I don’t remember seeing any cookbooks in our house when I was growing up in Transylvania. Meals were assembled based on loosely memorized recipes adapted to the seasonal availability of product or traditional dishes we had enjoyed. Our kitchen was the center of activity where meal preparation took time and given the rudimentary appliances and tools, hard labor. We lived in perfect four seasons and the summer bounty had to be quickly eaten while the excess needed to be preserved. A large pantry held jarred tomatoes and peppers of every color, stuffed vegetables,red and green cabbage, beets and turnips along with pickles of every size. Jams and preserves had their special corner. Berries, stone fruit, rose petals, green walnuts and quince sat next to jars of peaches, apricots and my favorite, sour cherry. Onions and potatoes, staples of any Hungarian kitchen, were stored in the cellar, while sweet red peppers strung with straw were hanging everywhere. Pounded in a mortar they would become the indispensable Paprika of every dish. Aromas of all kinds filled the air as large pots simmered on the tiny stove.
While our backyard garden provided some produce and fruit, a weekly trip to the local farmer’s market was essential. I loved going, not so much for the food as for the colorful ribbons that the traveling Gypsy vendors sold along with trinkets I was not allowed to have. The bustling farmer’s market brought together local vendors as it had for thousands of years regardless of political border shifting.
Most summers though, my brother and I would get shipped off to my maternal grandparents’ house where the same ritual of food preparation took place. I remember a much larger garden and farmer’s market along with more freedom to explore. It is there that I dug for my first pink new potato, tasted tomatoes and sweet peas right off the vine and picked wild raspberries. It is also where I handed a Gypsy girl about my age a few coins for a handful of ribbons in a decorated wooden box.
A typical light summer meal would include a cold soup, perhaps cherry or potato, fresh bread spread with goat cheese and sprinkled with paprika and caraway seeds, sliced red radishes, scallions and mineral water.