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Chef's Log

It started with a Tomato

Will Cunneen

It's been almost 4 years now since I first visited Romania.  A beautiful country with beautiful people and beautiful food... Well, perhaps beautiful isn't the best word to describe the food.  It certainly can be beautiful, but if you're looking for the cosmetically enhanced, but nutritionally anemic apples of the states, or the perfectly shaped and insect free produce you see in every Kruger, Albertsons, Jewel, Mejiers, Shop-rite, or Piggly Wiggly across America then you will probably be a little disappointed.  But have you ever stopped to wonder, if a bug won't eat it, why is it ok for me?  The produce that I've seen here in Romania is, for lack of a better word, real.  When you go to the market here and see the little lady in her stall showcasing her goods, she (or he) is showing you themselves.  In a lot of cases the people selling ARE the ones who picked it.  From their garden.  The onions have dirt on them.  Want to know why?  Because onions grow in the dirt.  Dirt is not a bad thing that needs to be sterilized and washed away.  The earth is where life begins.  The same goes for meat.  People should know and be reminded of the fact that the chicken sandwich they are eating, use to be alive.  You walk into a supermarket and see all the pretty packaging, and fabricated cuts of various dead animals wrapped up tight in plastic and displayed pleasingly in a display case and all of a sudden that once living breathing thing merely resembles the ingredient you need for that recipe you saw on Pinterest!  Having said this, I eat my fair share of meat, and all kinds, but I also respect it for what it is and do not try to delude myself into thinking that that rosy red ribeye didn't come from the side of a very alive cow (steer most likely).   Now before anyone goes off on a tangent, I would like to say that these are broad generalizations and there are exceptions in both cases.  The U.S. had made great strides with it's organic and local foods movement, and there are some really great farmers trying their best to get that message out there and change the way people view food.  I have some friends in the restaurant industry that are also trying to steer people toward locally grown and organic.  The other side of the coin is that there are some big commercial chains in western Europe that are doing a lot of the same things, as well as some European restaurants that would prefer to use frozen or imported ingredients over local ones.  But I digress...  This story is about why I decided to pick up, with my wife and not quite two year old son, and move from Chicago, IL to Cluj-Napoca Romania.  Well,  as you probably have guessed, it started with a tomato.  

It was at my wife's cousin's and member of the Chef off the Grid team - Gabi Bartos' house, in September 2012.  We had just arrived for an extended vacation/overdue honeymoon to Cluj.  This house is located in a small village where my wife had grown up, so it had some sentimental value for her, but for me, it was just a quaint little European village, with chickens in the road and the occasional stray dog.  But as I looked closer, I began to notice something.  This place was teeming with life!  Every house had some kind of garden and at least a few animals.  Not the flowers in the front yard, grass in the back with one dog and a white picket fence which is the picturesque suburban American home, no.  These little houses (very small by American standards) had huge gardens with corn and fruit trees and onions and beets and beans and of course, tomatoes and the list goes on and on. Meanwhile there is a full chicken coop with a couple turkeys and a cow and a pig or two and some rabbits and a few dogs to keep all the other animals in line.  I'm not saying this isn't in the states, but it certainly isn't at every house in a suburb 10 minutes outside a major city.  The American farm that I've seen is just that, a farm.  Not a home with vegetables and farm animals, its one or two things that it can produce in vast quantities and sell to wholesalers.  Even the farms that do grow all their own vegetables, they're out on the land by themselves, there's no community based around the growing of things.  Selling, sure, America has green city markets all over the country, but when the terroir is as close as next door, one must truly hone their craft to plant a better carrot or grow a better tomato. 

We had just sat down for lunch, which was comprised of pretty standard fare.  Some telemea (mild, feta-like cheese), some sunca (ham), tomatoes, and bread (Romanians sure do love their Bread!) or Paine as it's called. All of it was wholesome and tasty, but the tomatoes, there was something special in those tomatoes!  They were redder than I normally see in a tomato.  Not just on the outside, but on the inside was just as red, not fading to dull pink like I am used to.  Also, the shape was not uniform and did not have to usual four chambers of seeds that I am used to seeing.  It was as if these tomatoes didn't adhere to the same rule book as other tomatoes.  And the taste!  Well, let me say that I am a professional chef.  Tasting food is part of my livelihood, and I can honestly say that I had never tasted a tomato like that!  And this includes some heirloom varieties I've gotten from the farmer's market in the states.  It had the freshness of a tomato that was just picked off the vine (because it was), but the depth of flavor of having reduced a case of tomatoes into a cup!  This changed something in me.  Growing up until this point in America, I had become to believe that you could get any ingredient you could want, year round.  Someone is growing it somewhere, right?  And with the transit and communication systems we have now-a-days, you can ship anything from anywhere, and to a point, that is true.  As a global society, we are exposed to more diversity and exotic ingredients than our grandparents could ever have dreamed!  But.  Just because you can get something, doesn't mean you should.  Just because peaches are in season in Chile, doesn't mean that you should eat them in Chicago in February.  The reason?  because what a country ships is not it's best.  I'm not saying people do it deliberately, but you try picking perfectly ripe fruit/or vegetables, cleaning it, boxing it, shipping it thousands of miles, having it wait in customs to be ok'd, then put on a truck and shipped to a supermarket to be stored and eventually be sold to someone who happens to pick it, even though it has a small blemish on it!  NO!  It's not meant to work like that.  People have eaten what was available in the area and in that season for millennia and many of our greatest recipes stem from that history.  That's what makes a place or local cuisine special.  That's why I'm here.  That's why my wife and I decided to move to this place.  Not to try and change it, but to showcase it!  Using fantastic Romanian ingredients and presenting them in a new light.  Giving a tomato like I had in that small village a platform to be seen, smelled, and tasted.  And to show Romania itself, how much it has to offer!

Pofta Buna!