The bottomless generosity of the Transylvanian people

Our meeting with Jóska, Éva, Viki and Dávid was completely unintentional; a lovely family of Szentjobb who invited us in and made us feel right at home. Szentjobb is a town where Hungarian is spoken even today – a century back it was connected with the Bihar county of Hungary. You can read more on this and other Romanian travel experiences here.

The day with the family in Szentjobb consisted of walking the fields they tend every day, picking strawberries and the first of the season’s cherries and drinking an excess of their homemade wine which was made from native grapes of the area; pölöskei muskotály, palatina muskotály and néro. Very easy drinking, it made the perfect table wine.

Once we’d drunk in the sun for a few hours, up near their cellar, we made our way to their house in the village where we ate. Simply ‘parasztsonka’ made from their own pigs raised in their backyard. The leg of pig is cured for up to 8 weeks, then smoked and lastly rested for 4-5 weeks depending on the size. It’s delicious; a perfect balance of fat and meat, it was soft in the mouth, flavoursome and delicate.

We continued a tour of the town, visiting many of their friends and tending to the family’s animals. They had many. Chickens, cats, dogs, pigs and sheep. Somewhere through the night we began discussing the idea of roasting a whole sheep the following day, with everyone getting quite excited about it.
Once even the most resilient had drank enough, we made our way up on the hill to sleep, under a thousand stars.

It was 6:30 when we woke, with cracking headaches and wishing longingly that we hadn’t drunk so much the day before. Shortly after waking we were kindly asked to move by the farmer’s next-door neighbour, along with an offer of pálinka and wine. It wasn’t even 7am yet!

A good couple of hours later we quite desperately needed something to help sort us out. We schemed for a bit and decided on pork-fat fried potatoes, onions, paprika and a fried egg. Not a traditional thing – although the people of this area love potatoes (particularly boiled) and paprika is used often – but we thought it was a winner all the same.

We slowly realized it was a late start for everyone. They came and found us, parked in their driveway up on the hill around 11am. We went with them, to find a dressed, still warm lamb on the table outside their cellar on the hill. Paul was quick to get the fire going and when told there would only be four of five of us eating, got a leg and shoulder roasting away.

As we sat down to eat – in the shade of an old walnut tree – we discovered the family doesn’t even like lamb. Another act of many, to paint a picture of their generosity, was when they were adamant the remaining lamb was for us to take. I don’t think they knew the size of our fridge… Their unconditional generosity was truly touching.

That evening we were invited for dinner. Éva asked if we liked ‘Paradicsomos Töltött Káposzta’. It’s a favourite of Transylvanians and without hesitation Zsu answered ‘yes’ for the both of us. It is a traditional meal, made from pork mince and rice, rolled into soured cabbage leaves and served with a sweet tomato purée. It is an easy dinner to prepare, and popular in the wintertime, when preserves are a very big part of cooked family meals.

Experiencing this left us wanting to try and do it ourselves. A few days on, when we had to fend for ourselves again, we gave it a go. What we made was not completely traditional, but we think it worked out to be very tasty. We couldn’t find any soured cabbage leaves at the store and didn’t have six weeks to make them ourselves, so we just ended up softening them in boiling water for a couple of minutes before wrapping the pork mince and rice in them. Served with still-warm, fresh bread brought over from a local farmer, when he noticed us parked opposite his house. Again, there was no form of communication except smiles and some body language. We thought the gesture was truly amazing. The following morning we took a jar of freshly made apricot and elderflower jam over to him and his family – which we hope he enjoyed as much as we enjoyed his home-made bread!

When we left the peaceful town of Szentjobb the following day, we still had an excess of strawberries from our first afternoon there. It wasn’t long before we noticed the abundance of elderflower in the Turda gorge and we began to talk of an elderflower and strawberry jam. We foraged to our hearts desire, enough to make jam, cordial, cello and shrub.

The Carpathian Mountains lend themselves to an incredible opportunity for animals to graze. Brânza in coaja de brad is made from 70% cow and 30% sheep milk. Curds are created and then strained from the whey and left for three weeks. It is then salted, shredded, kneaded and pressed into bark cyclinders – made from young, local fir trees. They then age the cheese, protected by the bark, for up to 60 days.

The three most common ways to use this cheese are:
– In the bark, served with the lid removed and spoons on the table
– A polenta made with butter and brânza in coaja de brad shaped into balls and grilled until brown.
– Simply spread, crumbled or sliced (if you can manage) on a piece of bread with red onions, tomatoes or peppers.

As we discussed and schemed one day what we should do for lunch, we came to the conclusion we should try a Hungarian style bruschetta. We took a couple of slices of bread, lathered them in pork fat and gently fried them, to golden brown. We topped this with freshly chopped tomatoes, thin slices of garlic and some basil – seasoned with salt, pepper and of course paprika. Not quite a whole lunch, but a rather tasty snack indeed!

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For the ones who have read this far, you might be interested in a few other food related things we set about doing while in Romania, but we won’t bore you with too many words this time…

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