my favourite vegetables, and sadly seem to be unavailable in the UK. They are very tasty, fleshy, squat red bell peppers, and respond particularly well to preserving. You make a broth of water, vinegar, tomato juice, oil and salt, boil it for a short time, and then preserve the peppers in it with some aromatic herbs in sterilised jars. They are absolutely delicious and I can’t wait to get home and make some myself (with boring regular bell peppers, I suppose).
But perhaps most impressive was Doamna Gligor’s cheese-making. Like all bunici around here, Doamna Gligor milks her own cows twice a day and uses the fresh unpasteurised milk to make sour cream, cheese and butter. But while some will buy packet rennet to coagulate their milk curds, Doamna Gligor insists on using nothing but the most natural product – pieces cut from the pig’s stomach she preserved just before Christmas when last year’s pig met its end.
While seeing Doamna Gligor scoop out some juice from her pig stomach jar to coagulate the morning’s batch of milk was very impressive, and seeing the remaining piece of brined stomach (pictured here for you to enjoy too) was highly interesting, the smell was a little more than we could stomach first thing in the morning, so our natural rennet investigations were kept to a minimum. The fresh cheese, caş, was lovely, as was its derivative, brînza, which is caş mushed up by hand with plenty of salt.
Of course, grandmothers’ talents do not end here. We also had the pleasure of witnessing Doamna Gligor demonstrating her tulnic-playing skills on a miniature wooden horn (they’re usually many metres long, and were originally used to communicate between the isolated mountain-top hamlets of the Apuseni mountains), of tasting Doamna Petruse’s delicious balmoş (pictured), which is one of my all-time favourite Romanian dishes – mamaligă (basically polenta) cooked in 100% natural home-made sour cream until the butter fat runs clear and golden in a pool around the edge and often served with cheese – YUM, and of seeing the beautiful rugs woven by bunică number three, Doamna Ileana, in Maramureş, which is a whole other story…
We should not overlook grandpa’s skills here. Of course, he is responsible for turning trees into all manner of furniture and fittings, and for both building and driving the one and only means of transport in many isolated villages – the trusty horse and cart. We had had to abandon our car in Arieşeni and hike for nearly an hour up a snowy forested mountain track to reach the Gligors’ house. Thanks to her husband Emil’s expert horse and cart wielding skills, we made it down again in a fraction of the time when he pointed the horse and cart straight down the steep icy slope… The breaks squealed, the horse slipped all over the place and I squawked a few times, but we made it safely in the end.
It is incredible, to me, to think that so many hundreds of thousands of grannies in Romania have the fundamental skills needed for turning a cow into cheese, a pig into smoky bacon, hens into chicken noodle soup and wild berries into booze. How many grandparents in the UK today can still boast such broad and life-sustaining competencies?
The question is, how much longer will the know-how remain in Romania’s villages?
It is very common for grandparents here to bring up their grandchildren while the middle generation is occupied in the fields, or, as is increasingly common these days, is working abroad or starting a new tourism business in the local town. Both bunici we met in Arieşeni had children who had left their mountain-top hamlets to set up pensiune in the main village in the valley. So, while the grandchildren understandably seem more interested in texting their mates on their mobile phones, they can probably also milk a cow or stuff a sausage should the need arise. But as more and more people abandon their family farms for more lucrative work in town or abroad, how much longer will these skills survive?