Dining With Shepherds.
Crammed inside communist era Dacia truck, we rode towards the foothills of the Carpathians for a unique dining experience with shepherds. This was my last night during my month long stay in the village of Breb in Maramureș County in Romania. There’s no Michelin star restaurant waiting for us up there. Just the faint rustling of hay as it sways with the wind and perhaps the occasional bark from the sheep dogs as they fiercely guard their herd.
There’s no comfort of a valet parking your car, just the possibility of an encounter with wolves and bears as Romania still boasts the largest number of these beasts. You don’t have to pay $200 for a meal like you would at a Michelin rated restaurant but yet here is a much more intimate dining experience that restaurant critics and their so called distinguished and astute tastes could ever match.
Sheep and wild strawberries
As we slowly ascend up the mountain road to reach the sheepherder’s summer camp, we couldn’t help but notice the wild strawberries growing along the sides of the road to which we enjoyed harvesting and feasting on whatever tiny fruity morsels we could find. The rocks and deep potholes shaped by years of horse carriage use made it somewhat of a challenging walk in the mildly steep terrain.
Every now and then the torturously muddy trail would sometimes give way and I would sink almost knee deep in the quagmire. But, it didn’t matter, the fresh clean mountain air made it difficult to even think negative thoughts. It smelt as if I was lost: nowhere close to home as home smelled of fake man made scents and chemicals. It was a smell of relief to get away from all the polluted mess that is home.
Watch out for the dogs
We slowly crept over a thicket around the bend, finally sneaking a peek at the sheepherder’s winter camp. As I proceeded towards the cabin, a sharp voice with a British accent yelled: “Stop!” Wait there for a second. I turned around and saw Penny, the dinner organizer, trying to catch up. You can’t go on past this point because there are sheepdogs around, she said, pointing at a cage near the house. They’re usually fine but they’re very protective of their flock when threatened, she continued, noting that guardian sheepdogs are massive!
We proceeded past the winter station, thankful for the fact of not being attacked by sheepdogs, and into the summer camp where we are to have our dinner. The sheepdogs here were more accommodating and extremely friendly. It wasn’t long before I was surrounded by a few waiting to get their turns a being petted.
The camp is nothing more than a simple make-shift shack. It’s minimalist yet cozy. There’s a place to cook and sleep. The place has everything necessary to make cheese from sheep milk and separate the curds to feed the sheep dogs. There’s even fresh running water fed directly from a mountain spring nearby. It’s enough for a decent sized family to thrive on.
We were served some snacks of cheese, tomatoes, and Slanina (pig fat with skin). I wasn’t particularly fond of the Slanina, you’re supposed to toast it like marshmallows over an open flame and have the fat melt directly onto a piece of bread. My companions seem to be a big fan of it, but, I simply couldn’t get over the fatty texture and weird taste in my mouth. I’ve tried all sorts of strange foods. Grasshoppers, bamboo larvae, duck heads and so on. But man let me tell ya, Slanina won that round. It’s not for me!
The cheese was also a bit strange. It has a bitter aftertaste and the texture is unlike any cheeses I’ve ever tried. It’s also a bit rubbery but not hard and chewy, it crumbles in the mouth. It’s a little gummy but not sticky if that makes sense. I was going to give up on it too but after sprinkling a small amount of rock salt and following it up with the tomatoes it was quite tasty! You snack on this cheese with a few rounds of beer, awesome company, random conversations, amazing scenery, and you have the makings of an epic evening.
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While we’re having a snack and playing with the sheep dogs, Penny was busy helping the shepherd’s wife preparing a cauldron of Goulash, a traditional stew of Hungarian origin. Carrots, potatoes, garlic, onions, and a heavy dose of paprika all go into wood-fired cauldron mixed with fat and water for a simmer, et voila, savory soup goodness!
I had my first goulash at Miercurea-Ciuc during the Pentecost Pilgrimage in Harghita. I’ve been hooked on it ever since. The spice, the aroma, the flavor was amazing and this one was particularly tasty because of where it was served.
Sheep is the most precious commodity in here in the mountains. Wool is provided by the sheep, which is used as a material for blankets, coats, and rugs essential for subsistence in the harsh winters of the Carpathians. Milk is also provided by sheep and it can then be turned to cheese and in turn, produce curd for the sheepdogs to eat. The lambs are used for food and their skin for clothing. Anything extra is used to trade for other goods or sold in the market for extra cash.
The shepherds have lived this way for hundreds of years. Life is simple, yet elegant. There’s almost a romantic appeal to how they live their lives. Of course, there are hints of modernity creeping in. Some now communicate with smartphones instead of the traditional shepherd’s horns. Heck, I even got a 3G signal up there. But you can’t help but not worry yourself of the constant urge to check your social media status. You just feel compelled to lay that phone down and enjoy the scenery.
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WOULD YOU LIKE TO DINE AT THE SHEPHERD STATION?
- You can arrange this with Penny at the Village Hotel in Breb, Maramures, Romania.
- You can also opt to spend several days with the shepherds if you want.
- Maramureș is famed for its villages and centuries-old churches. It’s a must-visit if you’re ever in Romania.
- Breb is a 3-hour bus ride from Cluj-Napoca to Baia-Mare the biggest city in Maramureș. From Baia-Mare you can catch a bus to Sighet and you can tell your bus driver to drop you off in Breb. From the top of the hill, Breb is just a 1.5km walk. Alternatively, you can hitch-hike your way to the village, it’s very common in this area to hitch-hike so don’t be shy (offer a few RON after the ride).
- It’s a moderate hike up to the sheep station but very slippery. Bring hiking shoes or boots.
- There are mosquitoes so bring insect repellent.