From Transylvania: Mămăligă

H. Ellen Browning, distant relative of English poet Robert Browning, chronicles her adventures in Eastern Europe in her travel memoir A Girl’s Wanderings in Hungary (1897). Though she claims to “belong to the category of ‘mouse-screeching’ women,” she finds stolidity enough to develop a deep love for “the sea, and the mountains, and the frank ‘natural-ness’ of the peasantry” during her travels (“garlic and drunken men” both disgust her, however). Of the countries she visits, it is Transylvania’s dramatic scenery that wins her heart, and she passes most of her time wandering its vast forests and marveling at the small, humble villages she finds along the way.

During her walks, Browning enjoys only those foods eaten by the region’s peasantry and herdsman. She prepares these simple dishes — “brigand’s beefsteak,” roasted potatoes, omelets and onion soup — with a forester’s help, cooking them over hot ash in iron pots.

Fryderyk Pautsch, Autumn in the Carpathian Mountains, 1936

 

A dish particularly loved by Browning is a corn pudding called mămăligă, which is cooked in a gigantic cast iron cauldron over an open fire. According to legend, if the mămăligă cracks while cooking, a member of the household is destined for an unexpected journey. The dish was quite popular with nineteenth-century kitcheners, and even merited mention in a best-selling novel: while traveling through the Carpathian Mountains, Jonathan Harker of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) enjoys a dish of mămăligă before departing for Dracula’s castle.

Harker unfortunately neglects to jot down the recipe for this toothsome dish. But Katharina Prato’s Die Süddeutsche Küche ( 1903) offers a recipe that doesn’t skimp on authenticity.

Mămăligă

In one liter of warm water mix one and a half liter Italian cornmeal. Add salt to taste, cover (but allow for some steam to escape), and let boil for ten minutes until most of the water has been absorbed. Mixes the entire mass until thick and let stand fifteen minutes over low heat. Then transfer half the polenta mixture to a baking dish greased heavily with butter. Sprinkle sheep’s cheese over the polenta and spread another layer of polenta over the cheese. Continue this process until the baking dish is full. Sprinkle butter over the top and back in a moderate oven until the mămăligă forms a brown crust.

From Caernarvonshire: Thin Welsh Barley Cakes

A cottage on earth, and a castle in air,
And Diana Mereryd’s white apron shall wear,
And bake barley bread to a tender song
Of Love in a cottage, that always was young.

The old Welsh rhyme “Bara Haidd” (“Barley Bread”) celebrates the central role barley played in the lives of the Welsh peasantry, who valued it for its ability to withstand cold weather and rocky soil. In the mountainous region of Caernarvonshire, the peasantry lived almost exclusively on barley, buttermilk, oats, cheese and potatoes.

Violent storms, however, prevented the widespread cultivation of barley. Farmers would plant their crop only to have it decimated by the region’s merciless winds; half the country then remained as meadows and wastelands.

Life was difficult in mountainous Caernarvonshire. During the summer months, the peasantry herded their sheep and small cattle to wild and solitary uplands lined with walls of dry stone, which were used to mark the boundaries of a particular grazing area. The stone for these walls was carried by the peasants up the steep sides of the lofty mountains — a dangerous and tiresome business.

The region’s homes were also built of stone, with deep-set windows containing only a single pane. Moss plugged the thick walls of these simple cottages, which were sometimes drafty and cold. But their warm, roomy chimney corners offered a cozy retreat during winter nights when fires fed on peat moss blazed in the cottage fireplace.

Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales

The longevity of the inhabitants of these mountainous regions was attributed to their simple diets. Here is an 1867 recipe for barley cakes from a Welsh hermit (Meudwy) of ancient lineage who lived in a cell cut out of a rock opposite the Well of St. Gover. His diet, like that of the Caernarvonshire peasants, was austere but wholesome.

Thin Welsh Barley Cakes

Mix fine barley meal and milk together to the consistency of batter, and pour slowly on the bake-stone out of a jug until it has formed a circle the size of a small plate, then let it bake slowly. It ought to be very thin but soft, like a pancake or a pikelate; it is likewise eaten with cold butter.

From the Colonial Hearth: Indian Pudding

The kitchen hearth was the center of colonial family life, providing a comfort and warmth not found in the rest of the house. Over the kitchen table loomed the hearth’s great stone chimney, festooned with hooks and trammels supporting black pots and kettles, and garlanded with strings of peppers, pumpkin and dried apples.


The hearth fire, which in winter burned all day and night, was fed by tremendous logs that the family transported by sled. Sometimes these early hearths had seats built into them; the children of the house vied with one another for these rare spots of warmth from which they could gaze up and watch the stars of the night sky sparkling at the opening of the great chimney-throat.

A colonial hearth

 

In New York, the hearths were modeled on the Dutch design. One observant traveler described the New York hearth as being “very droll-like” in that “they have no jambs nor lintell as we have, but a flat grate, and there projects over it a lum in the form of the cat-and-clay lum, and commonly a muslin or ruffled pawn around it.” In other regions, hearths were more austere–just a plain brick or stone fireplace over which hung a kettle or two.

The meals prepared in the colonial hearth were simple and could be left simmering or baking for hours at a time. The colonial housewife prepared stews of beans, salt pork and vegetables in round iron kettles. Bread was baked in a separate chamber, usually off to the side of the fireplace. Once the bricks were deemed hot enough, in went the bread or pudding to bake until finished.

Below is a recipe for Indian pudding, a favorite from the droll colonial hearth. Serve with cream or sweetened milk.

Indian Pudding

3 cups milk
1/2 cup molasses
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter

In saucepan mix milk and molasses; stir in cornmeal, ginger, cinnamon, and salt. Cook and stir till thick, about 10 minutes. Stir in butter. Turn into a 1-quart casserole. Bake, uncovered, at 300 degrees about 45 minutes to one hour.