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The Art of Cuisine (1): Mămăligă

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H. Ellen Browning, distant relative of English poet Robert Browning, chronicles her adventures in Eastern Europe in her travel memoir A Girl’s Wanderings in Hungary (1897). Though she claims to “belong to the category of ‘mouse-screeching’ women,” she finds stolidity enough to develop a deep love for “the sea, and the mountains, and the frank ‘natural-ness’ of the peasantry” during her travels (“garlic and drunken men” both disgust her, however). Of the countries she visits, it is Transylvania’s dramatic scenery that wins her heart, and she passes most of her time wandering its vast forests and marveling at the small, humble villages she finds along the way.

During her walks, Browning enjoys only those foods eaten by the region’s peasantry and herdsman. She prepares these simple dishes — “brigand’s beefsteak,” roasted potatoes, omelets and onion soup — with a forester’s help, cooking them over hot ash in iron pots.

Fryderyk Pautsch, Autumn in the Carpathian Mountains, 1936

A dish particularly loved by Browning is a corn pudding called mămăligă, which is cooked in a gigantic cast iron cauldron over an open fire. According to legend, if the mămăligă cracks while cooking, a member of the household is destined for an unexpected journey. The dish was quite popular with nineteenth-century kitcheners, and even merited mention in a best-selling novel: while traveling through the Carpathian Mountains, Jonathan Harker of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) enjoys a dish of mămăligă before departing for Dracula’s castle.

Harker unfortunately neglects to jot down the recipe for this toothsome dish. But Katharina Prato’s Die Süddeutsche Küche(1903) offers a recipe that doesn’t skimp on authenticity.

Recipe for Mămăligă

In one liter of warm water mix one and a half liter Italian cornmeal. Add salt to taste, cover (but allow for some steam to escape), and let boil for ten minutes until most of the water has been absorbed. Mixes the entire mass until thick and let stand fifteen minutes over low heat. Then transfer half the polenta mixture to a baking dish greased heavily with butter. Sprinkle sheep’s cheese over the polenta and spread another layer of polenta over the cheese. Continue this process until the baking dish is full. Sprinkle butter over the top and back in a moderate oven until the mămăligă forms a brown crust.

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Austerity Kitchen brings to life the context, aesthetics and practices from our culinary heritage past and present. From the watercress and black bread sandwiches that nourished Victorian working classes to the stews that succored the Greatest Generation, no bone goes unturned in the search for History’s best recipes from hard times.

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