Romanian weddings aren’t typically swift affairs; they’re epic, bellybusting events, discovers reader Steve Fryer…
Reader Steve Fryer is in it for the long haul as he discovers how epic – and stomach-filling – Romanian weddings can turn out to be
Slowly, I pushed open the door to the banqueting hall and peered inside. Pow! In a flash, control was snatched from my hands and tradition took over. The band struck up a rousing tune and the reception party paraded over to greet us. We were quickly whisked over to our allotted seats at a long table just as some more guests arrived. The band struck up again with another rousing tune as the reception party paraded out to greet them, and then they, too, were shepherded to their seats, as yet more guests appeared. And so it continued.
That morning, our oldest son’s best friend (and very much a part of our family over the years) had married his Romanian sweetheart in the medieval city of Iași, right next to the Moldovan border. It was a remote place – the ancient capital of the kingdom of Moldavia and home to Romania’s oldest and most prestigious university. Even so, it had no international airport, and to get there, we had flown to Tîrgu-mureș, in the heart of Transylvania, the day before, then taken a bumpy, but very scenic, seven-hour bus ride across the Carpathian Mountains.
9pm: First course
It was then that the band started up again with another tune I couldn’t place and my attention returned to the scene around me. By the time the feast had started, ‘that song’ had become an earworm I couldn’t shake.
I peered down at a large dollop of spicy egg mayonnaise sat boldly on a crinkly green lettuce leaf in the middle of my plate. The edge of the lettuce leaf was only just visible beneath its heavy load. It was surrounded by four slices of baked ham, each thick, tender and pleasantly salty; several wedges of local cheese; a less defined wedge of herby cream cheese; and a large slice of a meaty roulade that had been rolled in poppy seeds and well seasoned with garlic. This loaded plate was all for me, and garnished with splashes of contrasting colour in the form of stuffed olives, slices of dill cucumber and a chunky red-pepper-and-cream dip. I ate the lot.
Then the band struck up once more and the wedding guests begin to dance, parading, twirling and forming circles and arches. Everyone seemed to know the steps to these traditional Romanian folk dances and the crowd just fell into it naturally.
10pm: Second course
Three stuffed vine leaves and three stuffed cabbage leaves were lined up on my plate next to a large serving of savoury yellow polenta. It was like a Romanian version of bangers and mash, only the tasty parcels stuffed with meat and rice were squidgier than sausages and the polenta was smoother than mash. The whole lot soon disappeared, although I wasn’t too sure about the tang of the sour cream that had accompanied the dish.
The banqueting hall was dimly lit, its rustic design of wood and stone framing a plastered wall painted with dark Romanian peasant scenes – like a Moldavian Breugel painting. The Romanian Orthodox church had also been dimly lit that morning when the bride and groom, both wearing golden crowns, stood before the priest and made their solemn vows.
There had been no seats, so we all just gathered round while the candles flickered and a choir sang in deep harmonious voices. There were no windows, either, and saints peered down at us from out of the shadows of every wall and pillar. It seemed like all conceivable surfaces had been ornately painted with gold-framed icons. When the newlyweds, each holding long candles decorated with flowers, paraded down the church aisle and out into the sunlight, the guests threw not confetti, but sweets.
Back at the reception, the band struck up and the guests begin to dance ( again). The young woman sitting next to me in a red dress and high heels grabbed my arm and pulled me onto the dance floor.
“You must dance,” she said. “Make appetite to eat. I teach you steps. Watch my feet.”
11.30pm: Third course
A large roasted fillet of fish now covered half my plate. On my fork it disintegrated into tender white flakes edged with spicy brown seasoning – the perfect complement to the delicate flavour of the fish. The whole dish was completed by the contrasting sweetness of pasta in a rich tomato sauce and the fresh crunchiness of steamed broccoli florets. I was beginning to flag by this point, but I managed to finish it.
Just before midnight, the bride mysteriously disappeared. She had been ‘kidnapped’, and it wasn’t long before a message was received from the kidnappers demanding a ransom from the groom. But they didn’t want money...
“If you love your bride, you must strip naked before all the guests. We will then return her safely to you.”
So, to cheers and whistles accompanied by music from the band, the groom played the part and began to strip. Fortunately, before getting as far as ‘the Full Monty’, the kidnappers sent another message: “You can stop now if you make a speech declaring your undying love for your wife.” A relieved semi-naked groom made his speech, and his clothes and bride were returned to him.
Taking centre stage, the kidnappers then danced to a special traditional tune, twirling round and round, faster and faster, until they collapsed in a sweaty heap. The band struck up and the wedding guests begin to dance ( once again!). This time I was prepared. I grabbed the nearest lady without a dancing partner and pulled her on to the dance floor. We twirled and paraded until ready to drop. I had two left feet but she didn’t seem to mind.
1.30am: Fourth course
I savoured the smell of the penultimate dish before it arrived, and wished I’d left more room. A large pork cutlet and a chicken fillet, both seasoned and grilled to perfection, lay on my plate next to a tumbling pile of roast potato pieces sprinkled with grated cheese, red onion slices and fried bacon bits.
I had just finished when one of the many waiters – who were, naturally, all dressed in traditional costume – came bounding into the hall dancing with a cooked chicken. He held it aloft on a decorated platter, twisting and twirling over to the top table while we all enthusiastically clapped encouragement. The chicken had (theoretically) been cooked and decorated by the bride’s mother, and it was someone’s job now to negotiate a price for it on behalf of the groom. After some haggling, the wedding godparents – who play an important role in the occasion and are usually two married friends able to advise the newlyweds – managed to secure a deal.
The band struck up once more and the wedding guests begin to dance ( yes, again). Meanwhile, a young girl in a pretty peasant dress stood in the middle of the hall and sang traditional folk songs in a clear, beautiful voice. We all joined hands in a ring around her and danced first in one direction and then the next. Round and round we went in a merry whirl, first to the left and then to the right. Faster and faster we went – and even faster still – singing, laughing and bumping into each other.
Then, a bewildered best man (our middle child – the best man must be single and our eldest had just married) was pulled into the centre of the hall, where he took part in a tradition involving the chief bridesmaid, an exchange of flowers and a little dance. He had no idea what he was doing but he did it enthusiastically and the guests loved him.
3.30am: Fifth course
The band struck up – a special tune – and everyone cheered as the wedding cake was brought into the hall, sprouting fireworks and candles. The bride and groom cut into it and began serving it to guests in big iced wedges. I love fruit cake, and by now I needed something sweet on my tongue. I stuck my fork into the dark-brown fruity wedge expecting resistance, but there was none. The cake was soft and gooey.
The party continued and I somehow managed to find room for a second helping.
Oof! That’s me done. I’m stuffed.