Arabella McIntyre-Brown celebrates an English table in Transylvania
The Romanian foodscape has changed beyond recognition in the last decade. What’s now available in shops, hotels and eateries defies belief for anyone used to the spartan offering at the start of the century.
This morning, in fact, was another landmark in my search for foodie food. At the Mega-Image in Bran I found fresh turmeric root. Seven years ago there was no turmeric powder to be found – now we have the fresh root (cure for everything but death, as well as essential food flavouring and colouring). I was gobsmacked, as they say in my old haunt of south Liverpool. The same shop, a few years ago, provided an earlier landmark: sushi rice. That was the point I knew that Romania was heading to new gastronomic horizons after decades of limited choice. The country isn’t yet a destination for haute cuisine (with a few honourable exceptions), but Romania has so much more to recommend it in the food stakes these days, especially for rural expats who are prepared to root about in markets, back street groceries and the wilder haunts of the countryside.
In a country where carnivores rule, vegetarian and vegan visitors could – until recently – leave leaner and meaner than when they arrived. When I first came to Romania in 2003, the two vegans staying at our guest-house were given a soup with a few limp vegetables floating in chicken stock, followed by unsalted pasta with tomato ketchup. These days you can delight in creative and delectable dishes at the raw vegan restaurants in every sizable city. And it’s not just vegans eating there, or foreigners. This is how things are changing in Romania, and it’s a boon for migrants longing for a bit of foodie culture.
In rural Romania, like the village where I live up in the mountains, pallid pasta and chickenish soup are still likely to be on the menu in the guesthouses, and my neighbours are unrepentant carnivores who like their food the way they’ve always eaten it. But the young are beginning to explore more exotic tastes and daringly bizarre options like the nutrient-rich ‘weeds’ in the meadows around here. Every year I find new plants that are not just delicious in salads, gently steamed or dried for tea, but are crammed with vitamins and minerals, far more than in any shop-bought veg. Nettles, of course, Good King Henry, goosefoot (the European quinoa), ribwort and broadleaf plantains, comfrey, redshanks, bistort, red clover, ground elder, dandelion, chickweed, wild marjoram, wild mountain thyme, wild raspberry, St John’s Wort… and on.
Properly organic, with ne’er a chemical within a mile of the meadows, these are free food and medicine in abundance. Mind you, when I gave a ‘lawn’ salad to some Romanian guests, they ate it with gusto, but Mirela admitted her mother would be scandalised if presented with a bowl of raw weeds.
But then my neighbours, when asked if they had duck eggs for sale (Muscovy ducks drifting around the house), they wagged fingers at me, muttering ‘Cholesterol!’ I thought that a bit rich since they swallow vast quantities of slanina (smoked pig fat) and head-spinning tuica.
Romania’s countryside traditions are hearty and robustly flavoured; the ubiquitous festive plate of sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves) can be delicious; meat grilled over an open fire, after living a free-range life browsing the rich grass, has the best flavour although the tenderness depends on the age of the sacrificial beast. I bought a whole leg of lamb in the Sunday market for about 40 lei (for the whole thing, not per kilo), and roasted it. We couldn’t carve it, let alone eat it. Carving knives bent in surrender. It must have been mutton from an old ewe that died of age up in the alpine meadows; we eventually hacked it to pieces and dumped it in a Le Creuset pot overnight, and it was tenderly delicious the next day.
My local market in Zarnesti is heavy with Turkish fruit and veg, but the occasional local smallholder offers a basket of blue plums or glowing hazelnuts, a bowl of coveted duck or goose eggs, bundles of dried dill and lovage, home made smoked cheeses and buckets of creamy urda. Syrups made from spruce, elderflower or wild fruit; surplus veg, misshapen, multi-coloured and full of flavour; pots of homemade zacusca and horseradish – and in the autumn, boxes full of cooking apples which the locals find too sour for their taste. I carry them off gleefully, to make chutney or eat raw with excellent Dorset farmhouse Cheddar I can now find in Lidl.
Since moving to Transylvania I’ve started making jams, chutneys and relishes in an Anglo-Transylvanian mashup, and love surprising guests with new weedy recipes. Enthusiastic foodies can have the best fun growing, buying, cooking and eating here, and all the time make new gastronomic discoveries in supermarkets and restaurants, from coconut milk and green curry pastes to Ras al Hanout spice and French tapenade. When I find Shropshire Blue or a proper farmhouse Red Leicester, my English taste buds will be able to rest on their Romanian laurels.
Heavenly Weed Salad (Spring)
This is a very liberal salad, which depends on your mood and what’s in your veg patch and fridge. But it’s crucial to have a good proportion of wild leaves in the bowl, and colour from flowers – which gets easier as the summer wears on. In the salad bowl pictured:
Feta cheese (and/or cheese of your choice)
Toasted sesame seeds
Dressing: A squeeze of lime juice – or your favoured dressing
Pick, wash, shred, chop or slice greenery, and toss in salad bowl.
Add scattering of sesame seeds, chopped avocado, and bits of feta. Top with flowering chickweed sprigs and early chives.
Options for later in the summer:
Mixed leaves and other veg grown in your veg patch, eg mizuna, rocket, frisee, endive, chicory, cos, radicchio, etc. Radishes, mange tout, sugar snaps, raspberries, nasturtium seeds & flowers, etc
Wild leaves: broadleaf plantain, goosefoot, Good King Henry, redshanks, ground elder buds, wild carrot buds, red and white clover, comfrey flowers, black medick, marguerite flowers, chicory flowers.
Go mad! It’s all delicious, everything goes with everything else. Put in lots of colour with the edible flowers.
Arabella is a British writer who moved to Magura, a village 1,000 metres up in the Carpathians, seven years ago. She has published two books in Romania with a third out in October.