Celebrate with a Feast: A Conversation with Irina Georgescu




A COOKBOOK IS a kind of invitation to its author’s table. So it is with Irina Georgescu’s book Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania, which draws overdue attention to the food of her native country. Of course, the culinary world is crowded and chaotic at the best of times. Turmoil such as it has endured during the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, and the competing pulls on people’s attention are an additional confounding variable. Still, upon the book’s release in the United Kingdom, food blogger Nigella Lawson declared herself “so grateful for Irina Georgescu for taking me to Romania through the pages of her wonderful book.” 

Georgescu herself has reached out to readers and would-be readers via social media, making what connections she can in the absence of in-person events. What she’s not done is sulk or grow desperate for attention. The recipes she offers aren’t faddish, and her tone, when arguing for the merits of Romanian food, isn’t evangelical. Instead, she says, “I want this book to be an acknowledgement and celebration of Romanian home cooking, our culinary heritage, and who we are as people.” That modesty belies how well suited to the present moment the recipes here are, with their approachable comforts ready to be shared with family and friends. 

I spoke with Georgescu about Romania’s history and its impact on the country’s culinary practices and profile abroad. We also discussed what she’s been cooking and eating during the time of social distancing and what she’s looking forward to when these restrictions are finally relaxed.

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JOHN MCINTYRE: You’re in Wales just now — as in early April just now, the same week news outlets started showing goats roaming the streets there. What are you doing there, and what are you and your family eating at present?

IRINA GEORGESCU: Yes, the goats! It proves that you can never be too far from the countryside when you live in Wales. I love it! Moving to Wales when I had the opportunity was a dream come true. Writing about food while being right in the middle of one of the most beautiful lands in the UK feels like a privilege. I was born in Bucharest, capital of Romania, a very busy place, which after the Revolution in ’89 exploded into a vibrant, entrepreneurial, and fast-paced city. It was exciting, but I remember longing to go to the countryside, where my parents had a house, or to live in Transylvania where we still had relatives. I’m definitely not a city person, and I find it easier to think and write when I’m surrounded by nature. Besides … Wales looks like Transylvania: rolling hills, magical forests, spectacular scenery. Because of this, it feels like home. You know that Wales and Wallachia, the old name of southern Romania, share the same name origin: Vlachs. Maybe my ancestors came from here, traveling through the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, all the way to Eastern Europe.

There are similarities between Welsh and Romanian cookery. We love slow-cooked stews with dumplings and roast dinners. We love leeks and potatoes, honey and cobnuts, plums, apples, and damsons. I always like to serve them with a little polenta on the side or a salad of sauerkraut with ground pepper. I even do a shocking thing and buy gherkins to eat with my fish and chips. So, my husband and I eat British, Welsh, and Romanian style. I prefer savory breakfasts with cucumbers, boiled eggs, cheese, and charcuterie. We very often eat vegetarian, especially because, traditionally, Romanians have a lot of Lent days in a year, which has generated a delicious vegetarian repertoire. I only eat meat four times a month, because it’s how I grew up, and when I do, I eat pork and beef. Now, being in Wales, it is impossible not to eat lamb, where the dish is among the best in the world, but in Romania, we only eat lamb at Easter. The other thing is that Romanians love to bake, eat donuts with jam and crème fraîche, crêpes with sour cherry confiture, or cakes with meringue. So, you will certainly find some of these in my house if you decide to visit.

It’s hard not to mention the story you tell about your father working away from home and returning for a few days at a time, always bringing food. That was essential, you say, because “food was mostly found on the black market.” What have your impressions been lately, seeing so many empty store shelves and the way people have reacted to that apparent uncertainty or insecurity? There’s not an actual food shortage, though finding a certain ingredient might be temporarily out of the question.

I was just thinking about this the other day. The empty shelves in the shops have certainly brought back memories, especially of empty meat counters. Most of the shelves in communist Romanian stores were filled with jars of pickled beetroot, tins of sardines, and canned carrots. Think Andy Warhol! The only certainty was that we couldn’t find anything in the shops. We didn’t face the fear of not finding ingredients. We knew that the shops were empty. This situation happened mostly toward the end of the regime, probably in the last seven or eight years. I remember my dad coming home and saying, “It’s getting worse.” There was seasonal fruit and veg at the market and we had to queue for meat and items such as oil, butter, and flour. These were rationed ingredients, and the shops were only stocked randomly.

Our uncle in Transylvania reared a pig for us every year, so we had meat from December to probably May. The black market was able to supply some ingredients, including some exotic ones such as cocoa powder, coffee, bananas, or Chinese chocolate. One thing that sounds hilarious now was that “bribing” was done with food products like pigs, turkeys, chickens, and homemade alcoholic drinks, or with cigarettes, soap, deodorant, coffee, and whiskey. Looking at things from this perspective, today’s panic buying comes from a place of abundance: the fear of not having olive oil, Spanish chorizo, and tahini. I am oversimplifying, of course. Many people bought more because, all of a sudden, all the members of the family were eating three meals a day at home. My reaction to a potentially limited choice was more a concern about losing the ability to test recipes … and ultimately to write.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that the ingredients here are pretty accessible, but now of all times there’s some uncertainty about finding specific items. Are there substitutions you’ve made in the past, say when traveling or when you didn’t have time to go and grab something you needed, that you would recommend to someone picking up this book?

I think that the most common one is the Romanian-style brânză — or ricotta. I live quite far from a large supermarket, and often I don’t want to drive to get 250 grams of cheese. So, I make it at home, using milk from the local shop, where I can actually walk to get it. But even so, if I have yogurt in the fridge, I drain it of water and use it instead of cheese.

Another one that I often do is to replace breadcrumbs for coating with cornmeal. I think the result is so much better, and it has a fab color.

Last one that springs to mind is hot-smoking ingredients. We loved smoked food in Romania, such as meat, fish, cheese, and fruit. I can’t get those ingredients here, so I prepare them myself, but if I don’t have any wood chips, I use Lapsang Souchong dried loose tea.

Without question, food is the introduction a lot of people have to unfamiliar places. You mention also the music, poetry, and art of Romania. Give me a musical accompaniment to a dish or meal you could put together from the book.

I love your question, because it captures what actually happens in a traditional Romanian restaurant. There is music, and there are folk dances, and very often traditional feasts end up with everyone singing at the top of their lungs. We have a beautiful style of music called doină. It’s about the loss of love, longing for someone’s presence, or longing to return to the parental home. Such songs often bring tears to one’s eyes, especially after a few glasses of wine, but it’s a sweet feeling of introspection and reminiscence. I would listen to a doină when eating borş de perişoare, a tangy meatball broth, because it makes me think of my mum and how she cooked for us all her life, not only to keep us fed and make us happy, but to show her love.

You’ve spoken about the food, the recipes in this book, with real modesty. You’re not saying they’ll disappoint from the standpoint of flavor or comfort, but that this is food for daily living. Were there other (more elaborate, special-occasion) preparations you considered including but held back for one reason or another?

I usually refrain from calling my food delicious — it’s not for me to decide that. From my point of view, it is tasty, because it is the food I grew up with, but I can’t promise that someone else will think the same. Food is very subjective.

I dreamt of having a chapter in the book dedicated to offal. It is something that we eat in Romania — something I totally agree with too, in terms of eating the whole animal, not just prime cuts. One of our traditional soups is tripe ciorbă. We love pan-fried liver, or a chicken heart and gizzard stew in a spicy tomato sauce. We have a delicious calf-brains omelette or polenta-coated sweetbreads. We love piftie, a pork aspic that we only make for New Year’s Eve. Our traditional Easter terrine, drob, is made with lamb offal wrapped in an embroidery-like caul. I think the chapter would have caught people’s attention, especially now when we need to eat more ethically. These odd bits are full of flavor and vitamins. However, I did manage to include a few such recipes in the book, just not enough to make up a chapter. Perhaps, reading through the dishes mentioned above, it is obvious why. I think people would order something like this in a restaurant, but not want to make it at home.

It also appears that the book’s design provides a material history of the country, a portrait through table settings, textiles, and so on. The food is beautifully made, but it’s not presented in a finicky way, and the overall impression is homey and comforting.

It is what I had in mind for the book. This is a cookery book, and the focus needed to stay on food, not on props or “the story.” There is a lot of text around each recipe, so, in a way, I wanted people to have the “breathing space” to read about our food and not feel overwhelmed by overcomplicated setups. Romanian cuisine is a new topic for so many people, and there is a lot to take in information-wise. I only bought three tea towels in Romanian patterns, and I had a few hand-painted plates and bowls in the house for the more traditional shots. The rest needed to be simple, with vibrant colors, inviting and accessible. 

You mention in the book that these dishes are the best versions of home cooking you could create, but you also offer an updated/modernized Limbă cu măsline. Have you been to restaurants outside Romania that have modernized the cuisine while staying grounded in the traditions, the major flavors underpinning Romanian food?

Some of the dishes in this book reflect the way I eat now. Apart from the example with the ox-tongue with olive salsa, there is also a mutton pastrami (I couldn’t have given you a recipe that took three months to make), or a gluten-free apple torte. Romanian food is very personal to every one of us; the recipes were passed down from generation to generation, and we don’t tend to disagree with them. Why fix something that is not broken?

However, food, like any cultural thing, is a movable feast, it adapts, changes, and evolves. Otherwise, it loses relevance to present times and new ways of life. I’m aware of one place in Paris called Ibrik, a bistro, no-reservations kind of place, that serves Romanian dishes adapted to the restaurant scene in Paris. Our cuisine is perfect for this style, a bit like tapas, small plates of fantastic food that make people want more, that keep the conversation going and the wine flowing. I hope that other people will get in touch following this article and let me know about other Romanian restaurants like this around the world.

You write: “There is a lot to say about Romania’s cuisine, but there are very few voices that have told the stories.” Who among those few voices would you point to as an additional guide? Who today would you like people to hear more from?

I think there are quite a few in Romania but not so many outside of Romania. People passionate about our traditions and history travel up and down the country to collect recipes, photograph places and people, and by doing so save them from oblivion. I’ll mention here Răzvan Voiculescu, an extraordinary photographer who has started a project called “The Wandering Kitchen.” After the ’89 revolution, he came back from France to photograph Romania, places he knew or had discovered, people making food in their traditional homes. He told me that, in the many years since he has started, every year Romania is losing a bit of itself, its past and its customs. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find the authenticity that once was so easy to capture.

Then, there is Cosmin Dragomir, from GastroArt, a journalist and a team of historians who talk about Romanian cuisine mainly between the two World Wars. It’s almost incredible to learn that we had in Bucharest the largest chocolate factory in Eastern Europe. Mircea Groza has an immensely popular Facebook page where he focuses mainly on the cuisine of one county in the northwest, Sălaj, and he even writes in the local accent. His food is glorious. Last but not least, there is the team at Savori Urbane, an enthusiastic and passionate group of food writers who cook from their family recipes — very often regional dishes not to be found in mainstream Romanian cookery. I would love for people outside Romania to start to do more in favor of our cuisine, even if only to mention a connection to Romania through a grandmother, a place, or a memory. We need momentum, and this builds bit by bit, to put Romania back on the culinary map of Europe.

You call Romania a culinary melting pot, and there’s a definite sense of wonder at times, and also gratitude, when you discuss the origins of certain dishes. The torta de ingatata, for example, you call “the famous Sicilian cake made with candied fruit and a ricotta filling, that somehow landed in Romania as an ice cream cake.” Or you talk about the obvious relatives to cașcaval pane you could find in Greek or Italian cuisines. That makes me think of something you mention in passing as you introduce the recipe for Marmelada de macese cu mere padurete. You talk of “old Bucharest, with traditional urban houses and two storey buildings from the 19th century, cobbled streets, overflowing fruit orchards and hanging grape vines. All of this was to be wiped out by the grand building ambitions of Ceaușescu, when we lost so much of our beloved city and our connection with the past.” How much did Romanian food culture lose in regard to its global profile during those years? And what has prevented it from finding a larger audience around the world in the years since?

I think we lost a lot during those years. Can you imagine? Layer after layer of communism-injected generations. Ceauşescu nationalized everything — land, farms, skills, and even history. At school, I learned a communist version of Romanian history, where we had always been an oppressed nation that others wanted to conquer, but we took pride in our identity and bravery and managed to pull through. What identity? We only came together as a country in 1918, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, like many other nations in that part of the world. Our “identity” was possibly given by the Romanian language, which was spoken throughout the territory of today’s Romania, despite the fact that half of it was under the Austrian Empire and the other under the Ottomans, and its “Latinity” being completely surrounded by a Slavic-language world.

After World War II, there was this obsession with a pure Romanian identity, Romanian nation, Romanian dishes, and so on. In this part of the world, things thrive in their diversity, not in isolation, but the communist regime insisted on discouraging and punishing this diversity. So, I think we lost a lot of customs and skills (such as cheese or charcuterie making) because of Ceauşescu’s ambitions to make everything uniform and to modernize rural Romania. He wiped out villages so he could move people into apartments. If you think of a family that used to live on a farm, and the skills that involved working with the land and animals, preserving their produce, what do you think happened when they had to live in a 40-square-meter apartment? Could they rear pigs on the balcony? They had to trim down their traditions and become “urbanized.” We grew up with polenta as a symbol of countryside cooking, but completely forgot that we also used to eat pearl barley and millet, when rice was not a staple grain, imported and ultra-industrialized. In Bucharest, Ceauşescu demolished old churches to make room for new apartment buildings or roads; he nationalized old houses because they belonged to a so-called “public enemy”: the ruling, bourgeois class of the entrepreneurs who before World War II built the fame of Romania in Europe. Can you imagine the profound drama of these families? And of our own Romanian culture? He destroyed a social class that was able to preserve, distill, and encourage Romanian traditions.

After the fall of the communist regime, I think that as a nation we battled with a communist mentality that was already in our DNA, we battled with corruption (this staple habit of the Balkan world), we battled to survive in a context where there was plenty on the market to buy but no money to pay for it. Think about a standard family of four, where parents struggle with daily life — would they think to pay for a piano lesson for their children? It took and takes time to recover and educate new generations of Romanians to appreciate their past, learn a version of history that is closer to the world’s history, recognize the value of their traditions, and hopefully contribute to its survival.

At times, this book made me think of Wayne Wang’s documentary about Cecilia Chiang and how Ruth Reichl said Chiang had a body of knowledge about a cuisine that was all but forgotten (the food eaten by an aristocratic Chinese class prior to the Cultural Revolution). She mentioned that younger chefs, however talented, simply had no way to access those techniques and flavor profiles and specific dishes through firsthand experience. I’m not suggesting the food of Romania prior to communism is so inaccessible, but it’s clear there’s less knowledge of these foodways than there would be otherwise. How do you balance the urgency, the responsibility, to keep these tastes and traditions alive with the need to make things approachable here? Or is it more that making things approachable is the best way to keep things alive?

I felt the pressure of this tightrope walking when writing the book. The recipes in my book are very much like my mum used to make them, but they also reflect how I prepare them now. I kept asking myself: Is this traditional? Does this keep close to the soul of the dish? Does this reflect something from the past? What do people learn from a story in my book? This book is not a full compendium of Romanian dishes and traditions. It is not an ethnological collection of regional cookery. It is an opportunity to show people who we really are, especially in countries where our reputation is not exactly about cooking fabulous food. The fact that I put fennel seeds on an aubergine dip shouldn’t horrify the purists. It actually works and they should try it. A cuisine is part of a nation’s culture and is very much like a language. It’s like my English: grammatically correct but with a Romanian accent. A culture changes constantly, at first at the periphery. It needs to be relevant to how people eat now: less lard, less fat in general, less meat, and less stages of cooking. If it doesn’t adapt, it dies down and vanishes, just like an ancient language.

When life returns to something like normal, when we can all leave the house again and maybe shop for food like we did before, what’s the big meal you’ll make first?

I will definitely celebrate with a feast. I’ll have the butterbean dip and the aubergine caviar, with red onion, cheese, and sausages. I’ll bake the potato bread and think of Transylvania. I’ll have the leg of mutton pastrami style with bacon potatoes, and I’ll have cremşnit and cataif for dessert. I’ll probably feed my village in the process too. All the recipes are in the book — I use them on a daily basis. And I know that you have a wonderful online cookbook and culinary shop in Los Angeles called Now Serving LA where you can order Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania. We need to do a bit for the independent businesses too.

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John McIntyre has written for The American ScholarThe EconomistBrick: A Literary Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.

 

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