Brunch is by no means a Romanian tradition. “The word itself didn’t mean anything to us, especially to the people in the villages,” says Cristian Cismaru. But back in 2008, he and a few friends started hosting pop-up brunches in the countryside of Transylvania, Romania’s central-north region.
“The idea is to find small villages where nobody travels, and to bring people from elsewhere [together with] food from all the local people there,” Cismaru says of celebrating regional food and culture through the ‘Transylvanian Brunch’ project. It’s now in its tenth year, hosted in a different town each month through the tourism association My Transylvania. “They come and eat something good, and then we will discover traditional dances or songs, and the [surrounding] hills and nature.”
Today’s brunch is being held in Ruja, a little town of 1000 residents that’s a five-hour drive north of Bucharest. On the grounds of the local church, producers have set up stalls to sell their own wine, jams and honey, while the enormous buffet was cooked by a woman who lives there. “If we can’t find all the ingredients we need from the village, then we look in the five or six villages around,” says Cismaru of gathering hyper-local products for each event.
Romanian dishes bear influences from the cuisines of Germany, Turkey and Hungary, thanks to the many invasions and occupations the country has seen over the centuries from neighbouring powers. The brunch spread includes clatite (pancakes, large and thin like crêpes) with plum jam; plăcintă, a savoury pie stuffed with cheese and wild greens; bowls of smoky eggplant purée, salată de vinete; and a hearty pork and sauerkraut casserole, tocană de porc cu varză acră.
The brunches also dish up recipes from the exact province where they’re being held. This morning, there are two specialties on offer from the surrounding county – platters of thick-cut smoked pig lard, slănina afumată, with white onion and red peppers, and supă de chimen cu crutoane, a cumin-scented soup topped with croutons. “Most of us working here today are volunteers,” I’m told by the woman manning the soup station, as she ladels out the hot broth for guests. Many guests have driven all the way from Bucharest for the Sunday affair, spreading out on picnic tables and blankets across the idyllic grassy hillside. They sip on tiny glasses of homemade țuică (plum brandy), and fragrant rose or elderflower syrups mixed with soda water, while a school group in traditional dress perform folk songs and dances.
Cismaru says that since Romania joined the European Union (EU) in 2007, local Romanian traditions like these are fast dwindling. “They’re being lost every day. Our kinds of pigs and local grapes are not getting raised anymore.” In the same county as Ruja, organic farmer Willy Schuster produces raw milk cheeses at his farm, Bio-Moșna. An advocate for Romania’s many small-scale, family-owned farms, he explains how becoming an EU member has meant changes to agriculture. “When Romania joined the EU, we had almost five million farms, so the number of farms in the EU almost doubled,” Schuster says. “Then, they systematically started policies and campaigns to make sure that this number will be less and less.”
By 2010, Romania had 3.8 million farms; from 2003 to 2010, the number of agricultural workers fell by 19 per cent, and the average size of farms increased slightly from 3.1 to 3.4 hectares. Schuster says this shift is driven by a desire to reduce bureaucratic workloads, a preference for commercial-scale farming, and the changing nature of food retail. “In 2007, Romania was invaded by supermarkets chains,” he says of the year it became an EU member. At the time, the majority of farms were producing food for the owners themselves. “That means a certain degree of self-sufficiency and [food retailers] don’t like that, because they want customers for their products.” He says the landscape and environment is changing, and is concerned about biodiversity loss. “Our hilly area in Transylvania did not used to have these kinds of monocultures.”
As government policy seeks to align Romanian industry with the EU’s open market approach, grassroots projects like the Transylvanian Brunch are one way to preserve food and farming traditions – with a novel twist. “For us, the main idea is to consume local products, to consume local culture, so it doesn’t stop existing,” says Cismaru. “It is a very simple message: just eat with us, and we will keep the good things alive.”
Photographs by Alecia Wood