Friday 7 August 2015

Chimney Bread

There were many unique foods in Transylvania. But one of the most intriguing was this Kürtös Kalács, or chimney bread.

We came across it on our way from Zabola to visit the buffalo farm near Westendorp. The scenic drive took us through beautiful countryside and little Saxon villages. 

It was fascinating to see the remains of some of the Communist collective farms growing potatoes, sugar beet and corn, and people saving hay in the fields. 

Here and there on the roadside there were little shrines. Cattle grazing in the fields and shepherd looking after their sheep and goats. 

Romany Gypsies were selling wild strawberries along the road for 15 lei a punnet. And in the villages people were selling their produce from stalls on the side of the roads: piles of watermelons, farmhouse cheese and homemade breads. There were many stalls selling this kurtos, with cald paine - hot bread - written underneath.

I was really curious to buy some and learn more about how it was made. Our driver was amazed that we didn't know about it, as it's a very common Transylvanian bread. A helix-shaped pastry cooked on a rotating spit over a charcoal fire. 

They were traditionally a family affair, made on yard-long spits to celebrate weddings. But as with made treats of yesteryear, what used to be a special occasion food is now eaten more regularly all over eastern Europe... and beyond. Romanians have brought chimney breads with them as they settle - there are now bakeries in New York, London and - I've just Googled chimney cake and surprise, surprise you can even get it here in Ireland! Today they are made on a more commercial scale in restaurants and bakeries, and tend to be made in electric ovens on automated spits. 

The lady who was selling it invited us into her little tiny bakery here where she made it in the traditional manner. (See our 15 second Instagram video of it being made here.)

Taking her sweet yeast dough, she pulled off a piece, weighed it and she rolled it on a wooden board with her palms into long strip. She then deftly spun the dough around an oiled wooden spit, before rolling the outside in sugar. 

She brought it outside onto the pavement and cooked it over a charcoal brazier, fanning the charcoal as she turned the spit. 

As it cooked, the sugar gradually caramelised on the outside.

Back inside again, she rolled the whole thing in a mixture of finely chopped walnuts, pistachio and a sunflower seeds.

She slid the warm bread - a coil with a hollow centre, hence its name chimney bread - off the timber spit and slipped it into a cellophane packet.

You unravel it to eat it, crunching into its delicious caramelised, nutty crust. It was really delicious.

Sunday 2 August 2015

A Summer Feast in the Garden of Eden

We had our annual Long Table Dinner in the greenhouses a couple of weeks ago in aid of the East Cork Slow Food Educational Project. It was completely sold out with a waiting list of people eager to come if there was a cancellation, even at the last minute. Six nationalities travelled here for it: English, South African, American, Swedish, French, Swiss... as well, of course, as a large Irish contingent.

This is always a wonderful time of the year in the Cookery School gardens, with everything looking lush and luxuriant. But I love to have the added excuse of a special event to polish everything up an extra notch.

The preparation for this event starts several months ahead. After the early potato crop was harvested, Tim and the garden team planted grass seed in a couple of bays of the greenhouses. This lush lawn creates a beautiful green carpet for the Long Table Dinner. The field kitchen in the neighbouring bay was beautifully screened off with fresh beech branches and willow lattice. 

Pam was in charge of the table operation. A few students from the summer Twelve Week Course had asked to stay on to help at the dinner. 

They loved the experience, and being able to see the behind the scenes preparation, cooking and serving of a summer feast for a hundred people.

For the past couple of weeks there has been a frenzy of activity - with Rory testing and tasting dishes made with the seasonal summer produce. Here's the menu he eventually chose:
Menu illustrated by Lydia Hugh-Jones

The weather forecast was pretty grim, so we all held our breath... Guests started to arrive at 4pm and Colm McCann and his team had some cava with elderflower or rhubarb cordial and fresh mint lemonade ready for the guests. Emer and Pat grilled sourdough bread and topped it with heirloom tomatoes and basil, or scrambled organic eggs and Ballycotton lobster.

Despite our apprehension, we were fortunate with the weather. About an hour before the guests arrived there was the sort of sudden downpour that we've become accustomed to this "summer". But after that it was blue skies all the way.

We welcomed the guests and thanked them for supporting the East Cork Slow Food Educational Project - and explained we are saving up to convert a disused shipping container into a prototype teaching kitchen for local schools to teach their pupils how to cook the produce they grow in their school gardens.

After the aperitif and nibbles, the guests divided into a couple of groups for a walk through the organic farm and gardens. We explained that the Cookery School and farm are completely integrated: the School is our indoor classroom, we use the farm and gardens as an outdoor classroom. We showed them the photovoltaic system that generate electricity for the School, even on dull days, and the student beds where local children learn how to sow seeds and grow vegetables and herbs. Many were also fascinated by the dairy, where our Jersey cows are milked and the butter, buttermilk and yoghurt are made. 

We wandered down through the herb garden, the wild flower meadow, and the vegetable and fruit gardens, arriving at the glasshouse just minutes after 6pm

At this time of the year it looks like the Garden of Eden with kiwi and passionfruit overhead, and a wonderful variety of aubergines, sweetcorn, chilis, salad leaves, peppers, beans, heirloom tomatoes, beets, zucchini ... as well as peach, fig, nectarine and grapevines around the edges - so beautiful.

The Gardeners - Rupert, Sheanie and Colman - were playing trad. music as we arrived. 

People took their seats. It was all very convivial, as is the nature of Slow Food events. There was no seating plan, so people could mix and mingle and make new friends. 

And then the feast began.

We started with a Garden Leaf and Herb Flower Bouquet with Almond and Marjoram, Grape and Elderflower Mist served in little glasses, which had been assembled minutes earlier from the freshly picked leaves.

There was lots of freshly baked Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread and Jersey butter from the farm. The flavour of homemade butter was a trip down memory lane for many guests.

The second course was served family-style, the guests helped themselves and each other to: 

Beef Carpaccio with Horseradish and Tarragon

Sushi Rice with Smoked Ballycotton Pollock and Ruby Beetroot

Hot Smoked Wild Blackwater Salmon in Oeufs Mimosa

and Mustard Seed Pickled Cucumbers.

The main course was also sensational, in the words of the guests around me: Grilled Breast of Nora Ahern's Duck with Stonewell Tawny Cider, Roast Nectarines and Mint.

Rory had also braised the duck legs and wings with Indian spices, Llewellyn’s balsamic vinegar and tomatoes. That dish too was enthusiastically received. 

The Jersey butter and sea salt on the table embellished the floury new potatoes, a variety called Colleen, and the green beans which had been dug and picked not more than a half an hour before dinner.

Next the cheese course: Kinoith Farm Dairy Labne made with dripped natural yoghurt, served with Radishes, Savoury, Highbank Orchard Apple Syrup and Homemade Cheese Biscuits.

Then pudding, which was quite simply irresistible:

A Compote of Cherries with Kirsch

An Iced Sandwich of Peach, Raspberry and Buttermilk 

And Crème Brulee peppered with Mark Kingston’s Single Estate Coffee

Needless to say, everyone had to have a taste, or rather several, of everything.

Robin Wight, one of the guests who has been coming to Ballymaloe for almost 50 years, gave a touching speech and proposed a thank you toast to my mother-in-law Myrtle Allen (pictured below), and my late father-in-law Ivan Allen, who opened Ballymaloe House restaurant in 1964, without whom none of us would have been gathered together. 

The music played on, and then there were JR's raspberry marshmallows, candied chocolate orange peel, biscotti, and madeleines, still warm from the oven. Served with coffee and fresh herb tisanes

It was a truly memorable dinner, and a sumptuous celebration of summer produce. A big thank you to Tim and his ace team in the farm and gardens, Rory and his talented crew of Ballymaloe cooks, and each and everyone else who worked so hard to make it such a special night.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Slow Food Romanian Style

One of the main purposes of my trip to Transylvania was to meet up with some of the movers and shakers in Slow Food Romania.
Jim Turnbull - founder of Slow Food Romania
Jim Turnbull established Slow Food Tarnava Mare in 2005 on Prince Charles' request. His Royal Highness has been on a mission to highlight the importance of Transylvania’s culture and biodiversity, which has been described as the last remaining truly medieval landscape in Europe. Jim has been involved in development work for many years and has been hugely influential in Transylvania. 

Alexander Roy Chowdhury - owner of Zabola Hunting Lodge, author and food writer, Rosemary Barren, and I relaxing in a wildflower meadow above the forest in the Carpacian mountains.

The ecosystem and biodiversity of this area is unique. The shepherds tend their flocks of sheep and goats in wildflower meadows teeming with butterflies, numerous wild flowers, grasses, herbs and intensely flavoured alpine strawberries, you can’t imagine how beautiful they are at this time of year. 

The small Saxon villages have virtually no shops; every family has a vegetable garden with vegetables interspersed with flowers and fresh herbs. The colour-washed houses, each with a unique decorated gable end, are built at right angles to the road with an inner courtyard, a long barn and a fruit orchard behind.

A kitchen garden, behind the museum in Zabola
Most people still have a few hens, ducks and geese, a cow for milk, several pigs. Sheep are cared for by local shepherds in exchange for fresh cheese and several carcasses throughout the year. 

Every house has a woodshed packed with timber and a cellar packed with preserves. The summer and autumn vegetables are preserved for winter in the form of jams, cordials, schnapps, pickles and chutneys. Nothing is wasted. 

Thick slabs of pork fat, slamina, are cured with salt and sprinkled with paprika, an age-old tradition. 

Many also have beehives which may be looked after by a local beekeeper who moves the bees from place to place in search of wild flower meadows, whitethorn, acacia…

Bees on the move!

In this part of the world tourism is in its infancy but gradually bed and breakfasts are opening in people’s houses. Owners are friendly and anxious to please but are often unaware of the niceties that many travellers have come to expect. In one the plumbing in the bathroom left much to be desired, there were no bedside lights or plugs, and just one bulb from the ceiling, but the welcome was warm and the food delicious.

In another grander establishment there was a bath-robe in the wardrobe, a fridge in the huge room and a flat-screen television but we were locked in to the deserted hotel at night and locked out during the day. We had to borrow extra pillows and loo paper from another bedroom, but we accepted all this with good humour as part of the adventurous experience. We were intrigued to find that even though we spent two or three nights in each place our room was never cleaned or serviced at any stage. However accommodation particularly in the villages is still very inexpensive, as little as €25 a night per room including breakfast. It was fascinating to try to understand the challenges of the emerging tourism industry.

Up to very recently restaurants simply didn’t exist in the tiniest villages but now thanks to Jim Turnbull and a team of trainers, several private houses have opened their kitchens to serve lunch and/or dinner to guests who must book ahead. 

They also came up with the brilliant concept of ‘courtyard dining’ where they set up a table in their courtyard or farm building to serve simple family food. We enjoyed both these experiences enormously. Jim is the leader of the Tarnava Mare Slow Food convivia who hold monthly courtyard dining events in local people’s houses,  the aim of which is to showcase traditional Romanian family food, supplement their income and raise awareness of their food culture and heritage.

Before my visit, I had been warned not to expect too much from the food but in reality we had many good things to eat, lots of hearty meat dishes and cabbage rolls, a variety of sausages, cured meats and cheeses. The food is robust, hearty and full of flavour with little in the way of flamboyant garnishes. 

For breakfast it’ll probably be a selection of sausages and cured meats, a couple of local cheeses, thick slices of Saxon bread and a selection of homemade jams: rhubarb, Cornelian cherry, apple and cinnamon, strawberry… Although the jams tend to be thoroughly cooked to ensure maximum keeping time rather than freshness of flavour, we did come across some spectacularly good preserves. I particularly liked the apple and sea buckthorn jam made at Jim Turnbull’s factory, Pivnita Bunicii in Saschiz, in a project set up to capitalise on the local skills of jam-making. He has also coordinated local people to pick wild elderflowers which are pressed and made into a juice that is exported to the UK, enhancing the livelihoods of local people in a sustainable way.

Every house would have had a wood burning oven and many still do. The baking tradition is alive and well but it’s mostly the mothers and grandmothers who are keeping the tradition. The large Saxon loaves of sourdough bread are traditionally made in a large wooden trough with a mixture of wheat flour and sometimes potato to enhance the keeping quality. 

I watched it being made in Hanul Cetatii in Saschiz when the large loaves emerge from the intense heat of the wood burning oven, the crust is black and charred. The breadmaker whacks the surface with a stick to reveal the golden crust inside: a totally unique bread, and an extraordinary process to watch. See a sped up video of it on Instagram...

Main meals are simple and very meat-centric. Robust stews of venison, pork, beef and a particularly memorable lamb, pepper and paprika stew with polenta cooked over an open fire in a wildflower meadow near Mosna.

The meal often starts with a chorba, a ‘sour’ soup of some kind: beef, lamb, pork, bean and sausage, chicken and noodle, meatballs. I enjoyed virtually all of these. 

We also ate mămăligă similar to polenta sometimes layered with cheese and topped with smetana or sour cream and sometimes served on its own. We had no fish, although I believe there are plenty of perch and carp in the lakes.

Desserts were a variety of fruit tarts, pancakes stuffed with jam or fresh ricotta cheese and dill, a delicious combination, or papanash, a sort of doughnut topped with jam and smetana. 

To drink there was a variety of homemade schnapps and cordials, and tea. Though tea in Romania does not mean black tea as we know it but a mixture of dried herb teas, mostly home made. 

Transylvania is fascinating to visit, it has much to teach us in these frenetic modern times. It is at the cusp of change - still teetering between medieval and 21st century. Go soon!

*See Transylvania business co operative Facebook Page for links and resources of places to eat, visit and stay.

** See my first post on Transylvania here.