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Great Home Cook

Preserving Transylvania's Flavors

September 05, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adrianna M. Botta constantly searches for ingredients that recapture flavors of her homeland. This is not easy. Botta comes from Transylvania, a tiny eastern European region where cooks are real artisans. They grow their own fruits and vegetables, preserve their harvests for the winter, bake bread in outdoor clay ovens and are accustomed to pure, unprocessed foods.

Botta prowls import shops, searching for products that meet her standards. She buys German and French butter, Russian-style feta cheese and pickles with no preservatives.

She knows who carries sausages most like those at home. She selects the purest cold-pressed olive oil, although it costs much more than other brands. She even goes to specialty shops for paprika, pepper, cornmeal and flour. "It makes a difference in the taste of the food," she says.

Botta makes her own yogurt, using organic milk, and ferments it in the sun in a bowl lined with sour cream. "This way," she points out, "you don't need a starter."

She strains the yogurt to make yogurt cheese, which she serves topped with sliced bananas and cinnamon. It does indeed taste different from other yogurt, more mellow, creamier. Her coffee tastes different, too, because she brews it with a dash of cinnamon and powdered vanilla.

Botta has done a remarkable job of reproducing authentic Transylvanian food here. "It took me years and years of research," she says.

Along with her fiance, Karoy, a sculptor, Botta came to California nine years ago. They defected from Romania through Hungary to Austria and spent a year in a refugee camp in Italy before gaining political asylum in the United States.

They live in an airy small house that once belonged to the Charles Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. There, Botta tends an herb garden that includes lovage, a celery-flavored herb much used in Hungarian cuisine.

Hungarians began to settle in the region at the end of the 9th century, she says. Under Turkish suzerainty, Transylvania was an independent principality for about 100 years. Then it was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was claimed by newly independent Romania after World War I and is under Romanian control today.

Living under Communist rule was hard. "If you had a cherry tree in your backyard, you had to give a certain amount of the fruit to the government," Botta says. "If you didn't have a crop, you had to pay a fine." Produce thus commandeered was exported to pay off debts. Butter went to Germany for use in cosmetics.

When Botta was 6 years old, her parents were taken away, accused of connections with foreigners. Her father was beaten and imprisoned for a couple of days. There were constant cuts in water and power. Her mother would not allow her to experiment in the kitchen because food was scarce.

Botta therefore cooks from memories, not from experience. "I'm trying to preserve whatever I learned from my mom," she says. "Most of the women cooked back home, no matter what. It was a necessity."

It was also hard work. "You bought all the basic foods in season and preserved them," she says. Her mother canned tomato juice, turned fruit into preserves and put up roasted eggplant for winter salads. "She would take two to three days at a time to do this," Botta remembers.

Carrots and parsnips were stored in sawdust in a cold place where they would keep for months. Potatoes and apples were buried in sand. "Everything was natural," she says. "No preservatives were used."

Transylvanian cuisine reflects a variety of influences: Romanian, Hungarian, German, Slavic and, in the south, Greek and Turkish. "Transylvania is close to the geographical center of Europe," Botta says. It is a rich place, despite the privations experienced under communism.

The cuisine is rich too. Now that she is living in a warmer climate, Botta cuts down somewhat on butter and sour cream and eats lighter meals, especially in summer.

"Transylvania has a four-season climate," she says. "In the winter, you ate more fatty foods to give you energy. In the summer, people in the country got up at 4 a.m. and worked in the fields all day long."

The main meal of the day is lunch, a serious affair of many courses. It might start with an appetizer such as eggplant caviar or a cold cut assortment accompanied by a tiny glass of plum brandy. Next comes soup; on Sunday, it is always chicken soup with farina dumplings.

The next course would be meat, accompanied by plain or garlic mashed potatoes or rice. The meat dish might be wienerschnitzel, fried chicken, grilled pork fillet, boiled beef with fruit sauce or boiled veal with pickle or horseradish sauce. Salad is never eaten before but always with the main dish. Botta might serve marinated beets or a combination of cucumber, tomato and green onion.

Transylvanians drink wine, preferably red, with their meals. For dessert, they have fancy cakes or pastries baked at home. On holidays, there might be a poppy seed or walnut roll or cherry strudel.

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