Thursday, 1 March 2012

Mancare dulce de morcovi – din 1841

“A sweet carrot dish – from 1841”

Whilst translating an article on the history of Romanian food for this blog, I came across the mention of one of the first books on Romanian cooking: 200 Retete Cercate de Bucate, Prajituri si Alte Gospodaresti (200 Tried and Test Recipes for Dish, Pastries, and Other Household Things). I’ve always been interested in food history and how it reflects the changing fortunes and attitudes of a culture, and so I immediately resolved to start trying some of the recipes. The book itself was written in 1841 by Mihai Kogalniceanu (a politician from Iasi who would later on become one of Romania’s first prime ministers) and Constantin Negruzzi (another politician and writer). So far, so good; but from here on it became a little trickier.

I managed to find a facsimile of the second edition of their cookbook on the internet, but it was printed using the Cyrillic alphabet, although it was actually in Romanian. Fortunately, it has been a popular book and there have been many editions since it first appeared a century and a half ago, so I didn’t have much problem finding the recipes written in the modern Romanian alphabet. One of the first recipes to catch my eye was the sweet carrot dish. I do enjoy carrots and I’ve always thought they benefit from a little sweetness or glazing when cooking (rather than the boiled-to-death carrots that used to be such common fare in the UK in the past – anyone remember school dinners?). One of my favourite ways of cooking then is to boil them down, covered in a pan, with a good knob of butter and a little sugar or honey. I thought this recipe looked something along those line, so I decided to give it a go. Here’s the recipe as it appears in ‘200 Retete’:

Sa iai una litra si jumatate de morcovi taiati lungareti si subtiri. Sa li se deie mai intai un clocot si sa se scurga bine de apa,apoi sa se puie intr-o alta tingire curata, cu o litra de zahar sfarmat si sa se toarne deasupra apa clocotita pana ie va acoperi peste tot. Dupa ce va scade apa pe jumatate, sa se puie coaja de alamaie cat se va socoti de trebuinta si, dupa ce va mai scade, incat sa ramaie ca patru linguri de apa numai, sa se stoarca zama de la doua alamai. Asa, fiind gata, sa se aseze pe farfurii si sa se deie fierbinte la masa.

As any Romanians reading this will notice, the language used is a little archaic. I read Romanian pretty well but I still had to reach for the dictionary (or rather my bookmark for DEX) a number of times in order to translate it, and I’m still not convinced I’ve got it completely right. Feel free to jump in and offer up any corrections. Here’s what I came up with:

Take 480g of carrots, chopped long and thin. First of all boil them and drain, then put them in a clean pot, with 320g of granulated sugar and then cover them with boiling water. After the water has reduced by half, add some lemon zest, as much as is needed, and, after it has reduced some more, such that there remains only four tablespoons of water, squeeze in the juice of two lemons. So, being ready, put them onto plates and serve them hot on the table.

One noticeable point is the measurements. The original calls for a ‘litra si jumatate’ of carrots. According to the DEX, a ‘litra’ is an old measurement which is about 320g in modern reckoning. So the first thing that surprised me was the quantity of sugar. 320g seemed rather a lot. That’s a lot more than just a glaze. Had I mistaken the purpose of this recipe? It’s starting to read more like some kind of carrot jam now!

A few other things also needed clarifying, namely the quantity of lemon zest. How exactly do you decide what is ‘as much as is needed’ when you don’t know what the dish is or what it should eventually taste like? In the end I plumped for the zest of the two lemons that I would go on to squeeze for the juice, as that seemed more practical.

So, in the end, I came up with the follow modern recipe, being as faithful as possible to the original:

Servings: 3-4
Time: 45 minutes

480g of carrots
320g of sugar
The zest of two lemons
The juice of two lemons
Boiling water

1. Peel, top and tail the carrots and cut them into long thin pieces. I'm not sure exactly how long and thin the recipe wants them, whether they should be julienned like matchsticks or be a little chunkier. I went with a little chunkier, about 5mm square and 4-5cm long.
2. Put them in a pan, cover with water, and bring them to the boil before draining them well. Get some more boiling water going in the kettle/pot ready for step 3.
3. Put them back into a clean pan (or the same pan as it shouldn't particularly be dirty), add the sugar, and then pour over enough boiling water to cover them. Stir a little until the sugar dissolves.
4. Keep it on the boil until the water has reduced by half (be careful not to let the carrots on the bottom burn, give it a stir from time to time) at which point you add the lemon zest - 'as much as you need'.
5. Continue to reduce the liquid until there are about four tablespoons of it left. At this point, take it off the heat, add the lemon juice*, stir, and serve hot. The total reduction process took me about 30 minutes.

*I found that the juice of two lemons totally swamped the carrots and left a lot of juice in the bottom of the pan. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to serve this dish, but I lifted out the carrots with a slotted spoon onto a serving plate, and then spooned on 4-5 tablespoons of the juice that had been left in the pan.

So, you’re probably asking if you’ve bothered to read this far, what did it actually taste like? Well, to be honest, I still don’t know exactly what to make of it. Actually, I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth, and I didn’t find it too sweet, despite the quantity of sugar. I think that’s why such a large amount of lemon juice is needed – to balance out the sweetness. The carrots were lightly caramelised, sticky, with a touch of acidity from the juice, and the zest coming through in places with a more lemony note.

I have to be honest, after trying the dish I still don’t quite know what to make of it. I liked it, I can say that, but I’m not sure whether to let it cool down and spread it on my toast in the morning or serve it with some lamb. It was suggested that this was a kind of 'fake' marmalade for when Seville oranges aren't available, which presumably they weren't in Romania, but if that's the case, why would it suggest serving it hot and on plates, more like a vegetable accompaniment? If anyone out there knows how this dish was originally served, please let me know!

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