A culinary journey By Sumayya Usmani
RECENTLY I got the chance to experience the home cooking of Moldova when I attended Sorina Savascu’s pop-up in Edinburgh. She had me hooked with the event’s evocative title – Journey Back To My Romanian Roots – alone, but the story of her desire to preserve the integrity of her heritage cuisine, and her passion for local sustainable food, is endearing.
Growing up in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, Sorina used to complain whenever she visited her grandparents’ country home about the muddy surroundings and lack of basic facilities. “My youngest uncle used to annoy me by showing me a bunny and saying, ‘Look, this is your dinner tonight!’” she recalls. Now, she realises her relatives weren’t killing for fun but for food.
Sorina moved to Scotland to study more than eight years ago, and during her last year of university she worked in a franchise restaurant. “I don’t regret working there,” she says now, “as it opened my eyes about the food industry.” After graduating she decided she wanted to work in hospitality.
Today Sorina heads the Southside Food Assembly in Edinburgh, where she digitally connects local producers with consumers, allowing local produce to be available easily to local people.
Her connection with Scottish produce and seasonality has made her think about her own Romanian heritage, and during a reunion with her family at her grandparents’ homes in Moldova last year, she set out to discover how things have changed in the food landscape of her homeland.
During her own city-based childhood, her mother cooked traditional Romanian dishes, and although she had access to readymade supermarket food, she choose to cook her own meals.
“Every Saturday morning,” recalls Sorina, “she would drag me out of bed to make sure she got the farmer’s market for 7am to pick the freshest produce.
“I’m really glad now that I got the chance to help my mum and learn from her, but back then I was really annoyed at her. I wanted to be outside, enjoying the summer weather and playing with other kids, not stuck in a hot sticky kitchen.”
Memories of summer and preserving quince or sour cherries, or making slow-cooked roasted pepper and aubergines in tomatoes ... these are food memories she wanted to keep alive.
“What made me most want to go back to my Romanian roots was to see the big changes that happened in the villages,” she says. “People gave up their gardens and livestock to build bigger villas. Most of them work abroad and believe everything that’s imported is better. Why bake a cake when you can buy one ready-made?
“I don’t want to be like that. Yes, I moved abroad but that doesn’t mean I should forget where I come from. Now I can choose my lifestyle and what I want to eat.”
She wants to show people that what are now seen as “trends” such as fermentation, foraging, grow your own, were part of a natural way of life where she grew up. She is glad that today, many people are choosing to shop local and learning to preserve.
Sorina was humbled by the interest shown in her Romanian themed pop-up dinner and now hopes it will lead her in a new direction in which she has a chance to share her cuisine.
Essentially, she sees herself as a farmer, and wants to learn how to grow her own.
“I would also like to preserve my grandad’s vineyard,” she says. “He has a lovely vineyard with Romanian grape varieties but sadly he cannot look after it any more. At the moment my uncle looks after it and makes delicious natural wine. He used to be a sheep farmer and make traditional raw milk cheese but he stopped. I’m afraid the same may happen to the vineyard.”
In Sorina I have found a kindred spirit. Special thanks to Sorina Savascu for her time and Gillianne Jennifer Rodger for the introduction.
Tonight Sumayya is collaborating with Glasgow’s Cail Bruich restaurant in a celebration of Scottish produce with a Pakistani modern twist (www.cailbruich.co.uk). She will also teach a cookery class titled Spiced Kingdoms And Colonies at Edinburgh New Town Cookery School on November 12 (www.entcs.co.uk). Sumayya Usmani co-presents BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Cafe. Her books, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Mountain Berries And Desert Spice are out now, published by Frances Lincoln Visit sumayyausmani.com Twitter @SumayyaUsmani