As promised, we start our Romanian culinary tour with one of the most basic and delicious ingredient used in many forms, products, and dishes: MILK!
In Romania, there are still many small farmers that raise sheep, cows, goats or even buffalos, and use the milk to craft various products following traditional methods, without much technology and certainly not chemical additives. Animals freely roam around in green pastures from early spring till late autumn and eat fresh grass when available, and then hay during the colder season.
Still milked by hand, the raw milk is used to prepare cheese, sour cream, or yoghurt using wisdom inherited across generations. This relatively small scale production is mainly sold on the fresh markets of the city located nearest to that farm. Sadly, those smaller local farms are gradually being replaced by large factories that can process huge amounts of milk industrially (see our previous post about Năsal to read more about this). I guess it is unnecessary to mention how those industrial products taste like when compared with homemade ones…
Besides wonderful cheese, farmers use milk to produce smântână (sour cream), a dairy product extensively used in Romanian kitchens. Made out of the buttery fat layer skimmed from the top of milk, this homemade version has a much thicker consistency and richer taste than any sour cream found in supermarkets. Fresh and extremely creamy in texture, smântână is the cherry on top when added to soups, heavier dishes of meat or cabbage (especially sarmale), or even desserts! The best way to enjoy it remains on a piece of fresh homemade bread dipped in it (or your fingers)!
Made with cow, sheep, buffalo, or goat milk, brânzeturi (Romanian cheeses) are simple, but extremely flavorful, products best eaten on their own. The pillars of cheese-making are: caș, urdă, telemea, and brânză de burduf.
Caș (funnily, pronounced [kaʃ] as in “cash”) is a semi-soft, fresh, usually unsalted white cheese made with raw cow or sheep milk. Hard to compare with any another cheese, it has a very refreshing and slightly acidic flavor.
When left for 2-3 weeks in brine, it turns into telemea, another Romanian specialty. The local cousin of Greek feta, usually held in salty water, which gives it loads of flavour, telemea becomes pungent and crumbly when dried.
Preparing fresh caș is the starting point for obtaining almost any of the other cheese types (even mozzarella!). Crafting such a delicious product is actually pretty simple. All you need is fresh milk (cow, buffalo, sheep…) and rennet (an enzyme found in dried mutton stomach, which you can find in any decent supermarket. Ok… maybe not…). Rennet causes the coagulation of milk, separating it into curds (the solid part that becomes the actual cheese) and whey (the liquid part) which is not thrown away, but used to obtain the delicious urdă cheese or the creamy version of polenta, balmoș (we get back to these goodies in a second, below). So to make caș, milk is warmed up to 30-35 degrees Celsius (do use raw milk if you have the privilege to get it from a farm, which is already at the right temperature when freshly milked, not to mention its incomparable taste… mmmm…) and then rennet is added. It is then briefly mixed and left for a few minutes, the composition is afterwards poured into a cotton gauze and let to drain overnight. And it’s ready to be enjoyed with some fresh tomatoes!
Brânză de burduf, is another authentic cheese made with sheep’s milk with a strong and salty taste, a little like roquefort (minus the mold) and a soft texture. To make it, cut caş into small pieces, add salt and then hand-mix the composition in a large wooden bowl. Traditionally, the mixture is stored in a sheep’s stomach or into a sheep’s skin that has been cleaned and sewed on the edges, or also in a tube made of pine bark which gives the cheese a particular pine resin flavour. Brânză de burduf originally comes from the southeastern Transylvania, and has no other cheese equivalent to our knowledge (and boy, we did try quite a few varieties). It goes perfectly with polenta or the more special version of it, balmoș – so do give it a try and we promise you won’t regret it!
Urdă is a fresh cheese that is very similar to the Italian ricotta in texture and taste, and also in how it is produced, mainly using the whey of sheep, goat, or cow milk. By just heating the whey resulting from draining other cheeses, a finely grained, soft and full of flavour paste cheese is obtained. Produced by Romanian shepherds for ages, urdă is often used in sweets such as clătite or plăcinte. This goes wonderfully with lemon zests, raisins, or vanilla (for complete flavor madness, we recommend all three together, like in the wonders below ;-))!