Sunday, November 17, 2019

Transylvania: Goulash and Trumpet Fiddles for Everyone!

Transylvanian vioara cu goarne fiddles in Dorel Codobon's workshop, Rosia, Romania.

Yes, it has been too long since a blog post, and since we are about to make our annual migration to the New York I should at least cover my tracks. First off... I didn't want to post yet another blog about somebody dead. Hey - we are all gonna kick the bucket someday, right? No need to completely surrender all the column space to old Baron Samedi. What do my readers want? Goulash and fiddles. At least I think that is the core audience. And so... goulash and fiddles it shall be, at least until we get to New York and Chinese noodles and  chicken and okra and Dominican meringue accordion to distract me. Next week, at least.

Goulash ala Marius Mihut: the real deal. Cihei, Romania.
There is a segment of the Klezmer scene that takes Romanian traditional music very seriously - it is the closest thing we have to a living tradition from the old country, given that the Holocaust pretty well destroyed the "old country" for Ashkenazic Jews. Most of modern Transylvanian traditional music, however, doesn't really intersect with Klezmer tradition very much at all. But that shouldn't stop anyone from diving headlong into it. Between the active tradition in Transylvania and the fanatic revivalists of the Hungarian folk scene, this is one of the most vital folk fiddle traditions in Europe today.
Traian Ardelean, Dorel Codoban, and Ghica at Negreni, 2008.
Among Klezmer fiddlers, a few have really dug deep into the tradition (Jake Shulman-Ment comes to mind) and so I was happy to when I got invited to travel with Zoe Aqua and her sister Annie to Transylvania this summer, especially since she was renting a car (Shout out to my peeps at Autonom Rent a Car! Best rates in Romania!) Zoe plays with the truly amazing Yiddish band Tsibele, as well as in the duo Farnakht, and she has been studying Transylvanian Hungarian and Romanian fiddle styles for years and was ready to jump in the deep end of the pool. First off, she wanted to get a vioara cu goarne, the hybrid resonator "Trumpet-fiddle" played in the northern country of Bihor. I've written about these fiddles many times on the blog. They are a culture symbol in the Bihor region and there is a lively scene of players and a small cottage industry of makers.

Zoe gets a lesson on resonator adjustment.
We stopped by Marius Mihut in the village of Cihei (six km outside of Oradea) to see what he had for sale. We met Marius last year while traveling with Mitia Kramtsov of the Russian band Dobranotch, who suddenly decided he absolutely had to have a trumpet fiddle before he could return to St. Petersburg.
Mistia and Marius in his workshop.
And so we found Marius, based on an internet search that led us to the village of Cihei. Marius is probably the best living maker of the vioara cu goarne alive today - at least since the passing of Dorel Codoban from Lazuri. Marius makes the resonator apparatus by cannibalizing old gramophone record player mechanisms, and his higher quality instruments utilize parts from old Czech Supraphone machines. Marius gets these by being in touch with gramophone fanatics around the globe that he finds on Ebay and other sites. And yes, it really makes a difference. These babies are loud. Marius is also a great host, and a really good cook, not to mention he hunts. We arrived to a full feast of wild boar sausages and wild boar goulash.

Lunch among wonderful folks.
And a TV crew from Televisiune Oradea to document the occasion. The goulash was bubbling away in a kettle hanging from a on a tripod above a bed of coals in the driveway. This was no tomato soup and carrot tourist goulash. No. This was bone in, floating chunks of yellow fat, paprika grown in the back yard genuine Carpathian plains cowboy soup. It was wonderful. I used to cook at a bistro in Budapest that was located next to one of the neighborhood open markets and as an act of cultural rebellion i made it my goal to serve the most authentic goulash in Budapest. I interviewed market workers, butchers, cops, and firemen about what they liked in a goulash and we all agreed that you can not get a decent bowl of goulash in Budapest. Back in 2006 I originally imagined this blog to be a food blog that would compare goulash as found in Budapest, except that not a single one was worth the mention as anything other than a thin orange soup, and so... it became what it is.

Smoked duck leg and bean goulash. Last weeks lunch at our house.
If you want decent goulash you have to be at least thirty miles from the center of Budapest. Go to Slovakia or Transylvania if you want a good one. Hungarian restaurant goulash is a poor joke made at the expense of a simple soup, and so when I come upon somebody who takes goulash seriously, I rejoice. And Marius takes goulash seriously. He also took mici seriously: these little skinless sausagettes were made from wild boar he had shot himself.

Mici: they taste better than they look.

I have eaten thousands of these little meatwads all over the Balkans - from Turkish version kofte to the divine cevapcici of Bosnia, and as far as I know these are first I have ever eaten made from wild game. Now, feral wild pigs are quickly overrunning the United states - especially in the US South, in Texas and Louisiana where they have become a major economic disaster for agriculture... and now they have shown up in Northern states like New Jersey as well. This is the solution. Shoot them and make Romanian sausages from them. After Zoe found the vioara of her dreams we headed towards Mera, a village near Cluj which hosted the Mera World Music Festival in August. (More on that later.)

Stay at the world's only Resonator Violin Hotel!
Along the way we stopped to spend the night in Lazuri de Rosia at the Pensiune Dorel Codoban. run by the family of the late vioara maker and player Dorel Codoban. Dorel was a good friend of mine, and I still play a trumpet violin made by him. We got a peek at Dorel's workshop - shown in the photo at the top of this post - and  took in the view from our room in the refurbished mountain inn.

Downtown Lazuri at rush hour. 
Located in one of the most picture perfect regions of the Transylvanian Hills, Dorel's family are usually on hand - Dorel's wife Florica cooks and amazing breakfast, and son in law Dan speaks both Hungarian and English. There is a trout farm across the street for adventure dinner, and lots of  tourists hike the region exploring the limestone mountain caves. Its a great place to stay if you visit Romania - a half hour drive uphill from the town of Beius.