From grandma Mia to zacuska

My granny Mia is one of the most amazing and exciting people I know. She can fight you over any subject and reconcile with a recipe. I remember and fantasise of her stories of becoming: she was born as the youngest in a big family, in a north-eastern Romanian village close to the Hungarian border and just a couple of years before the Second World War. When Russians invaded her village she was kept in the family house while her mother, sister and other valuable possessions were taken to the mountains for protection. While Russian soldiers were famous characters in stories of horrible abuse, my grandmother has fond memories of one of the officers stationed at her house. He was missing his children deeply and he was treating my grandmother as his own, nurturing and playing with her. My grandmother left the family house before she was sixteen, crossing the hills during winter time, wearing her traditional sandals and fearing the wolves. She reached the city of Oradea where she lied about her young age to get into merchandising vocational school. She learned Hungarian while working in a shop where she thought the owners were speaking the language when they wanted to make fun of her. Now, in her 80’s she is still a very proud woman and probably lies about her age.

Grandma Mia has a lot of food stories to tell; she tells them in the kitchen every day by preparing delicious meals for us; she tells them sharing memories and recreating recipes from the past; she tells them by inspiring me every day.

My first experience with cooking and preparing food took place in her kitchen, where it always smelled of fried potato pies, green beans and bacon. I must have been five or six when days would start with a ‘drinking coffee’ ritual. She would have a large black coffee and a few cigarettes and she would serve me dark caramel ‘tea’ in a miniature China cup painted with pink roses. The ‘tea’ was made of caramelised sugar and water and she would pour a bit of rum essence, a flavouring Romanians use even today for their homemade sweets and chocolate. In that small kitchen from a huge communist block of flats, grandma and granddaughter ‘had coffees’ like two English ladies from a different time. I was very surprised however to find later that actual English ladies would drink black tea, not coffee. But this is a different story. Having pretend coffee with my paternal grandmother was definitely my favourite play time.  

Than we would start preparing food for the day. I am not sure I remember all protocols, but there was always flour, sour cream, potatoes, smoked fat bacon and paprika in that kitchen and we would use them in most meals. This is when I started to understand the huge culinary difference between Cluj in Transilvanya and Constanta, my parents’ home by the Black Sea. I used to visit my paternal grandparents during my summer and winter holidays, sometimes even for the Easter break. In those precious times, summer holidays lasted for three long months. My parents would put me on a plane and send me to bunica Mia and bunicu Pitiu who would pick me up from the airport an hour later. The one hour by air journey on the plane, just by myself,  was an incredibly amazing adventure; on land, the travel from one side of the country to the other would have taken around ten hours. For my young age, planes were magic in the way they defied time. It was also magic how different my two homes were, how different the communities, how different the cultures, how very different their food.

The food we ate in my home city at the Black Sea had a strong Turkish influence and some Slavic. For lunch we would always have a pretty sour soup called ‘ciorba’ made of chunks of vegetables and meat, soured with borsch which is a liquid ingredient made of fermented wheat or barely. And for the second course we would have meat and rice or meat and potatoes…at least after the anti-Communist revolution in 1989.  During communism however meat was scarce and I think we only had rice and potatoes and maybe some pulses. The soured soups in Dobrogea always tasted the same because of the borsch and because people would mix all vegetables they would have around. Transylvania, however,  was less affected by poverty during Communism compared to the south or east of the country which meant people had more options to develop their recipes and more nutritious food. Unfortunately, the economical heritage of communism can be noticed even today in the south and east of the country and this hugely impacts on how people prepare food and  feed themselves.

I remember the last years of communism, believed to be the worse for my country and especially for the south east.  Food was really scarce. We used to make our ciorba with only dried root vegetables; we would eat sweets only on Christmas and Easter time and only homemade sweets; meat was an absolute luxury while eggs, yogurt, milk, oil, bread and sugar where rationalised. You were rarely able to buy meat from the shops but when my parents had me, they became more aware about the need of proteins to feed their child. Therefore, my father had to ‘bribe’ his way for some extra meat and he would pay at least five times more for the kilo. He worked as part of a developing IT team at the abattoir – the only one in the city – which was run by the government as all slaughter houses and food factories around the country. With this being said, my family was a bit luckier than others. On national celebrations, such as Labour Day on 1st of May or 23ed of August marking the fall of monarchy and the union with the Soviets against the Axis in the WWII and on New Year’s Eve, abattoir employees would be given five  kilos of beef meat. My parents would store the meat in the freezer and we would eat from that portion the whole year. We were again very lucky during the summer months as my maternal grandfather was allowed after retirement to take on extra work for a few months a year. He would take seasonal work in the Turkish villages around our city, picking up fruits and vegetables. As part of his payment, he was allowed to pick some for himself. This is when I ate the most amazing peaches and apricots in the whole world. The peaches were the size of a huge grapefruit – I did not know of that fruit at the time – and the juice would drip to reach your elbow. The apricots were the size of today’s peaches, they were incredibly sweet and soft. When you had a bite of that sun ripped apricots it felt like having a mouthful of incredibly flavoured jam. We would keep the stones and later on would eat their core which tasted like almonds. We would also eat sweet and sour cherries and strawberries and we would make jams with sugar bought on the black market.

Autumn would come with the mighty flavours of grilled aubergines and sweet red peppers[1] and of fried onion. Everybody on the block prepared for the winter season with vegetable preserves and pickles. My favourite vegetable preserve was my mother’s zacusca, a dish I have tried to replicate in the last years. I made a decent one a few years ago when I was living in London and I got it right with the help of a friend who helped me get some of the Romanian sweet red peppers which make the taste of zacusca unforgettable.
My family also made soured cabbage and pickles out of summer cucumbers [2], green tomatoes, cauliflower and carrots or cabbage stuffed green papers.

I shell return with my story back to Cluj, in Transilvanya and to my paternal grandparents. As I mentioned, food was here much different – and probably, due to my grandma’s cooking skills or because I only came here during holidays – I favoured this Hungarian influenced food more. My paternal grandfather was Hungarian and therefore they were cooking lots of traditional Hungarian food, which is over nourishing, comfort food, made to fill you up for hours. To our friends’ amusement, my Moldavian husband describes all Transylvanian recipes with ‘You start by frying a bit of fat bacon…’ to which I always reply: ‘While all Moldavian foods end by adding tomato juice’.  My favourite grandma’s dish was a potato soup that was served with lots of sour cream and fermented spicy cheese. Traditionally, this particular Romanian cheese is made of sheep or buffalo milk and kept to ferment in a sheep belly or sheep skin and sometimes in a tube made of pine bark. When was added to the hot potato soup, it melted completely, like a cream, and gave the soup an amazing flavour. Similarly, maybe, to melted blue cheese or gorgonzola. If we were incredibly lucky…and we were most of the times, my grandma would serve this soup with fried pies. Somehow, if I tell you how the pies were made, it makes no sense to the soup, however, it completed the taste in an unequalled way. And for sure, I was not counting calories or the amount of fat in those blissful times. So the pies were made similar to a ‘naan bred’ filled with…mashed potatoes and the spicy fermented cheese.

Granny would make lots of interesting soups, such as tarragon soup, caraway soup, onion soup, eggs soup or her fantastic green beans soup spiced up with lots of paprika. In the summer she would make a soup I hated as a child, but now it’s one of my favourite ones: green salad soup. The hate & love story of this dish goes like this: when I was a teenager I got very ill and I was not allowed to eat anything for seven days in order to cleanse my stomach. In those days I was so hungry and dreamed of food so vividly that I swore I would never hate any food again and moreover, I will eat my granny’s green salad soup. Yes, green salad soup. She would make this soup by frying fat beckon chunks and garlic, lots of garlic. She would ‘quench’ the fat with white flour and then she would pour water. When boiling, she would add sliced green salad, sour cream and occasionally ‘croutons’ made of omelette.  You would serve this soup with a lot of apple vinegar.

Summers would come with much lighter food and  granny would cook my mother’s favourite soups: cinnamon apple soup or vanilla sweet cherry soup, served cold from the fridge with a generous portion of soured cream.

Unlike other Romanian homes I have been to or heard about, my grandmother’s kitchen and cooking was a delicious concert of gastronomical variety; Apart from the fried bacon and soured cream, of course. She used all sorts of ingredients, she constantly improvised with herbs and spices, many completely unfamiliar to Romanian cooking. Actually, one of my regrets concerning modern Romanian food is that our culinary culture remained severely impoverished of herbs and condiments after communism. Most Romanian foods today are ‘spiced’ with salt and black pepper and garnished with fresh parsley. Winter casseroles and celebration foods may contain some savoury – which is a kind of thyme –  and bay leaf. Some summer foods may contain dill. Transylvanian people use paprika in most of their foods while Moldovian people use lovage in their ciorbas and bean stews. And that’s about it, which is a shame considering the richness of our gastronomical heritage – Turkish, Greek, Slavic, Austro – Hungarian, German – and the abundance of wild flora, the fertile lands, the four seasons climate.

Childhood summer holidays spent with my paternal grandparents in Cluj were magic. Most probably, the huge cultural and geographical differences made my experience something of  extraordinary. I was living in a city port at the Black Sea which was Romanians’ favourite summer destination; friends from Cluj would be so envious of me and they could not understand there were kids in the world dreaming of mountains and hills instead of sea and send. I used to go with my grandparents in the forests nearby the city of Cluj Napoca and we would pick fresh wild herbs such as thyme and oregano and some other I can’t remember their names. We would also pick wild rosehip and we would make a delicious sweet paste out of it as a winter jam or elderflower that we would make syrup and socată – which is a fermented drink similar to ginger beer –  out of it.  With my grandfather I used to walk lots to get to a wild walnut in the city where we would pick up green walnuts and made a delicious sweet preserve we only ate as a delicatessen. Today, in the place of the walnut tree, there is a university. I am delighted that knowledge grows out of our mighty three.

My grandma taught me how to cook when I was a very young. That was her way of preparing me for life. When I met my husband, who as I told you is from the east side of the country, my grandmother gifted me with a book called ‘Moldovian Food’ and told me that ‘a man’s love passes through the stomach’ as the Romanian saying goes around. However, surprisingly, it did not happen as she thought or as the Romanian saying goes. My husband started to love food because he loved me and my passion instead of loving me because of my cooking…

[1] Please google ‘gogoșari’ or ‘Romanian peppers’ as they are a very different kind of peppers I have only found in Romania.

[2] they were much smaller than the cucumbers we eat now and had grained, lumpy skins. You can find those even today during the summer months in Romania. 


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