A land of the imagination – a place we can visit wherever we are and whatever our circumstances – is precious. Over the centuries, Transylvania has well-served this purpose. To the wealthy Hapsburgs in Budapest and Vienna it was a source of mystery and riches, early-medieval Germans considered Transylvania the place the Pied Piper of Hamelin took their children and the Irishman, Bram Stoker, created a horrendous – or fun, depending on your point of view – resident whose name is now irrevocably linked to the region. In reality, this land of myth and fairytale, of extraordinary beauty and some very good food, is less than a three-hour flight from London.
A (very, very) potted history
Modern Transylvania (Transilvania) became part of Romania by treaty, after the First World War, but this alluring region has a long history. The Romans (106-271AD) tramped across its fertile valleys and high mountain passes on their way north, many of them settling, too, when the local people (Dacians) didn't make it too difficult for them to do. During the following centuries, Transylvania was invaded in by Huns, Avars, Slavs and Bulgars, amongst others, as they migrated westwards from Asia into Europe. In the 9th century, Szekelers (a Magyar people from the east) settled in eastern Transylvania while more Magyars headed further north, to Hungary. Nearly one hundred years later the Hungarian Magyars invaded Transylvania, beginning a 900-year occupation. During these centuries of threats the semi-nomadic pastoralists of the mountain areas kept their distance, and their way of life. Hungary, with Austria, became the powerful Hapsburg empire and its outer territories became very attractive to its many enemies.
The Hapsburgs' most persistent enemy was the Ottoman empire, based in Constantinople (now, Istanbul). Its terror-inspiring armies, in their attempts to reach Vienna, could cross the plains of Bulgaria and eastern Romania without much delay, but ran into difficulties in Transylvania. The region's high, horse shoe-shaped Carpathian mountains were a formidable natural barrier and the 12th century Hapsburgs had taken the precaution of settling many German farmers (Saxons) in its south east-facing foothills to protect what they considered to be their outlying borderland. Over the following years Transylvania's population – Romanian, Saxon, Szekeler, Hungarian – grew as the Ottomans pushed forward (and, on occasion, were pushed back) and Jews, Armenians, Rroma (Romanian Roma) and others traded and settled. Transylvania's elegant and prosperous cities thrived.
European 19th century industrialisation largely by-passed Transylvania so its magnificent scenery, created from the use people have made of the land over the centuries, entered the 20th century relatively unscathed. But two world wars had a devastating effect on the region's population – as they did throughout all of central Europe – and later, the dictator, Ceausescu, did his best to ruin its agricultural system. Neither, though, succeeded in destroying the majestic Transylvanian landscape. Today, this intriguing history can be found in the area's varied and striking architecture, its rich mixture of people and proud kitchens, and at its welcoming tables.
For the past nine years, I've had the good fortune to have met and worked with many skilled and generous people in this lovely heartland of Europe.
A landscape in the kitchen
The Transylvanian kitchen is one of distinctive tastes – 'soured' soups (ciorba), fermented cream (smantana) and pickles, smoked meats and freshwater fish, wild-berry jam ('sweet', dulceata), herbs such as tarragon and lovage – and dishes – aubergines roasted over a late-summer, smokey wood-fire, mashed into a dip and washed down with palinca (plum brandy); strongly-flavoured sausages; cheese stored in pine bark; boar, venison and other wild game; and sumptuous layered and filled pies, sweet and savoury, small and large.
A spectacular landscape, dramatic architecture and emotive music provide a host of lovely settings for meals: dinner in a clearing in the magical forest or peaceful meadow, lunch beneath a beautiful apple tree on a hillside overlooking a 13th century church or under a grape-laden courtyard vine. When the foods are from nearby – hunted and village-reared meats, cheeses, wild and garden fruits and herbs, freshwater fish, vegetables – and the dishes are enjoyed in today's style, these meals become true feasts of the place, of the moment.
Here, as elsewhere, the culinary repertoire is constantly changing. Local food production skills and kitchen techniques that have, in the past, created a 'taste of the place', a unique local gastronomy, are at the mercy of shifting surroundings. They can lose their relevance in people's lives. If they disappear, a part of our culture is at risk of disappearing, too. But if new ways of using and serving the special foods of a place – ways that fit in with our lives as we like, or have, to live them – that feeling of connection with each other remains, and food producers and their environment will survive, even thrive.
Transylvania's food story is one of a rich interaction between tradition and change, individual and group, immigration and assimilation, for over a thousand years. Today, the modern world – the good and the bad – is entering the mix and convenience foods and super-markets are fast becoming ubiquitous in towns. But, for many, food integrity and memorable tastes, and the remarkable landscape that has produced both, are still fundamental to their lives. In some villages, bread is made the old way – baked until a charcoal crust forms – and cakes are coloured deep-gold simply by using village eggs. On warm summer days it's picnic-time by the side of a swift-running river or in a flower-carpeted meadow, surrounded by Tranyslvania's wonderful wild-life – bears, wolves, lynx, chamoix, boar, all sorts of small game, exquisite butterflies and birds. It's fun to play food-detective here, too, for kitchens and tables have stories to tell – how the various communities settled, then shaped, the surrounding land, and how they enjoy themselves. All, though, share the same experiences of climate, topography and Romanian cultural life.
This isn't to succumb to the idea of a bucolic past, of a rural life full of idyllic days where everyone is happily going about their tasks: for working people throughout Europe 'the past' has mostly been a time of terrible poverty, poor health, varying degrees of servitude, and back-breaking work. But there is still a lot the past can teach us and artists and craftsmen and women – musicians, architects, writers, painters, film-makers, cooks – have always understood this. The past is gone but, in Transylvania – a place where artists have no hesitation in declaring their love of food and cooking – it has left a fine legacy of knowledge and skills that can be enjoyed today, in our own modern way.
Food & tourism
Transylvania is a treasure trove for the curious food and wine-lover. Geographical and political isolation from 20th century Europe has meant that many artisan skills – food preservation (fermentation, smoked foods, jam- and cheese-making), foraging, hunting, farming – are all still part of daily life. But 'modern life' is a strong magnet and many are leaving the countryside for the city or abroad. Knowledge of a way of life that has supported people for centuries is in danger of disappearing. For this reason, an NGO (non-governmental organisation) working in Transylvania to preserve its extensive, richly-biodiverse meadows and woodlands set me the task of identifying the foods and food-related activities that could help develop the region for a type of tourism that ensured local people would benefit, yet would be able to retain their values. Practical ideas on how these activities could be put in place followed.
The local food story is one of people learning to make the best of their surroundings – forest, lake, meadow, garden – and to give their foods meaning. It's a place that draws you in, that hints at untold dramas. The cuisine owes its character to a remarkable history and to the local ingredients out of which it's made, to the cooks who have long and familiarly made it, and to other regional dishes that have been honed over time to become its best accompaniments. Industrially-produced food can never replicate this, nor can a weekly shop at the local (currently, mostly French, German or Belgian-owned) supermarket.
People here are expert at preserving the bounty of their short, hot summers and very appreciative of the times they can enjoy their seasonal foods. They eat well from the foods they grow, gather, hunt, fish and produce: nearly every part of an animal or bird – farmed or wild, furred or feathered – finds its way to the table, and many wild plants, too. Kitchen waste feeds the chickens and pigs; cows, buffalo, horses and geese graze on common land; and the forest provides precious and delicious fruits and funghi. Kitchen gardens and orchards are productive and well-kept and houses have large storage areas. For generations, farmers have bred seeds that can withstand the climatic conditions peculiar to the area, ensuring crops in future years.
Unfortunately, though, for both tourists and food artisans, there's more to developing food tourism in a region than the existence of good food. Tourists have to know how to find 'the real thing' and local cooks and producers have to work out how they can welcome tourists into their world without losing what they value. Neither is easy to do in our modern food world of globalisation, extensive agriculture and mass-market consumption, where even still-practised traditional food-skills are in danger of disappearing and tourists can have a pre-conception of a place that bears little resemblance to the reality. To preserve Transylvania's unique environment, the people who depend on the land for both their living and way of life need to be able to not only survive but to take part in the modern world of fine local food production, and to develop the kind of tourism that doesn't intrude or result in a loss of communal instinct or worth.
This is possible to do. Modern gastronomic tourism is all about connections: those who grow, create and cook food thrive when they are able to meet with each other and with those who appreciate their labour and skills. It connects too people who love food and wine to the environment that supports them. This complex, and very special, experience in tourism, where foods, drinks and the ways they are enjoyed are seasonal, cultural and 'of the place', resembles a fine theatre proformance - inspirational, unforgettable and irreplaceable.
Street Food Around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture Romania
Courses & workshops
Given in towns & villages, at events & festivals, for NGO's, educational and arts institutions and special-interest groups
The food story: Landscape, history, people
Exploring a region's gastronomy: Creating the programme
Food & tourism: The foundations
Community-based food tourism: Reality, inclusivity & growth
Food tourism: Local networks, international connections
Tourism, foods & networks
When true to a place, to its food products, and to the people who work to produce them, a gastronomy-based tourism programme can create long-lasting benefits for a region. Some exciting food-related activities and networks are being established in Transylvania, making possible an exchange between local people and the curious tourist.
Food & wine producers Kitchen gardens Foraging Home cooks & meals
Food trails Retail outlets & markets Wine routes Chefs' collaboratives
Festivals Centres of information Slow Food
Tradition & innovation
In this fast-changing world, it's easy to forget, or ignore, the problems faced by the people whose skills and knowledge provide us with the good food we enjoy. One way to encourage future support for food producers is to provide opportunities for others to glimpse into their world.
From 2006 to 2010, students from Oxford Brookes University (UK) accompanied me when I gave courses and workshops on food and tourism for two NGOs in
Saschiz Sighisoara Urca Cluj Turda Badeni Copsa Mare
Mihai Viteazu Moldovenesti Viscri
The Food Programme, BBC Radio 4
Mark Hix, acclaimed British chef and restaurateur, visited Transylvania to talk to these food producers, shepherds, bakers, cooks and foragers, and meet some of the people working to support the region's rich food culture.
The world of the shepherds is a defining characteristic of Romanian cultural life. The vast and beautiful high-meadow of the Carpathian mountains and Transylvanian Plateau has, for centuries, provided grazing for huge flocks of sheep. In autumn, shepherds move their flocks sometimes 400 km or more to lowland winter pasture, returning to the summer pastures in time for lambing in the spring. This practice – transhumance – has led to extensive cultural exchanges by shepherds throughout the Balkan countries, and to many contemporary traditions in food, literature and song.
Transhumance has a substantial effect on local ecosystems wherever it takes place. As well as protecting their flocks, shepherds are caretakers of the meadow, grass- and woodlands they pass through on their travels. During the long journey, the sheep graze on arable stubble and whatever other pastures the shepherds can find. This process enriches the landscapes they cross by fertilising the soils in the migratory corridors, and encourages biodiversity as the animals transport fruits and seeds on their wool as well as in their dung.
Until the late 19th century, migratory routes changed little from the time of the Dacians, two millenia earlier. Change came with the collapse of the Ottoman empire and, later, the First World War. Country borders were put in place and passports were needed to cross them, so the shepherds' movements were curtailed. In Romania, transhumant shepherds remained a powerful cultural force and even Ceasescu didn't interfere too much with their way of life as sheep-cheese was an important product for the domestic market. But, over the last 20 years, enormous challenges have been posed for the shepherds. To follow their migratory routes, they now have to move their flocks twice a year across major roads (much to motorists' annoyance), modern railways (far more dangerous now, with faster trains) and newly-privatised land. Or they have them transported great distances by trucks. The practice of transhumance is under threat and in danger of disappearing. Without this remarkable human activity – known since the times of the writers of the oldest biblical texts – people, land and culture would be impoverished.