A Chinese Feast – In Transylvania
Don Sloan reports on his most recent visit to Transylvania – including an unlikely Chinese feast and an encounter with royalty.
Transylvania, the central Romanian region cradled by the Carpathian Mountains, remains largely undiscovered by us Brits. Yet as I’ve learned in recent years, its stunning rural landscape of rolling hills, lush pastures and wild flower meadows, dotted with fortified churches and medieval Saxon villages, captures the hearts of visitors, ensuring they return.
My relationship with Transylvania began around ten years ago through an introduction to Pamela Ratiu, Executive Director of the Ratiu Family Foundation, a charitable trust that runs community-based projects that are of tangible benefit to local people. Key amongst the foundation’s initiatives is Transylvania Fest, an annual celebration of indigenous food and culture that supports small-scale producers and stimulates responsible tourism. There is now a strong working relationship between the Ratiu Family Foundation and the Oxford Cultural Collective. In particular, we support students who provide voluntary support throughout the summer months.
As an enthusiastic ambassador for Transylvania, I’m always keen to take friends who will appreciate its rich culture, including its distinctive cuisine. On a recent visit I was joined by chef Ken Hom, leading advocate of Asian food, and Jeremy Lee, executive chef of London’s Quo Vadis. An essential addition to our party was Paul Bloomfield, renowned London-based chef who has fallen for the charms of Transylvania, and is known for re-interpreting its traditional dishes to satisfy contemporary tastes (all three are Patrons of the Oxford Cultural Collective).
Our trip was planned to coincide with the Ratiu’s ‘Friends and Family Weekend’, a gathering of over 100 supporters, many of them prominent diplomats, campaigners, journalists and academics. Chef Bloomfield’s first task was to prepare the opening night dinner, using ingredients sourced from the local market. We knew we were set for an unconventional weekend when he chose to do this on a Chinese theme, in recognition of Ken Hom’s presence. We enjoyed Szechuan dumplings filled with local foraged mushrooms; fragrant aubergine; and Shanghai pork with rainbow rice, using the meet of prized Mangaliza pigs. Almost as enjoyable as the delicious food was the collective confusion amongst the guests as to why their first evening in rural Romania was being hosted by Ken Hom.
On our second day, we were honoured to be joined by The Prince of Wales, who took a break from his holiday in the area to learn about the work of the Ratiu Family Foundation. HRH has a long association with Transylvania. Loving its unspoilt landscapes and unique biodiversity, he bought properties in the villages of Zalanpatak and Viscri, which he operates as guest houses. He lends support to local food producers, and takes particular interest in architectural restoration.
The location for lunch on Saturday was Cluj-Napoca, the beautiful university city that is the spiritual and economic capital of Transylvania. With its distinctive Gothic architecture, vibrant arts scene and lively café culture, Cluj deserves to be a mainstream international tourist destination.
Our final dinner, along with 150 of the Ratiu’s guests, was in a part-derelict brewery in Turda. Thanks to a temporary and highly creative transformation of its interior, the brewery was a magical setting for our farewell event. On this occasion, with the assistance of students from the Oxford School of Hospitality Management, Chef Bloomfield chose to showcase quality Transylvanian ingredients – roast market vegetables on pan-friend marmaliga (a form of polenta) flavoured with telmea (a sheeps’ milk cheese); slow-cooked duck leg with a barbequed pear glaze, served on a broad bean risotto; and meringue with rhubarb compote, rose-hip syrup and rose petals.
Fly with Wizz Air from London Luton to Cluj-Napoca. Stay at the Casa Ratiu guest house in Turda (www.casaratiu.ro).