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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 . . .

Fresh fruit and vegetables on display at the Great Market, Budapest.
I'll be  honest.  I really didn't expect much out of the food on this trip.  My tastes run to Mediterranean and Asian, not pork and potatoes, and I'd done my research.  I especially couldn't understand my partner's obsession with photographing his meals.  I mean, okay, we were eating at places far more upscale than anything we could have regularly afforded in the States, which meant that the food was nicely presented.  But I'm not the one who actually watches TV SHOWS on how to cook.  I have enough problems with my weight without sitting down while watching somebody talk about food for an hour or more.  I was taught to cook by a vegetarian who regularly works weekends for one of the best caterers in Dayton, Ohio.  I've run the kitchen for SCA and pagan feasts feeding one or two hundred, from menu decisions to chopping onions to routing my four best cooks out of the walk-in cooler where they decided to take a break from the 100 degree weather munching Moroccan majoons.  I can feed small armies when necessary.  But when it comes to feeding myself, I reach for the Budget Gourmet.

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.

In fact, we had agreed that we WEREN'T going to indulge ourselves on food.  We were deliberately attempting to eat cheap in order to afford spending an entire month on the other side of the globe.  We intended to feed up silly on breakfasts included in our hotel/room price, and pick up lunch at highway stands and grocery stores.  This also allowed us to experiment with more of our basic local living skills.  I wasn't going to say that I definitely planned to move to Romania to retire without ever having been there.  But I was definitely thinking about it, and you can't live if you can't eat.  Cheap.  Like the locals.  Who as this menu sign demonstrates, are unashamed consumers of their own kind of fast food, which usually involves breaded pork schnitzel and french fries.

We started on our first morning in Budapest, finding a small convenience/grocery store within two blocks of our panzio.

Display of breads at a local grocery store, Budapest.
Half the size of a neighborhood CVS, this place stocked everything from the all-important Emergency Roll to the shampoo I had refused to waste luggage weight on, to a small selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, canned and packaged goods, fresh breads, pastries, "pizza" (square, and not much tomato, but reasonable as cold leftovers for lunch), and pasta.  I don't know if this is typical or only because we lucked into a really, really good guesthouse, but I LOVED Obuda.

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.

Limonade can also be had at the better places, for a price stiffer than that charged for a hefty cocktail.  Water (apa) is available for twice the price of beer, but you usually get more of it than you do the tea.  The lemonade servings are quite generous, but then consider that you're usually paying as much for it as you do for a small entree.  The relative expense of things that I found edible was however offset by the fact that food in general is extremely inexpensive, even when prepared and presented.

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.

Unfortunately I couldn't snap photos from the car of all the roadside stands we passed everywhere we went in Transylvania, but it is agricultural country, and everybody pretty much has either a garden or a full-sized field out among all the others of the village, subdivided in a manner very similar to medieval strip systems.  In September, the villages were lined with tables offering tomatoes, garlic, grapes, and potatoes; along the mountain roads home-made cheese and sausages were on offer as well as home-brewed palinka, a smooth and powerful local brandy.  No ABC license required.  Donal impressed the professional Montsalvat mountain guides by remarking that in both the Appalachians and the Carpathians, everyone makes booze and shoots deer, but in Virginia it's legal to shoot deer and illegal to make booze, while in Romania it's legal to brew booze and illegal to shoot deer.  I understand that observation got him a few more free drinks.

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.

On the left, lunch at (of course) the Dracula Restaurant on the south side of the Trans-Fagaras Highway.  The staff didn't speak a word of English and we couldn't understand when they asked if we wanted a TABLE (masa) which hadn't been on my short-list of phrases.  Nevertheless we managed to get fed and they managed to get paid. On the right, dinner at the Sergiana, a truly lovely place on the Piata Mare of medieval Sibiu where the waiters dress in traditional Transylvanian folk-garb.  In Hungary the food at nice restaurants was a bit pricier (although still perfectly reasonable compared to home), so Donal opted to test the traditional gulyas soups, which in addition to being often the cheapest items on the menu, are the quintessential Hungarian dish:
Personally, I found all this meat and tomatoes just too heavy.  Not to mention the ubiquitous french fried cartofi, which were driving me insane (my mother hated peeling potatoes; as a result I was possibly the only working-class Anglo raised prior to 1980 who was only fed mashed potatoes once a year, at Thanksgiving).  So I preferred to take our lunch-come-bathroom breaks at cafes serving light deserts:
Ice cream (inghetsata) is widely available in UNBELIEVABLE combinations, arrangements, and artistic constructions, for rather outrageous prices if you think hard about it -- a typical coffee-chocolate-ice cream confection might run you six or seven dollars or 20 lei -- which includes as long as you want sitting at a table under an umbrella in the center of a medieval square under perfect sunlight, not too much heat, watching crowds of people swirl around in relative contentment, use of the all-important bathroom, and no pressure to get a move on.  

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.  

Originally posted to cynndara on Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 04:16 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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