Sustainable Tourism in Transylvania

Ten years after my first visit to Transylvania I have been invited by my friend Marta Pozsonyi as a speaker at the first conference ever organised on Sustainable Tourism in Transylvania, which took place at the University of Cluj.
Marta is a pioneer in this sense because 10 years ago she organised the first gastronomic summer campus for kids, and the following year we co-organised the second one plus an international conference for the youth in gastronomy (it wasn’t really the Slow Food Youth Network, as this came years after our conference).
This time she brought together different experts in the gastronomic field who work in Transylvania, besides Rosemary Barron who came from London and is a real food and travel critique (I say real as in she is not an instagram celebrity) and myself who came from Italy. But firstly what is a gastronomer and what professions includes a “gastronomic field”? … On the superficial level a gastronomer is a lover of good food, a gourmet, a connoisseur of good food and drink, etc. On a deeper level gastronomy is the study of food. And the food in question has a background: history, politics, art, agronomy, zoology, economy, ecology, genetics; it has a taste, it encloses the stories of those who made it from the first seed planted to the person who sold it to you, it travelled across different cultures until it got on your table, and so on.
Marta has a vision and it’s the reason for this conference: She sees a national network of producers, historians, creatives, farmers, restaurateurs, students and so on, working together to better Transylvania; to preserve the land and create a sustainable tourism from which many people can benefit.

As she was speaking my mind brought me to my hometown Giaveno, where I have tried to put together producers and restaurateurs but haven’t yet succeeded. For some reason people have a hard time collaborating, also there are communication problems between the main town and the spread out villages that are part of this town. I told Marta that perhaps this won’t happen overnight, if people are used to working alone this won’t change from one conference but maybe … maybe in some years. The importance is to keep trying and keep talking about these things. Something I found incredibly interesting is the work of Cristian Cismaru, whose aims at changing the way food is served in the villages. In fact he and his partner organise events, such as Transylvania Brunch or picnics or by inviting chefs to revisit old recipes, in small rural villages. Although extremely happy and satisfied of his activity, he can’t but wonder: are we contributing to globalisation by innovating traditions? … What a good question! When I was in university I went through a phase where I was against innovation. Anything too new or two creative was for me an attack to traditions and seeing how American food system and “culture” has changed the way we eat and think of food… I wanted to preserve the old grandma’s recipes. But now I realise time cannot be stopped and what we view as traditional today is perhaps only 200 years old. Think of this: tomato sauce wasn’t traditional in Italy until little over 100 years ago!!! And we had no idea over here of the existence of tomatoes, so what was traditional before that huh? … and what will  be traditional in the future in 300 years? Who knows..
I believe it’s a blessing to be able to have a great variety of foods, I believe that traditions will be moulded on the national and local tastes. A chef coming to a village to cook an old recipe in a completely different way can be viewed as an incredible experiment and the locals can really benefit from it. We must not forget that what is being done by Cristian is to bring together the locals and offer them something new! We are so used to think and design events for the foreigners that we forget to include the people living in the area… this is different. This is creating a sense of community by organising gastronomic events that can sparkle a new idea, a new encounter, a new way of viewing the same food/recipe. It also gives pride to local producers, something that we too often take for granted. Cristian Cismaru found a way to preserve life and culture in the mountains 🙂

The presentation of Tibor Hartel on the agricultural space in Transylvania and the potential in development has also caught my attention as it is a topic extremely dear to me. What is the aim of landscapes? – He begins by asking us. We want to work toward landscapes that work for both people and biodiversity. An answer so simple and obvious, yet the reality is much different unfortunately. The problem is that usually local authorities (I’m not talking about people like Tibor Hartel nor the people present at this conference) don’t cherish the land they manage and sell it for whatever use only to earn money. … During my travels I’ve seen a phenomenon I really dislike: I go to a country and find myself in a hospitality structure built by foreigners for foreigners, where the local ecosystem is bent (or completely destroyed) for the sake of making it ideal to welcome a certain type of tourist… there is nothing left of the local culture if not the world reckoned cliches! Basically if the locals don’t recognise and don’t value their culture, this will be exploited and you will slowly lose your sense of identity. While designing a touristic plan one should ask him/herself where can we modernise yet stay Romanian (and this opens another question: what is being Romanian?.. what is Romania? what is Transylvania?…). I think the biggest lie ever told by globalisation is that there is only one way to become modern, and that is to copy what America is doing, to sell Romanian souvenirs made in china, to open burger places instead of traditional restaurants etc.
I believe also that integrated farming is the new old-way of preserving life, biodiversity, and culture. And regarding this I would like to share with you a reality in Colombia I happen to follow and one day will also visit… Deveras – founded by Michel Pineda. So we move back to a farming that integrates on the same area: animals, forest, vegetable garden etc.

At last… chef Oana Coanta of Bistro de l’Arte in Brasov spoke about her experience. Her bistro uses 80% local products and she is doing her best to educate the customers. However, she says there is a difference between the foreign customer and the locals. Foreigners are very curious about the provenience of the produce, while locals never ask and don’t care. I believe this is just because they have not been taught to ask nor to think about it. We, in the west, have been bombarded in the past 10 years with books and notions about the importance of local food but there are countries where such thing is still obvious so people don’t ask. In Belarus the meat you find both at the market or in stores or in the restaurant comes from Belarus, so do the vegetables. I wonder if it’s the case for Romania…
I am a firm believer though that the customer must be educated. We never think of this but McDonald’s and all the crap that has been sold to us from the American companies have educated our taste… so if chefs don’t re-educate the customers, who else will? Sure it’s a tiring and frustrating task but I consider a chef much more than just a person who cooks.

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2 thoughts on “Sustainable Tourism in Transylvania

  1. Matthew Barton Mattox says:

    Good post Tanya and I believe you’ve said it accurately. Good luck, and if I can assist you from America, please let me know.


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