What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
places to stay, & places to visit
in California State

Cheese Lady Goes to Romania

Rate this item
(0 votes)
A family cheese and charcuterie stand in Bran A family cheese and charcuterie stand in Bran

By Rachael Lucas

Romania kind of got the shaft. It is situated, strategically speaking, in a military sweet spot.

Constanta in Romania PicmonkeyStreet scene in Constanta, Romania

It is located at the tip of the Black Sea and is surrounded by the Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary, and Bulgaria. From those countries, you find conquerable territory in every direction. As such, Romania has been a vestibule and under the empirical thumb of several historical supremacies. The Greco-Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and The Soviet Union all claimed this peculiar, little country as their plaything at one time or another. They have only been a democracy for 29 years. When visiting Romania, I had it in mind that these were an oppressed people, and I honestly wasn’t sure what my overall impression would be or how my boyfriend and I would be received. What I learned from my time there is this: Romania is a charming country with hospitable people, flavorful cuisine, funky wine, questionable coffee, and cigarette smoke.

Through unfortunate (and invariably human) circumstances, Romanian cuisine is born out of many cultures, which makes for astounding variety. As the Black Sea is awash with Mediterranean water, you find Greek, Turkish, and Italian imprints on menus and at markets. Rotisseries, olives, sarmales, and seafood are delectations aplenty.   Italian restaurants and pizzerias exist in abundance. I delighted in buffalo milk burrata at one quaint eatery. Italian water buffalo burrata is practically impossible to access all the way in Seattle. That cheese was the highlight of my day. I also had a Neapolitan pizza that was one of the best pizzas that I have ever tasted. I’m dreaming about its crust.

Austro-Hungarian style dishes were comforting and satisfying. I ate pickle salad daily while we were there. Romanians pickle everything! I tried Hungarian Goulash with spaetzle—dulcet and hearty. I feasted on sausage and short ribs from a pig that was raised and slaughtered on the premises. Sauerkraut is a staple, though the cabbage is crisp and fresh. They eat it like salad, and it often escorts hefty, meaty fare.

One meal stands out for me the most, and I’m not sure where it comes from. My guess is that it came out of necessity for survival. It is a simple, yet gratifying soup called Ciorbă. Ciorbă is a brothy concoction that can feature any ingredient. The one constant is that it must be sour. I tried this soup a handful of times. Romanians put sour cream in it or vinegar, or both. It can be made with meatballs, lentils, tomatoes, chicken thighs, or whatever. My favorite one had a big, fat pork rib in it, so I could tear flesh off the bone while I ladled broth into my gullet. I felt old worldly.

Cheese is not a major foodstuff in Romania.   A bummer for a cheese enthusiast, cheese shops do not exist anywhere in the country. Undeterred, I ate as much fromage as I could find.  

ciorba in Romsnia 1 PicmonkeyA hearty and satisfying bowl of ciorbă

Feta is one of the most common cheeses available in Romania. It accompanies many dishes, and it screams of its Mediterranean origins. Telemea is also a popular fromage and is unique to Romania. I was apprehensive about trying it because I assumed that it was like our domestic cheese, Teleme. This cheese is not, ahem, anywhere near my top ten—the texture reminds me of having a sinus infection. I was pleased to discover that Telemea is its own thing, and it is tangy and bright, like a feta. It’s a fresh, brined cheese that can be made with any milk type. Romanians are not picky about such things. The other revered cheese is Caşcaval, which is a pasta filata cheese, modeled after Italy’s Caciocavallo. The one I bought mimicked the Italian version, though it was much younger. Its rind was just developing into the thick callous that protects this historic cheese. A favorite appetizer in Romania is breaded, fried Caşcaval. It has Caciocavallo’s melt and stretch, so I personally was not impressed. It doesn’t stretch like I like. Plus, it needed something for a dip. I drowned it in vinegar.

In Romania, if you want to taste artisan cheese, you need to visit the villages. This is where the cheesemaking is happening. In Bran, I tasted a puckeringly bitter ewe’s milk cheese that is aged in an encasement of pine. It doesn’t even have a name. It had me wondering about the sanitation practices of these family creameries, where was their HACCP plan, and surely our FDA would not approve. I loved it. If I go back, I will spend the entirety in the countryside where villagers welcome you in and allow you to be a part of their cheesemaking, for which they are very proud.  

The countryside villages are also where you will find the wine being made. Often, grazing pasture and vineyards will be side-by-side, and you will detect an unmistakable wooliness in the wines. The locals agree. While I found the reds to be earthen, leathery and hefty like I want them, I was in awe of the whites. They typically smell like perm, you know, like hair salon in the eighties. The ones that I tried tended to be semi-dry, crisp, and, in a word, ostentatious. These white wines are punchy, complex, and aggressive. A bottle costs about five dollars.

Grape vines drape over resident fences and cross through cement yards. I saw hovels with thin tin roofs with lines of grapes growing behind. I inquired about this and learned that many Romanians make their own wines. Imagine living in a shack but drinking the finest wine around. We had a server who beamed when he told us that he doesn’t even bother with mass produced wines; he only drinks that which he makes.

I learned that, during Soviet occupation, most Romanian wine was exported to Russia. The Russians were interested in two types of wine: sweet wines and wines with a high alcohol percentage. The traditional wines that the Romanians had been making had been all but forgotten.   By the end of Soviet occupation, the old vines had been plucked out and discarded. I was told that nearly every grape vine in Romania is young, with no more than twenty years of age. I was lamenting about this fact to a chum, the wine buyer at Pike Place’s Delaurenti, who sagely reminded me that in thirty years, those vines, too, will be old vines.

Turkish coffee in Romania PicmonkeyFinally . . . a cup of Turkish coffee

There is a Romanian Brandy-type libation called Ţuică. It will put hair on your chest. This alcohol is meant as a welcoming shot for guests, or to finish off a meal, or for celebration, much like how we use bubbly. It is made primarily from plums, but it is also commonly made from fruits like cherries, apricots, and figs. We had not had opportunity to try it until one of our last nights in Romania. We requested a shot apiece from our server who was, himself, well-aged (he reminded me of Lurch). He was virtually emotionless until we mentioned Ţuică. It zapped life into the ole’ bird, and he fetched us our shots right away. To our glee, it happened to be from his own batch, made from cherries--about 90 proof. He informed us the next day, after having no luck in finding a bottle to bring back, that it is practically impossible to find in stores because everyone makes it at home.

When I researched Romania, I created a scenario in my mind in which my mornings would entail a spicy, thick mug of Turkish Coffee. By the end of the trip, I speculated that Romanian Turkish coffee was hogwash. It wasn’t until our last day in Bucharest, the final day of our trip, that I was able to enjoy a muddy cup of Turkish brew. One Turkish coffee shop in the entire country. The rest of my coffee experiences were dodgy at best. This culture loves those push-button coffee machines. I didn’t even realize that Nescafé was a thing anymore. Oh, there are coffee shops in Romania. If you want a macchiato, they have a button for it. At one instance, I approached a coffee stand and requested a latte. She charged me, and then she dropped a few coins into a machine and pressed latte.   I could have just as easily gotten the same coffee in a department store, on the sidewalk, at a park, in a gas station, at a petting zoo, or in a hotel.

Our visit with the Black Sea was hosted by a place called Constanţa . Oh Constanţa . The only way to describe this city is rustic. It’s supposedly a resort town, but I joked that it must be the last resort town. When I stepped off the most crowded, muggy, dreadful train ride ever (a large man moved past me in the aisle, and his butt sweat glazed my arm), I was welcomed by thirty billion long, skinny cigarette butts along the tracks. These people love to smoke the long-skinnies, indoors and out. This city seemed like a different country, as if we were no longer in Romania. If I hadn’t visited this region, my perception of Romania as a whole, would have been incomplete. Constanţa was already a town before the Romans conquered it. I don’t think they have tried to refurbish anything since. Ruins hang around the city like common pieces of furniture. The buildings are ancient, and the people are introverted and stern. Constanta is the front line, so it makes sense that its constituents have to be tough. It is the only place in Romania where I didn’t feel very safe. Along with being quirky introverts, I found Constantans to be the smokiest. The rest of Romania is rather smoke-forward, but this collection of people smokes with fervor, no matter where they are. This is where my asthma got the best of me, so I could not wait to leave. Nevertheless, I will not forget the Roman ruins that anyone can plop down on to have a picnic (or a cig) or walking along the beach on which so many cultures have come ashore. The history is palpable in Constanţa ; it’s as thick as the smoke.  

The best part of travelling is that I always feel a little bit changed afterwards. I think I am more actualized through venturing out and learning about a strange place with unknown people, discovering their reality, savoring the food that their palates enjoy, and drinking wine from grapes for which they painstakingly care. Romania is a perfect place to do just that, as it is easy to communicate with these friendly folks who are eager to practice their English and share their culture with us. While traveling in this country is quite affordable, tourism has been a major economic boost for Romania. Their emphasis on hospitality is evident, and their customer service, impeccable. I never felt unwelcome the entire trip. If you have an itch to travel, I encourage you to visit Romania, too. I left with a sated belly, wine-stained teeth, an emotional sense of fulfillment, and humble and sincere hope for this ancient place and its deserving people.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

 Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP). You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area. When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it. She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Copyright © 2005 - 2020. Taste California Travel. All rights reserved. | Phoenix Website Design by CitrusKiwi