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.
Anyway, back to the wine caves…
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 have seen Chișinău’s sleepy wine cellars, crossed the renegade republics of Gagauzia and Transnistria, fished the Danube delta, and shopped at Odessa’s central market. More details soon!
It all started with Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine, a book that one might call obscure for rather obvious reasons: 1) it’s written in Russian, 2) it was published in Chișinău, and 3) I found it in a bookstore in Kiev. Overnight, I went from not knowing a single Moldovan dish to having at my disposal “500 ancient and contemporary recipes” — at least that’s what it says on the cover. I’m afraid that this sudden profusion of choices (many of which didn’t sound all that different from one another), plus the fact that the book contains no index or detailed table of contents, left me a little bit confused. I completed my reading with the vague notion that I should be trying a dish with turkey, pumpkin, and prunes, and labeling it as Moldovan…
So, there! My Moldovan turkey gratin is full of what appears to be quintessential Moldovan ingredients, and it’s layered and baked like a Moldovan moussaka. Moreover, for my American readers, it’s an instant Thanksgiving classic that doesn’t even require you to be able to spell / pronounce / locate Chișinău on a map — and if you can’t wait till next year, you can always prepare it for Christmas. This makes a sophisticated side for roasted turkey breast, or a whole bird minus one leg. Or you can easily adapt the recipe to use your leftovers.