Situated in central Romania and surrounded by the Carpathian mountain chain, Transylvania or the “land beyond the forest” is easily one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval towns. Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel was inspired by Vlad Dracula, a 15th-century Wallachian nobleman who lived in a castle close to Brasov (a town south-east of Transylvania). According to some estimates, Transylvania has about 100 castles and fortresses and about 70 fortified churches.
Some travelers describe Transylvania as ‘the last truly medieval landscape in Europe,’ which seems quite accurate. Hergé, the creator of Tintin, might have had Transylvania in mind when he wrote ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’! Some of the more prominent Saxon regions in Transylvania including Sighișoara, Biertan, and Viscri are deemed as Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Because of Transylvania’s colossal natural beauty, the region was coveted and acquired many times over by various empires and kingdoms. The region was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary between 950-1526. Subsequently, it became an independent Principality (1526-1690) before being reabsorbed by the Habsburg Empire. It was united with Wallachia and Moldovia to form what we know as Romania today after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in the Treaty of Triannon. After World War I, Transylvania became part of Greater Romania.
The region was dominated by Wallachians, Moldovans, Hungarians, Germans, Romas, Jews, and Armenians. Because of the diversity in racial composition, Transylvania’s history is marked by turbulent periods. The cultural differences within Transylvania are stark. According to experts, the South is dominated by a Saxon culture, the East and North East characterized by a Hungarian culture, the North is more Slavic.
Transylvania’s cuisine is heavily influenced by German, Greek, and Turkish cultures. The key condiments include thyme, red pepper, tarragon and some regions specific wonders like leuștean and cimbru. The staple ingredient is built around lamb, beef, chicken or pork.
All meals traditionally begin with a soup or ciorbă which has many variations including beef, egg yolk, flour dumplings, homemade pasta, or regional vegetables. One national treasure is ciorbă de burtă or a soup made of a cow’s stomach. Soups are traditionally served with a red or green pepper on the side to spice up the palate. As a leading producer of cabbage (varza), it is not surprising to find variations of cabbage cooked in slow heat with various types of animal protein. The most popular side dish is mămăligă – polenta served with a dollop of fresh smântână (sour cream).
Some of the popular main courses include sarmale (cabbage rolls stuffed with spiced pork and rice), Tochitură (pork and beef stew cooked in spicy tomato or wine sauce) served with fried egg yolk. The most popular grill food is a distinctive form of sausage called mici (grilled rolls of minced pork, beef and lamb). What distinguishes a mici from other types of sausages is the absence of any sheath around the meat.
The dessert menu includes strudels and cakes, clătite, (crepes filled with chocolate or fresh fruit) and the simply divine papanaşi or a fried dough sweetened with cream cheese or jam (a sweet beignet). Food is typically served with wine, which is less than mediocre (the natives beg to disagree), beer, which is of high quality, or ţuică (plum-based snap liqueur sure to give you a hangover).
Beware, the culinary experience in Transylvania is expected to increase the chances of a heart attack. But then who cares about the efficacy of arteries pumping blood into the heart when one has a date with ‘Ambrosia’ and divine food.
Brasov, July 11, 2016, 1.45Pby