Reclaiming National Pride One Dish at a Time
Pre-communistic Romanian Cuisine at Zexe
I barely had the time to sit down when I was handed a shot of raspberry schnapps, it was 50 proof and it burned. That’s how I discovered that in Romania one drinks the digestif as aperitif and basically continues to drink them for the entire meal. On top of three different local wines, I got to try another shot of plum schnapps and this one was 63 proof, a pickled pear version. So far this didn’t deviate too far from the preconceived idea I had of a decadent meal in Eastern Europe. The smoked Magalitzer ham, pike perch eggs and smoked butterfish that helped me keep my mind straight, were more delicate than I anticipated. The mussels with escargot and fresh local herbs were highly unexpected and the sturgeon cooked in wood fire with eggplant and pomegranate definitely convinced me something unique was happening here.
Before arriving in Bucharest, my idea of Romanian cuisine was one made up of meat and potato heavy dishes, with soups and goulash to wash it down. And yet, this is true to some extent. Years of communism have left a profound mark on the culinary landscape. Across most restaurants in the city one will find more peasant inspired dishes like sarmale, cabbages stuffed with meat and rice; mici, basically a Romanian kefte; or ciorba, a sour soup made of tripe, vegetables and herbs. These dishes can also be found at Zexe but they are more crowd pleasers. The true mission of the restaurant is to shine a light on forgotten Romanian high gastronomy.
Romania was founded in 1859 and was the product of a union between the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia as an answer to the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. In 1878 it finally got its independence and by 1881, the principality became a kingdom under the rule of King Carol of Romania, a South German prince. Its geographic position made it something of a crossroads for Europe and this heavily influenced its cuisine. The years under the Ottoman Empire brought eggplants, peppers, preserved vegetables and different spices. The heavy presence of pork comes surprisingly also from there: back when the Romanian peasants had to pay their taxes to the sultan, they had to give away their cows and sheep but kept the haram meat for themselves.
With the new German king, schnitzels, beer or pretzels became commonplace. Finally, the political proximity of the small kingdom with the reign of Napoleon III also influenced the gastronomy, especially in terms of desserts. A quarter of the population was composed of minorities, Magyars, Gypsies, Germans and Jews, all bringing their own culinary touch.
Quickly king Ferdinand, who succeeded to king Carol, started huge infrastructure work to modernize the country, with more or less success. But during România Mare the time between the two World Wars saw the rise of a particularly prosperous time often referred to as the golden time. Women gained the right to vote, a parliamentary democracy was installed and the economy boomed. The British and the French heavily invested in the country.
I decided to focus on the trembling of my lips, which is, from experience, usually closely followed by tears.
During this time, a form of bohème took over and all social classes would meet at Zahanas, which were places usually next to slaughterhouses, where people would meet late at night to drink, eat, play music in excess. This democratization through debauchery happened also on the plate. The food that was eaten at the court was on the same menu as the food eaten by peasants in a joyous confusion of social and culinary cross-pollination. Sadly this was short lived. In 1947 the monarchy was abolished and the Communists took over the regime. The years that followed completely erased everything that was reminiscent of the old regime, its flourishing gastronomy included.
When Alexandru Consulea opened Zexe, he wanted to recreate his own Zahana. There are 70 people working at the restaurant including 15 in the kitchen and his wife Amalia is the head chef. Consulea’s first love for restaurants started as a client. He initially built his career by doing commerce with food products. About twenty years ago his accountant, horrified by his restaurant bills said to him: “Open a restaurant, it will be cheaper.” He did just that and, “It worked very well, it was very simple cuisine. I served the food I wanted to eat. We knew very little about wine at the time. It was red and it varied between sweet and dry,” he laughed.
After ten years they closed the restaurant and soon after he came up with a completely new concept: to reclaim Romanian gastronomy. Zexe was born. After being tired of hearing people say that there was nothing to Romanian gastronomy he decided to dive into old cooking books from the royal period. “When one speaks of French food everyone thinks of high gastronomy but when one speaks of Romanian food it is always peasant food,” he said. “But it’s the same everywhere you can’t limit gastronomy to what peasants eat, it is a part of it but only one side of it”.
With the help of Dana Ulieriu, a journalist and researcher at the Cultural Institute of Romania, he looked through thousands of archival documents, cookbooks, and handwritten notes. Ulieriu is the one who first talked to me about the project. I had met her in Paris and she captivated me with her Romanian tales. She picked me up from the airport and was my guide during my time in Bucharest. “Nothing is digitized at the Library of Romanian Academia so it was a huge amount of research work,” said Ulieriu. But the vastness of the content she found was huge: “At my office at the Romanian Cultural Institute, one of my colleagues knew how to read Cyrillic and she translated for me two cookbooks written in Cyrillic. I also found all the menus from the royal family during both World Wars. I even found out that a friend of mine was from an old aristocratic family and her aunt was a countess that also wrote a cooking book in 1910.” Slowly all the pieces of the puzzle came together.
“Romanian gastronomy reminds me of creole gastronomy,” he said. “Everyone got mixed together, Greeks, Turks, French, Russians, Germans, Jews. This mix is what makes Romanian cuisine; there is no trademark on ragout, goulash or pâté. When we think of foie gras we think of France but they were already making it in ancient Egypt. It’s the interpretation you make that counts, until it becomes your own.” Building this book and his restaurant has not been easy. The years of communism wiped from the national consciousness all this culinary tradition to the point where Romanians themselves see Zexe with skepticism.
Ulieriu recalls listening to a radio show in her car that talked about Romanian gastronomy. They took menus from different restaurants and made comments about them. They had Zexe’s menu and picked a dish, some sort of octopus ragout, and the people on the radio were appalled this could be considered Romanian cuisine. Ulieriu immediately called the radio and said live, “this comes from a book written in 1871 by an aristocrat named Ekaterina Steriady. This was her third cookbook and it was a true best seller at the time.”
"When we think of foie gras we think of France but they were already making it in ancient Egypt. It’s the interpretation you make that counts, until it becomes your own.”
It’s this ignorance Consulea is trying to fight. To him, reclaiming, rediscovering and mastering the codes of the past is the only way to be able to reinvent a new Romanian gastronomy. Mastering the past to create the future. This is a motto he shares also with Anna Consulea, his daughter.
After her training in pastry in France (where she got the highest grade possible) Anna came back to Romania where she won the regional equivalent of Top Chef. She opened her pastry shop following her father’s philosophy of reclaiming Romanian gastronomy. She says that she is happiest when she hears people say that her desserts remind them of their childhood. “I want to trigger nostalgia in people.” Her humbleness is refreshing in a time in which inflated egos and the cult of personality prevail. “We don’t cook for ourselves, we cook for others,” she said, “it is important to draw from the past but one must adapt it and make it evolve.” She has many ideas of how to make her recipes evolve but she didn’t want to do it before rehabilitating the past. “We can’t skip steps. Communism slowed down the process but we are getting there.” She is convinced that through their work a new innovative Romanian cuisine can arise.
When I visited her beautiful pastry shop in one of Bucharest’s most upscale neighborhoods, she greeted me with six different cakes, all more delicious than the other. She gave a modern appearance to old time classics she found in a book from the beginning of last century. I still have vivid memories of her Reine Marie, an homage to Queen Marie of Romania, Romania’s last queen, and her favorite dessert which mixes an airy and subtle vanilla cream on a layer of crispy biscuit and filled with a heart of pomegranate and raspberry. She is already one step ahead in completing her mission of reinvention, possibly thanks to the book she used as an inspiration. It was very vague and had almost no quantities so it was very difficult to reproduce certain recipes. For instance, the recipe for a cake called Take Ionescu only featured pistachio, almond and chocolate as ingredients. So drawing from these ancient taste combinations she had to use her creativity to come up with a finished product.
Once a month Alexandru Consulea and his wife organize a cultural evening where they pick one of the many cookbooks they found from the monarchical times and they base an entire menu off of it. For Ullieru, Consuela’s constant work to educate and share his discoveries is a patriotic act. “This part of our history was taken away from us so what Zandu (Alexandru) does, is giving us back a part of who we are,” she said.
“Here in Romania we are so full of complexes and frustrations, always looking left and right at how well our neighbors are doing. Always thinking how bad we are. So to have someone who shows everyone who we have been, who we are and who we can be again; it brings so much pride.”