In the Country Kitchen with Grandma

September 2023

by renata haidle

As a kid growing up in the city, surrounded by concrete, exhaust fumes, and constant noise, going to Grandma's country house was so much more than a vacation. It was an escape into a universe of unspoiled beauty, a calm retreat where time seemed to stand still. It was an adventure in the backyard, getting acquainted with tiny bugs or barn animals, learning the names of flowers and herbs, climbing trees to pick cherries and plums, or gathering eggs from the chicken coop. There were long summer days filled with play and wonder. And best of all, the comfort of being with Grandma was there.  

Grandma Elena was petite and slender, with slow, gentle moves and a soft voice. Her hands were dry and calloused, darkened by countless days in the sun and toughened by the constant use of garden tools, which she wielded with expert agility. There was much work to be done around the house. A vegetable garden to tend to, constantly battling the weeds without the help of modern pesticides. An orchard that was generous with apples, plums, and peaches, with apricots, cherries, and pears, needed to be gathered and turned into preserves for the winter. Way in the back, beyond the orchard and ending at the Milcov River, tidy rows of grapevines stretched for acres and acres. It was a happy time each October when grapes finally became ripe enough to harvest and turn into wine. The wine was a source of income as unpredictable as nature, with the grape harvest always at the mercy of rain and threatened by powdery mildew. 

And then there were the animals to care for. Dozens of chickens running around the yard, pecking and clucking, laying fresh eggs. A cow that provided daily milk, some of which was churned into butter or curdled into gauzy cloth until it became chunks of unctuous cheese. Add to that the prized pig that was fattened all year round, in preparation for the winter slaughter, right before the Christmas feast. Its meat would be turned into roast, bacon, and sausages. Encased in jars full of solidifying lard, the thick slices of salted roast and the chubby sausage links would last for months in the underground cellar. 

The work was strenuous. The food was fresh and tasty. Dishes were simply prepared, lacking preservatives and other lab concoctions. Vegetable broths, slightly sour, flavored with lovage, and bursting with vitamins. Lean chicken roasted above an open fire, the skin blistery and crunchy, an outburst of flavor. Grape leaves from the vineyard softened in hot brine and then filled with ground pork, onions, and carrots. Hearty bean soups - my favorites. Eggplant charred on wood embers, peeled, and then chopped into a coarse dip, flavored with onion and a bit of sunflower oil. Oil, flour, and sugar were among the few things Grandma had to buy from the store. Oil to flavor food, sugar to make preserves out of the generous fruit harvest, and flour for bread. 

Grandma Elena baked bread in a wood-fired oven, in what she called the summer kitchen. This was a small room with roughly finished walls, repainted with whitewash every spring to keep it clean and sanitized. There was barely enough space for a small table, a tiny stool, and a cot. I usually hung out there with a book, keeping Grandma Elena company while she mixed and kneaded pillowy dough that would soon turn into perfectly baked boules. I'd be the first to try a slice, steam still escaping from the springy center, crumbs falling all over my book. Mouth full, heart happy. 

I learned lessons there - in that summer kitchen, the abundant orchard, and the vegetable garden. The most important one was to grow my own food, as much as I could. I learned to appreciate the unmatched taste of freshly picked tomatoes, still warm with sunshine. The tender salad greens, the crunchy cucumbers, the overwhelming zucchini. All of them so easy to grow and so rewarding. I wish I had paid more attention to the cooking process, but my interests lay elsewhere back then. However, many memories remain. I recall the simple way she pickled vegetables with hot water, vinegar, and salt. All those tidy jars filled with small cucumbers, pieces of carrots, cauliflower florets, and plump, sweet red peppers called 'gogosari,' then covered with cellophane and tied firmly with twine. Or, at Christmas and Easter, I remember how she'd wake up at dawn to start the dough for our traditional sweet bread named 'cozonac.' This was a moist, fluffy bread filled with ground walnuts, sugar, and cocoa. It demanded a lot of patience and precision to get it right, and there was always a bit of competition with family and friends to see who baked the best one. It was a measure of a woman's prowess in the kitchen, and Grandma Elena truly held her own, time after time. 

Thankfully, all her recipes were passed down to my mother, and eventually, they found their way to me. I learned the value of cooking when I became a mom, and what was once seen as a chore is now an act of love. Something I do for my children, but also for Mom and Grandma. A legacy of sorts. It might not seem important, but cooking their beloved recipes is how I keep alive those memories of childhood in Grandma's kitchen - part mental refuge, part source of strength and love. 

Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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