Vegetarians, look away now

In a mountain village, 1,000 metres up, the animals are truly free-range, allowed to wander through hectares of wildflower meadows, kept inside only in the worst of the harsh winter. Most of the sheep and cattle are taken up to the high-altitude pastures for the summer, so the wildflower meadows in the villages can grow and blossom before being scythed for hay to keep the animals through the winter. The barns are mucked out through the winter, and the manure spread on the meadows in spring –  a simple, sustainable way of farming that maintains diversity and natural health in soil, plant, animal and human.

Yesterday my neighbours slaughtered their heifer, partly because the calf hasn’t thrived and grown as well as she should have because of this summer’s drought; the lack of rainfall has also meant that there has been no second hay-making in September – the wildflower meadows never regrew after the midsummer cut and the winter hay is about half its normal volume. Lots of smallholders are having to slaughter animals because there isn’t the hay to keep them through the winter.

So Martica (born on a Tuesday) went on a Saturday, but swiftly, without fuss, in the pasture where she had spent her life. The slaughter and butchering was done by the family without intervention of transporters, processors, stress or fear.

The sad fact is that the EU is trying its best to destroy this healthy, sustainable, low-impact farming system, and now that Romania is a member, this will happen very quickly unless the EU is persuaded otherwise. Slow Food, if you’re listening, maybe you have some ideas…

Tocana – a Transylvanian treat

Sun-kissed red peppers in the market of Zarnesti, Transylvania

Naturally-grown and ripened red peppers, full of late summer flavour

This is a fabulous foodie treat that hasn’t yet escaped its home cuisine in Transylvania (Romania)Tocana is a relish of the last summer vegetables, for sale in the market for buttons in October as the autumn takes hold and winter beckons. [Zacusca is a close relative, made by roasting the vegetables rather than cooking in oil like a confit.]

Housewives buy 20 kilo sacks of peppers and aubergines to cook and put in jars for a reminder of summer in the depths of a harsh winter, with smaller sacks of onions and carrots grown in the smallholdings of rural Transylvania.

Sweet with a hint of smoky bitterness, full of flavour and colour, the autumn peppers (ardei and gogosar) from the south of Romania and imported from Turkey are a far cry from the pretty but tasteless peppers you find in British supermarkets, grown in Dutch polytunnels without benefit of mineral-rich soils and southern summers. These aren’t perfectly shaped, uniformly coloured things, but organic vine fruit folded and twisted and coloured by the sun, grown without the synthetic encouragement of agrotechnology; the difference in taste is so marked that they might be different species altogether.

Tocana, the Transylvanian foodie secret that is one of the treats of the year

Tocana, organic, simple, naturally colourful and bursting with late summer flavour

So – tocana. A simple recipe, but cleaning and chopping takes time, so it’s best done as a family, or with a group of friends; if you’re on your own put some music on and surrender yourself to an annual ritual of aroma and maturing textures. Then you have the delicious reward of warm tocana for supper, and the looking forward to helping yourself to a jar of tocana from time to time through the long, frozen winter.

This is a dish of such rich summery colour and flavour that I’m amazed it hasn’t been swiped by savvy chefs in Britain, or exported by canny Transylvanians. An opportunity for you to make a coup, and worth every minute of preparation.

Ingredients

5kg red peppers

1kg carrots

1kg onions

800g tomato paste

1 litre oil (sunflower or another mild-flavoured oil)

seasoning to taste

NB You’ll need a big pan for this amount, and several large jamjars. If you live in a northern climate, peppers might be prohibitively expensive in these quantities, but the 5:1:1:1 ratio of ingredients is easy to scale down for an occasional dish.

How to do it

Clean and deseed the peppers, skin the onions and peel the carrots. Chop the veg to a fine dice in a food processor (stop short of a paste) and put in a large pan (a jam pan is ideal) with the tomato paste, oil, salt, black pepper and/or cayenne, and if you like, a little sweet paprika. (Better to add a little seasoning and add a little more if needed, rather than overdoing it all at once.)

Cook over a high heat until the mixture is bubbling. The veg release plenty of water, so once boiling, turn the heat down and leave to cook (stirring often to stop burning) for a good couple of hours, until the water has evaporated, and the mixture is a thick, rich, glossy red conserve. Adjust the seasoning if you need to, then let it cool to blood temperature.

While still warm, put into sterilised jars and seal thoroughly. It should last for weeks, if not several months, in a dark place. Eat with a spoon straight from the jar, or if you want to be a bit more civilised, serve with toast or oatcakes. You can use it as a sauce for pasta, or as a relish with cold meat or cheese.