Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dining in Romania, in 1903.

Restaurant and hotel reviewing is a relatively recent phenomenon, historically speaking, and I thought it might be fun to look at some early examples. One of the first ‘experts’ in the process was the London gourmet and newspaper columnist, Lieut.-Col. Nathaniel Newnham-Davis. He authored a book on dining in London, and then, with a rather mysterious friend with the interesting name of Algernon Bastard, took on the hotels and restaurants of Europe. Their book,
Gourmet's Guide to Europe, was published in London in 1903.

The authors outlined their mission in the Preface:

Often enough, staying in a hotel in a foreign town, I have wished to sally forth and to dine or breakfast at the typical restaurant of the place, should there be one. Almost invariably I have found great difficulty in obtaining any information regarding any such restaurant. The proprietor of the caravanserai at which one is staying may admit vaguely that there are eating-houses in the town, but asks why one should be anxious to seek for second-class establishments when the best restaurant in the country is to be found under his roof. The hall-porter has even less scruples, and stigmatises every feeding-place outside the hotel as a den of thieves, where the stranger foolishly venturing is certain to be poisoned and then robbed. This book is an attempt to help the man who finds himself in such a position. His guide-book may possibly give him the names of the restaurants, but it does no more. My co-author and myself attempt to give him some details - what his surroundings will be, what dishes are the specialities of the house, what wine a wise man will order, and what bill he is likely to be asked to pay.

Our ambition was to deal fully with the capitals of all the countries of Europe, the great seaports, the pleasure resorts, and the "show places." The most acute critic will not be more fully aware how far we have fallen short of our ideal than we are, and no critic can have any idea of the difficulty of making such a book as we hope this will someday be when complete. At all events we have always gone to the best authorities where we had not the knowledge ourselves. Our publisher, Mr. Grant Richards, quite entered into the idea that no advertisements of any kind from hotels or restaurants should be allowed within the covers of the book; and though we have asked for information from all classes of gourmets - from ambassadors to the simple globe-trotter- we have not listened to any man interested directly or indirectly in any hotel or restaurant.

I have chosen the authors’ review of Romania to give you today. I don’t believe I have ever covered Romanian food (or rather, an outsider’s view of Romanian food) in any previous post, so here goes:

In Roumania you must never be astonished at the items set down in the bill of fare, and if "bear" happens to be one try it, for bruin does not make at all bad eating. The list of game is generally surprisingly large, and one learns in Roumania the difference there is in the venison which comes from the different breeds of deer. Caviar, being the produce of the country, is a splendid dish, and you are always asked which of the three varieties, easily distinguishable by their variety of colour, you will take. A caviar salade is a dish very frequently served. The following are some of the dishes of the country:- Ciulama,  chicken with a sauce in which flour and butter are used; Scordolea, in which crawfish, garlic, minced nuts, and oil all play a part; Baclava, a cake of almonds served with sirop of roses. These three dishes, though now Roumanian, were originally introduced from Turkey. Ardei Ungelute is a dish of green pepper, meat, and rice; Sarmalute are vine leaves filled with meat and served with a preparation of milk; Militei is minced beef fried on a grill in the shape of a sausage. Cheslas and Mamaliguzza, the food of the peasant, much resemble the Italian Polenta and are eaten with cold milk. Ghiveci, a ragout with all kinds of vegetables mixed in it, is a great dish of the country.


When in Bucarest, as it should be spelt, go straight to Capsa's in the Calea Victorici, a first-rate restaurant. It is perhaps not quite equal to the best of the London and Paris establishments, but the cooking is really good, and certainly superior to anything you can find in Vienna. The French chef will provide you with a recherche dinner ordered a la carte. Fresh caviar is in perfection there, as also the sterlet or young sturgeon; the latter is caught in the Danube, and is a most dainty and much prized fish. The prices are fairly high, - about 2 francs 50 centimes for an ordinary plat. The wines are all rather expensive, that of the country being perhaps best left alone, although the Dragasani is a wine which tastes strangely at first, but to which one becomes used. A liqueur tasting of carraway seeds is pleasant, but that made from the wild plum is not to be rashly ventured upon.

This is the menu of a little dinner for two eaten at Capsa's:-

      Ciorba de Poulet.
      Turbot a la Grec.
    Mousaka aux Courzes.

And this a breakfast at the same establishment:--

    Glachi de Carpe (froid).
         Oeufs Polenta.
     Aubergines aux Tomates.

There is also a confectioner's shop kept by Capsa, who was for some considerable time at Boissier's in Paris, afterwards returning to Bucarest and opening this establishment. It is as good as that of any Parisian confiseur, with the result that all Bucarest are his customers, and his business is an extremely lucrative one.

A cheap dinner can be obtained, a la carte, at the Hotel Continental in the Calea Victorici, opposite the Theatre Nationale.

Jordachi's in the Strada Coatch, and Enesco's in the Strada Sfantu Tonica, also deserve mention; they are cheap, second-rate restaurants, but you get there the dishes of the country. In both these places a capital band of Tziganes play the music of the country. Enesco's is, perhaps, the better of the two. If you require any specialites the waiter will be sure to know what to advise; one dish, called Brochettes de Filet, may be recommended. The waiters at Enesco's and Jordachi's are intelligible in German and Roumanian; at the Continental, and especially at Capsa's, they are mostly French.

If you pay a call in Bucarest you will be offered Dolceazza, a kind of sweetmeat, and a glass of water.

I had not come across the word ‘ciorba’ (ciorbă) before I saw the dinner menu given in this book.  It is apparently a sour soup made with a variety of ingredients – the key feature that distinguishes it from ‘ordinary’ soup is the sourness.  Sadly, I have been unable to find a historical recipe, written in English, for a Romanian sour soup. Instead, I give you a version of ‘baklava’ (spelled with a ‘P’) from Foods of the foreign-born in relation to health, by Bertha M. Wood (Boston, 1922)

(Used by all Near East)
2 eggs                          2 teaspoons baking powder
I cup butter                 2 tablespns. melted butter
I pint milk                   1 ½ cups chopped nuts
Flour                            ½ cup sugar or ½ cup honey

Mix two eggs, one cup butter, one pint milk, as much flour as you need, and two teaspoons baking powder. Let stand overnight. Make into balls. Mix cornstarch and flour, and put on board. Roll balls out thin. Put into pan and cover with melted butter, chopped nuts, and sugar or honey. Add another layer of dough, then one of nuts — pistachio, walnuts, or pinto, etc. Cut in pieces, diamond shaped. Bake. Serve with syrup.

Perhaps we will accompany the ‘Anglo-Saxon gourmet’ on a visit to another European destination tomorrow?


A Kitchen Witch said...

We just got back from Romania. My husband is from there and we visited his family. It's funny because some of the foods mentioned are much the same as we ate in restaurants. Ciorba de pui a la grec was a favorite and when we went into Greece (same travels) I couldn't find any soup that seemed like the Romanian version of Greek soup. We had Mamaliga at breakfast, too.

Gary Gillman said...

This former army officer is an interesting specimen; he was profiled in an early piece by Elizabeth David, collected in an "Omelette and a Glass of Wine".

There were certainly descriptions of meals and restaurants earlier, but not in this modern-sounding format, and perhaps he did start that trend. Wikipedia has an interesting entry on him.


The Old Foodie said...

Hello Kitchen Witch. I love it when readers such as yourself add personal anecdotes and knowledge to the story. Thankyou!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Gary. I wonder if anyone has written a proper bio of him? Would be an interesting project (but not for me - i have enough projects on the go!)