I can’t say that my feeling was one of joy when I drew this out of the bag proffered by Andrew Webb on Thursday night:

Huh

I was sitting somewhere in the BBC Television Centre in White City with a group of food bloggers, all of us watching the second round of semifinals of the Eurovision Song Contest. After the last finalists were announced, we each drew the name of a finalist country and find that cuisine in London for Eating Eurovision, a London food blogger’s event hosted by Andrew.

I have to say I’m now actually quite thankful to get a challenging country – I could barely point out the country on a map on Thursday. It made for an interesting challenge (though if we’d had a week rather than a day or two, I would have made a better hash of things!) and led us to try a new cuisine last night.

How about a little background on the little country? Moldova‘s official name is the Republic of Moldova and was originally part of the Principality of Moldavia (note the slight change in the name!) before being taken over by the Russian Empire. There are a few steps I’m going to leave out due to Moldova’s complicated political history but the current country was formed in 1991. Location-wise, it’s fully landlocked and situated between Romania and Ukraine. It’s official language is Moldovan (I think it’s a dialect of Romanian). Sadly, Moldova is considered to be the poorest country in Europe, which might explain the difficulty I had in finding its food in London.

Thursday night, after I got home, I sent out all the emails and tweets I could to get as much information as possible. Friday morning, I called the Moldovan Embassy in London and asked about Moldovan cuisine and possible restaurants in London. The nice woman at the end of the line said she’d been looking for years… Oh dear. She suggested trying Romanian food as the cuisine was similar. As for food shops, she said that Moldovans in London tended to shop at the Russian shops to get a taste of home. I also received one email reply on Friday from Vadim, a Moldovan computer blogger based in London, who confirmed that there weren’t any Moldovan restaurants proper save for one mediocre restaurant serving Moldovan food pretty far out in East London.

After a bit more research on the net, I realised that one couldn’t classify Moldovan food easily as the cuisine encompassed various elements from Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Russia and even Turkey and Greece. I thought I’d try a Romanian restaurant and eat the dishes that were also common in Moldova. After a brief search, I settled on 32 Old Bailey, a Romanian restaurant near St Paul’s. After calling to confirm opening times, I asked about their online menu which also featured Italian food – the man at the other end was resigned to the fact that no one wants to try Romanian food and that Italian food just sold better, quite sad and now I’m determined to try to get everyone to try some Moldovan/Romanian cuisine!

32 Old Bailey was not at all what I expected. Firstly, it was a basement restaurant which is fine but this restaurant took up a huge cavernous space that included a dancefloor! The decor was decidedly Transylvanian (read: I expected a vampire to appear at any moment). When we got there at 8pm, it was also very empty. Apart from us, there was a small group of women tucked away in one of the corners.

This turned out to be advantageous to us as we had lots of time to discuss Moldovan and Romanian cuisine with Chris (Kris? Sorry, I didn’t get how to spell his name!) who turned out to be from Moldova (the Romanian part) as did the cook! Excellent! He hijacked my list of Moldovan dishes I’d found on the internet, went through them and dismissed a few of them and got very enthusiastic about others. He pointed out dishes on their menu that could also definitely be found in Moldova and we embraced many of these. He also tempted us with a description of a donut-like dessert that we decided to order in advance of the meal itself! And after we got our drinks (a Romanian “juice” for me and a Romanian beer for Blai), he came back and kindly presented me with a gift of a Romanian cookbook!

Onto the food (finally)! Blai and I both started with ciorba (soup) – one meatball (ciorba de perisoare) and one sour beef (ciorba de vacuta) to split between us. Two large bowls came to us along with a basket of white bread and a bowl of sour cream (smintina) with fresh green chilies (this surprised me!). Of course, we had no idea what to do with the sour cream and, upon asking, were told that some people just like it in the soup. The soups both had a sourish flavour to them and both were quite different. The sour beef soup had many vegetables and potatoes alongside the big chunks of tender beef. The meatball soup had pork and rice balls swimming in a soup with lots of chopped tomatoes. Both were quite tasty and very filling (they were big portions).

Ciorba de Perisoare

Ciorba de Vacuta

We also split the mains. A plateful of mititei and chips was highly scented and gloriously meaty and uh…chippy. The chips were nothing to shout about but the mititei were delicious: minced meat (I think beef and pork) mixed with various spices and lots of garlic (we had the garlic burps all night), grilled.

Mititei

The sarmalute were meat and rice filled cabbage rolls, topped with a little sour cabbage. We were instructed to eat this with more of the sour cream – and I totally forgot to. Oh well, they were good enough by themselves. The yellow mash to the side of it is considered to be one of the national dishes of Moldova (and Romania) – it’s mamaliga, a corn mash similar to polenta, though ours had a much lighter, almost custardy texture. Chris (Kris?) told us about the way mamaliga was made in the past – in a cast iron pot, left to set and then upturned to reveal the glorious yellow dome. String was used to cut the mamaliga and it would open up like a flower!

Sarmalute in Foi de Varza

Dessert time! The promised donut-like dessert showed up and we learned its name: papanasi. I was in love with its cuteness:

Papanasi

A brioche-looking donut construction sitting in a pool of cream and lots of slightly tart cherry jam. The donut itself was not cakey as I expected but slightly sticky and this was explained by ricotta in the batter (ok, we looked up the recipe in the cookbook while we were eating). We each got one of these, two apparently make a whole portion and Chris (Kris?) had suggested (and very wisely too) that we split that. While adorable to look at and delicious (how can you not like cheese and deep fried and cream and jam?), these filled us up to no end – especially after the soups and main courses we’d already consumed. Still, it was a good dessert and a good end to a hearty meal.

When we were about to leave, who should show up but Patrick (Romania!) along with his mates. I wonder if he liked the food! Anyway, at the same time, a live band (complete with keytar! Soooo 80s!) showed up – I think the real crowd starts trickling in much much later and a search online afterwards confirms that the restaurant only closes at 3am on Friday nights.

Our meal totalled £40 (including service) – not the cheapest meal but by no means extortionate for the fun evening we had! I’m now very keen to cook from my new cookbook but you can also find Moldovan recipes online.

32 Old Bailey
St Pauls
London EC4M 7HS

32 Old Bailey on Urbanspoon

References:
http://www.acd-systems.co.uk/milaliles.com/Food.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moldova
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Moldova