Thursday, July 26, 2007

Gastronomic globalisation

It has been three years since I moved to Romania, and in that short time much has changed here. I'd like to let you know that it was my arrival that caused the upheavals, but I suspect that things were just motoring along anyway and the fact that I showed up made bog-all difference.

Among the changes is the availability of certain food items. Now a mere three years ago, there were very few "fancy" goods on sale. You could easily get your locally grown vegetables in season, your various forms of salami, your polenta, and your coca cola. But there were a number of items that were less easy to find, or, to be completely honest, impossible outside maybe of a few specialist delicatessens in Bucharest (By the way, as a complete aside, is the plural of delicatessen delicatessens? It looks wrong.)

But slowly things started to show up. I first noticed this in the vinegar aisle, where the usual clear "white" vinegar ruled supreme, but gradually inroads were made by first apple/cider vinegar, then red wine vinegar, and now even balsamic. You still can't get malt vinegar for your chips, but then outside of the UK I've rarely seen that (you can get it in the US, where it is marketed as a "gourmet" product, because it's exotic and foreign).

Other things that have become available:
  • Broccoli - I know to the outsider that will sound odd - after all broccoli is practically ubiquitous, no? Not here. It only existed in ice bound packets, untouched for decades down the bottom of freezers in the frozen section of some supermarkets. Now you can buy it fresh in the market. Occasionally.
  • Capers - not fresh, obv., but in jars
  • Foreign wines - you have to go to fancy places like Carrefour or Spar to get them but they exist. (Note: Hungarian wines were available previously, but people here would consider them only loosely foreign)
  • Herbs. Fresh ones. Well, you could always get dill and parsley, and mint grows by the roadside, but things like basil and coriander were merely a kind of late night had-too-much-wine fantasy. Not anymore. You have to drive all the way to the Spar in Udvarhely to get them, but get them you can.
  • Exotic crisps - with enticing names like "Hot Salsa" (about as hot as a November day in Csikszereda), and "Sour Cream and Onion".
  • Courgettes. You could always get these kind of faux-courgettes, which were light green (as opposed to the more traditional dark), but now at the market you can buy real ones. Sadly the growing community have not quite sussed the vegetable properly yet, and tend to overgrow it and let it become too marrow-esque. By only buying the very small ones, I'm hoping to send a message. (Though that message is probably read as "Here comes that stupid English bloke again, he'll buy all these underdeveloped marrows")
  • Soy sauce - Not sure who uses it and for what, since it doesn't seem to be a key ingredient in anything that anyone eats, but it has appeared on the shelves.
  • Chick peas - Again not in any great abundance, but in more specialist shops you can find them. I remember when I arrived I asked about them but nobody was really sure what I was on about. This was even after I had taught myself the Hungarian word (csicseriborsó). Now I can even say the word, show people the peas themselves and they still have no idea what they are. You can also buy humous in certain places, on a lucky day.
  • Fresh fish - the szekely tend to look upon fresh fish and other seafood as being the work of satan. Not so much trout which is fairly common, but anything else really, and until recently I knew of nowhere in town where you could buy fresh fish. Bizarre, huh? I suppose being so far from the sea, it's not terribly surprising, but in these days of foods having their very own carbon footprints, you'd think people would slowly get used to the idea. I even saw fresh octopus in the Spar in Udvarhely. I bet no-one bought it.
Things that haven't yet become available
  • Dijon mustard. Well, I think you can get it in Carrefour, but beyond that you have to be content with that much less flavourful vividly coloured Romanian Mici mustard
  • Tortilla chips. You can actually get ones that are cheese-flavoured, but as "all cheese is sajt" as I like to say, oh-so-wittily, and as tortilla chips should be unflavoured anyway, this is of no value. Before the arrival of fresh coriander this lack was of no great consequence, since without salsa, who needs tortilla chips? But now I am able to make my own fresh and delicious salsa (particularly given the abundance of utterly fantastic locally grown tomatoes), the lack has grown into a desperate need. So desperate in fact that I considered making my own tortillas, just so that I could let them go stale and then fry them up. But then I found a recipe for making tortillas that said I needed something called "masa harina", and added that you couldn't really buy it in the shops, but if you lived near a tortillera (tortilla factory) they would sell you some. At which point I threw the book across the room screaming "If I lived near a tortillera I wouldn't be making tortillas, MORONS!", quite freaking out my family.
  • Chutney - no surprise really as Indian food is hardly taking the country by storm, but occasionally I dream of a day when I can pop down the shop and buy a jar of mango chutney or lime pickle to go with my curry. I did actually bring some back from England once but in a moment of cross-cultural comedy my mother-in-law threw it away thinking it was jam that had gone bad.
I can't think of a nice pithy but conclusive way to close this post. So this will have to do.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Munkácsy in Transylvania

Csikszereda has been playing host to a much hyped up and amazingly professional exhibition this year (it finished last weekend). This was an exhibition of the paintings of Mihaly Munkacsy in the Miko Var (the castle depicted on the front of a bottle of Ciuc beer for those able to take a look at such an artifact). The whole thing was not only professionally presented, but well organised, and, amazingly, advertised. I know that last one doesn't sound like much of a deal, but here things rarely get publicised until they're more or less over. The posters for the music festival in Tusnad happening this week appeared yesterday for example. But the Munkacsy exhibition was publicised widely with large banners everywhere (and not only in Csikszereda but as far away as Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures) - there has even, I'm told, been transport laid on from various corners of Transylvania for people to attend.)

So, anyway, enough about the novelty of having something well organised in the town, and onto the thing itself. Who is this Mihaly Munkacsy, you may be asking yourself. Or at least you probably will be asking yourself that question if you're not Hungarian / linked to Hungarians in some way / an art history expert. Mihaly Munkacsy, or Munkácsy Mihály if we are to be more accurate, is Hungary's most famous painter. I won't bore you with his life story, since you can read it on Wikipedia.

His style isn't really to my taste to be frank (one of my favourite paintings at the exhibition was one of him by a Rippl-Rónai József). But that's not to say it wasn't interesting and there were one or two pictures that really catch the eye. Some of my favourites are unavailable on the Internet (or at least I can't find them with 5 minutes Googling, and that's as much effort as I'm prepared to put in). His most famous paintings are referred to as the trilogy - three pictures depicting the trial/crucifixion of Christ (you can look at all three of them here). Two of them were here in their full glory while the third, "Ecce Homo", which a young James Joyce apparently raved about when it came to Dublin, was only here in final draft form, rather than the actual painting itself. "Golgotha" was the most interesting as there was also a display of photos that he took to help him compose the picture, including one of himself crucified(yes, he strung himself up on a cross and had someone take a picture so he could use himself as a model). The best bit of it, I reckon, is these two blokes in the foreground wandering away from the scene having a chat. It's refreshing realistic to imagine that while this moment might be the defining moment in Christianity and therefore be very important in the larger picture of Western civilization, at the time presumably it was nothing very special at all, for many more than a handful of people.

Anyway, not quite sure of the purpose of this review, except to maybe highlight the works of someone mostly unknown outside of the Hungarian speaking world.

(Oh, and while we were there, our crap mayor came in guiding a Romanian tour party around the exhibition - something which he did in Romanian. This a far cry from his behaviour at the end of last summer which I reported here. You see he can speak Romanian when it suits him.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Good Life

There are days when it is very good to live in Csikszereda. That's not to say there are days when it's bad to live in Csikszereda, it's just that most of the time one doesn't look around and say to oneself "Csikszereda is the most exciting place in the world/Romania in which to reside". As I've said before it has many things to recommend it, and other things that may make one think twice about choosing, voluntarily, to move here.

One of the latter points is usually the temperature. It is well known within Romania that this is the coldest place in the country, and when the mercury drops to -35 in the winter, it can cause you to question your judgement, sanity, and appendages. Currently though, this negative is most decidedly a positive. Romania (and other countries in the region) are still gripped by an oppressive heatwave which has sent temperature soaring towards 40 degrees. In the shade. That's pretty seriously hot. Here today it got up, I think, to around 33. That's still pretty hot, and out in the sun was fairly oppressive. But, it's better than everywhere else in Romania. A couple of weeks ago i did a teacher training workshop here in the town, for which people came from various different destinations, mostly within Transylvania. One woman came all the way from Galati, and was so happy to be in the relative cool of the mountains. OK we don't have the Rolling Stones playing here, but we do have Boban Markovic playing just down the road this week (and to be entirely honest I'm actually more interested in going to a concert of the latter rather than the former).

So this evening as I survey the temperatures afflicting the rest of the country, I can sit here sipping my ice cold Bere Ciuc, and truthfully say "This is the best place to live in Romania". Long may the heatwave last.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The world's most refreshing drink

I have recently been introduced to the most delicious and refreshing beverage known to humanity. All you need for this drink are two basic ingredients - málna szörp and ice cold (fizzy) mineral water. Now obviously while most of the people reading this can easily access the second of those ingredients, you may be less familiar with the first. Indeed you may actually need to make the málna szörp before you can go ahead and then use it in the drink. Oh, and by the way, in case I haven't flogged this horse far enough, the European centre of fizzy mineral water is Harghita County, Romania, and it is utterly great - I can either go and buy it by the case load for ridiculously small amounts of money (something like 0.8 RON/litre ≈ 15p/€0.25/$o.30), or I can just go and fill up a bottle for free in any spring in the vicinity (and every village has at least one spring. 25% of all Europe's mineral water springs are in Harghita County. Yes, 25% of all of Europe.) Not everyone is fortunate enough to live in this fizzy-watered paradise though, so you can just go and buy a bottle of whatever takes your fancy in the mineral water front. One day you'll all be drinking Borsec and Perla Harghitei, but while Romanian remains 50 years behind the rest of Europe, our water-exporting infrastructure is not ready to handle the huge demand that will one day see Harghita County world-renowned for its borviz.

So, what is málna szörp, you may be asking. Málna is the Hungarian word for raspberry, and szörp sounds like it should mean syrup. It probably doesn't as that would be far too easy, but it'll do (I've seen it translated as "cordial"). Since I've never seen málna szörp on sale anywhere, not even here, you'll have to make your own. This however is very easy:

Take your raspberries. I don't know from where you "source" your raspberries (to use the modern management vernacular), or how much they cost, but you can use any quantity (I'd recommend a kilo or more). We got a bucket full off one of the gypsy women down the market which turned out to be 3.5kgs (that's quite a lot of raspberries). Put your raspberries into a big pot (or two big pots if you've got too many to go in one). Mash them. Use a cup or something to squash them as much as you are able. When you've mashed them to a pulp, pour in a litre of water for every kilo of raspberries (this doesn't have to be mineral water, regular tap water will do). Leave them overnight.

The next day, rig up some kind of elaborate draining system. If you don't have that many raspberries, this will probably be a sieve which drains into another pot. If you have more than your sieve can hold, then you'll need a kind of muslin lined colander. In the pot into which the liquid is to drain put 1 kilo of sugar for every kilo of raspberries (I know that sounds a lot, but trust me on this.) Then go ahead and leave the raspberry mush/water mixture to drain onto the sugar, ideally overnight again, but a few hours ought to just about be enough if you're pushed for kitchen space.

Et voila. The next day you have large quantities of delicious sweet málna szörp sitting waiting to be bottled. So, you wash out a few bottles, fill them with the málna szörp and bob's your uncle. 3.5 kgs of raspberries produced 6 litres of szörp. And 6 litres of málna szörp goes a long way - to make the drink that will quench your thirst and set your taste buds atingle, you need to put about a centimetre in the bottom of a glass and top up with your ice cold* mineral water.

(*I should perhaps add here that my insistence on ice cold mineral water is a bit controversial. While you or I might think for a refreshing summer drink, ice cold is best, here any kind of food or drink served at a temperature outside of an approximately 20 degree wide lukewarm band is regarded as a bit suspect. People happily drink coffee that has gone cold, don't really like their soup to be too hot, and eschew very cold drinks. It's all very odd. I am regarded as a bit freaky in my insistence on drinking my hot drinks hot, my cold drinks cold and having my cooked food served hot. )

Saturday, July 07, 2007

7/7/7 in pictures

A photo post, hot off the camera (as ever, clicking on any of these will bring them up to a more viewable size)

First off a couple of shots of a bunch of Szekelys being Szekelyish. Today is the "Ezer Szekely Leany" festival (1000 Szekely girls). I'm not really sure what happens in this festival, because I think I've been away each at the relevant time of year previously, but they did some kind of dancing and wandering around in traditional costume stuff in the square and then all trotted off to Csiksomlyo for the main event, which we may, if time permits, go and check out later.

Chauffeurs waiting for their clients

Some of the eponymous Szekely girls

The Zsögöd contingent with ineffective camouflage

Enough with the Szekely girls and onto some shots of the town, that may or may not be of interest.

This appeared in town the other day:
A touch screen tourist information thingy, with a webcam and email facility and apparently wireless internet access if you sit near it. In Csikszereda. What on earth is going here? Anyone would think we were in Europe.

I've been meaning to take a picture of this shop window for months now.
A shop that apparently sells kitsch rubbish and knick knacks (or "Tchotchkis" as I've heard them called - spelling unknown), along with costumes recovered from the film sets of 1970s porn films. Who is going to buy that outfit, I wonder to myself every time I pass the shop. Yes, you're not mistaken, the black bits are kind of PVC vinyl. It's strangely fascinating to me, and I find myself spellbound by it everytime I pass.

One of those monuments that has recently caused such trouble in Estonia

The big cultural event of the moment in town. people are being bussed in from all over Transylvania to see these paintings in the castle to which this poster is affixed.

Tomatoes with nipples, as mentioned here

And a couple more random pictures.

And, finally, for no reason whatsoever, not that I need one, Paula on the phone talking to her broker.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


What does Germany mean to you? What images are conjured up by that name? Well-engineered cars? Hitler and the Nazis? Good football team marred by that diving cheat Jurgen Klinsmann? Cleanliness and efficiency? Towels-on-the-beach at 7am? Central axis of the new European project? (Possibly unfortunate use of the word "axis" there, sorry) The country that much of Europe (and the world) aspires to be? Excellent beer? A "cuisine" that is over-reliant on sausages and cabbage? Fast trains and speedy autobahns? 99 Luftballons? Marlene Dietrich? Unnatural love of David Hasselhoff and The Kelly Family?

For much of Eastern Europe, it would seem, Germany is seen as one vast second hand car dealership. And not just cars - lorries, buses, forklifts, I dunno, probably helicopters and stuff too. Just this weekend, for example, I was passed on the road to Sovata by a bus just bought from Germany going like the clappers. It was a bendy bus too (I'm not sure if bendy bus is the technical name for one of those buses with a kind of concertina bit in the middle, but you know what I mean. Omnibus Articulatum or something.) The roads, car dealerships, and free-newspapers-that-sell-cars are filled with recently imported vehicles. In Csikszereda, most of the lorries that ply the town delivering stuff or transporting stuff around still have evidence of their German roots - slogans and logos of companies in Hamburg, stickers in the window saying "Heinrich", that kind of thing, while sporting a Romanian number plate with an HR (Harghita) designation (It may not, in truth, be "most", but it's a significantly high percentage).

If ever you mention in passing that you're looking to buy a car, everyone you know will know someone whose livelihood depends on going to Germany, buying up cars and driving them back. I'm serious. At times I wonder if there is anyone sitting on the planes that fly between Frankfurt/Munich and Bucharest, or whether there are vast bottlenecks in Hungary as swarms of Romanians drive their German vehicles home. A casual observer at the border crossing at Oradea would probably assume that Romania is a vastly popular holiday destination for Germans, based on all the German registered cars coming through.

This year the Romanian government has imposed a punitive tax on these incoming cars, the so-called "first registration tax", by which every car being registered for the first time in Romania is subject to a high tariff. This tax, it is rumoured, comes as a result of intense pressure from Renault who own Dacia and who are therefore the biggest sellers of new cars in Romania. The EU has told Romania that this tax is illegal and a hindrance to free trade or something, but so far it has not been removed, though the assumption is that sooner or later it will have to be (court cases in Poland and Hungary have already put paid to similar laws in those countries). When it is rescinded, apparently, everyone will have to be paid back, but since this is Romania the levels of bureaucracy that will almost certainly be involved in getting it back will be so time-consuming that many people will just not bother, giving the government a nice little tax-windfall which they can use on hushing up the CIA torture camps or whatever.

This trade in vehicles from West to East, by the way, is not limited to the Germany-Romania corridor. As far as I can tell it is common all over Eastern Europe, and, indeed, if you go to (which is the virtual parking lot for a large number of these vehicles), you will come across loads of dealers who specify which Eastern European languages they speak. Similarly, while Germany is the main source, other countries are also helping supply our quiveringly addictive need for second-hand cars. A friend recently went to Italy to accompany and translate for some blokes from here who drove over a couple of car transporters and bought up a bunch of cars that had been rescued from flood waters, filled with mud and obviously not working. The theory is that you bring them home, clean them up, fix them and then sell them for 4 times what you paid for them (with the danger that they will not be repairable cancelled out by the profits on the ones that are). His story about the whole negotiation and "marketplace" in which it took place is pretty funny - involving the mafia, Bulgarian gangsters, Moldovans, Romanians and god knows who else.

The reason for this post at this time? Yes, I have just bought a second hand VW Golf, imported from Germany, and currently going through the registration process. (As ever a bureaucratic and slow plod, speeded up by knowing someone who knows someone at different stages of the way). It is a very nice car though, with one small complaint - it has a cassette player in it. It was built in 2003, for christs sake, why on earth did Volkswagon think putting a cassette player in it was a good idea? Why not just go with a bloody gramophone? Vorsprung Durch Technic, and all that stuff.

Monday, July 02, 2007


No, not the French island off East Africa.

I have never been to a school reunion. Not of my secondary school, not of my (excuse British-ism) VIth form college, not of my University. I have never even been invited to one, and have no idea if such things have ever been held. I have to assume not, since I can't be that hard to track down - while I have moved a lot and all over the shop, my folks have lived in the same place since I was 7, and I really honestly wasn't so unpopular that I would have been deliberately "forgotten" when invitations were being sent.

Here, however, these reunions are not only held, but have quite a specific format. I know this because on Friday we went to Erika's back in Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures). The whole thing kicks off with an "Oszi ora" (spelling very possibly wrong) in which the class reconvenes in their old classroom with their old teacher and says something about what they've been up to/cracks a joke etc. That is in the afternoon, and then in the evening there is the party to which the spouses, partners, etc get invited.

What's especially interesting about this particular class is that the vast majority of them have emigrated. Erika is one of the few of her classmates who still lives in Romania, while the others are in Hungary, Luxembourg, Germany, Canada, the US, Switzerland, etc. This, I think, very much reflects the time at which they graduated high school and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures was (for Hungarians) particularly hard hit by the Ceausescu years. This is obviously not to say that everyone wasn't hard hit by Ceausescu (well nearly everyone, people like Iliescu obviously did alright). Then in 1990, post Ceausescu, the city was the location for Romania's only serious inter-ethnic conflict between Hungarians and Romanians (Human Rights Watch report), and I think for many people at that time, especially Hungarian young adults, it may have been seen as a time to get out while it was momentarily possible. Obviously things didn't turn out for the worst, and the riots and attacks were an isolated incident and while the ethnic balance has shifted in the city (it is now majority Romanian), people's worst fears were not realised. But they have resulted in the emigration of a large section of the Hungarian population who were old enough to remember the 80s, young enough to not have built up a vast set of ties and responsibilities within the town, but adult enough to have been free to leave in the early 90s. (I susepct I have rather ungallantly given Erika's age away here, or at least led the reader to guess exactly which high school reunion we were celebrating)

Anyway, the party was very good, aside from the food which was bloody rubbish (a universally held opinion, not just mine). I'm even getting used to being at parties at which all the music is entirely unfamiliar to me. As ever it went on until the hours were no longer so wee (I'm still taken aback about how long parties go on here), and there were even people present who spoke less Hungarian than me. There was a football match the following day between the class boys and the husbands of the class girls. I didn't play, because (a) we had to get back to Paula, (b) I didn't know about it, and so had no suitable shoes, and (c) I'd only got to bed after 5 and had consumed a fair amount of booze and I am no longer capable of indulging in that kind of madness (and to be honest I'm not sure how any of the others were - I mean the nature of the event means that there isn't that great an age range between potential participants).