Romania was a complete mystery to me. The closest I’d come was giving a desperately homesick, mosquito-bitten Romanian waitress in a remote Greek village a bottle of my repellent spray. She responded with heartfelt thanks and an equally heartfelt description of the beauty, warmth and vibrancy of her homeland. The poignant depth of her desire to be back there whilst we luxuriated in our holiday sunshine, swam in sparkling seas and ate the freshest of food has stuck with me for a decade.
So, when Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania by Irina Georgescu thudded onto my lockdown doormat, I struck straight for the introductory section, in this case oddly split between the front and the back of the book. This covers a little of Irina’s childhood and her rationale for writing the cookbook, and there is a delightfully warm and loving description of the foodstuffs at the heart of Romanian cuisine. This, coupled with the dozen or so photographs of the country itself, thoroughly piqued my interest in the recipes. Then, tucked away towards the back of the book, there are sections on seasons and superstitions, culinary heritage and cultural values. In all honesty the half dozen pages devoted to these topics were perfunctory given the volatile background of the country which (alongside a varied climate) has given rise to a fascinating diet and some delicious, unusual dishes unique to Romania. I’d definitely recommend reading these for context before choosing your recipes.
I quickly peppered the pages with sticky tabs, picking at random from chapters labelled: Food is for sharing; Breads and street food bakes; Bors and ciorba (soups); The main event; Desserts; Pickles, preserves, compotes and drinks. There are lots of familiar ingredients deployed in less-than-familiar ways, alongside ingredients less commonly used in the UK but deeply entrenched in Romanian cooking.
Irina offers up each recipe with a sunny photo accessorised with Romanian fabrics and cloths (echoing the striking patterns on the navy cover), rustic tableware, wooden boards and lovingly used cookware, then a lovely paragraph or two describing and contextualising the dish. I’d highly recommend reading these; they are both a peep into the world behind the recipe and a definite palate sharpener for the flavours and textures to come.
So it was that I headed for Fasole batuta, a creamy, garlicky butterbean dip topped with a sweet layer of luscious, tomatoey, caramelised onions. This was quick and easy enough to become a staple in our house, slapped on crusty bread or scooped with warmed pittas. Disconcertingly, here (as in several other places) the photos of the two recipes on the facing page are inverted – I don’t understand why, and it’s slightly irritating.
Salata de fasole verde is a plate of simmered green beans in vinaigrette – I’ll admit to a certain scepticism, I’m a ‘squeaky bean’ fanatic and rarely like slow-cooked, khaki greens. This recipe converted me. Topped with the recommended feta and almonds, it makes a vibrant side dish or light lunch, though I’d tone down the garlic a little next time.
Ostropel de Oltenia, chicken and polenta dumplings in tomato sauce is described in the introduction as “quick and fiery”. Given that the sauce comprised passata, stock and garlic I wasn’t convinced. I battled a little with this recipe: were the chicken thighs on or off the bone, skinned or unskinned, was the dish covered or uncovered during cooking? I swallowed my annoyance, and used my instincts (bone in, unskinned, covered), aware that less experienced cooks might struggle. This produced a fascinatingly rich yet light dish, fiery with garlic (though even as a garlic lover I toned down the raw garlic topping a little), the dumplings cloud-like and the whole thing grassily bright with chopped parsley. It felt truly evocative of the area described in the introduction to the dish and I was delighted I’d given it a chance.
A little less successful, Muschiulet Sibian (stuffed pork tenderloin with pickled mushrooms) definitely needed less time in the oven, quickly drying out despite the good-quality ham and gooey gouda stuffing. That said, I would cook this again in a heartbeat (albeit with adjusted timings): the pork was stunning in combination with the pickled mushrooms showered with parsley. It felt like a true special occasion meal, and as for the description of Siblu in the recipe’s introduction – there’s a word in Welsh “hiraeth”, which is a longing for somewhere you’ve never been or which may no longer exist. This perfectly describes the yearning I have to visit Siblu.
Then we come to Conopida la cuptor, a cauliflower gratin in an enriched sour cream sauce. The flavours, light, peppery, nutmeg-spiced and tangy, were very pleasant and the gratin was almost mousse-like in texture, but the breadcrumbs in the base turned to mush. I’m not sure if I did something wrong but it would make a great lunch without the odd mushy layer.
Finally, probably one of my top five new dishes of the year so far. I chose it because the picture is pretty, but oh my word, what a dish! I’m excited to make this again. Ciorba de dbovlecei umpluti is a beef broth soup in which stuffed courgettes are gently poached then garnished with sour cream and mint. It is one of those ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ recipes, simple to make, from humble ingredients yet phenomenal both in texture and flavour. One caveat, decent beef stock is essential (your own is cheap and easy: our butcher gives bones for free, we roast them at a high temperature for 20 mins then simmer them all day, done). I will make this again unhesitatingly and it’s encouraged me to explore more of Romanian food; definitely more ciorbas!
I’m rifling through the comprehensive index and the photos even as I write this, interested to explore more of the Romanians’ ingenious use of ingredients to create a unique gastronomic landscape. Perhaps a trip to the Danube Delta and Siblu will be on the cards post-lockdown…
Recipes from Carpathia
We have permission from Frances Lincoln to share a couple of recipes with you from the book:
- Ciorbă de dovlecei umpluţi (Stuffed courgette ciorbă with soured cream)
- Mici ‘Littles’ (Romanian soured cream meat sausage)
- Invartita (Apple and blueberry swirl pie)
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania by Irina Georgescu from publisher Frances Lincoln. Book photography by Jamie Orlando Smith. The book is currently available from Amazon UK (at time of publication) for £15.99 (RRP £22.00). Book cover image provided by publishers, all other images by Nicky Bramley.