If you know one thing about Romanian cuisine, it’s probably garlic-related… I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even know Transylvania was part of Romania before Irina Georgescu’s cookbook Carpathia landed on my doormat. Georgescu, who now lives in Wales, is well used to such ignorance about her country: “I want people to give us a chance, to find out more about us,” she told me. “Sometimes we’re only portrayed through the bad things in the media.”
It’s a particular joy right now to be shown a new world; albeit one often portrayed, when it appears in Western media at all, as being very old (this opener to a feature in an American food magazine from 2012 is typical: “Just north of Bucharest, I left this century behind, and an hour later, the last one fell by the wayside, too.”), or – the other common trope – as “Europe’s last wilderness”, to quote Jeremy Paxman.
But though many – such as Prince Charles, who owns several Romanian properties and professes himself “totally overwhelmed by its unique beauty and its extraordinarily rich heritage” – are attracted to Romania in part because of its traditional foodways, the culinary culture Georgescu describes feels very modern, or at least very on trend.
It ticks all the same boxes as most restaurants that have opened near me recently, championing local, seasonal produce – she recalls how the first aubergines of the year would be used to bribe officials – fermented foods and a “nose to tail” mentality.
Though the Ceausescu regime did its best to dissuade get-togethers, old customs of communal food preparation persist in rural areas, where some people still take it in turns to host bread-baking sessions, or kill and dress the family pig, pork being the favoured meat. Look up in Bucharest and you’ll spot barrels of pickles on the balconies of homes making do without cellars.
Regional diversity remains strong, from the hearty bear and wild mushroom stews of the Carpathian Mountains to the fried anchovies of the Black Sea coast. Elegant cakes owe much to the former Austro-Hungarian empire; polenta is the staple carb; shots of fiery plum brandy are taken before meals; and the coffee is almost always Turkish.
And yes, garlic is indeed beloved, especially at this time of year, when the green shoots of the spring variety herald the change of season. (When I ask how it’s eaten, Georgescu laughs. “Well… you bite into it! You start with the white bit and finish with the green top.” She also confirms, to my relief, that spring garlic – and Romanian garlic in general – is sweeter than that found in the UK.) For the rest of the year, Romanians put mujdei, a fiery sauce made from garlic, salt and oil, on “anything and everything”. As Bram Stoker discovered, the country boasts a pungent vein of garlic-related folklore, much of which centres on its power to ward off evil spirits. (Better safe than sorry I say, spooning more mujdei on to my plate.)
Though garlic is particularly associated with St Andrew’s Day in November, this is a great time to embrace the mild, almost creamy flavour of the fresh or wet kind that’s just starting to pop up in shops in the UK – wonderful with the crisp, polenta-coated anchovies that are such a holiday favourite in the country’s Black Sea resorts, or dolloped on top of the courgette fritters that, for Georgescu, bring back happy memories of summers on her dad’s allotment. Vampire jokes very much optional.
[see also: How to find joy in cooking for one]
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?