I have a theory that your typical traveller – inspired by the notion of a particular destination – researches the places they want to visit and later establishes the pragmatics of transport, accommodation and sustenance. Alternatively you could decide where you want to eat and then fit sight-seeing and travel into the gaps between meals. Guess which demographic I fall into…
Here then is a gastronomic journey through a day in Romania
In Romania on no account start as you mean to go on. You’ll see why later. Fruit makes a great start to the day in a country that produces an abundance of superb fresh produce. What could be better than awaking to cherries, apricots and strawberries?
Of course these have been freshly sourced from the food market in Brasov. Unlike some of the sanitised beardy middle class food markets I’ve encountered in London this is an honest traditional affair where sun-weathered farmers and growers sell their own produce to people of all standings.
I’m struck by the powerful sweet aroma of fresh fruit and wonder quite what British supermarkets do to so thoroughly sterilise natures work. Back at the ranch this all goes down so well with glass of buttermilk. Which lends the question – why, Why, WHY is buttermilk almost impossible to find in the UK when it is ubiquitous in mainland Europe?
Well, the first breakfast was just a taster after all. The sight and smell of home made sausages served with a mild sweet mustard and feisty green chilli remind me of visits to Prague, Germany and Austria.
They taste different however – a little more rustic perhaps, with a heavy infusion of herbs. I’m ready to start the day after this.
The life of a traveller can be exhausting. Not that I’m complaining about the lay-on in bed or prospect of a workless day but by the time one has dawdled through the pretty sun drenched side streets of Brasov a few pangs of hunger inevitably surface. Fortunately the city abounds with fresh baked produce. Kiosks serve a local speciality called Covrigi, mini pretzels topped variously with poppy seeds, mixed seeds, honey and nuts or even apple.
It’s the bakeries that so impress me, reminiscent in some ways of the truly mind blowing independent bakeries to be found all over Vienna. There appears to be a more limited choice when compared to their Austrian counterparts but simplicity of choice and freshness of ingredients always wins and these salty cheese pastries just need to be eaten. As do the sour cheese pastries. And the apple pastries…
One of the joys of this part of the world (or most of Europe minus the UK) is the tradition of alfresco dining. With the midday sun beating down any number of parasol shaded café tables promise relaxation, people watching and the kind of food that speaks very well of a nation.
Pork rib stew served in a bread bowl raises baseless concerns of practicality. The walls hold, and what they hold is quite delicious. Yes you have to use your fingers with the submerged ribs but often it’s the messy food that plants the biggest smile on your face.
Soup is another stand-out choice. This Hungarian bean soup may have been poured from across the border but it’s authentic regional fare when you consider the commonality of ingredients not to mention some shared heritage, forged throughout various occupations. Pictures don’t do this soup justice. The intense brew of slow cooked richness is deeply satisfying and moreish, if not moorish.
On the theme of soup here’s something I simply had to try!
I can’t recall seeing Carp on any English menu but it’s widely available here. What a flavoursome fish, firm and heavy boned. Served in the broth it was cooked in this is a unique and memorable treat.
The stereotype of pickled vegetables in eastern Europe is justified and a day here would not be complete without some form of preserved accompaniment. The peppers are sweet, gherkins sour and the oddly pink cauliflower quite a revelation. I’ve long struggled with cauli as the English default of cauli with cheese sauce has worn thin for me and I’m never quite sure what else to do with it. Now I have the answer.
After lunch a stroll of the old town is in order. The square is lined with shops and cafes but my gaze is constantly drawn back to the mountains above, verdant and fresh at this time of year but snow lined during the skiing season. There is a real outdoors feel about this special place and that always triggers my appetite.
Brasov food hall is a dingy affair but a flying visit has its rewards. Cheese samples await the passing shopper and the ones I try are softer and sourer than the average English cheese but nothing short of yummy.
If cheese is an everyday food here then meat is an every meal food. This typical meat stall is nothing short of overwhelming in choice. Truly I wouldn’t know what to ask for and given that my Romanian linguistic skills extend only to Da (yes) and Bufnita (Owl) I doubt that a conversation would go well. Unless I wanted a fillet of Owl.
Nothing purchased on this occasion but back out in the open you are never far from another food retail opportunity.
This wholesome stall sold a typical array of sheep cheese and harder smoked cheese. The rounds on the right of the picture have been left to mature in tree bark. Wowsers!
If you think I’m a little unfair on my native country from time to time it’s because travel is about new experiences and they will inevitably be in relation to the ones I’m used to at home. If there’s one pioneering achievement that the British can proudly trumpet in these post colonial times it’s the invention of tiffin in 1782 by Vice Admiral Ralph Fortesque. I would never advocate the invasion of a country, subjugation of its people and ransacking of its natural resources, but the legacy of tiffin in former outposts like India and the Caribbean surely redresses the balance somewhat.
Whether my attempts to verbally procure tiffin failed because the Romanians have no concept of it, or whether it’s because the words Yes and Owl are insufficient for such a dialogue I cannot say. What I do know is that the local speciality of Kurtos Kalacs (Chimney Cake) makes for a worthy alternative. A light pastry mix is poured over a cylinder and rotated over a heat source before being sprinkled with a coating of sweet nut and sugar goodness. Lordy, I can get used to tearing pieces off and nibbling them with the excellent coffee you find in these parts.
Conscious of the need to create some space before the evening meal a short walk into the hills is just what is needed. Besides there are no edible temptations here in this unspoiled wilderness. Apart from the pea sized mountain strawberries hand picked and sold by a gypsy lady. Do try these if you ever see them – packed with flavour and pretty as you like.
A may evening in Brasov is to be experienced. The falling sun casts the mountains and stylish old pre-communist villas into a dramatic light while the heat drops down a notch to a very comfortable temperature. Showered and changed my mood is lifted by the prospect of leisurely grazing in some attractive open-air restaurant. And you know, I feel like I deserve it…
I have always adored taramasalata. It’s a dish that I have always associated with Greece or Turkey and one that I expect to be rustic. Tonight’s eatery serves up an exquisite interpretation of taramasalata, fine and creamy. It’s delicious and consumed with the ever-present bowl of bread that seems to neither fill or disagree with you unlike the bread I typically encounter at home.
The soup is back! I love soup. Especially here where there is such a rich palette of choices. Besides, how could you possible say no to a tripe soup with sour cream? Fabulous! Really!
I’m experiencing so much eye-opening new food, none more-so than the following speciality that, on the face of it, is bonkers mad. Soft pork fat served with red onions. Hear me out…
This is what you do. Take a bite of the pork fat. Enjoy it much more than you expected and start worrying that further consumption may shorten your life. Nibble a little bread. Sprinkle salt on the red onions, bite and chew. Be surprised that this tastes really good after the pork fat and bread. Take a swig of the palinka spirit to cleanse your palette and ignite your circulatory system.
Repeat. Enjoy. Try to understand why this just works so well. Fail. Resign yourself to confused happiness.
Meat. The country seems to run on it. There’s most probably a meat dessert if you know where to look. A platter provides a great way to sample different types without feeling too greedy. Not that I could ever be accused of being greedy of course.
Steak, liver, sausages. Lovely. Why wouldn’t you? The liver in particular was a delight because this is an old English classic that has been routinely abused with overcooking and latterly consigned to the prawn cocktail cupboard of bad 70s food. Done simply and with respect this remains a star attraction and I’m inspired to visit it afresh next time I’m planning to cook.
It’s not all meat of course but neither is it surprising that the vegetables are pickled. By the way, have you tried pickled watermelon? You really should. I found it a little challenging but I’m glad to have taken the challenge. Creamy polenta – apparently the secret is sour cream – topped with a fried egg with such a dark yolk that it must have been laid by chicken royalty. Great ingredients, uncomplicated cooking with a simple elegance.
My heraldic title of #DukeOfPuddingshire may have been unknown here when first I arrived but needless to say my reputation soon spread. Indeed by the end of the 6 day visit my status at the tiny back-street patisserie near to my apartment escalated from stranger to regular cake pest through to notorious scoffer. They even made me a special cake on my last day (this is true).
Tonight in this more formal setting I have no choice but to evaluate the plumb dumplings. I first encountered these in Vienna and have subsequently made them although it’s trickier at home where there is not the same predictable supply chain of high quality bread crumbs. These are a little on the heavy side but good all the same. Perhaps better suited to the bitterly cold winter nights.
Given today’s “busy schedule” I can only manage one additional dessert and this one is very traditional. It’s called, actually I’m not sure what it’s called. Anyway, it is comprised of, erm, you know I couldn’t tell you. It has cream on top. It seems to have been imbued with some form of spirit. It is divine! Make it and see for yourself.
I mentioned the palinka but did I tell you that it is typically 50% proof or higher? Served chilled as an aperitif this fruit brandy is the only way to start an evening meal here, unless you opt for the slightly weaker Tuica plum spirit which tends to weigh in at a more conventional 40%.
There is also a Romanian wine industry. Though not world leading if you choose well you will not be disappointed. I tried red and white varieties and really enjoyed their smooth enjoyable finish. Relatively simple and drinkable without being plain.
Although global breweries have taken over traditional local beer producers there remain some local brews and they tend to be your clear lagers with an enjoyable malty finish. Truth is I would rarely consider drinking a gassy or bland lager in Britain but the ones brewed here are tasty and pure by comparison. Salut!
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I stepped off the plane which isn’t surprising given the UK media’s right wing obsessive tarring of the EU. They are constantly telling us that under EU rules British growers will be forced to only sell straight bananas, that spotted dick is to be outlawed and Belgian waffles are to be made compulsory with all meals. You should take all of this rhetoric with a pinch of salt, some red onion and palinka.
I seem to have developed a taste for Romania.