From sheep’s cheese aged in bark tubes to balls of polenta that help shepherd’s fight bears, discover the culinary curiosities hiding in Romania’s mountains.
If you’re headed to Romania, you’d better be hungry; the meat- and dairy-centric cuisine of this mountainous Eastern European country is seriously hearty. It’s also totally unique—a blend of local traditions and the myriad influences of conquerors (from the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians to the Soviets) who vied for control of its lands over millennia.
Today the country’s post-communist modernization is reflected in its trendy urban restaurants—but that’s juxtaposed with some of Europe’s most traditional rural areas. In the mountains of Transylvania, crops are grown organically in family gardens, shepherds make cheese over wood fires in mountain shacks, and grannies in colorful headscarves churn out some of the best dishes you’ve ever tasted using banged-up pots and pans. If you’re willing to venture off the beaten path, a plethora of culinary surprises awaits. Here’s a preview.
Brânză de Burduf în Coajă de Brad
Romania harbors over half of Europe’s remaining primeval forests, and Transylvania is famed for them—sprawling swaths of pines blanketed in fog beneath craggy peaks. Here, trees are central to life’s most important pursuits: house-building, toolmaking … and cheese storage, of course.
To make this delicacy, shepherds chop up a fresh firm cheese made from a blend of cow’s and sheep’s milk, mix it with salt, and place it in a skinny tube made out of bark that’s been stripped from a fir tree. As it ages in the tube over a couple of months, the cheese becomes more pungent, absorbing the bark’s resins to develop distinctive piney flavors. The bark tube isn’t the only vessel used to age Brânză de Burduf; in some regions, it’s matured inside of a sheep’s stomach.
INSIDER TIPYou won’t find this in the supermarket; instead, head to a public market in the region around Brasov. Tubes are also sometimes sold in the small tourist market outside of Bran Castle.
Here’s one way to seize the day: Eat chunks of pork fat mixed with raw red onion first thing in the morning. Ubiquitous on breakfast platters, slănină is a slab of pork fatback—a cut of chewy fat with little-to-no flesh—that’s been dry-salted or brined. Chop up little chunks of the fat with the accompanying onion and perch it atop a slice of bread. Alternatively, stab a chunk of slănină with a stick and roast it as you would a marshmallow; on Sundays in summer, its savory smell permeates the air in parks as picnicking families grill it over campfires.
INSIDER TIPEating the thick, chewy skin attached to the fat slab is optional, but doing so will definitely earn you some street cred.
In Romania, nearly every meal begins with a bowl of soup. And cooks here are privy to an important life hack: Soup is better with something sour. While the requisite acidic boost can be achieved with a dose of vinegar, lemon, or sauerkraut juice, the secret to the most common Romanian soup style, ciorbă, is a unique fermented wheat or bran juice called borș.
Ciorbă comes in several variations, from stewed beef and tomato-based ciorbă de văcuță to creamy meatball-filled ciorbă de perișoare, but an all-time favorite (and the ultimate hangover cure) is ciorbă de burtă, a creamy, garlicky rendition featuring beef tripe. While the best ciorbăs are found in Romanian kitchens, excellent versions are also served at La Ceaun, a pint-sized restaurant in Brașov that sells a different variety each day of the week.
This dense ball of polenta stuffed with melty cheese, bacon, and butter is a nomadic Romanian shepherd’s superfood. The shepherds have got a good excuse to load up on calories: Aside from herding sheep hundreds of miles across craggy Carpathian peaks (while sporting a head-to-toe fur coat that doubles as a bed), they sometimes face another draining obstacle: chasing bears away from their animals. According to local folklore, bulz gives them the energy to do just that.
As if the traditional fist-sized version wasn’t intense enough, a world record-sized bulz extending over 650 feet in length was the main attraction at a festival in Sibiu in 2009. It contained almost a thousand pounds of cornmeal, 30 pounds of salt, eight gallons of oil and a whopping 500 pounds of cheese.
In this predominantly Eastern Orthodox country, Easter is the time to party hard. The most important day of the year, it’s accompanied by a slew of traditions—including a lamb slaughter. Traditionally taking place in each household, the practice results in a smorgasbord utilizing every last bit of the animal. Drob, a mashup that falls somewhere between a meatloaf, a haggis, and a terrine, is case-in-point: To make the festive loaf spiked with a hard-boiled egg, the lamb’s liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and/or kidneys are ground and mixed with herbs and milk-soaked bread before being baked.
INSIDER TIPFor a real-deal Easter dinner, head to the northern region of Maramureș and stay in a homestay, or “pensiunea.” Most offer package deals for the holiday weekend with all meals included.
Ciolan de Porc Afumat
Carnivores, take note: There’s nothing more drool-inducing in Romania than the vision of this bone-in smoked pork knuckle. Curiously reminiscent of the ham hock-and-bean combo famous in Appalachia, the ciolan is often served perched atop stewed white beans, a dish with roots in the Romanian army. It’s usually eaten to commemorate Romanian National Day on December 1, but visitors can dig into one anytime at a traditional restaurant. Eat it straight off a cutting board with a side of white beans at Snow, a cozy wood-paneled restaurant in the mountain town of Sinaia. At Caru’ Cu Bere, a 19th-century restaurant in Bucharest featuring ridiculously ornate art nouveau architecture, a mammoth version is served atop polenta and sauerkraut.
Pastramă de Oaie
Did you know that New York City’s most famous meat may actually have Romanian origins? Back in the early 19th century, Romanian Jewish immigrants introduced pastramă—traditional preserved mutton or lamb—to the Big Apple. Over time it morphed into pastrami, a beef-based version with an Italian-influenced name.
In Transylvania, the original lives on; mountain shepherds debone mutton and rub the meat with spices and salt before leaving it to drain in a wooden trough and then dry in the cold wind. Sometimes the meat is smoked, sometimes it’s placed in wooden barrels sealed with clay to cure until spring. Don’t expect this one wedged between slices of marbled rye; it’ll more likely be chopped up and served piping hot alongside polenta (mămăligă).
If you want fresh fish, head to a păstrăvăria. Strategically set at the base of the mountains to benefit from flowing fresh streams, these spots farm trout (păstrăv) and cook them in an on-site restaurant. Order your fish to preference: “la gratar” versions will be grilled to a char, while “prajit” versions are dunked in cornmeal and fried to a crisp. A visit to a păstrăvăria can turn into a whole-day or an overnight excursion. Some, like Păstrăvăria Albota in the northern foothills of the Făgăraș mountains, feature on-site fishing and a hotel, while others, like Păstrăvăria Brătioara on the southern side, even offer paintball, ATV tours, and pony rides. Others are more rustic affairs; at Păstrăvăria Alex in Maramureș, sit amongst traditional wooden architecture on a wooden bridge, and eat fish while watching other fish swim beneath you.
Hungarians (Magyars) comprise the largest ethnic minority in Romania, and it’s no surprise: Until the end of World War I, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today several counties in the western Romanian region remain over 50 percent Hungarian, with Hungarian language still spoken in many local schools. Magyar street foods such as langoși are ubiquitous in the region, sold at bus stations, gas stations, and out of food trucks in tiny villages. Often as cheap as 1 lei (about 25 U.S. cents), the fluffy fried dough is one of Transylvania’s best bang-for-your-buck meals. Fried in oil and served hot, the disks can be dressed up with a buffet of condiments, either sweet (like apricot jam) or savory (think shredded cheese, sour cream, ketchup, mayonnaise, and garlic butter).
Romanian cooks will convince you that cabbage does not have to be boring. You can find meat-stuffed cabbage rolls throughout the Balkans and into the Middle East, but that’s no reason not to seek them out in Romania, where soured cabbage leaves are used instead of fresh ones. That adds a salty, savory, acidic dimension to the mix of meats—some combination of ground pork, ground veal, ground beef, and bacon—within, resulting in an explosion of flavor that’s usually tempered with a side of polenta and sour cream (smântână). If you make it to the Transylvanian city of Cluj-Napoca, don’t miss “varza a la Cluj,” a remixed version shaped like a lasagna. Order it at Vărzărie, a local restaurant with a classic community ambiance.