Last year, before meeting L in Prague, I spent a week on my friend Roger’s “sheep farm with no sheep” in the remote mountains of Transilvania. This spring, Roger invited me and 40 of his closest friends to come to the farm and celebrate his 40th birthday. Sure, there are lots of other places I’d love to travel to, and I often don’t want to go back to a place right away, but given an opportunity to travel — and an opportunity to see friends — I decided to go. Two weeks in Romania was an excellent holiday.
What a beautiful place. In May, last year, everything was green, but there was not much for fresh vegetables on the farm or in the market (at least not local vegetables). We subsisted on lamb, potatoes, onions and carrots. This year, in June, was much different. Roger put us all up at a pension with room and board. He and a friend has purchased and slaughtered a calf before the event, so our meals were veal, sausage, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, bread, eggs, etc. Being early spring, we had fresh, fresh salads, picked straight from the garden. I had outstanding soups in the village and later when we traveled around central Romania. Soups are clearly a Romanian specialty.
Not that beer, sausage and ţuica — hard liquor from apples, plums or pears — aren’t also a staple in the diet.
One of the popular Romanian culinary delights is Mici; a loose sausage of random meets that, when grilled, become more tastey the more beer you drink. This, along with many sausages and veal cutlets made for a wonderful picnic lunch on the farm on the second day of celebration.
For those of us traveling from abroad, who stayed somewhat longer than the weekend, we enjoyed great hikes around the Apuseni mountains, and good food and drink. One day, on the walk into the village, we stopped to talk to the local distiller and see how ţuica is made. The liquor starts as fruit in the fall. Farmers harvest their fruit and put it in the cellar to keep over winter. Any fruit that rots they collect and in the spring all the rotten, fermented fruit (grubs and all) goes into a large vat (an old 50-gallon oil drum, in this case) to be cooked. The entire distillery is portable, so the distiller will travel from farm to farm to distill ţuica for each farmer from his own crop of fruit, whether apples, pears or plum. The mash is double distilled creating a liquor between 70 and 130 proof. This is blended and often watered to bring it down to something between 80 and 100 proof.
There were varying qualities and flavors available, from local farms and from distilleries in Maramureş, which is known for making some of the best ţuica (or palinka, the Hungarian word, as east-central Romania was once part of Hungary and still is home to many ethnic Hungarians). The alcohol wasn’t as clean as a vodka, but much cleaner than a “brandy” (the English word often used to describe it). The fruit flavors were subtle, but apparent. Given the choice, though, I’ll take my gin or aquavit.