The Romanian drob, this herb-scented lamb-terrine, is the centerpiece of any Easter meal – alongside cozonac and Easter eggs, while its bouquet of aromas hint at a millennial history and a traditional recipe.
The Romanian myth of Miorita, The Ewe Lamb, is a ballad that speaks of shepherding and a millennial tradition of transhumance ongoing on all three Romanian historical provinces (Wallachia, Moldova, and Transylvania). Shepherding goes back 10 000 years, being a great source of food and clothing. Would the shepherds have consumed lamb meat? I think they would have… Especially the spring butter prepared by shepherds that was considered a real delicacy and a medicinal meal even by prices (voivodes), as the sheep’s diet at springtime would have been abundant in medicinal plants.
There is an old belief, that those who look after bees and sheep will be forever lucky.
Romans (these ancestors of Romanians) did consume lamb; they used the fish-sauce called Garum to spice-up meals of stuffed pumpkin, peas, chicken, lamb-liver and beef.
How the sheep and the goat came to be
God took a handful of earth and, just like that, He created the sheep.
So the devil wanted to do the same. He scraped some ground from the marsh, barely a handful and, not knowing what to do further, he decorated it with branches and shoots of grass instead of fur. He found his creation to be just as perfect as God’s. Yet something was missing… so he added a tuft of grass shooting from the goat’s chin, much like his own.
Yet he couldn’t bring it to life.
That was something only God could do.
Find here more tales from the Romanian folklore concerning animals.
Scientists consider the Ovis Vignei Arkar to be the ancestor of all sheep breeds in Europe.
Since Neolithic the Balkan Peninsula has been a very suitable place for the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, with Europe’s agricultural areas located in the middle and lower basins of Danube. Sheep were among the first domesticated animals along with goats, cattle, pigs and horses. As domesticated sheep and goats needed different food from humans, shepherds had to follow the flocks in search of areas where there was abundant grass, water and shade – thus herding was born.
Shepherding was, back then, a business involving the entire clan. The shepherd, as a patriarch, was accompanied by his entire family, wife, children, helpers. A small community that would have known other trades too… The shepherd was the one who distributed justice, decided weddings, prayed at funerals… (if we only remember here the Fir Tree Churches and their tradition). Local shepherds joined by their small communities would travel with thousands of sheep all over the Balcans, from the Carpathian basin to Pokuttia, north; east to Crimea’s plains and the Black Sea and west to the Adriatic. It makes sese to imagine that once they got to a place, influenced that place, including linguistically.
No borders are known to the transhumance…
Anonymous, the notary of Hungarian King Bela III, mentions in his 13th century writing “Gesta Hungarorum, The Deeds of the Hungarians“, some pastores romanorum, Romanian shepherds present in the Pannonian Basin (or Carpathian Basin) at the moment of the Hungarian’s arrival here.
BP Hasdeu, Romanian writer and philologist, believed that “turcana” is a word of Dacian origin meaning both sheep and goat. Today, the goat mask used for Christmas caroling is called a “turca”, as is the name for a Romanian woolly sheep hat.
From archeological evidence and by observing Trajan’s Column and the Adamclisi Monument we know that Dacians kept sheep and wore clothing made of sheep’s wool, like some Romnaian shepherds still do today.
Shears were discovered at the Dacian fortress of Capalna, and sheep bones were found among what was believed to be offerings brought by Dacians to their gods.
Between the 13th – 16th centuries, in Transylvania there was a tax called the fiftieth (“quinquagesima ovium“) – pastoral Romanians had to give to their landlord a sheep or a lamb for every fifty sheep or goats owned.
There are numerous the recipes on cooking lamb and liver in “The Prince of Transylvania’s court cookbook, The Science of Cooking written by The Prince of Transylvania’s court master chef at the end of the 16th century“. There are German, Bavarian, Hungarian, and Polish recipes for cooking lamb too, but none is similar to the way drob is prepared today in Romania – except maybe for sausages made of pork liver and stuffed in its (cleaned) intestines, or for cooking the pork organs through boiling and then serving them with vinegar and horseradish. Separately, the young sheep’s intestines were cooked too, but with sweet milk and sour cream. Stuffed lamb stomach was also consumed, poached. I noticed that in this cookbook spices are preferred to herbs (used abundantly in the Romanian cuisine).
Crossing the Carpathians to Wallachia and Moldova, the books that hold plentiful information would be the classics of the time: “The Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Theodosius” written by Prince Neagoe Basarab of Wallachia (1512 – 1521), and Cantemir’s “Descriptio Moldavie” (Dimitrie Cantemir was intermittently Prince of Moldavia between 1693 – 1711). From Cantemir’s writings we know that the turks loved the taste of the Moldavian sheep,the turcana. We also know that a shepherd’s flock back then was as big as 3 000 sheep.
But let’s return to the lamb… While at royal feasts or at the tables of noble families the meat (especially coming off big animals) was at least part of a dish, for commoners it would have been a real “luxury.” Romanians raised all kinds of birds around their households, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks or geese, but they only sacrificed them on special occasions, such as important holidays or extraordinary life-moments.
Yet all too often, history got in the way of life.
The Romanian Principalities (especially Wallachia and Moldova) have known centuries-long war-struggles against the Ottoman Empire culminating with the Phanariot era. Between 1711 – 1821, the Ottoman appointed the rulers of the Romanian Principalities, the Greek inhabitants of the Phanar district of Constantinople.
From the local production, sacks of wheat were sent to the Ottoman court – especially after 1774 when the Ottoman Empire had known defeated by Catherine the Great, even trading abundant Crimea to Russia. On the meat side, not so much the pork (that was kept for local consumption or sent to Transylvania and the Hungarian Empire, Poland too), but the other kinds of meat were also sent to the Sublime Porte, especially sheep.
It was only after the peace treaties of the 18th century were signed, that Wallachia had clearly established borders. For centuries, it has been a transitional and diversified land where local cultures (including culinary delights) mingled and blended with Turkish, Greek, Slavonic, Bulgarian, Western European, but also from the north of the Carpathians (Hungarian and German), and Moldavian (and Polish) ones.
Thus, in Wallachia and Moldova strong culinary influences from Greece and Turkey soon made their way on the dinner tables of the locals, while in Transylvania German and Hungarian influences remained predominant. However, not all people afforded such an abundance of food. Those of modest means ate simple dishes on a daily basis, mostly based on plants, co-seasoned with lots of garlic and onions, but less salt. They seldom afforded the “luxury” of putting meat on their tables.
To this day, the lamb remains, for all the people of the Balkans and not only, a true gastronomic delicacy: from sheep cheese to thick lamb and vegetable soup (ciorba in Romanian), pan-seared lamb steak, lamb on a spit, lamb musaka, lamb in a pot, lamb stew, lamb chops, lamb pie, even the 9th century old lamb goulash.
I even discovered a recipe for a drob made of nettles, but nettles were also easily substituted with dandelions, garden sorrel, garden orache (mountain spinach), or any green plants growing happily in one’s yard…
The oldest (known) cookbook from Wallachia – written in Romanian – dates back to the 18th century (around the reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu). The manuscript, bound in leather, is written in black ink on paper filigree, the titles and illuminated initials are red, accompanied by small ornaments.
Religion is tightly interwoven with Romania’s culture and this is often reflected in its traditional dishes. In the New Testament, the offering of a lamb symbolizes Jesus’ sacrifice for humankind and His path from life to death, thus obtaining atonement for the sins of humankind. Thus, lamb meat is usually cooked at Easter due to its strong religious symbology.
There are folktales that connect the lamb’s sacrifice with pre-Christianity, with the time of nomad shepherd from Little Asia who would sacrifice a lamb before starting their journey in search of lush pastures, as protection against evil spirits.
In a book published Venice in 1718, ‘History of Modern Revolutions of Walachia’, and dedicated to Pope Clement IX, its author Anton-Maria Del Chiaro (born ~ 1660 -1680) describes in detail the everyday life of Romanians living south of Carpathian Mountains. This is an excerpt involving local customs from Wallachia, at Easter time:
“If a foreigner arrives in a city, but especially in Bucharest, he is welcomed with great courtesy, in accordance with his rang, even if he doesn’t carry letters of recommendation. He receives free lodging, and if he plans to stay for a longer time and speaks Italian, Latin, German, etc, he can find rooms with any boyard in exchange for tuition for his children. Even so, if the foreigner was invited in the country by the Prince or a high-rank boyard, then he will be welcomed by the border captain himself, who would have been ordered to. A guide is arranged, naming a border-soldier wearing a silver plate with Wallachia’s emblem on it. Each city or village where the guest travels through is expected to welcome him, feed him, look after his horses, carriage, while he takes shelter on their lands, and until the foreign traveler arrives at the Princiary Court. (…) Except for the customary gifts the Prince makes on days of celebration, the foreigner, when invited, receives for Easter cloth and brocade, so he can dress himself as is the local custom.”
- 600grams lamb organs, cleaned, washed, chopped very fine. (I made drob with 500grams minced chicken plus 250grams chicken liver)
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 2 bunches of spring onion, finely chopped – separate the white part from the greens
- 1 bunch spring garlic (green garlic)
- 2 tablespoons of oil
- salt, pepper
- 1 good bunch of parsley (can add dill too)
- 2 raw eggs
- 4 hard boiled eggs
- sheep caul (can be made without)
- TO BAKE:
- A rectangle bread pan oiled, sprinkled with flour.
Cooking how to:
- Start by cooking in oil the chopped onions and the chopped white part of the spring onion and spring garlic; cook at medium heat for about 3min without burning them.
- Don’t add salt now! It will only toughen the meat.
- Add the chopped heart, lungs, and spleen. Cook for 6-7 minutes, half-covered.
- Add chopped kidneys and liver, Cook 5min covered, 5min uncovered.
- Add the chopped green part of the spring onion and garlic. Cook 1 more minute.
- The meat should be soft, not dry. They will cook extra in the oven.
- Add salt and lots of black pepper.
- Add the chopped herbs and the raw eggs, beaten. Mix well. If it feels too thick, add an extra raw egg.
- If you use caul, drape it over the inside of the slightly oiled pan.
- Place half of the cooked meat mix in the pan, then add the peeled, hard boiled eggs to form a line, and top with the remainder of the meat mix.
- Fold the caul over the top (if you use one).
- Place the pan in preheated oven at 180 degrees Celsius for about 45 – 50 minutes, until crispy and brown on top.
- Allow to cool before cutting in slices.
- Serve with spring onion, mustard (and Easter hard boiled eggs).
A variant of this Romanian dish, drob, is the Scottish haggis, with the mention that it is boiled in sheep’s belly and does not contain the impressive amount of greens as the Romanian drob does.
In Romania, it feels like there’s no Easter without a lamb dish. The spiritual joy expressed through the sacrifice of the lamb is thus present at the Easter meal of a Christian.
Whenever you celebrate Easter allow me to wish you and your loved one a peaceful time together.
Recently I learned that a Romnaina shepherd, Dumitru Andreșoi, who keeps only sheep from the Romanian Turcane breed, has over 45 000 heads in his flock.
1. Ittu Gudrun-Liane, Ittu Constantin, Bondrea Ioan: Din istoria bucatariei fine e la Renastere pina in zilele noastre.
2. Jianu Angela, Barbu Violeta: Earthly Delights: Economies and Cultures of Food in Ottoman and Danubian Europe, C. 1500-1900: 23 (Balkan Studies Library), pg. 257
3. “The Prince of Transylvania’s court cookbook, The Science of Cooking written by The Prince of Transylvania’s court master chef at the end of the 16th century”.
4. S. Fl. Marian – “Sarbatori la romani”
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