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Archive for the ‘Romania’ Category

– I know what you are thinking.

The best board game ever!

The best board game ever!

My visit to this notorious region of Romania has nothing to do with the works of Bram Stoker. His novel has spawned a micro-industry whose popularity in these parts extends no further than a smattering of tourist tat vendors. Indeed Bran Castle – the impressive “home” to count Dracula – begrudges one solitary room to the story.

Dracula's courtyard

Dracula’s courtyard

When 800 years of power have been wielded by monarchs and rulers from within these walls you don’t need to resort to fiction to tell a great story. Today the castle is a popular but worthy visitor attraction despite, not because of its literary affiliations.

Traditional Bran Castle headwear

Traditional Bran Castle headwear

Bran is one of many castles that lend a fairytale quality to the region. Bordered by the Carpathians and swathed in forest you really feel like you are travelling through some vast film set. Which would explain why Transylvania is a popular set location for film directors.

More palace than castle

More palace than castle

The royal palace of Peles near Sinaia might just have been penned by Walt Disney. I have been fortunate to visit the bonkers castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and Peles left me with that same feeling of wonderment.

Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room

Astonishing detail and craftsmanship in every room

Despite any number of remarkable old buildings Transylvania’s greatest assets are natural. We don’t have anything as mountainous in the UK as the Bucegi range. One bright but breezy day we commissioned a 4WD tour to summit the Caraiman peak (the cable car was closed due to the winds).

Postcard scenery above Bucegi

Postcard scenery above Bucegi

Our hairpin ascent finally broke through the tree line to leave us in snow near the 7800 feet summit – almost double the altitude of Ben Nevis. In the winter months much of this area is transformed into ski resorts and I’m tempted to return and experience that elemental rawness, followed by the fireside hospitality of some welcoming lodge.

I forgot the flag again

I forgot the flag again

The valleys and foothills are every bit as dramatic and for the most part unspoilt. Perhaps the pot-hole strewn track into the Piatra Crailui national park has been instrumental in warding off developer attention. Our hire car is a suitably rugged 4WD Toyota Hilux (named “the beast”) which seems the minimum requirement for this route, until I see a Daewoo Matiz romping along the track, in a cloud of dust and detached body parts.

The Beast

The Beast

With a mere scattering of farming settlements and lodges the park offers peace and tranquillity. And this view…

<img src="https://whitemore.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/thisview.jpg?w=500&quot; alt="” width=”500″ height=”281″ class=”size-large wp-image-5863″> *Speechless*

A 6 mile walk through the valley unfolds a dream-like panorama. The snow capped mountain ridge dominates a dense forest that gives way beneath the foothills to a lush green valley and glacial melt-water river.

It’s hard not to be on the constant lookout for movement in the trees. Are we being watched? Brown bears live in this area leaving me torn between the desire to see one and the desire for it not to see me. Needless to say I witness no sign of bears or of the resident lynx, wolves or adders.

Born to be wild

Born to be wild

The marvellous Libearty Bear Sanctuary nearby in Zarnesti hosts 85 of these beautiful creatures, often rescued from incarceration . Romania has a bad track record on animal welfare. Many of the rescued bears spent their former lives chained up or caged outside mountain lodges in this region so it’s good to see a change in public attitude.

Stork - between delivering babies

Stork – between delivering babies

Today’s walk is not without its natural encounters. Disturbed turf where wild boar have been rooting for food. Beautiful horses roaming with a sense of freedom. Buzzards circling overhead and ungainly storks perching on one leg. Why do they do that?

Free to roam

Free to roam

Time outdoors here is restorative. The aches and pains of modern life evaporate and the week’s dietary excesses (see my previous blog on Romanian food) are forgotten, if not forgiven. My family are not so forgiving when the route I have led them on expects us to ford a fast flowing river. Like I’ve been here before…

Fording the river would have been more fun

Fording the river would have been more fun

A weathered shepherd materialises from the landscape to guide us across a concealed log bridge. Life must be very tough in the cold months when isolated communities like this are cut off in the snow. There is little in the way of automation for the many Transylvanians who spend their lives tending herds or growing crops. People here are tough – they just get on with it.

Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears

Sheep herding. Like the Peak District with bears

This landscape must be full of stories. People have witnessed a lot of change – the fall of communism, induction into the EU and creeping globalisation – but some things haven’t moved on. It’s common to see people working the land with a scythe. Horse drawn carts remain in widespread use, whether as an aide to farming or family transport.

A 1HP vehicle

A 1HP vehicle

Nowadays the shepherds are invariably fiddling with mobile phones and even the cart drivers are glued to Angry Birds, but Transylvania, like the Caraiman peak, rises dismissively above the diversions of modern life.

Countless counts

Countless counts

Even Dracula…

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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

Breakfast

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?

Fridge fresh fruit

Fridge fresh fruit

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.

Early season strawberries

Early season strawberries

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?

Second Breakfast

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.

Fabulous meat fingers

Fabulous meat fingers

They taste different however – a little more rustic perhaps, with a heavy infusion of herbs. I’m ready to start the day after this.

Elevenses

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.

Cheese pastries

Cheese pastries

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…

Lunch

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.

Bread of heaven

Bread of heaven

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.

Making me Hungary

Making me Hungary

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!

Carp broth with polenta

Carp broth with polenta

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.

Perfectly pickled peppers

Perfectly pickled peppers

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.

Afternoon Snacks

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.

Ooh, free samples!

Ooh, free samples!

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.

Too much choice

Too much choice

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.

Soft, hard, smoked or wrapped in bark

Soft, hard, smoked or wrapped in bark

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!

Tiffin

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.

Chimney cake!!

Chimney cake!!

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.

Tiny fruit, big flavour

Tiny fruit, big flavour

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.

Dinner

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…

Starters

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.

I could sleep in this

I could sleep in this

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!

Tripe soup - good for hangovers apparently!

Tripe soup – good for hangovers apparently!

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…

A million miles from port scratchings

A million miles from port scratchings

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.

All washed down with palinka

All washed down with palinka

Repeat. Enjoy. Try to understand why this just works so well. Fail. Resign yourself to confused happiness.

Mains

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.

Meat fest

Meat fest

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.

Royal eggs

Royal eggs

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.

Desserts

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).

Plum dumpling goodness

Plum dumpling goodness

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.

Mystery pud - I love you

Mystery pud – I love you

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.

Drinks

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.

Beer of the bears

Beer of the bears

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.

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