My relationship with food can hardly be described as an emotional one. Caloric consumption for sustenance; for nutritive, or medicinal value, yes, but a pilgrim to the altar of Gargantua and Pantagruel I will never be.
As a child, I ate what was placed before me with no particular passion, devoting myself instead to mastering the technical agility required to handle my own crockery and cutlery while still confined to a high chair. A brief episode ensued during which sugary confections claimed my focussed attention, but deliverance from that vice coincided with the disappearance of my baby fat. I have known people to wax lyrical about an encounter with a perfectly seasoned kebab, and observed, bewildered, as others, dumbstruck by a toothsome morsel, resort to a limited vocabulary of elongated single vowel and consonant sounds while they float in a gastronomic Empyreum; the well-styled cover of an epicurean magazine will have much the same effect on me.
Before you begin to pity what you may assume was a dispassionate approach to mealtimes in my parental home, you must know that this emotional reticence was mine alone. For many around me, food was inseparable from strong feeling: the bread knife was regularly raised in an alienation of its intended purpose as my siblings fought over “the munchy part”*, and nameless others were rendered inconsolable by deprivation of certain daily rations.
Given this background, food-fuelled emotion was rather far from my mind as I made my way to a small, riverside settlement nestled deep in the Carpathian mountains. Rucăr is a sleepy, provincial town served by Route 73 of the Romanian road network, spread out in the shadow of a dark grey stone escarpment. To reach it, one travels a brief stretch of highway that begins north of Bucharest and narrows into a single-laned national road as the plain recedes and the foothills appear. En route, verdant expanses rise and fall on either side of a switchback road as mountains are crested and descended, and spectacular lookout points provide an opportunity for entrepreneurial locals to market an assortment of homemade cheeses and fruit cordials. High tension wires overpower the rural landscape as they crisscross peak and valley en route to the monstrous industrial complexes that appear abruptly across a valley as one rounds a bend.
Once in Rucăr, away from the town hall, school, churches, banks, mini markets and B&Bs that line the main roads, tightly-packed-together houses with ornamented wooden balconies and wooden or wrought iron fences flank narrow, unasphalted lanes. Children and youth on bicycles, unhurried pedestrians, horse-drawn carts bearing covered loads, a flock of passing sheep and elderly adults languishing on gate-side benches claim unoccupied space. The Dambovița River cuts a meandering course through the mountains here, and continues on to flow discreetly, almost unnoticed, through Bucharest.
The main purpose of the sojourn was to contemplate, by examining the writings of classical and modern thinkers, ethical leadership. Food for thought abounded, but as we learned when mealtimes arrived, there was plenty for the body, as well. Emotions flared in the seminar room, as participants staged an impromptu play, but they were the last thing I expected when dessert arrived at the end of a substantial lunch.
The kitchen door opened, and our familiar waiter approached the long table around which a dozen odd people were seated, bearing a tray aloft. As it was lowered, there was a sharp intake of breath. “Papanași”!** The refrain was taken up rapidly around the table, accompanied by wide-eyed euphoria, as heads turned in the direction of the waiter and realisation spread. I looked around to discover the cause of the commotion – or rather, the sudden hush. Was it really possible that a doughnut with the “hole” perched jauntily on top and drenched in a smothering of sour cream and jam was creating this stir?
Papanași are not Romanian doughnuts. Papanași are pure, unbridled emotion. To test my theory, on returning to Bucharest, I began recounting how I had witnessed what resembled a deeply spiritual experience in conjunction with the appearance of an item of food. Launching into a description of the rapturous reverence that greeted the appearance of the yet-unnamed item, I was interrupted by my interlocutor. “Was it papanași?”, she ventured, entirely unprompted. I was incredulous. Of all the many options, she had pinpointed it, with immediate and unerring precision. I needed to know more about the significance of this particular concoction of farmer’s cheese, flour, eggs and sugar, though. “But, but… they are just… doughnuts!”, I stammered naïvely, grasping at comprehension. Ignoring the pity that appeared in her eyes, I pressed her for an explanation of why papanași elicit this strong response. Her astoundingly articulate answer came without hesitation: the secret to the appeal of papanași is the crisp, golden fried exterior and the warm, moist, chewy interior, coupled harmoniously with the cool, tart, creaminess of mildly soured cream and the flavourful sweetness of a berry preserve – sensory pyrotechnics in a single bite! And Rucăr is purportedly home to some of the best specimens in Romania.
While I remain stubbornly unconverted as far as food and emotion are concerned, I claim a new-found willingness to worship vicariously. For now.
* the crusty ends of a freshly baked loaf of bread
**plural noun, pronounced pa-pa-NASH