A taste of Transylvania: Mark Hix recreates some delicious Romanian artisan specialities

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Indy Lifestyle Online

A few weeks ago, Jason Lowe and I found ourselves in the middle of a field in a forest in Biertan, in Transylvania. We had been invited over to attend the Transylvania Festival, which was showcasing some of the best local artisan food producers – along with various ceramicists and copper still and cauldron makers who were selling their wares. Jason, who can never resist buying random culinary objects of desire on his travels, bought himself a lovely big old goulash cauldron and tripod (although I had a hard time persuading him to buy a full-blown copper distilling kit).

Artisan food production is slowly gaining momentum in Transylvania – and I don't think it will be too long before the region's cuisine will be recognised across Europe. We also visited some sheep-cheese producers up in the mountains; they seemed so content, leading their simple life away from civilisation.

We witnessed a huge amount of preserving taking place at the festival – a process that reflects the traditional way of life when the summer crops have to be preserved for the cold winter months. The preservation of plums seemed to be especially important, as this is the basic ingredient used in the local distilled alcohol – readily available everywhere and often sold in simple plastic bottles.

You can hear more about my trip to Transylvania on Sunday 5 September, when I will be presenting Radio 4's The Food Programme at 12.30pm.

Meatballs with yoghurt, capers and mint

Serves 4

This unusual starter is usually served at room temperature, and it is somewhat reminiscent of Lebanese or Turkish cuisine, as were many of the other dishes I tasted on my brief visit. In fact, the cuisine of Transylvania seems to have many influences from other countries.

Small onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
tsp ground cumin
tsp paprika
3tbsp vegetable or corn oil
50g cooked long grain rice
350g minced lamb
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve

250g Greek yoghurt
A small handful of mint leaves, chopped
2tbsp capers, rinsed

Heat a tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a pan and gently cook the onion, garlic, thyme, cumin and paprika for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often until soft. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and leave to cool. Chop the rice up a bit, then add to the onion mixture with the minced lamb; season and mix well. Mould the mixture into 10 pence-sized balls, place on a tray and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes. Heat the remaining vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan and cook the meatballs in a couple of batches on a medium heat for 6-7 minutes, turning them as they are cooking; then transfer to a colander and leave to cool a little.

To serve, mix the yoghurt, mint and capers together, then mix with the meatballs and transfer to a serving dish.

Ewe's milk blue cheese and purslane salad with honey

Serves 4

While I was having breakfast at the lovely Copsa Mare Guesthouse (copsamare.ro) just outside of Biertan, we tasted some fabulous, slightly salty, ewe's milk blue cheese. No one knew where it was made or what it was even called, so I was unable to find any information about its provenance – just use your favourite blue cheese for this dish.

Likewise, I found this purslane growing wild in the guesthouse garden. Purslane is an annual succulent which can be eaten like salad or spinach leaves – but if you can't get hold of it, you can use any small tasty salad leaves.

A handful of purslane or small salad leaves, washed and dried
150-180g blue cheese
2tbsp clear honey
A few chives cut into 4-5cm lengths

Arrange the salad leaves on serving plates, then break the cheese into nuggets and arrange on the leaves. Spoon the honey over the salad and serve with the chives scattered over.

Apple wedding cake

Serves 8-10

This is a local wedding recipe that is served as a pre-ceremony snack with a glass of the local plum-distilled alcohol, which is a bit like a rough version of the the French drink vieille prune. The base uses a sweet bread dough which I haven't given you a recipe for, as most people have their own favourite bread dough recipe; it could be yeast- or sourdough-based.

About 300g white bread dough with a couple of tablespoons of honey kneaded into it

Flour for dusting
4 dessert apples, peeled, cored and coarsely grated
1tsp ground cinnamon

For the polenta

750ml milk
A pinch of nutmeg
75g quick cooking polenta
100g caster sugar
100ml double cream

For the topping

150ml double cream
100g caster sugar
4 egg yolks

Roll the bread dough out to about 40cm x 20-30cm or to fit a shallow, lightly greased baking tray. To make the polenta, bring the milk to the boil in a thick-bottomed pan, then stir in the nutmeg, polenta and

sugar and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often (a simmer plate is perfect for this). Add the cream and continue cooking for another couple of minutes and remove from the heat. The polenta shouldn't be too stiff; if it is then just add a little more milk.

For the topping, bring the cream and sugar to the boil, place the egg yolks in a bowl and whisk the cream mixture on to them. Return to the pan and stir or whisk over a very low heat until it begins to thicken, then remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Spread the polenta over the dough, mix the apple and cinnamon together and scatter over the polenta; then spoon over the cream mixture.

Bake for about 30-40 minutes until golden, then leave to rest, scatter over a little caster sugar, remove from the tray and cut into squares or rectangles.

Roasted green onions with raisins

Serves 4

This was one of the starters at the feast. It's deliciously simple and it was served with tiny dried wild berries; for this recipe I've used raisins instead. If you can't find large bulbous spring or green onions, then you could use large shallots.

250-300g large spring onions, cut to about 5-6cm from the ends
2tbsp raisins, soaked in water overnight
100ml red wine
2-3tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Place the onions in a roasting tray with the olive oil and season. Cook for about 30 minutes until tender, turning them as they are cooking. Meanwhile, drain the raisins, put them in a pan with the red wine and simmer until the wine has evaporated. To serve, toss the raisins and onions together and serve hot or at room temperature.