With only three and a half million inhabitants and a territory smaller than the New York metropolitan area, one might think that Moldova doesn’t have any ethnic conflicts. The composition of the population seems pretty straightforward: 70% Moldovans, followed essentially by ethnicities from neighboring countries, such as Ukrainians, Romanians, and Russians. Ah yes, Russia… Sure enough, this last bunch, concentrated in the border region of Transnistria, didn’t really welcome Moldova’s independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. If you check on a map, Russia’s not even a neighbor of the new state.
But Transnistria is a story for another day. In this post, I’m looking at a much lesser-known dissension, and the fate of a handful of irreducible freedom-loving, eastward-looking people of mysterious decent, who once declared themselves independent even one month before Transnistria. The Gagauz!
Last time, I took a look at Moldovan food as it’s served in restaurants. Since Moldovans cook at home a lot more often than they dine in restaurants, let’s also visit the Central Market in Chișinău, where many provisions can be bought.
Founded in 1825, Piaţa Centrală is located right in the city center, not far from the bus station (a proximity resulting in double the bustling crowds). It’s not as impressive as the markets of Tbilisi or Tashkent, but it does give a good idea of Moldovan cuisine. To complement the pictures, I will also mention some recipes from Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine. With 493 recipes, this cookbook contains more stuff than I’ll ever cook in my lifetime.
In my previous posts (here and here), I’ve talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Moldovan winemaking — probably with more emphasis on the ugly than the good. But what about the food? Is there a good reason why you probably can’t name a single Moldovan dish, or have I found some hidden gem? Here’s a sample of Moldovan food, as served in some of the better restaurants in the country.
As in many former Soviet republics, if you’re an aspiring restaurateur who wants to open a high-end joint in Moldova, you typically pitch Italian or French cuisine instead of the local grub; or, at least, claim to do so in your advertisements, even if neither you nor your cooks have ever set foot in Western Europe. I suspect that many locals would dismiss my restaurant picks as tourist traps, where waiters in ridiculous costumes serve overpriced everyday dishes and bored fiddlers play “Ochi chyornye” for patrons that don’t quite get that Chișinău ”isn’t part of Russia anymore”. And the locals would be partly right, except that there aren’t any reasonable alternatives (don’t worry, I’ll talk about the unreasonable alternatives in another post).
In my last post, I started reviewing the wine caves of Moldova. There are many other wineries in the country, and Sommelier‘s 2011 article here gives an optimistic but good overview of the rising stars (you’ll notice that Cricova is the only “cave” winery mentioned). Purcari, in particular, produces a few reds worth tasting. But trying these wines outside of Moldova might be a challenge. Despite what the article says, I can hardly find any importer or retailer. Even Russians are out of luck, since the government, in another demonstration of its carrot-and stick-approach, has decided once again to ban the import of Moldovan wine.
My latest summer peregrinations took me to the little Republic of Moldova (3.5 million inhabitants). My friends and family asked me, several times and with more than a hint of incredulity, what there is to see in Moldova. The short answer is: a few things, but not much. Because the trip was mostly uneventful, it would be an exaggeration to call this new series of posts “Moldovan Adventures”, as I did for my Caucasus stories. “Impressions” seems more appropriate. And in this first entry, I will talk about Moldovan wine.
The 2007 edition of Lonely Planet seriously claims that “Moldovan wines routinely grab highest honours at European tastings and beyond”. What they don’t mention is that the tastings in questions took place in Romania and Belarus. Not exactly the most authoritative nations on the subject!
There are certainly many wineries scattered throughout Moldova, but the main draw is to those with one very specific factor: the wine caves. In the second half of last century, former limestone mines were converted into galleries of gigantic proportions in order to store millions of bottles of the national production, taking for granted the optimistic adage that wine gets better with age.
So here’s a tour of the country’s cave wineries, where the wine isn’t necessarily the main attraction. There are three of them, as far as I know, and I’ve also added a fourth location that offers a similar experience in a much smaller underground cellar. Expect the unexpected. There will be wineries that don’t make wine, wine that’s not the product of fermentation, champagne cellar mold that smells like feces, people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and kitsch by the ladleful.
I’ve recently posted the last installment of my Azerbaijan Adventures, so it’s time to say farewell to the Caucasus (for the time being, at least), and look back at all I have distilled over the past three years.
Like a goat jumping over the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, I have traveled through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective renegade regions. In writing about my journeys, I intentionally left aside the most-traveled routes to focus on more extreme tourism, food, and cooking. I called them Adventures, although your humble main protagonists spent more time changing flat tires, dealing with hard-looking and/or corrupt customs officers, asking their way around in the middle of nowhere, and drinking local moonshine, than accomplishing any kind of crazy exploits.
My last Azerbaijan Adventures post marked our return to civilization via some of the most obscure roads in the Caucasus. There are, however, many more exciting destinations in Azerbaijan, and today I’ll mention some of the interesting spots I visited during a previous trip.
Sticking to the mountain theme, if you’re not prepared for a long journey in the northeast region, you can try Lahic.
Lahic (pronounced Lahij) is only a dozen miles from the Shamakha-Shaki road, which makes it a lot less isolated than remote Xinaliq. I even hear that the dirt road which constitutes the only access to the village will be asphalted soon, if it’s not already done (this is according to Mark Elliott’s invaluable Azerbaijan guide, as usual). In the meantime, it still takes almost an hour to cover that small distance.
We last left off our Azerbaijan adventures with our arrival in the remote village of Xinaliq:
Between the travel guides that present it as the Shangri-La of isolated picturesque mountain villages, and a new paved road that makes it accessible to any second-hand-Lada driver, there is enough interest in Xinaliq for the locals to have a modicum of organized tourist accommodation. You’re still unlikely to bump elbows with many foreigners (we didn’t see any others when we were there), but there’s a 3-room guest house with a bathroom and hot water (a rarity), and even a cell phone antenna in the middle of the village!
After our little pakhlava break, we finally reach Quba, the capital of the homonymous district in mountainous northeastern Azerbaijan. Capital is a big word for a town of less than 40,000 that you can visit in half a day, but this is the gateway for small villages much higher in the mountains, such as the famed Xinaliq…
Our stopover gets slightly extended, however, as I have the bright idea of losing my wallet. After spending a couple of hours looking for it and the evening mourning for it with a bottle of tutovka, I decide to stop at the police station on the way out of town the next morning.
What follows is a quite unique succession of unlucky events.
It’s been almost 3 months since I last wrote about my adventures in the Caucasus. All this time, I’ve been planning to talk about the various kinds of baklava in Azerbaijan (locally known as pakhlava), but the task turned out to be harder than I anticipated.
There are almost as many kinds of pakhlava as there are regions in Azerbaijan. You’ll find different variations in Baku, Ganja, Qabala, Nakhchivan, Shaki, and finally, Quba. The bad news is that the distinctions between them seem to be poorly documented. My cookbooks gave me a handful of recipes for the Baku, Ganja, and Shaki varieties, but the others remain a mystery, even in the days of the Internet.