First, I have to say a big thank-you to the kind-hearted person who took it into their head to donate a dKos subscription for me! I can't tell you how delightful that is. I do apologize for following that by not adding to my account of the Trip East for several weeks. Life intervened, as in, snowstorms and unsuccessful job-hunting and trying to revive a social and personal life that's been on hold for a decade. So now that I'm back in the groove I guess I'd better get cracking. Follow, if you will, over the magical orange sigil, to learn of food strange wild and wonderful in the corner of Europe that time has mostly passed by . . .
So it came as a surprise to me that every time I started telling friends and family about gallivanting about the wilds of Transylvania, the first thing they asked about was the food.
We started on our first morning in Budapest, finding a small convenience/grocery store within two blocks of our panzio.
Both Hungarians and Romanians appear to agree on four food groups: Pork (porcu), Potatoes (cartofi), Peppers (ardei), and Beer (bere). Luckily chicken (pui) and rice (orez) are usually available if you ask, and chai can be substituted for bere at half the quantity and twice the price. Keeping in mind that you get on average 3.5 Romanian lei to the dollar, the beer in this photograph costs about $1 per liter. It's a Pillsner of roughly Budweiser quality, not their best, but nothing like our worst.
It is also almost all local. Throughout our travels, about the only item that was imported was orange juice (if available) at breakfast. We were fascinated by the labels on single-serving jam, butter, and cheese, all of them indicating origin somewhere we could find on our map. Although Romania is only roughly three hundred miles across in either main dimension, they grow virtually all of their own food and still have enough left to export. During World War II, Romania provided significant food supplies for Hitler's armies, supplies that Germany itself could not produce.
But despite our best intentions, we ended up eating at nice restaurants far more often than precisely necessary. For one thing, there was the bathroom issue. While it is NOT true that either flush toilets or toilet paper are unknown in Eastern Europe, PUBLIC toilets are a rarity. Just as in the U.S., the best way to access a decent restroom is to buy a meal, but "fast food" in Romania means "to go", no restrooms provided. The few public alternatives are really, really nasty when you can find one at all. And anyway, food is cheap! The prices on the menu look the same as they do back home for the same quality of restaurant. But remember, there are 3.5 Romanian Lei to a dollar. So you can spend the same $5 you would spend at McDonalds, for a nice entree and, of course, bere. While I tried to keep to chicken and rice dishes (my one experiment with local pork sausage stuck to my stomach for a week), Donal was in his element.
Of course, it might take your server twenty minutes to acknowledge your existence, so you don't want to do this on a schedule. Romania is great for vacationing. Don't try to force the locals to step lively, though, or the service will be twice as slow and you might find something nasty in the meal (or NOT find it). Laugh, smile, try out your Romanian, thank them and tip nicely, and everybody will be very, very happy. Romanian servers aren't used to getting tips, or tips anywhere near the 15-20% now mandatory in America (where, as we know, that's about the only pay they're getting). A tip which would be considered stingy in New York will make your waitress wide-eyed with delight, and if you find yourself needing to return to the same place, you'll be treated like royalty. We found one excellent restaurant in Sibiu by the name of Max's, somewhat of a hole in the wall that serves real, solid, local food and Good Stuff. By the end of our three days in town, they were counting on their fingers as soon as we showed up at the door. But from our perspective we were getting superb food at an excellent price and UNDER-tipping. A definite win-win. If you happen to find them, try the Ciorba Ardelenesc. This is a fine chicken and rice soup with vegetables and a slight, elusive tang of sour and herbs. No picture, very sorry. That was what I ordered. Donal was the one taking pictures of his food.
So, how was the food? Delicious. Cheap. And fattening. The one thing I was ready to kill for when I got home? Salad. "Salad" on a Romanian menu often means a single fresh vegetable: a bowl of shredded cabbage in vinegar; a bowl of chopped fresh tomatoes. Lettuce is salata verde, or "green salad", but that's likely to be, you guessed it, JUST a bowl of lettuce. Salad-as-we-know-it is only available at expensive cafes catering to tourists (the main squares and citadels of German medieval towns, for instance) and costs more than an entire meal of meat, potatoes or polenta, and bere. On the other hand, the jam on the breakfast table is quite often home-made from wild elderberries.
And the beer is very, very cheap. They sell untaxed home-made brandy on the sides of the road. With goat cheese. And sausages.