Romanian Dishes, Wines, And Habits

excerpts THE DELTA ISLAND An island: the most spectacular and unusual part of Romania, neither water nor land. Isolated, lacustrine, villages, depending very much on nature and fishing, a labyrinth of lakes, canals, realms overflowing with wildlife. An extraordinarily beautiful and generous world during summer, but hostile and almost inaccessible during winter. The fishermen's world, with unique adornments, primitive and complicated at the same time, which may seem strange to us, continentals. During the two or three years I spent there, living in the reed houses of the Ukrainians (both peasants and fishermen) and those of the Lipovans (almost exclusively fishermen), used to the tourists and tired of them, I ate almost nothing but fish. Only seldom did I have some cheese or eggs, a pot of bald coot or a hunk of wild boar. Everything served with such a large and unexpectedly juicy quantity of vegetable, both sour and sweet, as only here can be found. I also found in the "pond" two (probably) ancient wines, relics of very old vineyards: Somoveanca and Negru (Black) de Sarichioi. FISH  Mainly connected with prohibited food, being the only animal product tolerated on certain days during Lent (therefore, a ritualistic nutriment), fish cumulates ancient symbols originating in popular mythology. In Romanian mythology, fish is one of the fundamental cosmogonical elements. "There is a fish in the sea, and on that fish there are four pillars, and on the pillars there is the earth; when the fish shakes its tail, the earth shakes… the four pillars are the four fasts. That's why we keep the fasts, so that we wouldn't sink. But now one of the pillars is rotten, since people don't fast anymore". Although not a part of the regular fasting diet, there are "fish dispensation" days during the harshest fast, when fish is the only tolerated source of protein. In this respect, the Annunciation, Palm Sunday, or the celebration of Virgin Mary's birth are "fish dispensation" days, much like Wednesdays and Fridays during holidays. "If you swallow a living fish on the Annunciation, you'll catch plenty of fish all year long". It goes the same for the one who catches 40 fish on March 9th (the celebration of the 40 saints) and swallows one alive. The fish eaten at Easter also plays an important ritualistic part (after the holy bread, but before eating anything else), a compulsory gesture for those following old life patterns, based on the benefic symbolism of the fish, which may ensure the health and energy of a person during an entire year. At funerals, the fish plays a ceremonial part at the burial alms (especially if it happens during a fast), bestowing solemnity and deep Christian significations on the whole meal. (Ofelia Văduva, Steps towards the Sacred, Enciclopedica, 1996) BLACK CAVIAR FLAT CAKE The Cossack fishermen hiding in the Delta around 1700 to escape the tsars' anger have always been skilled seamen and excellent pirates, but they also practiced agriculture and raised animals. Therefore it's no wonder we find all sort of ingredients in their culinary art, a little bit of everything gathered from all nations – fish served next to sour cream, and black caviar competing with cheese varenciki, (I remember the gentle question Axinica Sidorencu asked me in the summer of 1980 – "Radu, what do you have before soup: black caviar pie, or mulberry pie?"). Dough: 250 g butter 250 g cow's cheese 1 teaspoonful of salt 250 g flour (a skilled cook may replace flour with semolina, to make the dough even softer) Filling: 250 g bowels of great sturgeon (Acipenser huso) 250 g liver of great sturgeon 1 head of garlic 25 g vodka 2 bundles of savory (Satureia hortensis) 25 g butter 1 placenta of black caviar 2 onions 1 sprinkling of pepper 1 glass of white wine 25 g vinegar (made from wine) 1 spoonful of salt 100 g of sunflower oil 4 tomatoes Preparing the dough: Mix the butter (softened over heat) with the cow's cheese and the salt and then add the flour Let it rest and grow in a cool place for 6-8 hours. Preparing the filling: Wash well the bowels and wash gently the placenta (which, normally, has plenty of roe on its walls) Use a knife and cut all the meat – bowels, placenta, liver – into little pieces Pour the oil in a big pan and heat it up Cut the onions into long slices and put it in the pan When the onion is soft, add the meat, salt and pepper When the bowels are nice and brown, add the wine, vinegar and vodka Let it all simmer down until it thickens Add the savory and ground garlic and take the pan off the fire Butter an oven tray Stretch the dough in the tray, leaving 1-2 cm hang out over the margins Pour the filling into the tray, and level it evenly Bend the margins inward, over the filling Cover with tomato slices and sprinkle some savory powder and pepper Put it in the oven at medium temperature for 30 minutes. Those living in "Europe's boot" would call this "pizza", and those from the "Hexagon" – "une belle arte". Right here, on the Ukrainians' sand in Sfantu Gheorghe, where you have both the sea and the Danube, they call it "flat cake". Pretty much the same thing. It's a strong dish, it goes with a stronger wine, rather served with venison than with fish. But the common sturgeon (Acipenser sturio) or the great sturgeon cannot actually be considered fish: there's no explanation to their survival while their brothers, the iguanodons, didn't even live until the beginning of the ice age. Sturgeons (Acipenser) are best served with a Băbească Neagră (Black) de Nicoreşti or Dealurile (Hills) Bujorului wine – after all, Galatzi is also a port to the Danube. But the wine should not be from a rainy year, it would be watery and flat; it should be from a dry year, with a long autumn, so that it had plenty of time to mature and gather a bit of madness in it, as only this type of unique wine can do. It's unbelievable how different this wine inherited from our ancestors can be from one year to another! FISH SOUP I At night, when men living in the Delta go out fishing, they only take with them some bread, a couple of onions, salt, vinegar and some chili pepper. Only rarely will the Lipovan throw in a potato at the bottom of the sack. But, in the middle of an islet, he will know how to make, with the precision of a divinely inspired architect, the tastiest fish soup there is and could be made out of freshwater (it resembles the famous bouillabaisse du Midi). And when I say fish, I mean all the fish swimming in the Delta, put all together! In the absence of vegetables, the extraordinary taste of Ukrainian fish soup is given exactly by the variety of fish boiling in the cauldron. Let's take it one step at a time, but first, some opening remarks and advice. The fish for the soup has to be very fresh. Alive, even! Don't wash it too much. Remove its scales, cut its stomach, take out its bowels and other organs, especially the bile, rinse it once in clean water and that's it. Above all, don't take out its gills, not any other "bitter bones". There is no such thing as a "bitter bone", the whole thing is nothing but a legend started by those who clumsily spread the bile when cleaning the fish (after all, the head of the fish provides most of the delicious taste in a soup). So, what fish can we use for the fish soup? There wouldn't be any soup at all if we didn't have some crucian carp, a red meat orfe (Leuciscus idusidus), or at least a bream and a larger carp. But it would be a shame if we didn't add a triangle of predators – a parr, a zander, a pike – to boil next to some white fish like white bream and redeye, a rapacious carp and two crucian carps together with their roes, and also some sweet tench (Tinca tinca) and a barbel (Barbus sp.) whose fine meat reminds you of a little Thai perversity (remove its roes, as they give you headaches and make you feel dizzy). Also, add two or three larger perches, with white, coarse and salty meat. Did you know that each fish smells and tastes differently? The pike smelling like sea grass, and tasting like almonds, the sheatfish smelling and especially tasting like roasted chestnuts, the yellowish orfe with its aphrodisiac scent – they are unique and divine works of art. Everything combines in the fish soup just like in a symphony. It's been said before – a splendid democratic assembly in front of the voting booths to make the unique, colossal and unmistakable will of the people triumph. Use one onion and a spoonful of salt for two liters of water When it boils, add as much fish as would be covered by the broth, about 4-5 kilos 20 minutes after the first boil, add the vinegar, according to taste (the broth will turn white), and the soup is ready. In the Danube Delta, the fish soup is eaten with a local dressing. This means that the fish is taken out on a tray. In a large bowl you mix broth from the soup, salt and vinegar, and the crushed chili pepper. Use your hands, feet, mouth, whatever comes in handy to dip the fish into this sour "brine"; after a day's rowing, feeling quite cold, you won't have the time nor energy to use your manners among reed plots and islets, you'll do whatever you can to have your fill. And you can! Only after you've eaten enough fish do you pour some broth in you plate and drink it, hot, thick and life-giving, thinking that the pleasures in this world are few and well-worth sought for in the farthest and most hostile of places. BLACK CAVIAR The Romanian caviar looks something like this: Great sturgeon roes, called beluga on the international market – big (2-3 mm), grey or light black, with a nice scent and hard when fresh and correctly kept Common sturgeon roes – called osietr by Armenians living in Paris and Copenhagen – blackish-grey, not too big (2 mm) Sturgeon roes – called ostriuga on the Caspian shore – small (1-2 mm), shiny and black No-one has seen sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus), ship sturgeon (Acipenser nudiventris) or European sea sturgeon roes in years. The Romanian beluga, especially the one fished in autumn, found its match only in the Caspian beluga (we're not talking here about the Imperial, white beluga, extremely valuable due to its rare color, but less scented and tasty; we're referring to the great Iranian caviar). Unfortunately, most of the Romanian sturgeon has been destroyed by the Danube dams, intensive commercial fishing and pollution. We couldn't build reproduction and repopulation fisheries – unlike others, who have them! – and the little caviar sold on the market nowadays – most of it obtained from poaching – is badly prepared: the river and Delta fishermen no longer know how or do not have the time to bring fresh spring water from Topolog (or to distill water from the Danube), they no longer know how to measure the exact amount of salt from Cacica necessary to make the roe rise 1 cm from the bottom of the ceramic wash basin in which they pickled and hardened for exactly 4 hours, rotated slowly by hand (well-washed with boiled rain water). Nowadays, out of greediness and fear of failure, fishermen use a ladle to pour any kind of water and salt on the roes, willing to wait their entire life for a buyer without lowering the astronomical price. The roes are preserved for 2-3 years, but they're not exactly good to eat (sour giblets also smell of fish, but they don't cost $ 200-300 a kilo!). Still, if you were lucky enough to find an honest Ukrainian and buy a little jar of real beluga from him, here's how to prepare it: Put the roes in a well-polished silver bowl and dip it up to its rims in ice (we eat caviar out of pride and caprice, therefore the ice bucket should be made of silver, too) Three porcelain bowls are filled with sour cream, grated and washed onion (so it wouldn't get oxidized), and thin slices of peeled lemon There's also some "chambré" butter, on a square silver plate, to keep it cool The finger-thick pan cakes – bliny – are stacked aside on a plate, together with the steamed vodka decanters, lined up, each in its own lithe ice bucket. I don't know what the Russians drink now, what happened to Stolichnaya, Moskovskaya, Krepkaya and the rest of goodies. I didn't see the Polish Wyborowa, Jerzebiak and Zubrovka either. But, since you've already spent a family's yearly budget on a fistful of black caviar, what difference does it make to spend another quarter of a million on a Smirnoff? As an inhabitant of the "pond", I often had my share of black caviar, even with the ladle sometimes. I tried to match them with fruit liquor, very dry white wine, even whiskey! Nothing worked. They don't like any of those! The only accepted companion is clear, neutral vodka, with a scent of sweet earth. OUR BIZARRE FISH Zander, sturgeons and sheatfish are some of the central European fish unknown to foreigners, who rarely consume them (although they have them, here and there). The Black Sea, the Danube and its (still) healthy tributaries play hosts for these strange biological relics, which look like fish, but, to get to our point of interest in this chapter, neither smell nor taste like fish. ZANDER: Not long ago exported from Central European countries, the zander – deep water predator fish – populated plenty of western waters, causing over the past few years, especially in France, "la sandrinite" ("zanderitis"), the disease of big zander fishing (it can reach up to 25 kilos). This is how some spectacular recipes appeared – zander "bonne femme", zander with mayo, zander with mushrooms and parmesan, zander with capers and green olives – all tending to enrich the white, dry meat of the Danubian fish with different flavors. It's interesting to notice that this light, almost scentless meat matches better with sour cream and cheese than chicken or veal! Romanian cuisine doesn't treat zander as a fish, but as meat coming from an animal living on the ground, and therefore boils it with plenty of vegetables, makes schnitzels out of it (covering zander filets in grated cheese and then in eggs mixed with flour and dried bread crumbs), or fries it in butter, with tomato and garlic sauce. The original fisherman's cuisine, for a change, does not think too much of it: in the Delta and all along the Danube, the zander is put together with the rest of the fish either in a soup, or whatever else is being cooked, in brine or buried in hot ashes, since its skin is thick. No matter how it's cooked, the zander is one of the finest joys originating in the Istro-Carpathian area, comparable to any other marine fish, no matter how famous. Pay attention, though, to the fact that of all the twenty-some species of fresh water fish which (seldom!) make their way into our pots, the zander is the first one that goes bad! Be very careful to check for the pleasant scent of grass, the lively, blackish color of the scales, to the intense red of the gills, the firmness of the white meat – never buy a zander without checking these signs, for it will kill you! SHEATFISH: The Frenchmen are again the first westerners who gradually populate their rivers with this Sarmatian-Cretaceous-reptilian monster, of which Romanian experience (and not legends!) says that it could reach 500 kilos and measure 5 m in length. The Danube and the Delta shark (it is carnivorous, eating anything from small worms and geese and even people), the sheatfish has its own strange smell, different from mud, the scent of a strange water plant, or that of faded chestnuts. When the fish is small, weighing up to 1 kilo (parr, smolt), it's magnificent. When it's big (quill, small sheatfish, sheatfish), the meat is very fat and soft. For the moment, only Danubians eat sheatfish prepared according to recipes which eliminate the fat: soup, well-grilled (the famous sheatfish meat with garlic cloves in it), or fried. The Delta fishermen keep sheatfish in pits and feed them just like you'd feed a pig, or tie it down by the mouth with long ropes and keep it in the river until they decide to cut it or to sell it.  STURGEONS – GREAT STURGEON, COMMON STURGEON, STURGEON, STERLET: A living fossil, a good old family of fish, so old that it's a biological miracle these "aristocratic" fish are still our contemporaries. The Acipenser, gentle creatures, vegetarians and planktivorous (but also eating snails, crayfish, and small worms), used to swim upstream the Danube river for thousands of miles to spawn. Besides that, they lived somewhere between the sea and the river, on the shallow pastures of submerged spits, like large and quiet herbivores, endowed with wisdom and a memory older than the Black Sea and the earth surrounding it. It's a thing of the past now! The great sturgeon (huge fish reaching up to 1000 kg) is almost nothing but history and literature. The sturgeons are on the brink of extinction: we have destroyed their lives and turned their habitats upside down. The few lucky ones who find and pay dearly for a piece of sturgeon (poached, of course) discover an extraordinary type of meat, firm in texture, pleasantly scented and amazingly fine in taste. Everything is edible from a sturgeon. The cartilages (replacing the bones) and the bowels are used in soup. The meat is fried, especially grilled (if it's a great sturgeon, which is a little fatter), or fried in oil. The common sturgeon, the sturgeon or the younger great sturgeon (up to 50 kilos) can be cooked in dozens of ways, either boiled, with mayo, fried, with mushrooms, sauces, or any kind of vegetables. I was always amazed at the perfect match of any association: the sturgeon has the generosity given by great nobleness, accepting besides it, with the same warm elegance, sprinkles of asparagus with milk and truffles, endives with green mint and avocado sauce, but also polenta or boiled potatoes with garlic. By destroying the last chances of survival for sturgeons (what happens at the Giurgeni-Vadu Oii "fish market" is nothing but a brutal murder, a serious economic sabotage of the national patrimony carried out under the eyes of the police and prosecutors), Romania does not only destroy one of its original values, but also an exceptional source of income which, if rightfully administered (protected, re-built, supported by fisheries), could bring plenty of profits from a relatively small investment. Paideia, 1998

by Radu Anton Roman (1948-2005)