Through the kitchens of Romania
Coming to Romania from Hungary was a huge change, primarily because we know lots of people in Romania and speak a bit of the language. Both of these bonuses, plus the Romanian people’s unrivalled hospitality, meant we could spend far more time inside people’s kitchens learning about the cuisine – either by being invited in or by inviting ourselves in. And seeing so many old friends really made it feel like a home from home.
We got straight down to business by heading up into the Apuseni Mountains to sample two stalwarts of Romanian cuisine: ţuică (plum firewater) and slănină (bacon without the meaty bits). Here we were reminded that it is the grannies who do everything and know everything, from curing your own bacon and making your own cheese to preserving your pig’s stomach in a bucket.
Corina’s mother Felicia cooked us a wonderful meal including a dish I never knew I loved – limbă cu măsline (tongue braised with olives), for which she has promised to send the recipe complete with her special tips… And her father Nicu boosted our supplies with a bag of the biggest walnuts we’ve ever seen, direct from the tree in their garden.
They even took us up to Zalău to spend Easter with George’s parents Ileana and Dorel. Most Romanians (being Orthodox) don’t celebrate Easter until the end of April this year, but Dorel likes to mark both ecclesiastical sides of his Greek Catholic heritage by celebrating both Easters with family and food. What a good idea. Especially for us, as it meant we could tuck into Ileana’s delicious garlicky roast milk-fed lamb (a meat pretty much only ever eaten at Easter, at least in Transylvania), while playing egg conkers round the table.
After nipping back to Cluj to buy a mulberry barrel (only mulberry will do, apparently) to store the special aged ţuică Dorel had packed us off with, we drove north to Maramureş. Maramureş is one of the prettiest and most traditional areas of the country, and while we were there also one of the snowiest. Here we looked up our favourite pensiune in Sapânţă and discussed cabbage rolls, slanină-making and rug-weaving with Maria and Ileana Steţca. Then made it as far as Botiza, where the water runs salty, but only after being rescued from the mud near Glod.
Next we drove up into the snowy Carpathian Mountains to visit our friends Anca and Eduard (and their bear Olaf), who are building some lovely apartments near Busteni. Never had we expected such a culinary extravaganza – our three days were spent learning a host of Romanian, Armenian and Ottoman dishes, complete with historical and etymological background. The repertoire moved from the cabbage ‘n’ pork combo so loved in Eastern/Central Europe through to baklava and other sugary treats left behind by the Ottomans. Recipes will follow soon… We only left the kitchen once, to meet a cheese man in Bran.
Our final stop was in the Danube delta – an other-worldly watery place where life revolves around fish and reeds. Here we had a somewhat bizarre couple of days, eating lots of fish and seeing lots of reeds. And discovered that delta cuisine shares some curious connections with that in Provence.
We were very sad to leave Romania. Driving into Bulgaria was a bit of a shock as here we can’t even read the road signs, so wondering how we’ll manage to talk our way into grandmothers’ kitchens…
You can see some of our photos from Romania here.