Stepping back in time in Transylvania

Transylvania has a way of life lost in the rest of Europe. Just in time for Halloween, Darina Allen paid a visit.    

It’s most associated with Bran Castle and Dracula, but Transylvania has a lot more to offer. For over a decade, I’ve been intrigued by tales of the last truly medieval landscape in Europe.

Friends from the Soil Association regaled me with stories of traditional non-intensive farming in ecological balance with nature where the landscape supports an astonishingly rich biodiversity of plants, animals, wild mammals, game, birds and insects, beautiful wildflower meadows and lush pastures.

Others, painted word pictures of unspoiled Saxon villages with the colour washed houses and evening processions of cows, goats and sheep returning from the fields before sunset to be milked. A glimpse of a way of life not seen elsewhere for many generations.

Nature and wildlife lovers waxed lyrical about the Carpathian Mountains and forests still home to Europe’s largest population of brown bears, lynx, wild boars, deer and wolves. Storks build their nest on top of telegraph poles in the Saxon villages, corncrakes, quail and cuckoos call from the meadows and woods.

Friends interested in history and heritage stressed that I mustn’t miss the historic fortified cities of Sibu, Brascov and Sighisoara, home of Vlad the Impaler and Dracula fame. Neither, should I miss the fortified medieval churches of Viscri, Saschiz and Biertan, now on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Well, I got there at last and they were so right, but what also intrigued me were beautiful Saxon villages where there was scarcely a shop to be seem because virtually everyone in the village was self-sufficient.

Behind every colour washed house built at right angles to the road there was a well tended garden with vegetables and herbs interspersed with flowers and vines. The inner courtyard surrounded by barns and a stable for the horses. Virtually everyone had two or three cows, hens, chickens, geese, ducks and a couple of pigs.

Behind every house, there was a barn full of hay and forage alongside timber Saxon carts, and a fruit orchard with apple, plum, pear and cherry trees.

Every homestead has a summer and winter kitchen, a wine cellar and a well-stocked larder, full of jams, chutneys and preserves, a good stock of cordials and spirits to fortify the family during the long winter months when the temperatures drop to -10 during the day and -30 at night.

Many families also have beehives of their own, others have their bees looked after by pastoral bee keepers who transport their bees in colourful lorries through the countryside from meadow to forest and receive honey in return.

Sheep and goats are in the care of the local transhumant shepherds and their famous Romanian watch dogs who guard them from wolves and bears and move them around from pasture to pasture (in exchange for fresh cheese and carcasses) throughout the year.

From Sibiu we went by car to Zabola, past apple orchards and wild flower meadows. People with pitchforks were tossing the hay in the fields and building it into hay cocks just like we remembered in the 50s.

Huge fields cultivated in strips each with a different owner, the land seems very fertile, with potatoes, corn, wheat, hops.

Stalls by the roadside were selling homemade cheeses, others were piled high with watermelons and Roma children in bright flowery dresses were selling wild strawberries to passersby.

Stepping back in time in Transylvania

Further along the road, locals were selling huge loaves of sourdough bread from outside there houses and making Kurtos Kulacs – a traditional Hungarian pastry that’s called Chimney Cakes, hollow in the centre and caramelized on the outside.

They are cooked by the side of the roadside over charcoal then rolled in a variety of sugar topped with cinnamon walnuts, almonds and pistachios.

We stopped to see the procedure at first hand. Light flaky flavourful dough is kneaded into a thin roll then spirally wrapped around a wooden rotisserie, cooked over charcoal.

The whole confection is then dropped into cellophane bag so you can unravel it bit by bit – so fun to eat. Again completely unique.

Zabola is a hunting lodge with rooms in the midst of a 10,000 acre estate owned by Alexander Roy Chowdry and his family. It was a beautiful place to stay with a delicious breakfast with lots of homemade cheese and cured meats.

We made several excursions to local villages in a horsedrawn cart to visit some of the fortified churches and local museums. We met an 80-year- old who still makes timber carriage wheels for the Saxon carts and bemoans the fact that most people have gone over to rubber tyres nowadays.

There are many activities on the estate but most exciting for us was the evening ‘bear watch’. We crept through the forest with the gamekeeper. Down close to a ‘hide’ hidden between the trees, we spotted the first bear, then a second. We watched as they nosed around in the undergrowth for over 35 minutes until the light eventually faded. We hadn’t realised how lucky we were until later – apparently only about 15% of people even get a glimpse at a bear. We watched the sun go down over the Carpathian mountains and had a delicious dinner by candlelight in a little timber pavilion in the forest.

Next day, we visited a Transylvania mozzarella and yoghurt farm close to Mesendorf where the buffalos ramble through the undulating countryside and graze in the wild flower meadows. Can you imagine the potential for this cheese?

Sounds idyllic, well it is but the greatest challenge for this country which was preserved by its geographical remoteness up to relatively recently is to safeguard its unique culture and tradition in a fast changing world where they have literally gone from every crop being hand scythed to round hay bales and everything in between in just five years.

However many people are well aware of the challenge and much work has been done to develop food and ecological tourism so people can continue to live more or less as they do but enhance their income by showing people their way of life and sharing their skills - bread making, beekeeping, cheese making, knitting, embroidery, preserving, brewing, blacksmith and woodworking.

But what of the food itself? My expectations were not high, friends who had visited earlier in the year were far from complimentary and advised us to pack a huge picnic to sustain us for a week so. However I have to tell you, that I greatly enjoyed the food overall. The food reflects the rich and complex history of this extraordinary country whose inhabitants were originally part of the Austro Hungarian empire, but have also endured two world wars, the communist era and more recently the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. The Saxons originally came from Saxony in Germany in the twelfth century to settle in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains so the food is rustic, robust and meat centric with Hungarian, Romanian, Turkish influences.

Most meals start with one of the delicious sour soups called ‘chorba’. There are lots of cured meats, homemade sausages and salt and paprika cured fat (Slanina) from the Duroc, large white or the native curly Mangalita pigs. For main course, we enjoyed some great stews, braises, hearty bean dishes, stuffed cabbage rolls and mamaliga, similar to polenta made with corn but often embellished with a couple of layers of melting cheese and a generous dollop of smetana (sour cream) on top. We didn’t have any fish during our visit although I believe there are lots of perch and carp in the lakes. A fresh or lightly fermented cabbage salad was very refreshing and served with virtually every meal, as well as lots of new season cucumber and Romanian tomatoes with a pointy end.

Crepes are a favourite dessert stuffed with jam or sweet ricotta, plum dumplings, fritters and Papanasi, a type of cheese doughnut served with homemade preserves and a blob of Smetana on top – rich and irresistible. Virtually every meal starts with a homemade fruit schnapps, Palinca, a potent drop, distilled from plum, apple or pear and a variety of elderflower, acacia and fruit cordials. There’s also homemade wine made with indigenous grape varieties which as you can imagine can be variable but we also discovered several excellent Romanian wines which were totally new to me. We loved Feteascue – Niagra from Villa Vinea which is now sweeping the boards in Paris if you don’t mind.

Tea always means herb tea, made from dried home-grown herbs for both culinary and medicinal use.

The enormous challenge for this country now at ‘tipping point’ is to modernise but yet save its culture so visitors can experience a way of life almost lost in the rest of Europe.

Transylvania has much to teach us, the land is rich and fertile, virtually untouched by chemicals and pesticides. They are multi-skilled, friendly and hospitable people. It’s still a land of intriguing contrasts, go soon and remember tourism in the villages is still in its infancy so enter into the spirit and enjoy the experience – you will return enriched and inspired as I did.

Meet and Greet

Meet the artisans

The large Saxon loaves of sourdough bread are intriguing to see being made - now an option for tourists. The charred crust from the super-hot wood burning oven is chipped off with a wooden stick to reveal a golden loaf underneath – don’t miss this experience unique to Tarnava Mare area of Transylvania. We watched Maria make it at Hanul Cetatii in Saschiz, but you must book ahead.* Contact: Hanul Cetatii in Saschiz Tel: 0044 752 602 722

Meet the bees

You can also don a protective bee suit to learn about Transylvanian bees and how honey is made from a pastoral bee-keeper like the Pandera family in Crit who have been beekeepers for as far as back as anybody can remember and live in a beautiful Saxon homestead.

Tel: 00 40727355822

Meet the shepherds

The transhumant shepherds lifestyle is also intriguing, we spent some time with Costica in the meadows outside Saschiz watching the shepherds handmilking the sheep and goats in a shelter in the meadow and learning how they make several fresh cheese including Telemea, a feta type, Cas, a higher fat slightly salted cheese. Brenza de Burduf, is an even more a fascinating cheese matured in a sheep’s stomach, or a tube of pinebark. Urda, similar to ricotta, made from the whey of the Cas, is eaten fresh. The remainder of the whey is fed to their pigs and chickens.

* Contact details: Catalin Lungu, Saschiz Mures 547510 Tel: 0040 749 639 590


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