Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Asa bea' oamenii buni: How the Good Folk Drink

Some people think “European Vacation” and dream of the canals of Venice, the boulevards of Paris, the coffee shops of Amsterdam. I however, dream about Maramures. This northern region of Romania, remote and mountainous, preserves a Europe most of us can only wonder about, a slice of history preserved in vague memories from our grandparents, cloudy ideas about the “old country” and the accounts of ethnographers plainly surprised that anyone in modern Europe still lives in log houses, uses horse wagons, and wears home spun folk costumes in the 21st century.

Maramures is all that, a starkly conservative culture that survived the communist era by withdrawing into a domestic fortress of folk ritual and custom, rendered virtually impenetrable to outsiders by a lucky combo of wretchedly bad roads, a thick dialect, a tradition of class and economy based on barter rather than cash, and the inability of visitors to live for months on end on nothing but corn meal mush mamaliga and sheep cheese. But change has definitely come to Maramures. Since Romania entered the EU in 2007, Romanians have gone abroad in droves to work in agriculture and construction in countries like Italy, Spain and France. The local mountaineers – Morosani in the local dialect – have an international reputation as hard workers, earned by farming the poor soils of the Carpathians where it takes double the work to produce half the potatoes of any other region. The money they sent home is evident in the building of new homes and the sprouting of new small businesses in villages that used to have nothing but a bar and a general store (usually in the same location.)Add to that the growth of a well developed agro tourism industry and one can feel the sea change in the local culture. Maramures is heart-stoppingly picturesque, and and until recently only the most adventurous tourist would cross the mountain passes to visit, but about a decade ago the region became a magnet for French eco-tourists and one transplanted Frenchman, Bernhard Houlihat (now the director of the Institute Francaise in Cluj) began working locally with village mayors and peasants to set up a network of local homes that could accommodate the flood of tourists.The results are an open secret to informed tourists: where else can you stay and be fed for about EU 25 a day? Agrotourism pensions have sprouted everywhere in Marsamures. For a culture that, until very recently, lived on almost no cash the sight of tourists is welcome indeed. We stayed at the home of a fiddler I had met previously in the village of Poenile Izei named Ion Ilieş, well known as a musician by the name of Ion de la Cruce.For no extra charge, Ion also gets dressed up in his local folk costume, calls over a neighbor to play the zungora (the local version of a cross tuned guitar) and presents an after dinner fiddle party with his wife singing and pouring out copious shots of the local home brew. Thinking of making fun of the funny little hats? Don't. The "clop" is a symbol of Maramures male identity, and until about a decade ago it was still everyday wear for huge, beefy, easily antagonized truck drivers and lumberjacks. No, you do not make fun of the funny hats around here. Ion’s house has been set up with spotlessly clean guest rooms and modern bathrooms, and his wife cooks local Maramures food from the produce of Ion’s own farm and animals.Now, I have been on a pretty stern diet for the last half year, but there was no way I was going to refuse my host’s meals. No. I did not eat the cute bunnies. I wanted to - cuteness always tastes good - but my hosts had other things in mind. Pancakes. Donuts. Fried bread. All the things I have avoided for the last half year. And you know what? Carbohydrates taste really, really good. After a half year of nibbling on the occasional Wasa rye cracker I got to wake up to this.Home made clatita (thin pancakes) served with home made plum jam. Everything was served with fried bread, called placinta, which was like a Hungarian langos but less greasy and filled with a light cheese, green onion and dill mixture (just to add to the confusion, in Hungarian the pancakes would be called palacsinta.)Later there would be dinner of ciorba de perisoare (sour soup with meatballs) and the ever present mamaliga. Mamaliga is one of my favorite foods, often described a “polenta” but in fact much more robust and filling. My father grew up eating this during the depression in the USA, when my Moldavian born Grandmother had to feed four kids while my Grandfather was ill and unable to work. We called it "Jewish cement."The Romanian version here is usually layered with cheese and fried bacon bits, it is something I dreamed about and will probably obsess about while I go back on my weight loss regimen, but I am glad I got to slake my hunger on a bowl nevertheless. But wait! There is oh so much more! Homemade donuts! Yes!Called pancovi in Maramures, gogoaşa in most of Romania, these were just what the diet doctor did not order. You could split one open and fill it with a spoonful of jam or just eat them plain, cramming them into my mouth as fast as my greedy hands could manage. For months I had been dreaming about donuts, waiting for a visit to Cluj, Transylvania’s capital city, to get my hands on a Gogoasa Infuriata (“The Angry Donut”) at the city’s signature donut stand, only to find that my beloved Cluj donut has disappeared. Either gone out of business or going into some kind of franchise hell, I considered myself lucky to jump on a donut feast in Maramures rather than pin all my hopes on the now lost fried dough of the lowlands. Of course, all this eating can create a thirst. In Maramures, this is easily solved by drinking horinca – which astute readers will know from the URL of this very same blog. Horinca, the nectar of the Gods, or at least of their Romanian speaking lumberjacks and shepherds is thrice distilled fruit brandy. Ţuica is single distilled, palinka is brandy that has gone through the still twice, but horinca cashes in well over the 100 proof mark and is usually so clear and pure that it is more like fruit vodka than brandy. Which means less of a hangover to worry about, a good thing since the Morosani here drink quite a lot of the stuff on a very regular basis, poured fresh into the ubiquitous plastic Coca Cola bottles from two gallon plastic jugs.Most homes make their own from their own fruit trees, although by EU laws they are supposed to have it distilled for them in a village EU designated still. I had promised Fumie a bottle of horinca (with strict instruction by her not to accept any inferior twice distilled palinka) and had let it slip my mind until we were actually on the road out of Maramures. I asked Jake to stop in the village of Sacel, where there is a weekly market, and walked around looking for a suitable underground moonshine contact. Walking up to a big Maramures peasant guy selling axes and other lumberjack tools, I asked if he know where we could get any horinca. “Yes. From me.” Five minutes later his wife was pouring 110 proof goodness out of a blue plastic vat into one liter cola bottles.So if you haven’t made any summer plans for travel, consider Maramures. Heading into Maramures is best done by car, but there are now a lot more village bus services that can get you from the main town of Sighet Marmatei and into the countryside on a regular schedule. Just about every village offers “cazare” (accommodation) in both official guest houses as well as in regular village family homes. Certain web sites such as can make reservations for you, but I actually just called Ion from the outdated website that started the rural tourism business, and got his information right here.

5 comments:

Ivan said...

Great post. We were there in 2007 and loved it. Now I know the differeces in the homemade hooch. Noone had explained it quite so right before.

Richard said...

I love this post. You have a great way to write about genuine.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Oh yes indeed, Maramures is quite the nicest place to take a holiday :-) Have you been on the mocanita? And have you heard the violinist from Oas, Joachim Fat? Sometimes plays with Grupa de Iza (I think they're called). Quite quite excellent, in the tradition of Fratii Petreus (though he doesn't seem to have made it to YouTube yet).

By the way, Dumne, I'll be going to Mera tomorrow for their annual village day; it should be a lovely day out, with some prime gulyás, and I expect I'll meet some of Feri Bacsi's family who'll be asking after you :-)

Geny said...

Thank you, you have a wonderful way of describing it! I'm going back this summer, and I can't wait! Is there any festival/folk event you know about at the beginning of August?

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