If you look at the map, you may find yourself asking how two countries sitting so far apart from each other manage to have quite a lot in common. The beginning of May is marked in Ireland by the celebrations of the Bealtaine festival and as a Romanian food writer living in the UK, I looked closer into our common Celtic legacy. I discovered old connections with the Celtic way of eating and similarities in our traditions.

 

Migrating from Central Europe, the Celts established settlements in both the far west and far east of Europe. Reaching as far as the British Isles or eastwards to Romania and Turkey, they also went south to Spain, France and Italy. They looked for fertile and rich land where they could settle alongside local tribes, and practice agriculture and animal husbandry.

 

In Romania, they settled in the north and west of the country, especially around salt mines. Salt was an important ingredient not only as a flavour enhancer but a key element in preserving meat. 

 

Very much like in Ireland, the country’s culinary traditions were shaped not only by migration, but also by the terrain. The Carpathian mountains in Romania formed a natural border surrounding Transylvania on three sides, and the Celts stopped there among the local Dacian tribes. They improved agricultural and mining techniques, and issued coinage which proves the point that many of the cooking techniques too and ingredients at the time were spread through trade and collaboration rather than military invasions.

 

 The food

 

The Celts were pig and cattle herders, finding the lush pastures and vast forests of Romania ideal for animal husbandry. They also loved butter, both in religious ceremonies and as an ointment, and curdled cheese. They must have brought the methods of making them from their contact with peoples in Central Asia. They baked flat or leavened bread using acorn flour, or cereals such as wheat, barley and millet. Apart from mead, they also must have liked a drink of fermented barley. Their trademarked product, famous even in the Roman empire, was pork ham cured in salt.

 

In Romania, millet was popular to make gruel, and it is believed that it originally gave the name for ‘mămăligă’, our traditional polenta. The milder weather conditions were ideal for wheat and barley crops, something that later caught the eye of the over-expanding Roman empire. Looking at our cuisine today, pork is still the meat of choice, but Romanians are sheep herders too, and just like the Celts, eat less of the meat and use more of the sheep’s milk and wool. We have some impressive sheepskin coats that Romanian shepherds wear in the winter. 

 

Traditions

 

Both Irish and Romanian cuisine have evolved to reflect the stages of history, through expanding population or famine, and still counting today on sturdy staple ingredients such as potatoes, bread, cabbage and meat. 

 

But perhaps it is in our winter and summer celebrations that we find even closer similarities, or in the bagpipe music and the colour-trio of black-red-white still popular today in Romania. St. Andrew’s Day on 30th November is similar to Samhain in October, being about divination, lighting purifying fires and connecting with the other world. The 1st May traditions are celebrating prosperity and many rituals are performed in hope for good crops and healthy herds and flocks. 

 

The theory of the periphery

 

Malcom Chapman and Neal Ascherson refer to a ‘theory of periphery’, by which the reverberations of the Celtic culture travelled to its periphery until it vanished. But while in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the distance from the centre made it stronger, in Romania it was absorbed by the new Roman empire. Under the Christian religion, 1st May turned into St. Ieremia’s Day, celebrating a famous Biblical figure, with birch wood and absinthe wine. More so, there was another ‘religion’ that influenced the meaning of 1st May: the Communist regime. It hijacked the International Workers Day, designated in Chicago in 1886, and turned it into a day of propaganda and Soviet-style gigantic parades, which luckily didn’t trickle down into the deep countryside. 

 

For this reason, I am only going to parade with two dishes, that can give you a taste of Romanian cuisine from the north, where Celtic settlements were and still are being discovered. Recipes in your email.