I didn’t have an easy relationship with my heritage growing up. Neither the Middle Eastern side nor my Eastern European side. We would travel from Athens to Bucharest a couple of times a year and I remember it as going from vibrant colour (Athens is painted with the most saturated of colours) to a land of grey. From the colour of the sky, to the dead grass to the ashen complexions of the officers at the airport. These people would make your lives easier if you handed over cartons of cigarettes. Sometimes this wasn’t enough and they scraped through our tiny children’s carry ons and relieve us of our stash of candy (To tide us over in a land where there was no candy). My sister and I would protest every trip before settling into a simple existence of playing outside with dirt and sticks or going through my grandmother’s things.
But I was acutely aware of all the things I did not have there. No toys, no sweets, no ice cream, no TV, nothing in the shops (Romania was Communist, its dictator, Ceausescu was only overthrown in 1989 – I was 14). As children do, I missed all I did have. A cultural food heritage rich and complex. There was no bread in the shops, my grandmother made our bread. For lent bread without salt and at other times Cozonac, a rich brioche sometimes with poppy seeds and other times with swirls of walnuts. The walnuts came whole and she had a table vice to crack them. For sausages, she had a sausage stuffer, because the only way you got to eat sausage in Communist Romania was if you made it yourself.
For these bigger jobs, she would call women from the countryside, they would wake up when it was dark outside and huddle around a table with an enamel pitcher of thick turkish coffee, the grounds sitting thickly on the bottom. One of the women would tell fortunes in the residual coffee grounds. Women folk speaking in hushed tones, working sitting down, spinning tales and providing for us selflessly. Which now as a mother harrumphing about my lack of free time – astounds me.
She was a fermentation wizard (murături). Cabbage, cucumbers, cauliflower, watermelon rinds, red peppers (gogosari). She transformed them. As I grew up and she grew older, she could do less and less until she passed. And all those flavours went with her. I remember asking her how I could ferment my own vegetables in London.
“Take some salt.” she said.
“How much?” I asked
“Depends how salty it is.” she replied
Like all great cooks, she had an intuition that could not be attained through study.
Eastern European food is (finally) beginning to make its way in to the mainstream. In the UK, Olia Hercules is championing Ukrainian food. Zuza Zak is doing the same for Polish food. I have my grandmother’s yellowed pages, penned with her neat cursive writing and not the foggiest clue of how to correctly gage how salty the salt is?
That doesn’t stop me from craving the flavours I once derided for not coming out of a crinkly packet. I can’t recreate what she made, the sour cherry cake for example, but I plonk sour cherries into the porridge in the morning. I get fermented pickles and eat them with smoked meat (oh the Eastern Europeans know how to get smoke into meat and cheese – and yes, it absolutely makes them taste better). Salmon caviar on fresh sourdough with a lot of butter and a twist of lemon.
Maybe I will give her notebooks another try.
Until then, I will be shopping for bits of my past at Mix Markt.
Carrer de Sicília, 133