In the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, western Romania, where transhumance — the movement of animals between winter and summer pastures — is still practiced, shepherds will now be settling their animals in the high meadows after a trek that could have lasted five weeks or more. Late autumn last year, these shepherds left with their flocks to walk hundreds of kilometers east, to the Danube floodplains, or northwest, to the lowland plains near Hungary. Now they’re back in their summer home.
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A lack of historical records makes it impossible to establish a precise time that long-distance transhumance began in the Carpathians but, since the region’s shepherd communities date to the pre-Roman Dacians, it is likely that this form of year-round grazing has been practiced since then. They are part of a tradition that stretches throughout the Balkans to northern and central Greece and Albania; their movements between these countries were only curtailed by World War I, when new country borders were created and passports were needed to cross them.
Timing the spring trek
One income source for the shepherds is the lamb they can provide for Easter tables. Romanians consider a 10-kilogram (22-pound) lamb the perfect size for this, so the animal needs to be eight to 10 weeks old. The shepherds time their trek to arrive in the Carpathian uplands for lambing to take place there around early March, depending on when the Orthodox Easter falls that year. Flocks comprise sheep belonging to a number of villagers, and each sheep is marked, to distinguish it from a neighbor’s.
This biannual journey enriches the landscapes the animals cross by fertilizing the soils in the migratory corridors with sheep dung and encourages a remarkably rich biodiversity by transporting fruits and seeds on the wool. It has also, over the centuries, led to extensive cultural exchanges as the shepherds traveled long distances in search of grazing, and many contemporary traditions — in food, literature and song — have their roots in this practice.
Both landscapes and traditions are now in danger of disappearing. Land that has been an open route for the shepherds for centuries is becoming privately owned, motorists don’t take kindly to a flock of hundreds of sheep crossing the road in front of them, and many flocks are now transported in trucks.
A mobile dairy
During the trek, the ewes’ milk is made into cas and urda, two fresh cheeses similar in texture, respectively, to ricotta and Greek mizythra, and cascaval, a semi-hard cheese that’s kept for up to three months. Later in the summer, when the milk has a higher fat content, it’s turned into a feta-like cheese called telemea. The curds are salted, wrapped into cheesecloth orbs, and hung for 24 hours before they are placed on slatted wooden shelves to settle into heavy discs of mountain cheese. The nutrient-rich whey is given to the pigs and sheepdogs. Some of the cheeses are allocated to the sheep owners, the remainder sold at local markets.
Over the centuries, the shepherds have perfected the art of turning fresh milk into products that can be kept longer than a few hours. As well as cheeses, they make smantana, similar to soured cream or thick yogurt, which is the perfect accompaniment to another easily transportable food that has come to be known as the national dish of Romania, mamaliga.
Mamaliga, a thick porridge made from maize flour (cornmeal), is similar to the polenta of northern Italy and other parts of the Balkans. Served in a huge variety of ways, it’s not unusual to find mamaliga on Romanian tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As cornmeal is easy to store, transport and cook, it is the perfect staple food for a long trek. The shepherds make mamaliga in large cauldrons suspended over an open fire and are particularly fond of it with small game and sarmale (stuffed fresh or slightly fermented cabbage leaves). Often, though, it’s eaten alone, with smantana or cheese, or wrapped around fresh, white cheese to make a grapefruit-size ball (or “bear”), which is wrapped in foil and baked in charcoal.
The best mamaliga is made from coarse, stone-ground cornmeal that retains some of the hull and germ of the grain, producing a thick, yellow-gold porridge with a slightly crunchy texture. For Romanian cooks, the making of mamaliga involves many rituals, some of which touch on the semi-mystical in the same way as bread-baking and grape-stomping do, and they use a special saucepan (ceaun) for the process. Modern cooks, however, frequently use a commercial coarse cornmeal that considerably cuts the preparation time. Both types of cornmeal are suitable for making these fitters, a popular to way to serve mamaliga at home.
Mamaliga Fritters With Mushroom Sauce
For a true taste of Transylvania, use a mixture of sunflower oil and butter to fry the fritters, though olive oil gives a fine, if Mediterranean-flavored result, too. Serve with braised rabbit or chicken, with any manner of vegetables, or with mushrooms in sour cream.
Serves 3 to 4
For the mamaliga:
½ cup whole milk
1 cup water
¾ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1 scant cup coarse cornmeal (maize flour), preferably organic
3 tablespoons organic sunflower oil
2 tablespoons butter
For the mushroom sauce:
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces wild, field or button mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and thinly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, to taste
3 tablespoons lightly chopped fresh dill
Watercress sprigs or other green leaves
Small pickled peppers
1. Combine the milk and water in a heavy saucepan, add the salt, and bring to barely a boil
2. Pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly in a clockwise direction with a wooden spoon. Over a low heat, simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is thick enough to just support the spoon standing upright. Set aside uncovered for 10 minutes
(If you are using a commercial cornmeal, follow the directions for a thick mixture.)
3. To make the mushroom sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over low heat. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and simmer 6-8 minutes (button mushrooms) to up to 15 minutes (field or wild mushrooms), until soft. Strain the mushrooms over a bowl and set both mushrooms and liquor aside.
4. Turn out the cornmeal (mamaliga) onto a wooden board and spread into a 1-inch-thick layer with a spatula or palette knife. Smooth the surface and neaten the edges. Cut into 2×3-inch rectangles, or any shape you prefer (but keep manageable in size, otherwise they will break up later). Use the palette knife to loosen each one from the board
5. Set a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the sunflower oil and 2 tablespoons butter. When hot but not smoking, fry the fritters until golden brown on both sides, turning once.
6. Meanwhile, check the mushroom cooking liquor. If there is more than 4 tablespoons, reduce in a heavy pan set over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the mushrooms and stir in the sour cream. Heat to hot but not boiling (or the cream will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish). Gently stir in the dill and add salt and pepper (the sauce should be highly seasoned)
7. Transfer the fritters to a warm platter and surround with watercress, pickles, and the mushroom sauce.
Top photo: A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron