Sarmale and Friends: a Christmas Special
A few years ago around Christmas, a Romanian-American acquaintance I was supposed to meet for a chat and coffee phoned to put off our meeting: he’d been invited to a childhood friend’s house to have a meal of “piftie and other such barbarities.” My acquaintance, a vegetarian Buddhist from an old aristocratic Moldovan family, who was now visiting the old country after 40 years in the US, was, of course, horrified by the prospect.
The barbarities in question, colloquially known as “porcării”, are pork-based food items which, overall, prove how mercilessly efficient one pig can be made to be.
Legend has it that on St Ignatius of Antioch Day (20 December), that one pig has a dream. Its special last one. In it, pig is announced it will be sacrificed. Sure enough, next day pig is chased to a no-escape corner by barbaric villagers. One of them sticks knife into pig’s throat and carves cross onto pig’s nape, so pig’s soul can leave body and ascend to heavens. Pig’s ears and tail go to village children, to make them stop wetting their beds at night. Pig’s blood goes to adult villagers’ cheeks, to make them ruddy all year. Blood clots in pig’s heart bring good luck to pig’s owner all year. Pig’s hair is made into sturdy brushes for village housewives to rub floors with, properly. Some of pig’s fat goes to church to be sanctified and used as medicine for rheumatic villagers. Some of pig’s spleen is made into weather forecast clairvoyant globe of sorts. And all of the pig rest becomes pork for all of the Christmas season up to 6 January.
Notwithstanding the poor pig’s fate, the whole economy based on it springs from a typical pre-Christian animal sacrifice ritual, possibly of Roman origin. Over the centuries, the ritual has undoubtedly worked as social glue around the Winter Solstice/Christmas, bringing rural communities together in food preparation work, but also in merrymaking. In Romania, the custom is called Pomana Porcului (“Pig’s Alms”), and some have claimed it should be declared Romanian cultural heritage. While the ethics of that may be debatable, the resulting pork produce has always been hugely popular.
Admittedly, it is o porcărie to kill an animal like that. But, by God, we **love** our “porcării”! (Vegetarians, look away now.)
Piftie: the translucent lake of aspic, covered in a thin layer of snow-white fat, to delve into and fish out chunky pieces of satisfying meat.
Tobă: those slices of Pompei-like mosaics made up of clear-cut bits of liver, fat, spleen, heart and the occasional black peppercorn, all cemented in firm brown aspic.
Jumări: the crunchy, savoury, golden cracklings which melt the heart just as their inner core of silky soft fat is melting in your mouth.
The plump, soft caltaboş and lebăr: these Sancho Panza and Quijote of our Christmas cuisine, the former - coarse and dependable, the latter - fine and creamy, both seasoned with spices conjuring up the dizzying flavours of the Far Indies.
And finally: top of the heap, belles of the ball, Queens of the Christmas Feast - the Sarmale! Perfectly balanced between the fullness of the minced meat filling and the pleasantly tamed sauerkraut leaf which holds the filling tenderly, and roasted to a divinely crisp bronze, sarmale are **the** reason why the Romanian diaspora, no matter how radically scattered around the planet, will always, always, fatally miss Home!
So if you’re around for Christmas, go for the “barbarities”! And then go jogging. You’ll need it. ;)
Merry Christmas everyoooooone!