The forested land of Transylvania in the heart of Romania is famed as the homeland of Vlad the Impaler and the legendary Count Dracula. But as Rosemary Barron discovers, the Carpathians are also home to a rustic cuisine that tells a story of its own.
There are two currencies in Romania, the euro (£1= €1.25) and the RON (£1=RON 5.60), which is sometimes called new leu. Both are legal tender but the RON is preferred. Hotels, agencies and large restaurants all take euros. RON can only be exchanged within Romania. Transylvania is two hours ahead of GMT. The climate is continental, with very cold winters, especially in the mountains, and short, hot summers.
Wizz Air (http://wizzair.com) flies direct from Luton to Cluj-Napoca (northern Transylvania), Târgu Mures (central Transylvania), Budapest (Hungary) and Bucharest (Romania) in under 1½ hours.
The Mersul Trenurilor website (http://mersultrenurilor.ro) lets you plan your train travel and check timetables. You can’t, unfortunately, book online. Roads have improved in the last few years but driving can still be hazardous. Roads are used by horse-drawn carts and pedestrians as well as intercontinental trucks, and country roads are not well maintained. If you prefer not to drive, hiring a car with a driver is reasonably priced and can be arranged through most travel agencies, including Discover Carpathia and the Romanian National Tourist Office (see below).
Discover Carpathia (00 40 727 876 476, http://discovercarpathia.com) is a tour company that works closely with local people. It includes a visitor payback programme that helps support community projects. The Romanian National Tourist Office (http://romaniatourism.com) has information on castles, Unesco World Heritage Sites, spas and more. The Adept Foundation (http://fundatia-adept.org) works with Transylvania’s small producers to champion biodiversity initiatives to save the cultural heritage of the region’s farming communities.
Transylvania by Lucy Mallows (Bradt Travel Guides, £14.99) is an informative and easy-to-use travel guide.
Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, £8.99). Transylvania is along this intrepid traveller’s route as he walks from Holland to Istanbul.
Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker (John Murray, £10.99) is the author’s account of his time spent in the villages in northern Romania that are part of a fast-disappearing Europe.
Romanian Dishes, Wines and Customs by Radu Anton Roman (Paideia, Romania, prices vary). You can buy this delightful book of recipes and anecdotal stories, in English, only in bookshops in Brasov.
Transylvania is, for many of us, a land of myth, fairy tales and vampire legends. In reality, this heartland of Romania, cradled in the imposing Carpathian and Apuseni mountains, is a place of extraordinary beauty, intriguing foods and warm hospitality.
From early medieval times until the middle of the 19th century, much of central Europe was dominated by the Vienna- and Budapest-based Hapsburg dynasty. To the wealthy and privileged aristocracy of this powerful empire, Transylvania was ‘the land beyond the forest’, a source of mystery and riches, and a formidable natural barrier to their enemies in the east. To protect their cities, an 11th-century Hapsburg ruler encouraged Saxon farmers and artisans from the German north to settle along the southeast-facing foothills of the Carpathians. They built a network of fortified towns (citadels) and several hundred villages, each one designed in the shape of a cross around a church with stout, surrounding walls and a belfry that doubled as a lookout tower. Today, one thousand years and many invasions later, this complex and rich history can be found not only in the region’s mixture of people and in its varied and beautiful architecture, but also on the Transylvanian plate.
The First World War ended Austro-Hungarian influence in this part of the world and in 1918 Transylvania was transferred to Romania, becoming its largest province. For the second half of the 20th century Romania was under the brutal regime of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But while Transylvania’s politics have been turbulent, its landscape has remained unchanged for centuries. Its grasslands support more than 3,500 species of flora and fauna, many unique to the area. The Carpathians’ jagged peaks and forest-clad slopes are home to around 50 per cent of Europe’s large predators – bears, wolves, lynx, boar – and their prey: chamois, and furred and feathered game. The region’s lakes teem with carp and trout.
Brasov is one of the Siebenbürgen, or seven citadels, that were built by those early Saxon farmers. Its city ramparts proclaim its historical role as a defender but inside these walls and along its cobbled back streets you will find a more recent history to enjoy. Radu Odesteanu, a composer and piano player, was born in the northern Transylvanian town of Cluj around the time the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed. Until six years ago, he played the jazz he loved in Bistro de l’Arte, just off Brasov’s medieval main square. Now, Daniel Nehoanu, a classical music interpreter who had cherished the old man’s playing, has taken his place. Artists call in to check if there is space on the Bistro’s walls to display their work, and its owners Marian Tita and Oana Coanta provide an attractive wine list and some delicious traditional dishes alongside a menu that reflects the tastes of a forward-looking city. They opened Bistro de l’Arte 12 years ago, when Ceausescu’s legacy was still part of everyday life. Today, thanks to their efforts and others like them who seek out, and serve, local artisan foods and well-made wines, it’s possible once more to delight in the cuisines of this alluring region.
Wine has been a central feature of Transylvanian life since the Romans briefly occupied the area and passed through as they made their way north, two millennia ago. Bistro de l’Arte’s wine list includes blends – a pleasing house wine of the feteasca grape, red (neagra) or white (alba), and sauvignon blanc or merlot – and wines of local varietals, such as cramposie and tamaioasa romaneasca. The menu depends on the seasons and Oana’s success in the market. Autumn markets sell cartloads of cabbages and, in Oana’s kitchen, these become a feast. A handsome placinta cu varza (cabbage pie) and placinta imparateasca (emperor’s pie – layers of wafer-thin pastry and sheep’s cheese between ragouts of wild and field mushrooms) are followed by ciorba de perisoare (meatballs in a broth made velvet-smooth with cabbage brine) and varza calita cuciolan afumat (melt-in-the-mouth, slow-baked smoked pork thigh and lightly fermented cabbage). Sumptuous gomboti cu prune si scortisoara (plum dumplings coated in cinnamon and sugar) and crescent-shaped cookies, found throughout the old Orthodox- and Ottoman-influenced worlds, with coffee finish the meal.
Traditionally, Romanians drink their coffee Turkish-style, with the grounds, in small cups, unless they are of Saxon or Hungarian descent. Long winters, with temperatures that frequently fall below freezing, have created a local cuisine that values preserved foods. In a storeroom halfway down the steep slope of the kitchen garden at the hotel Pensiunea Stejeris, high above Brasov, owners Radu and Claudia Cioroianu prepare giant jars of pickles. To their gloriously colourful traditional mixtures – grape-filled long, sweet red peppers, round red peppers stuffed with apples or shredded cabbage, and small cucumbers with celery leaves – they add plenty of garlic cloves, dried thyme and dill, mustard seeds and slices of horseradish, which acts as a preservative. A covering of sour-cherry leaves keeps the vegetables crisp, and only a little salt is added with apple vinegar and sunflower oil.
Earlier in the year, they make zacusca, an aubergine-based vegetable spread, and sweet preserves from blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and green walnuts, which are picked before the nut hardens. ‘What makes jam, makes palinca, too,’ Radu says as he pours a shot of three-year-old spirit. Radu has an extensive collection of palinca – a distillate made from fruit, usually plums, and aged in oak barrels – and is a fine guide to its pitfalls, etiquette and joys. For cold mornings he recommends palinca boiled with sugar and pepper, served in a small teapot, and says the spirit is especially good with pastrama ‘intorsura buzaului’, which is made in late autumn from mutton that is rubbed with salt, pepper and rosemary, marinated in grape juice, and served in slices with mustard or pickles. This Romanian-Jewish speciality, originally of goose, made its way to Turkey in Ottoman times and, eventually, to America, where it became pastrami (salted or brined meat).
Swirling autumnal mists add an ethereal quality to Carpathian mornings, a feeling of being at the edge of ‘old Europe’. Legend has it that this region gave rise to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin at a time when whole villages in early-medieval Germany lost their populations to Transylvania. The 14th-century hill fortifications of Sighisoara – birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the medieval prince who inspired Bram Stoker’s legendary Count Dracula – can be seen for miles. The citadel’s towering ramparts dominate this attractive town of crooked, cobbled streets and jumbled, gabled houses, while the menu at Hotel Sighisoara evokes the bewitching Transylvanian forest as well as the traditional preference for hearty foods that sustain: ciorba of beef bone-broth, flavoured the Saxon way with fresh tarragon; goulash with dumplings; gamey wild-boar sausages with potatoes and onions in pork fat; wild duck with soured cabbage.
Sighisoara market, found outside the citadel’s walls and down the hill, is a treasure trove of seasonal ingredients. In late summer, its tables disappear under heaps of aubergines, tiny to fist-sized peppers, squash, yellow-gold potatoes, myriad onions and garden herbs. In autumn, ravishing piles of woodland and meadow fungi appear alongside aristocratic root vegetables: celeriac, horseradish, parsley root, black radish. Cabbages are sold beside bundles of the dried dill that will be used to pickle them. A table piled with red walnuts catches the eye. The seller explains that only two walnut trees remain in her village, where once there had been many. Their name, Red Danube, and red-purple blush suggest a Hapsburg origin. Sheep’s and cow’s milk cheeses, and smoked and fresh meats are sold in small shops to the side of the stalls. At the market entrance, Roma women offer household goods. The men, with their distinct hats and clothes that denote their status, sell the products of their trade: metalwork, carpentry or animals. Romanians are hospitable – their tables often noisy, their dishes made to share.
Throughout summer, village meals are prepared in an outdoor kitchen and savoured at the courtyard table or, on cooler days, on a sheltered terrace. No excuse is needed to take the horse and cart to a picnic. A feeling of timelessness pervades the air as the red-tasselled horse gently and melodiously pulls through meadows of sweet-smelling flowers and shrub, and forests of oak, beech, ash and pine. The cart scatters clouds of butterflies and startles the occasional deer as it passes the raised platforms on which hunters wait for bears. Here, a shepherd’s meal of slanina (smoked pork fat), onions, bread, boiled eggs and palinca tastes just right. Without the shepherds, this landscape would disappear.
They take seriously their duty as caretakers of these thousand-year-old meadows, pastures, grasslands and woods, as they tend their sheep and make cheese – cas, urda, cascaval, and telemea – which they sell in the market. Beekeepers take advantage of this biodiversity and the short, warm Transylvanian summer by housing their bees in colourful hives stacked on trucks. In early May, Mr Pandrea, whose honey sells in Fortnum & Mason, takes his bees to the flowering hawthorn at the edge of the forest. Later, he moves them close to acacia in perfumed blossom, then to the meadow, where the bees produce polyflora honey for the rest of the summer. Marigold, chamomile and other meadow flowers are turned into teas and forest fruits – elderberry, rosehip, bitter cherry, sloe, blackberry, strawberry – into preserves.
In the hundreds of Saxon-founded Transylvanian villages – among them, Saschiz, Viscri, Malancrav, Copsa Mare, Archita and Mesendorf – there’s no talk of local, sustainable or organic food systems. These are taken for granted. A Saxon house has a kitchen garden, a large barn (for chickens, pigs, a cow or buffalo, geese), an orchard and plenty of cellar space. In Viscri, on summer days before sunrise, a communally funded herdsman takes cows and buffalo to the meadow and returns them at sunset, each animal entering its own home as the herd passes down the unpaved street. Buffalo, brought from the east to 15th-century Transylvania, flourished here, but they are temperamental (if their owner dies, the buffalo often dies, too) and don’t like being milked, so they can be hard work. In Mesendorf, Mrs Bardas makes cas oparit from now-rare buffalo milk. She forms fresh curds of unpasteurised milk into balls, scalds them and stores them in brine for a week (longer if the cas is to be smoked). Several times a week she fires up her wood-burning oven and bakes the huge, round charcoal-crusted loaves that were, before Ceausescu, the mainstay of the village diet.
While the bread is still hot, she bashes off the charcoal with a short bat – to the chickens’ noisy delight. Until 20 years ago, one of Mesendorf’s 13th-century church’s towers functioned as a smokery and storehouse for slanina. Villagers hung their slab of pork fat on nails in a large wooden beam at the base of the tower, and cut off slices as required. Behind the church wall, Monica Popovici spreads quinces, pears and apples under her vine-covered arbour, ready to make preserves and jellies. Dinner that night, at a long wooden table with a stove roaring nearby, was buffalo-bone broth with light-as-a-feather buffalo-cheese dumplings (supa cu galuste), buffalo meat on-the-neckbone slow-baked in the oven, sweet garden carrots with sunflower oil, and a wispy-light horseradish sauce. Dessert was a batter cake with wild-cherry jam and smantana soured cream.
Monica and her friend, Marieta Negru, prove just how good foods produced with care can taste. The next day, for lunch in the orchard behind the house, Marieta makes a pot of mamaliga, ciorba, sarmale, and boeuf salad (meat and vegetables from the ciorba broth cut into almond-size pieces and mixed with diced gherkin, potatoes and sunflower-oil mayonnaise), a dish that hints at a Balkan influence in Transylvania’s past. To reach Miklósvár, a Szekler (Hungarian-speaking) village, home to the traditional manor house and guesthouses of Count Tibor Kálnoky, the road passes fields of sunflowers and hay being tossed with scythes onto dome-shaped haystacks. Storks’ nests balance on telegraph poles and chimney stacks, geese and ducks waddle around houses, and goats, watched over by a shepherd and his dog, graze by the roadside on wild thyme, fennel, sage and marjoram.
The road passes a bakery – the burnt-crust bread (pityókás kenyér) is made with a potato-and-flour dough, different to the wheat-flour dough of Saxon Mesendorf, two hours’ drive away – and charcoal makers, hard at their dangerous work, before reaching Zalanpatak, and HRH the Prince of Wales’ beautifully restored guesthouses. The food here is authentically of the place. With no proper shop for miles, Farkas Csilla, a talented local cook, creates meals from seasonal ingredients that have been locally farmed, gathered or hunted, or already prepared for storing: lentil soup in a smoked meat stock; pork and potatoes with diced smoked pork; goulash; paprika chicken with tarhonya (flour-and-egg pasta, with aged sheep’s cheese); rice-stuffed peppers; pickled gherkins, green tomatoes (made from the autumn fruits that won’t ripen) and crisp, sweet red peppers; red-cabbage salad; and pancakes, jams, apple cake, smantana, and fruit syrups of elderflower and blackcurrant.
In summer, breads and cakes – including the pretty Hungarian kürtos kalács and mamaliga, made with the lightly fermented whey – are baked outside in the wood-burning oven beside a meadow carpeted in vivid violets, irises, fritillaries and orchids. In autumn, the surrounding red- and gold-leaved woods are full of chanterelles and oyster mushrooms, and, in winter, palinca warms after snow hiking, bear watching and horse-drawn sled rides. On a picnic, Gabor Bone, an expert on this environment, points to crag martins, alpine swifts, owls, woodpeckers, swallowtails and an eagle. He finds sleeping mouse-eared bats, and steers along woodland paths that rustle with lizards to the riverbank where bears have left their prints. Here is medieval Europe: a place more ancient and more compelling than the myths it has inspired. It’s hard to believe this landscape is part of the European Union, because, in Transylvania, it is so easy to leave this century behind. In the words of Nicoleta Nevodar, a fine home cook in Biertan, ‘This is the life that we know; we have much to celebrate.’
Where to Stay
Prices are per person, per night and include taxes, unless otherwise stated.
Count Kálnoky’s Guesthouses In Miklosvar, Viscri and Zalanpatak. Very attractive, comfortable rooms in beautifully restored traditional buildings in three village settings. There are plenty of activities to enjoy. Double rooms from £29, including breakfast. Dinner, £15 (book ahead). 00 40 742 202 586, http://transylvaniancastle.com
Bella Muzica (see also Where to eat) An elegant, 400-year old building in the historic centre of Brasov, opposite the Black Church. The rooms are comfortable, quiet and attractive. Double rooms from £48, including breakfast. Piata Sfatului 19, Brasov, 00 40 268 477 956, http://bellamuzica.ro
Casa Rozelor A small boutique hotel in a 15th-century building close to Brasov’s main square. Rooms are spacious and comfortable, with welldesigned interiors. The Bistro de l’Arte (see Where to eat) is just along the cobbled alleyway. Double rooms from £67, including breakfast. Str Michael Weiss 20, Brasov, 00 40 268 475 212, http://casarozelor.ro
Pensiunea Stejeris A small and welcoming pension high in the hills above Brasov. The large terrace has panoramic views and overlooks the pension’s well-kept, pesticide-free kitchen garden and small orchard. Double rooms from £30 including breakfast. Dinner made with local- and garden-produce, £8-£12 (book ahead). Stejerisului 15, Brasov, 00 40 268 476 249, http://pensiuneastejeris.ro
Fronius A small boutique hotel in the centre of the citadel, just a few steps away from the end of the 175-step stairway that leads up the hill to the church. One of the few buildings to survive a devastating 17th-century fire. Rooms are comfortable and individual, with some beautiful old furniture. Double rooms from £60, including breakfast. Dinner at Hotel Sighisoara, across the cobbled street (see Where to Eat). Str Scolii 13, Sighisoara, 00 40 265 779 173, http://fronius-residence.ro
The Mihai Eminescu Trust Guesthouses in the villages of Viscri, Crit, Floresti, Malancrav and Biertan. The Mihai Eminescu Trust supports the conservation and regeneration of Transylvanian villages. Accommodation from £25, breakfast £6, dinner £15 (book ahead). 00 40 723 150 819, http://mihaieminescutrust.org
Hotel Z Convenient and comfortable, and a few minutes’ walk from the historic district. Double rooms from £100, including breakfast. Str Ion Nistor 4, Bucharest, 00 40 311 400 200, http://zhotel.ro
Rembrandt A small, friendly boutique hotel in the historic centre of Bucharest. Double rooms from £85, including breakfast. Str Smardan 11, Bucharest, 00 40 213 139 315, http://rembrandt.ro
Where to Eat
Prices quoted are per person for three courses and half a bottle of wine.
Bistro de l’Arte Friendly and relaxing, in a charming old neighbourhood close to the main square, this is a good place to enjoy an evening in Brasov. The menu includes some standard bistro dishes alongside traditional fare. Ask for the day’s specials, which change according to what’s available at
the local market, and try some good Romanian wines. Live music Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 8pm. Dinner from £12. Piata Enescu 11, Brasov, 00 40 722 219 980, http://bistrodelarte.ro
Bella Muzica (see also Where to stay) An atmospheric dining room that serves a selection of classic Transylvanian dishes: paprika-rich gulas, ciorba de fasole (a soup served in a hollowed-out crusty loaf), pancakes with walnut mousse or gem fillings, and papanasi. From £16. Piata Sfatului 19, Brasov, 00 40 268 477 956, http://bellamuzica.ro
Sergiana A large, good-value restaurant with an extensive menu of Romanian dishes and some good beers, too. From £12. Str Muresenilor
28, Brasov, 00 40 268 414 458, http://sergianagrup.ro
Casa cu Cerb Take a seat at this restaurant’s terrace in the square and absorb the medieval beauty of Sighisoara while enjoying a warm walnut cake – a local speciality. Walnut cake approximately £2.50 Str Scoli 1, Sighisoara, 00 40 265 774 625, http://casacucerb.ro
Hotel Sighisoara This large dining room feels right in this medieval citadel. The menu offers non-Transylvanian dishes, too, but it’s worth trying the hearty local specialities, which include beef-bone broth, goulash with dumplings, wild-boar sausages with potatoes and onions, and wild duck with soured cabbage. From £12. Str Scolii nr. 4-6, Sighisoara, 00 40 265 771 000, http://sighisoarahotels.ro
- Cheeses: Made from sheep, cow or buffalo milk. The four most common are cas and urda – similar in texture to ricotta – feta-like telemea, and semi-hard cascaval. Branza de burduf is a distinctively flavoured ewe’s cheese stored in pine bark. Buffalo cheeses are eaten fresh or smoked.
- Ciorba: A soup of meat and vegetables soured with lemon juice, cabbage brine or apple vinegar.
- Cozonac: Sweet bread with a swirled-paste filling of walnuts, raisins, hazelnuts, poppy seeds or Turkish delight. Eaten at Christmas and Easter.
- Fruit cordials: Non-alcoholic cordials are made from afinata (wild blueberries), sirop de brad (mountain fir) and elderflowers.
- Gem and dulceata: Both made from fruits – strawberry, elderflower, blackberry, pear, apricot, apple, plum, cherry, blackcurrants, quince, rhubarb, raspberry. Gem is similar to jam while dulceata is thicker and served as a treat to welcome visitors, or with cake or pancakes.
- Goulash: This version of the classic Hungarian, paprika-spiced meat stew is made with cabbage instead of potatoes. Kürtos kalács Pipe cake – a Hungarian cake
- Mamaliga: A cornmeal stew resembling polenta, it can be thin, like porridge, or cooked drier to cut into slices.
- Mititei or mici: (‘tiny ones’) Small, skinless sausages made from minced mutton, pork or beef flavoured with garlic, paprika and herbs, grilled over charcoal.
- Palinca: A stronger version of tuica (see below), double-distilled and at least 40 per cent proof.
- Pastrav afumat: Trout wrapped in young fir-tree branches and smoked.
- Piftie de porc: Jellied pigs’ feet eaten as an appetiser with pickles.
- Salata de vinete: A flavourful dip of aubergines grilled over coals, then mashed with garlic and sunflower oil.
- Sarmale: Cabbage or vine leaves stuffed with minced pork, rice, herbs and vegetables. Traditionally served at Christmas.
- Slanina: Smoked pork fat in slabs, sliced as required, to eat with bread, onion and pickles or to add to omelettes or stews.
- Smantana: Soured cream with a light, lively tang.
- Papanasi: Cheese doughnuts rolled in sugar and fine breadcrumbs, served warm with smantana and gem.
- Tuica: A spirit made from plums, usually around 20 per cent proof and often homemade.
- Wines: After Ceausescu, Transylvania has had to rebuild its wine reputation. The climate is ideal for white grapes that produce fragrant, fruity, light wines. The curious visitor will find unique varietals, both red and white, to discover, as well as more well-known ones.
- Zacusca: A spread of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and onions slowly cooked in oil and preserved in jars. Other vegetables can be used too.
Rosemary Barron travelled to Transylvania courtesy of Discover Carpathia (00 40 727 876 476, http://discovercarpathia.com), the Food Development Company (http://FoodDevCo.com) and Halewood Wines (http://halewood-int.com)
This article was published on 2nd August 2012 so certain details may not be up to date.