Food is intertwined with personal journeys and life stories. It can create a bridge that connects us across borders, languages, and cultural differences. When I cook the recipes in this book — making borș, grilling peppers, crushing garlic for mujdei, making pickles — the fragrances remind me of how Romanian cooking is part of the collective European heritage and landscape. (10)
In my heart, I’ve always seen cookbooks as a way to vicariously travel and experience the world, and since the early spring, when all of the quarantine, lockdowns, and sheltering in place occurred, this method of travel has become even more practical. Upon opening the cover of Irina Georgescu‘s new cookbook, Carpathia, the reader is met with a beautiful pastoral setting — rolling, grassy hills, a small river snaking through bluffs of trees, with blue-grey mountains rising far in the distance — I couldn’t help but feel like I had opened a door and stepped through. In my mind’s eye I could feel a soft breeze and smell the lush green grass and then, turning the page to experience an even bigger scene, one of a valley dotted with houses, the exuberant colours from the previous photo changing into autumnal golds, reds, and browns is such a beautiful way to be guided further into the book. Throughout Carpathia, these beautiful landscapes that are combined with warm and inviting food pictures, really solidify how we understand Georgescu’s feelings of her homeland. There is such a beautiful longing within the pages of Carpathia — the yearning of home and comfort.
Georgescu frames her recipes with her experiences growing up in Romania under communist rule along with how her family used recipes to maintain ties to the past and to their culture. As she mentions in her introduction, “Romania is a culinary melting pot”(10), and the recipes show how Romanian cuisine is influenced by all the cultures surrounding them. For example, making her recipe for Alivenci, I experience not only Romania but also Moldova through these polenta cakes with dill and cheese. She speaks of special occasions when this cake is served and, serving this dish to my family one quiet summer Sunday, I feel as if the celebratory feeling Georgescu mentions in the recipe notes are transported along with this dish as I prepared and served it to my husband and daughter.
The recipes are organized into 6 chapters — Food is for sharing: small plates, appetizers, + salads, Breads + street-food bakes, Borș + ciorbă, The main event, Desserts, and Pickles, preserves, compotes, + drinks. Nearing the end of the book, there are three additional chapters on — Seasons + superstitions in Romanian cuisine, Romania’s culinary heritage, and Romania’s cultural values. She offers a short discussion on the direct impact of communism on Romanian heritage and culture — “with one cookbook that everybody had to follow even if the basic ingredients were rationed or completely unavailable. Luckily (if you can call it that) there was a black market for recipes passed down by word of mouth or written down on napkins or on loose pieces of paper.”(217) In spite of the near total loss of artisan skills because of the policies of the communist regime, Carpathia offers an optimistic view of the future of Romanian heritage and culture as younger generations reclaim this knowledge.
Georgescu also provides a quick guide through the staple ingredients found in Romanian cuisine — sharing a border with the Ukraine, I’m not surprised to find ingredients that are familiar to me. Coarse polenta, apples, garlic, yogurt/sour cream, and pickles are all ingredients that my Ukrainian Canadian relatives rely on. While Carpathia offers a mix of meaty and plant-y options, I found enough recipes to satisfy my vegetarian family. Recipes aren’t categorized, so it’s up to the reader to search out any recipes related to a specific dietary need. As a side note, with the pervasive use of polenta in the book, it offers a gluten-free option for those fulfilling the need for gluten-free recipes.
As I’ve been cooking from Carpathia, I’ve found the recipes to be delicious and easy to make. A stand-out favourite in my house are the Bulz (oven-baked cheese polenta balls served with yogurt and roasted tomatoes) — my husband and daughter adore them. So much so I’ve made them many times since receiving this book! What I appreciate is that they’re oven-baked, not fried (I prefer the ease of sliding a tray into the oven), and my family is enamoured of the crispy, tangy crust. I’ve experimented by using different kinds of cheese and, to be honest, they all taste great! If you’ve never tried cooking with coarse polenta, then this is the perfect cookbook to start with as it has many recipes using this ingredient.
One afternoon I decided to try making the Dovlecei pané (zucchini fritters with garlic sauce) and they were a great snack to share. My daughter loved these crispy on the outside/juicy in the centre fritters — although the garlic sauce was a bit strong for her, my husband and I enjoyed this bold and vibrant sauce. Another recipe we really enjoyed were the Scovergi (yogurt and cheese flatbreads or “Romanian Popcorn”). The yeasted dough is made from mixing yogurt, an egg, flour, and salt. When the dough has rested, it is then stretched out, sprinkled with cheese, rolled into a log, and then sliced. Each slice looks like a cinnamon bun roll, but instead of a sweet filling there is shredded cheese. The roll is flattened, then fried to golden perfection. Soft and gooey with melted cheese, these are a great snack.
My favourite recipe from the book reminds me of the times I spent at my grandparent’s farm — the Salată de castraveți (cucumber and red onion salad) is one that is remarkably like the salad my grandmother would make. She would take her garden cucumbers, white onion, and dill and mix them with white vinegar. Georgescu’s recipe utilizes red onion, apple cider vinegar, and tarragon for an equally refreshing dish. One of the best ways to enjoy the humble offerings of a summer garden and, I can’t help but think of Georgescu’s words “food … can create a bridge that connects us.”(10) From her kitchen in the UK to my own here in Halifax, I find that during this time we’ve all been spending apart, cooking and food is what is keeping us together.
Carpathia, with its stunning photography and delicious recipes, has ignited a desire within me to visit Romania, but for the time being I’ll continue to luxuriate within the pages of Georgescu’s amazing book. Carpathia is a celebration of Romanian heritage, cuisine, and culture.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Interlink Publishing for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.