March 2008 Archives

Getting bladdered in Bran

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Smbarnabybrancheese0001b.jpgToday Barnaby went to visit the famous Bran castle in the Carpathian Mountains.  The castle was closed, so instead he found a nice local cheese farmer to talk to.

Nicu Solovastru has 300 sheep and 10 cows, which spend their summers grazing in the meadows high above the castle.  He is proud of the fact he uses 100% natural products and traditional methods.

Even the cheese moulds are natural: the smoked sheep's cheeses (caşcaval fumat), which Barnaby thought tasted not unlike Polish oscypek, are shaped in wooden moulds Nicu carves himself, and the cow's cheeses (brȃnza de burduf) are aged in either large sheepskin sacks or perfectly round calves' bladders.

Smbladderedcheese0001.JPGBarnaby wanted to buy a bladdered cheese but Anna and Matt prefered the smoked cheese so he had to settle for that.  Domnul Solovastru has kindly invited Barnaby to come back next summer to make cheese with him in the mountains, so that will be his chance to get properly bladdered.

Ready salted

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Smbarnabysaltywell0001.JPGBarnaby was intrigued to find a natural well of salty water in Botiza, a village in the Maramureş region of Romania (where we stayed after we got stuck in the mud).  We watched as one after the other, villagers came to collect a bucket or two of salty water using the long sticks.

One man kindly invited Barnaby to his home and let him taste the water.  Ugh!  It was really salty.  It's used to preserve meat, cabbage, cucumbers and other things.  How convenient to have ready salted water on hand, thought Barnaby.

Stayin' alive

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Stuff about Maramures

Sapanta cemetery - traditional ways of living seem to show a past time

But walking around you see the same things happening

tuica

cheese/smantana making

slanina, sausage

wine

weaving

Not stuck in the past but keeping elements of it while acknowledging 21st c stuff?

Granny knows

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Thumbnail image for SmAnawood0001.jpg“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 ...

Stuck in the mud near Glod

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Smcarinmud0001.JPGWith hindsight, we can see that we made several less-than-perfect decisions on the day we left Săpântă to go exploring rural Maramureş in northern Romania.  

Firstly, it was not a great idea to take the cross-country back roads through the hills on the first sunny day after heavy snow, however enticing the little village names looked on the map.  Secondly, we failed to pick up on the signals when several ‘roads’ we tried disintegrated into streams/fields/forests ...

Testing the waters

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Smbarnabyvaltoare0001.JPGToday Barnaby happened upon this whirlpool bath while exploring the village of Săpânta in the beautiful Maramureş region of Romania. 

At first he thought it must be some kind of jacuzzi for small people like him, and he would've jumped in were it not so very cold.

Later he discovered it is in fact a vâltoare - a cunning eco-washing machine, created by tapping off a stream from the river and channelling it into a large slatted basin. 

It's used by the women of the village to wash the rugs they have woven so as to fluff the tassles and tighten the weave.  Each rug has a little coloured thread at the edge to identify its creator.  The women of Săpânta are famous for their rugs, and have been using vâltoare to finish them off for decades, if not hundreds of years.

Being fluffy enough already, Barnaby opted to buy one of the lovely rugs rather than jump in the vâltoare with them.

Having a cracking time

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Smbarnabyeggs0001.jpgThis weekend Barnaby was lucky enough to be staying with the Dindelegan family in Zalău, who celebrate both the Catholic and Orthodox Easters, due to a Greek Catholic connection.  This meant Barnaby got to eat delicious roast baby lamb and other yummy things expertly cooked by Ileana Dindelegan. 

But not before taking part in the Romanian custom of egg cracking...  Brightly coloured boiled eggs, traditionally red round here although painted with intricate patterns in other regions, are employed in a competitive round-the-table contest not unlike the British schoolyard game of conkers - if your egg stays intact, you win.  Barnaby turned out to be a champion egg cracker.

Mostly flat

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Smpusztawell0001.JPGWe finally said goodbye to Poland (we'll have to go back one day, there's so much more to see) and drove south through Slovakia to Hungary.  As we were a bit behind schedule we rushed through Slovakia in a day, admiring the snowy Tatras mountains and warming ourselves up in hot springs (and some of the best saunas we've seen) at the fairly-tacky-but-wonderful Tatralandia resort.

It was a shame not to have longer, but this did mean more days to check out all the wonderful Hungarian food - and wine - and more time to zigzag all over the place rather than planning a sensible route.  We learnt lots, but three things stick out.  Firstly, the wine's excellent.  Secondly, most of Hungary's pretty flat.  OK, really flat - think East Anglia but with more moustaches.  Thirdly, goulash isn't what you think it is ...

Going for gold

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Smbarnabytokaj0001.JPGToday Barnaby set off to explore the cellars of Tokaj to find out just what makes the wine here so golden and yummy.  Having studied the works of the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus, who believed the wine contained actual gold, he thought he could come to a more scientific conclusion. Probably something to do with botrytis.

But when Barnaby saw it (we wouldn't let him actually drink it. Not after Poland) he refused to believe it was anything so unsophisticated as rotten grapes.  We have bought several cases for him to continue his analysis.

Wine of kings?

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Smtokajibottles0001_1.jpgLouis XIV is said to have called the sweet wines of the Tokaj region of Hungary "the wine of kings, and king of wines", and they've been used as diplomatic sweeteners at the highest levels for hundreds of years.  We went to find out what makes them so great, and discovered that they are still the king of wines - perhaps these days even more so than ever before.  However, they now seem to be the wines of very different kinds of kings... 

Plain to be seen

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Smtanya0001.JPGThe puszta - the great plain - is very important to Hungarians.  It may not sound very interesting to outsiders: it's the flattest part of the country, dotted with fairly shabby isolated farms, wells, marshland and perhaps not a great deal else.  But here it means more than that: it holds an important place in the Hungarian imagination and sense of national identity.

As we found out, though, it's also a place to hear lively folk music, eat the best bread and pork fat we've found so far (and that's saying a lot), and learn how to play the pig's bladder while cracking a whip. At least, it is if you're coordinated enough, which one of us was ...

Hungarian folk evening

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Tonight we spent the evening at Tuba Tanya, enjoying the fantastic local specialities of course, but also the Hungarian folk music and other folky activities.  The band (Tuba Rózsa) were fantastic: listen to that bass sound - it's someone rubbing a wet cloth up & down a stick attached to a skin stretched over a jug.

Click here to listen to the band.

After that we all went outside to play with the enormous whips the herdsmen traditionally use out here.  Anna was very good at it ...

Click here to listen to the whip-cracking.

Click here for more audio samples.

Full of beans

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Smbarnabyegercoffee0001.jpgBarnaby has been relieved to find that Hungarians love coffee as much as he does, and serve all manner of espresso-based drinks in very upmarket cafés.  Here in Eger he and Matt needed big lattes after all the wine tasting yesterday.

Barnaby supposes that the Hungarian passion for coffee must stem in some way from the presence of the Ottoman empire here some 500 years ago.  The trend is so pervasive that even McDonald's has caught on - there are 'McCafes' complete with Starbucks-style faux leather armchairs in every town.  Barnaby is tempted to make a profound observation about imperialism, but hasn't quite worked out what it is.

Making goulash

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Smbarnabygoulash0001.JPGToday Barnaby made real gulyásleves while staying in a little cottage in Csongrád.  Having researched what a genuine Hungarian goulash should be like, he altered Anna's previous recipe by using a) a greater assortment of vegetables including carrot, potato, celeriac, parsley root, tomato and pepper, b) caraway and paprika, but not too much of either, c) beef rather than pork, and d) lots of water so as to make it more soupy than stewy.  He has informed Anna that her previous version was more of a pörkölt or paprikás than a gulyás.

Beer, wine and vowel harmony

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Smborozosorozo0001.JPGThe Hungarian language is fascinating, and nowhere is this better reflected (for me at least) than in the words for 'bar': a borozó is a wine bar, and a söröző is a beer bar. 

At first sight, perhaps, you might not agree that these words are particularly fascinating.

But you'd be wrong. And here's why.

Feeling sheepish

poland
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Smbarnabyoscypek0001.jpgA day without vodka has done Barnaby the power of good and he is now back on solid food.  To nurse himself back to health he has been nibbling on his favourite of all Polish cheeses - oscypek ('os-tsi-pek'), smoked mountain sheep's cheese.

Oscypek is a speciality of the Tatras mountains around Zakopane.  The sheep's milk curds are packed into carved wooden moulds, most traditionally a spindle shape, to harden, and then hung in woodsmoke to acquire their classic colour and flavour. 

Apparently unscrupulous market traders paint their cheeses with coffee to imitate the authentic oscypek appearance.   But this one came from an impeccable source via Richard and Marzena's cheese lady.

A good oscypek should squeak when you bite into it and have a rich buttery taste.  Barnaby likes his sliced and fried until crispy golden-brown on the outside and gooey on the inside.

Beyond the valley of the dumplings

czech republic, germany, poland
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Smstuffeddumplings0001.JPG Well since leaving France we've come quite a long way (now about 3,500km on the clock in fact).  We shifted across Germany pretty fast, eating nice fresh apples and sticky spätzle by the Bodensee and then great griesenschmalz in the Bayrisches Wald.  But we wanted more - spätzle only get you so far - so we crossed over the mountains into the snowy Böhmerwald and the Czech Republic, immediately being rewarded with the first dumpling sightings of the journey.

This was only the beginning - we soon made our way to Bohemia and Český Krumlov, where we learnt all about why Czech beer tastes so good, and about its ideal accompaniment in the form of (imagine the excitement) the stuffed dumpling.  Next to Moravia ...

Places to eat in Poland

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Smpierogi0001.jpgDuring our quest for the best żurek, pierogi (pictured), barszcz and golonka we came across these rather nice places to eat. 

Should you find yourself in Zakopane, Kraków or Kazimierz Dolny (three of the prettiest towns in Poland), you could do a lot worse than dine here...

Places to stay in Poland

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SmRichardMarzena0001.JPGOf course, the best place to stay in Poland is where we spent most of our time - with Richard and Marzena and their two lovely daughters at their home in Zakopane. 

But if you’re not lucky enough to know them, you could try one of these other places which we would highly recommend.  (Places we would not recommend not included.)  Most fun is to stay in an agrotourism, along with the goats, rabbits, cows and sheep...

Breakfast: Poland again

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IMG_1267t.jpg
I know we've already done Poland, but this was amazing: żurek with kielbasa (i.e. fermented sour rye soup with sausage).  Both were home-made by our hosts here in Barcice Dolny, and both were wonderful.

Sweet, sweet honey

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Smbarnabymiodula0001.JPG Today Barnaby discovered that in Poland they make Miodula - a vodka made out of honey.  Yes, a vodka. Made out of honey.

Bears are quite keen on honey.

Barnaby is quite keen on vodka.

You get the picture.

Today we are taking him to safety in Slovakia.

Refusing to be cowed

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Smbarnabycow0001.jpgToday Barnaby challenged Malina to a staring contest.  They both claim to have won but we couldn't really tell.

Malina (Polish for 'Raspberry') was enjoying some free time between morning and evening milkings.  She provides the entire Łatka family, and us today, with organic milk. 

Mrs Łatka cleverly transforms the milk into sour cream, butter and cottage cheese, using not much other than a warm room and a food processor.  The whey and buttermilk don't go to waste - not only do they make delicious drinks on their own, but they also go into a number of Mrs Łatka's homemade treats, including her żurek soup and linseed bread.  Go and stay with them in Barcice Dolne and you'll see what I mean. 

A Pole apart? Thinking outside the goat-shed

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smkoziesery0001.JPGLuckily, by the time we'd reached the remote Bieszczady Mountains we'd learnt enough Polish to recognize that 'kozie sery' meant 'goat's cheeses'.  (It's great being married to a linguist.)  So when the hand-painted wooden sign appeared by the side of the road we slammed on the brakes - and then tentatively approached the farm gate, while two enormous barking dogs approached us from the other side, a lot less tentatively.

The farmer came to our rescue, and proceeded to introduce us to his goats and cheeses with great generosity of spirit.  You'd be forgiven for thinking that in this far-flung corner of southeastern Poland he was making cheese the way his great-grandfather had, according to time-honoured Polish tradition, isolated from the world.  But you'd be wrong (as we were).  In fact, Zbigniew Wantula's cheeses have truly international dimensions, but with traditional cores. We were to discover how Germany, France, Greece and the UK were all playing their part...

Billy goat's gruff

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Smbarnabygoat0001.jpgBarnaby made a hasty exit when the big boss goat at Zbigniew Wantula's dairy farm caught him messing around in the barn with his 22 wives.

Barnaby was just being curious - he wanted to know where the delicious goat's cheese he had just tried came from.

In this far flung corner of southeast Poland Zbigniew makes fresh goat's cheeses and feta-style aged ones. You can buy it direct from the farm, or if like Barnaby you're too traumatised to go that close, you can get it in the pub up the road.

Breakfast: Poland

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A seriously hearty farmhouse breakfast just outside Kazimierz Dolny.  As well as the array of rolls, meat, cheese you might expect, check out the eggs and bacon! And the proper butter ... fantastic.

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