Eternal Terrain: Transylvania

Ancient ways of living and eating thrive in the Transylvanian countryside

By Alexander Lobrano

Published on March 15, 2012

Just North of Bucharest, I left this century behind, and an hour later, the last one fell by the wayside, too. As I slowed the car to turn onto a dusty country road, a farmer in blue serge overalls stopped pitch-forking freshly scythed hay just long enough to give a wave, and the honeyed scent of linden flowers wafted in through the open car windows.

I'd first glimpsed Transylvania through the window of a train traveling from Istanbul to Prague a decade earlier. What I'd seen then—a fascinating medieval landscape of deep forests, small, tidy farms, and fortified hilltop villages—made me want to be there, to walk its fields, to taste its food. But I knew next to nothing about the region (apart from the inevitable associations with Bram Stoker's fictional Count) until I started coming across articles in the London papers about agro-tourism in post-Ceauescu Romania a few years ago. After the downfall of one of communism's most dire dictators, several repatriating Transylvanian nobles had opened country house inns. Much of what I read warned that Transylvania was still "in transition" (read: rough around the edges). This was all that I needed to hear. In the making, history is shaggy, sexy, confusing. For me, any place "in transition" is irresistible. Apparently, I share this inclination with the Prince of Wales. He had become so smitten by the abandoned Saxon villages of Transylvania that he'd underwritten the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) to help restore them; through the MET, I learned, you can rent a restored village cottage as a base from which to explore the region and its foodways.

I set off for Transylvania along with my friend Nadine. We arrived at Miklosvar, a village about three and a half hours north of Bucharest and an ancestral seat of the Kalnoky family, just as the cows were coming home. Around a bend by the church, the wide main street was suddenly filled with the caramel-colored herd returning from the pasture that surrounds the village. Miklosvar's denizens, who were sitting on wooden benches outside their pastel-painted cottages to gab with neighbors while watching the event that marks the end of each day, couldn't help but be politely amused when our car was surrounded by the lowing beasts. When I caught the eye of an old man wearing a shaggy sheepskin vest, he smiled and shrugged, his friendly way of telling me what everyone in Transylvania seems to know: If some things can't be hurried, most others shouldn't be either.

At 186 Strada Principal, our destination and the handsomest house in the village, with its immaculate white-washed walls and terra-cotta swallowtail roof, we were welcomed into the formal parlor with bracing shots of caraway-seed brandy and slices of crumbly almond-lemon cake. Despite the wildflowers in an art nouveau vase carefully placed in the middle of a lace doily on a table, this well-kept room had an atmosphere of disrupted gentility. It was Nadine who later noticed the gap between a faded circa-1900 photo of three blond boys in sailor suits at a Black Sea resort and the more recent color portraits of our host, Count Tibor Kalnoky. The chronological hole in the family album began with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, when previously Hungarian Transylvania became part of Romania. Then came the 1920s land reform that broke up the estates of the Hungarian aristocracy, an attempt on the part of the Romanian government to weaken that influence and solder the region to a new motherland. Then World War II, and the mad years of the Ceauescu regime. The endless upheavals slowed the pace of development here, locking the region into a fascinating but fragile time warp.

We arrived hours later than we expected—suffice it to say that signposts are scarce and mostly incomprehensible in Romania—so after our snack, we joined the other guests at Kalnoky's main guesthouse for dinner. Here you eat according to the same early-to-bed, early-to-rise rhythms as the locals, especially since the village women who work in the kitchen have their own families to feed. At a long table in the wine cellar, an excellent, floral but dry Transylvanian riesling encouraged an easy conviviality between a German engineer from Munich and his wife, a London lawyer and his cousin, two Scottish ladies, and Nadine and me. We began with a rich lentil—and—ham bone soup, and then shared a pork roast with delicious crackling. It was served with wild mushroom gravy, parsleyed potatoes, pickled red and green chile peppers, and freshly baked bread, made from coarsely ground wheat and corn flour, that had a gentle, beery smell of yeast. Everything was simple, earthy, and satisfying. All of it came from within a couple of miles of our plates, the dishes typical, I would come to discover, of what you'd find on the table of any prosperous Transylvanian farmer.

Since it was a warm night, dessert, coffee, and fruity, fiery homemade plum brandy were served after dinner in the garden. A pair of kerosene lanterns cast a soft light on two sugar-dusted cakes filled with sour cherry preserves laid out on the plank picnic table, and a dove cooed in the larch tree in the middle of the garden. Over the wall, hens were settling in for the night, and near the well, fireflies punctuated the darkness with pale-green dashes. After everyone else had gone to bed, I stayed behind and quietly compared the real Transylvania with the hazy fantasies that had made me want to go there. Judging by what I'd seen so far, I'd found a little-known corner of Europe where the farming and cooking predate not only World War II, but also the steam engine and everything else that has altered the food chain across the rest of the continent. Transylvania didn't just look like a fairy tale; it tasted like one, too.

Fermented Plum Brandy

The cocks were still crowing when Count Kalnoky introduced himself at the end of a traditional Transylvanian country breakfast of elderflower cordial (pleasantly fizzy, made with nothing more than elderflowers, lemons, sugar, and water), apple wood—smoked chicken, roasted eggplant, fresh green and red bell peppers, tangy curd cheese and firm smoked cheese with a chamois-colored rind, dried sausage, and more of that yeasty bread, served in the garden. He and a biology lecturer from Babe-Bolyai University had come to lead an outing into the forest.

We settled into a wagon pulled by dark-brown dray horses and clopped down to the edge of the village and into the fields, which were filled with blue bells and wild orchids. Kalnoky, who grew up in Holland, Germany, and France, explained that this western part of Transylvania, where his family first settled in 1252, is Szekely country. "The Szekelys were the military caste of the Hungarian nobility, dispatched to defend and settle the frontiers of the empire," he told us; hence the fact that many places (and foods) in Transylvania have two names, a Romanian and a Hungarian one. Then he interrupted himself to point out a rare black stork and a meadow lark.

Aside from their beauty and rarity, the birds are interesting for what they say about the surrounding forest and fields of wheat, corn, barley, and hay. "Transylvania is a pre-industrial landscape with a flourishing mosaic of habitats that support both the local people and thriving wildlife," said Kalnoky. "After the collapse of communism, the collectivist farms were disbanded and traditional farming quickly revived. The irony is that even though our local produce would fetch an 'organic' premium in cities like London and Berlin, Romania's entry into the European Union means Transylvanian farmers must conform to absurd E.U. norms. It would be a tragedy if this biodiversity survived the madness of the Ceauşescus only to be done in by Brussels."

Now the wagon reached the local stană, a hilltop summer sheepfold where 600 sheep are milked by hand three times a day. The shepherds spend the entire summer with the flock, which is owned by local villagers, who visit occasionally to pick up their shares of the soft, sweet white cheese known as orda (in Hungarian) or urdă (in Romanian), and a tangy, firm feta-like cheese called sajt (Hungarian) or caş (Romanian).

Over a picnic—hard-boiled eggs from the Kalnoky henhouse, fried chicken cutlets, urdă cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, pale-green peppers, bread—Kalnoky gave us a lesson in Transylvanian foodways. "Transylvania has three main kitchens: Hungarian, Romanian, and Saxon," he said. The Saxons, most of whom have moved away, were German-speaking people from Flanders, Luxembourg, and the Moselle Valley invited to settle fertile lands on the vulnerable eastern boundaries of Hungary by King Geza II in the 12th century and King Bela IV in the 13th. "Together with the Szekelys, they held off the Turks," Kalnoky explained. The Turks had a big influence on local cooking, though. "Their tastes are reflected in the sour ciorbă soups we like so much"—the Turkish word for soup is çorba—"and they also brought us pickles and sweet desserts. The Hungarians gave us a taste for vegetables and paprika, although our main seasonings are still dill, lovage, parsley, and chives. We get our love of dairy products from the Saxons, who also introduced bacon, sausage, and lard." But those are just the broad outlines. Over the centuries, other groups—Armenians, Jews, Roma (Gypsies)—have brought their own ingredients and ways of cooking to the Transylvanian kitchen.

Maybe because our appreciation was now informed, dinner that night tasted even better than it had the night before. After ciorbă de perisoare, a delicately sour vegetable soup garnished with tiny pork-and-rice meatballs, we feasted on paprika-laden goulash, baked penne-like pasta, roasted tomatoes, and mămăligă, Romania's omnipresent staple, a coarser version of polenta, which is served with delicious homemade smantană (sour cream). Dessert was a rhubarb cake spiced with cinnamon.

After the meal I set off to offer my heartfelt thanks to the cooks. I found Agnes Elek and Katalin Simon scrubbing the white-tiled walls of their kitchen cottage. They blushed when my thanks were conveyed. "We just cook what we cook at home," Elek said through a translator. "Of course there are some things we wouldn't serve the guests," added Simon. Like what? "Eggs preserved in cabbage juice," she said, and they laughed. They found it even more hilarious when I asked if they'd share their recipes. "Recipes?" Elek said. "We don't know any recipes—we just cook!"

Leaving Miklosvar the following day, we took dusty back roads to Criţ, one of Transylvania's most famous Saxon villages, where we'd rented a cottage. After Ceauşescu threatened these villages with destruction in 1989 because he resented the ethnic and cultural independence of the 900,000-strong Saxon community, most Saxons accepted a German offer of repatriation in the early 1990s. Following the huge disruption caused by their departure, the MET focused on preserving and reviving their villages, with an emphasis on low-impact tourism that would generate jobs for the villagers.

Inside our whitewashed 18th-century cottage, a stout bottle of apple juice, a loaf of bread, fresh butter, raspberry and plum jam, and some cheese and charcuterie—all homemade—awaited us in a willow basket. Settling down for a late-afternoon nap in a bed made up with lavender-scented hemp sheets softened by countless washings, I listened to the village—the light grinding of iron-rimmed wheels on the fine gravel of the road outside, the crowing of a discombobulated rooster, children giggling, horses neighing.

Every evening, dinner was delivered to the house by a different but unfailingly friendly woman. On our first night we feasted on supă cu galuşte (a parsley- and lovage-scented chicken broth with airy semolina dumplings), homemade bratwurst, navy beans stewed with tomatoes and garlic, a white cabbage salad, and a coarse, nutmeg-scented walnut cake, all washed down with rough and pleasantly foxy homemade wine that made it very easy to drift off after dinner.

The following morning, the nearby village of Meşendorf looked like a stage set from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. We were there to visit the farm of Mariana and Gheorghe Bardas. Beyond the tattered Roma settlement on the edge of town, geese and ducks wandered the tidy green swards on the village's broad main street, which was shaded by pear, chestnut, and walnut trees. Past a gate in a wall just wide enough for a hay cart, the sweet smell of wood smoke filled the air of the Bardas' narrow plot. Mariana Bardas showed off her henhouse, pigpen, and vegetable garden planted with potatoes, beans, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, corn, and onions. Then she swept the ashes from her wood-burning oven with green elder switches and loaded it with six big rounds of wheat-flour dough, enough to feed her family for two weeks. I was fascinated to see that she deliberately let the loaves bake past the point when another baker in another place might have considered them burned. When the bread emerged jet black an hour later, she let it cool and then beat each loaf with a wooden rolling pin to remove the char and reveal a thick nut-brown crust. On special occasions, she told us, to achieve a softer crust, she'd wrap the dough with cabbage leaves before baking.

Over the next few days, as we explored Biertan, Copşa Mare, Mălăncrav, and other Saxon settlements, taking pleasure in the sentient landscape, wandering the villages, and eating wholesome tasty farm food, I couldn't help but wonder if Transylvania's sweet hospitality and fragile beauty will survive the changes that modernity and increased connection to the outside world are sure to bring.

Then I met Gerda Gherghiceanu, who runs a simple restaurant in her farmhouse in Viscri, a typically Saxon village with a UNESCO-listed fortified church. One of the last Saxons in the village, Gherghiceanu's pride is serving echt Saxon dishes. Lunch in late June ran to a soup of deeply flavored rooster stock with runner beans, tomatoes, and carrots; a rich pork-and-potato stew fragrant with fresh marjoram; cabbage salad; and freshly baked almond cake topped with just-picked apricots. After Gherghiceanu shooed away our compliments, I changed the subject. Why had she stayed behind when so many other Saxons had left Transylvania? "I've traveled, you know. My brother lives in Germany, and he has a big house and a fancy car, but we have a much, much better life here," she said with a grin. "Best of all," she added, "my children know it, too."

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