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The Cuisine of Tarnava Mare
Tasting food here is to eat a little bit of history, plant seeds, methods and recipes have been handed down from mother to daughter for many, many years. Food and flavours connect you to the landscape and the flora. Here, a walk in the fields is always an opportunity to harvest a natural bounty of herbs and edible plants. You can taste a mouth-watering array of traditional Transylvanian foods, try:
Liz Houghton, leader of SlowFood Berwick-upon-Tweed convivium writes of her experiences in Tarnava Mare
“We bounced and rattled along the potholed dirt roads deep into the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. We arrived at a shepherds’ summer camp on the high pastures and watched the sheep being milked. The milk is strained and rennet added to begin the cheesemaking process. The resulting curds are pressed down with heavy stones to get rid of excess moisture.”
“Four or five different types of cheese are made: some, like cottage cheese, are flavoured with dill and need to be eaten right away, while another, with longer keeping properties, is wrapped in pine bark which imparts a subtle flavour and colour to the finished product.”
“Then came lunch – a hearty meal of a variety of sheep’s cheeses, a pork stew cooked in a three-legged pot over an open fire, cheese-stuffed polenta dumplings and finally wild plums and cherries from the woods – all washed down with liberal quantities of polinca (a potent home distilled fruit brandy) and homemade wine. We ate outside under the shade of a tree, in complete convivial peace with no traffic noise and only the sounds of the sheep, the dogs and the birds of Transylvania.”
Bread and Cakes
“Another day we visited the local baker – a one-woman show (her husband helped occasionally by sprinkling a bit of flour here and there). The process is completely manual – no bread makers here – and jolly hard work.
The dough which is started the previous night seemed quite wet and sticky so handling it into several large loaves required some skill. It was baked in a traditional wood-fired oven which needed to be lit several hours beforehand to bring it up to temperature. After two-and-a-half hours cooking the loaves come out quite black, but this outer crust is beaten off with a stout stick to leave a beautiful golden under-crust.
‘ the loaves come out quite black, but this outer crust is beaten off with a stout stick to leave a beautiful golden under-crust’
Our group stayed in the village houses and ate like kings. All the Saxon households are self-sufficient in food: they kill a chicken, goat, sheep or pig when it’s needed and make a tasty meal from whatever is seasonally available in their garden. The village shop, when there was one, sold only jeans, washing powder and bottled water.”
“I am amazed by one woman’s skill in handling a dough of ciabatta-like slackness in such large quantities (each loaf weighs 3-4kg). I watch her scoop up an armful of dough that slips and slops as she juggles to fold it smoothly under itself to make a neat shape. Eventually, she lays the mound on a heavily floured bread peel and lavishes a snowstorm of flour over it, as though talcum powdering a baby’s bottom, before her husband heaves it into the oven.”
“Housewives have a rich tradition of bottling and preserving any surplus from the garden, fields and woods. Pickles, chutneys and, best of all, wonderful jams are made. These have a much greater proportion of fruit to sugar than our commercial jams so the flavour is really special.
We visited local craft workers using traditional hand tools to make barrels for wine and polinca, we watched charcoal being made deep in the forest and on one very hot day we donned beekeeper suits to meet the local bees, followed by a tasting of several different honeys – some from the wildflower meadows, and some darker, strongly flavoured examples from the forest.
In the evening we would sit outside the village bar and watch the hay carts piled with hay and cows with their jingling bells come home. The courtyard gates of each homestead are opened in readiness and, as the herd moves slowly up the village street, the cows peel off into their own yards – without any human ntervention, save for an old woman with a broom who encouraged the stragglers on their way.”
Meat is a central part of the village diet. Pork is generally eaten in the winter months, lamb at Easter, poultry during summer and mutton in autumn. King of the meats in Transylvania is pork. The villagers still kill and butcher their pigs in their courtyards. They cook and heat their houses with wood of oak, beech and hornbeam collected from the nearby forests, and every village chimney has a special chamber for hanging meat for smoking.
They produce delicious speciality pork products which include:
- Home-smoked Transylvanian fat bacon, slanina. Kaiserspeck is a variant of slanina with slightly more meat, marinated in wine and herbs.
- Home-smoked ham, şunca afumata. The lean hams of the pig are hung in the smoking chamber of the chimney to cure gradually. Cured hams were traditionally hung in the rooms within the church walls. In some villages hams still hang in the churches, but generally they are now stored in the cellars.
- Pork liver-paté sausages, caltaboşi. These are prepared using the cleaned intestines of the pig for the sausage casings. The casings are stuffed with cooked chopped pork offal, including the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs, to which garlic, sautéed onions, salt, pepper, and herbs are added. Some chopped green vegetables or cooked rice may also be added. The sausages can be fried or eaten cold.
- Salami is also produced.
“The pig is king of provisions. His slaughter and butchery are done at home. Every family cures hams and bacon in the chimney, lays down dripping and makes lardo. This is not as famous as lardo Colonnata but the best is beautifully seasoned, melts on the tongue, and contains a tiny seam of meat. Gherghiceanu is fabled for her meaty sausages, and an unctuously soft liver sausage that sensibly includes heart, lung and other bits and pieces.”
The pigs are generally Durac or Large White (Marele Alb) breeds and are well-cared for in the courtyards of the farmhouses. They roam free when young and in the summer are sometimes kept with the sheep where they are fed on whey from cheese-making. When older they are penned in the courtyard and fed scraps from the household. The rearing and butchering of pigs at home is the secret of the villages’ high quality pork products – the household is responsible for the whole process, from raising the pig to serving it at the table.
Home slaughtering of sheep, lambs and pigs ensures an unbroken line from the young animal to the table. Mangaliţa, a native pig breed of Transylvania, used to be favoured for rearing in Saxon households. This breed, distinctively woolly in appearance, yields much fat as well as lean meat. However, with the change of taste from fat to lean pork products, the domestic breed of preference has changed to Large White. Producers say that the taste of the pork products has changed little, as it is influenced more by the pigs’ diet than by breed.
Find out more about the Meat Products of Tarnava Mare.
Most households own two or three cows and 10-20 sheep. Cows are milked at home morning and evening, and milk, sold to dairy companies, is often the only source of household income. Sheep, goats and buffalo are kept for milk and particularly cheese.
The production of sheep cheese in Transylvania is a tradition that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years and is intimately linked with village society, local customs and the maintenance of the spectacular flowery grasslands of the area.
Milking two or three times per day and cheese-making are all done by hand up in the hills where the sheep graze in summer. The unique richness of flowers and herbs in the grassland gives the cheese a special character. Each spring at a village meeting one or two shepherds are chosen according to their reputation and to the amount of cheese they offer to the owners for ‘rent’ of their sheep. The sheep are kept at temporary summer sheepfolds (stâne) often several miles from the village. Once lambs have been weaned, the sheep are milked two to three times a day. Each stâna usually has about 300 sheep, and a special cheese room with immaculately clean wooden trays and troughs for coagulating the milk and draining off the whey. Spare whey is fed to pigs, which are fattened nearby over the summer.
Cheeses produced at the stâna include:
- Telemea is fresh feta-type cheese, typically cut into 1kg blocks and kept in salty water.
- Caş (pronounced ‘cash’) is a higher-fat, rather salty cheese from which whey has been drained.
- Brînza de burduf has a strong taste, and keeps very well. After several days the caş is cut into small pieces, salt is added and the mixture kneaded by hand in a wooden trough before being placed in a sheep’s stomach, carefully shaved sheepskin or a tube of pine bark, which are then sewn up. Pine bark adds a slight resinous flavour.
- Urda is made with the whey of the caş. Similar to ricotta, it is relatively high in protein and low in fat. Like telemea, it is eaten fresh, and is a delicacy.
“Sheep are prized for cheeses made from their milk, as well as for meat and wool. They are butchered at home, and their wool is spun, woven and knitted at home. But cheese-making is the province of shepherds who take the village sheep to rich grazing pastures in summer.”
Each summer, every stâna will usually have a few sheep taken by the wolves and bears that roam the area, and as a result the sheepfolds are guarded by ciobanesc, the fierce native sheepdogs. Take a trip back in time and spend a day walking in these meadows, see the sheep being milked and enjoy a traditional Saxon picnic while the cheese is made for you to sample.
Find out more about the Cheeses of Tarnava Mare
Honey is perhaps the most symbolic product of the traditional hay meadows, which contain many rare and endangered species. In recent years, this polyflora honey has been exported in bulk for blending but honey of this quality is highly sought after in many parts of Europe where such meadows no longer exist, but is now bottled for local sales. ‘Meet the Bees’ is an opportunity to find out how honey is produced – fully protected in a full-length bee suit! Forest honey is also available in some areas.
Jams are a local speciality and are made from wild, orchard and garden fruits. Typically they are high in fruit, low in sugar, full of flavour and contain no other additives. Wild or forest fruits include strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, rose-hips and cornelian cherries. Orchard fruits include apples, pears and plums.
Learn more about Romanian jams and their links to Turkey and Greece.
“We were presented with a rainbow array of jams to taste. I closed my eyes and was transported to a hot summer afternoon by the intense flavour of both the strawberry and raspberry jams. The cherry jam was sweet and sharp and tasted of CHERRIES in capital letters!”
From earliest times, the Saxon Villages have always been ringed by rows of walnut trees. Green walnut Jam or Dulceata de nuci verzi is a unique Transylvanian taste. The green walnuts have little flavour themselves, but they add a distinctive, crunchy texture to the jam. It is a sweet jam, best eaten with a product such as Urda (whey cheese) which gives a contrast to the sweetness.
Find out more about The Green Walnut Dulceata
Pickling is the traditional method of preserving produce for winter and the jars are stored in cellars. Sauces such as zacusca made with tomatoes and peppers, and smoked aubergine or salata de vinete are also made from courtyard produce.
Wines, Spirits & Beer
A notable feature of a visit to any Transylvanian courtyard is the friendliness and hospitality of the people you meet. Most households will produce several hundred litres each year of wine for their own consumption. Due to the cool climate, these tend to be fresher and crisper white wines than those produced in the rest of Romania.
The vine is a local grape variety, and varies in colour from rust to red. Wine is stored in barrels in the cellar and often served at the table in jugs straight from the barrel. Traditionally the Saxons do not drink wine until after the meal, usually accompanying food with schnapps made from plums, pears or apples. These fiery spirits are a Romanian institution, and often offered on arrival at a home as a gesture of hospitality, regardless of the time of day! Vişinata is a delicious variant made by mixing schnapps with sour cherry cordial, and being sweeter and less strong, often preferred by ladies.
Some houses have their own copper stills, often very old, and most villages have a communal still. The fruit is harvested in autumn, left to ferment naturally in wooden barrels for 2-3 months, and then the resulting liquid is distilled once to make ţuica (more common in southern Romania) and distilled twice to make pălinca (significantly stronger, more common in Transylvania). If you visit over the winter, ask if it can be arranged for you to see pălinca being distilled in a village courtyard – a perfect antidote to the winter frost.
Beer is seldom offered in private houses but can be readily purchased from bars and shops. Good Transylvania beers include Ciuc, Ciucaş, Silva and Ursus. A range of non-alcoholic drinks is also made in the home including fruit juices, cordials (such as elderflower or suc de soc) and compotes.
Beware – bottles in private houses are often re-used and rarely contain what they say on the label!
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