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.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Transylvania - the last hidden medieval corner of Europe

Transylvania conjures up images of a mythical land of Dracula and vampire legends. Several people I spoke to thought it only existed in fairy tale. The reality is the largest province of Romania tucked in between the Carpathian and Apuseni mountains with a rich and complex history.

Vlad the Impaler's castle in Sighisoara 

From medieval times until the mid-19th century much of central Europe was ruled by the Habsburg dynasty. In the 12th century Saxon merchants, farmers, artisans from Northern Germany were encouraged to settle along the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. 

Each strip of land is owned by a different farmer.

This area known as Transylvania, ‘the land beyond the forest’, created a formidable natural barrier to protect the cities from invasion by the Turks and Tartars. 

The Saxons built a network of fortified villages. These villages were designed in the shape of a cross each around church, which was fortified with three stout walls and thick gables for protection, and generally built in an easily defensible position. The belfry tower doubled as a look-out to warn of impending invasions of which there were many. The villagers survived by moving their animals, food and forage inside the triple thick walls of the church.

Over a thousand years later Romanians have endured two World Wars and the brutal regime of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who took their lands, forests, barns and virtually destroyed their traditional agricultural system. But despite their turbulent history, the landscape has remained virtually unchanged for centuries.

 It is the last medieval area in Europe. Its forests are home to over 50% of Europe’s wild animals: brown bears, lynx, wolves, wild boar, deer, foxes and an abundant variety of furred and feathered game. 

The countryside is alive with birdsong; storks make their nests and feed their young on top of telegraph poles in the villages. 

There are corncrakes and cuckoos galore. The lakes are still well-stocked with carp and perch. The rich meadows and grasslands support over 3,500 species of flora and fauna, many unique to the area.

They are breathtakingly beautiful with a biodiversity we can only dream of in this part of the world. Recent research at the University of Cluj in Romania found 600 different plants in 1 square metre of ground. On our recent visit they were also full of wild strawberries with an intensity of flavour that brought me back to my childhood holidays in Tipperary.

Self-sufficiency takes on a whole new meaning in Transylvania. Virtually everyone still has their own vegetable and herb garden, vines, fruit orchard, chickens, ducks, geese, pigs and a cow for milk. 

Shepherds tend flocks of sheep and goats and make several fresh cheeses in their simple shepherd's huts where they live for several months at a time. 
The procession of animals returning to be milked before sunset in Viscari, the town that Prince Charles made famous.
Horse-drawn carts with the characteristic angular Saxon cart are still a regular feature not only in the villages but on main roads trundling alongside Dacias and BMWs. 

Driving through the small Saxon villages one rarely sees a shop, most people are still virtually self-sufficient but things are changing. The tiny shop will now be selling Fanta, Coke, crisps, alongside Saxon sliced bread, local sausages, cured meat and cheese all of which would have been made at home up to very recently. 

A little shop in the village of Meschendorf

In my next post I will be sharing more about the hidden cuisine of Transylvania.

Friday 17 July 2015

Honey & Co.

We’ve christened Itamar and Sarit from Honey & Co., the Honeys, because they are just that.

We had them here at Ballymaloe Cookery School a couple of  weekends ago (after their extremely popular session at this year's Litfest).

It’s a bountiful time in the farm and in the gardens. Itamar and Sarit were so excited by the quality of the beautiful fresh produce. We had lots of fresh peas, courgettes and their flowers, broad beans and the first tiny cucumbers. A joy to eat and cook with.

They taught two classes and charmed the audience with their easy manner and utterly delicious food. They cooked many of the favourite Middle Eastern dishes from Honey & Co., their tiny restaurant in Warren Street in Fitzrovia. It seats just 24 people and snugly at that but serves about 150 who come for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 8.00am-10.30pm.

Sarit Packer has been cooking and baking since she was five, trained at Butlers Wharf and at the Orrery under Chris Galvin, where she learned, amongst other things, to make pâte de fruits, which up to then was her sole ambition in life. In her spare time she sleeps. Itamar Srulovich born and raised in Jerusalem. Cooking since the  age of five and leaving a great mess  in the kitchen ever since, he trained on the job in various places in Tel-Aviv. He prefers eating to cooking, and sleeping to both, he is very happily married to Sarit.

Sarit tells us that “what we’re about is homemade flavours” and it just struck me that so many of the restaurants that people love nowadays in particular in London and New York are about homemade flavours. Theirs of course are Middle Eastern and there are some dishes that they simply can’t take off the menu including falafel and their cherry pistachio cake. The Observer Food magazine awarded Honey & Co. "Best Newcomer of the Year" in 2013.

They have just celebrated their third anniversary so Pam baked them a gorgeous three tier cake embellished with roses, raspberries and spun sugar.

Somehow in the midst of it all they wrote their first cookbook - Honey & Co.: Food From the Middle East which was published by Salt Yard Book Co in 2014 to huge acclaim. Both Sunday Times and Fortnum and Mason awarded Honey & Co. Cookbook of the Year 2015 and just last month they won the UK Food Writers Guild, First Cookbook Award.

Their second cookbook launched just last week - Honey & Co.: The Baking Book.

Monday 13 July 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream

It's become a bit of a tradition at the Ballymaloe Cookery School for the students to do a fundraiser during the term to support the East Cork Slow Food Education Project and the Darina Allen India Fund. We've had all kinds of events including a sponsored foraging walk over the cliffs at Ballycotton, and a pub quiz in the Blackbird. In recent times, a Pop Up dinner in the Garden Cafe at the Cookery School has been the most popular choice.

The students on this summer's 12 week course also chose to do a Pop Up dinner. Their theme was A Midsummer Night's Feast and they soon drew up exciting and elaborate plans, dividing the work between them.

For the past few weeks they have been researching, planning and testing with youthful enthusiasm and terrific gusto. They read Shakespeare's classic play, A Midsummer Night's Dream several times over - and Prateek from Mumbai read passages from the play at intervals during the meal in his charmingly dramatic way.

They planned the menu - incorporating as many fresh local foods as they could and seasonal produce from the farm, gardens and greenhouse. The succulent lamb for the main course came from Frank Murphy. They even picked the organic rose petals from the water garden and dried them for the spectacular dessert.

On Saturday and all of Sunday they worked with military precision. The teams were cooking all day having loads of fun. The bread makers, John P, Carolin & Laura started at 5.30 am on Sunday and made four lovely breads.

Which were served with Jersey butter freshly made in our dairy by Sinead.

The design team of Jack, Diana, Clemmy, Alice, Olivia, Molly, Denise, Ashley, Lesley and Grainne chose to transform the dining room in to a midsummer forest scene and went off foraging round the gardens to find all sorts of summer foliage and blossoms.

They hung beech leaves and wild clematis from the rafters and Diana did a paper installation that looked like fluttering birds over the doorway. 

Three long tables were laid with starched white linen table cloths. They had banana leaves down the centre as a runner topped with mossy logs wound round with the creamy white fragrant blossoms of philadelphus - mock orange - which scented the air so beautifully. 

Sarah Simpson & Lisa McClure planned cocktails - a Strawberry and Mint Cocktail and a Passion Fruit and Mango Non-Alcoholic Cocktail. They made a beautiful ice bowl full of roses to hold the ice. 

A little drinks station was set up in the conservatory to welcome the guests who started to arrive just after 6pm. Candles and twinkling night lights were lit and Shawnie played the piano and serenaded the glamorous guests as they arrived. Anna from Sweden, where midsummer night is a traditional celebration, had shown some other students how to make little herb and flower wreaths for the waitress's hair.

The delicious canapes created by Alison, Susie, Grainne, Ashley and Aru set the scene: Smoked Salmon with Cream Cheese and Cucumber; Indian Spiced Potato Cakes with Mint and Yoghurt Raita and Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Tamari Dipping Sauce  got an overwhelmingly positive response...

There were gasps of admiration as the guests saw the transformation of the Cafe. Once everyone was seated we welcomed the guests and told them about the East Cork Slow Food project, and then Prateek read the first beautiful passage from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Then the meal began. 

The beautiful summer starter created by Aoife and Florence incorporated beetroot in three ways: Chilled Beetroot Soup, Beetroot Carpaccio and Beetroot Jelly and Sour Cream.

The main course was the culmination of much thought and experimentation by David, Justin, Paul Mahon & Vicky. Slow Roasted Shoulder of Lamb with Carrot Puree, Mashed Potato and an Apple and Mint Gel. It was much enjoyed, I've rarely seen so many plates with not a morsel left behind...

The dessert course was created by Poppy & Carly: Feta and Honey Cheesecake, Raspberry Spuma, Chocolate Soil and Meringue Shards... it drew appreciative gasps of admiration from every table.

All the students had been invited to enter a competition for the best midsummer night dream confection - it had to have some kind of flower connection - meringue lollipops, chocolate bark, rose petal cake and cupcakes there was scarcely a rose left in the garden after the event!

Pam and I had the challenge of trying to judge, we just couldn't do it - so we gave a prize to each of the seven entrants.

The whole event was masterminded by Eva Melican who did a terrific job with great tenacity and admirable good humour. Also part of the ace team and supporting cast were Pam, Rod and Tom.

Many thanks to two of our senior tutors, Pam and Tracy, who supported the students for this event. Pam was Maitre d' and Tracy oversaw the kitchen - but they were both anxious to emphasise that the students had lead the planning and cooking themselves.

Some of these students had done a little cooking before they came to the school, a few having worked in professional kitchens. But many had scarcely made toast before they joined us 10 weeks ago - so we were bursting with pride at what they had achieved, a view shared by the guests. They created a truly magical and memorable evening, a huge thank you to all involved.