I buy a beautiful, buttery lettuce from Florian for 3 lei — that’s about 50p — along with a few bunches of spring onions with long, luxuriant tails; crisp, bright red radishes; parsley and dill. The total comes to 18 lei. Perched above me on his raised market stall, piles of produce all around him, Florian teaches me to say “18” in Romanian, and applauds when I get it right on the third try. He grins when I say “thank you” — Mulțumesc! — but that’s about the extent of my Romanian, so far.
I am at Obor Market (Piața Obor), the country’s biggest produce market, right in the heart of Bucharest. There are few things I love more than a European market — I’m especially fond of the Lices market in Rennes, and the twice-weekly farmers’ market on the Dern’sches Gelände in Wiesbaden — and Obor has now been added to my list of favourites.
The Bucharest metro is handy and quick, and Obor station is steps away from the great central hall of the market. Surrounding it are smaller outdoor stalls selling eggs, apples, jewellery, electronics, flowers — and, of course, mulled wine and mici, the delicious little springy sausages that are a national passion. Ninety tonnes of fresh produce arrive here daily to be sold: fruit and vegetables on the ground floor, with dozens of individual stalls competing to display the most luxuriant spinach and the longest leeks. There are honey and herbs and nuts down here, as well as a huge vending machine spouting different thicknesses of yoghurt. Head up the escalator and there are butchers and cheesemongers and bakers. It’s open seven days a week from 7am until 7pm — well, it shuts at 4pm on Sundays.
Florian is mystified when I tell him, translating on my phone, that there’s no salad in England these days. Yes, I know that’s an exaggeration, but it’s been fascinating — and not a little dismaying — to watch the Salad Wars unfold from afar. Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Aldi have been rationing tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and cucumbers; Twitter is full of pictures of empty supermarket salad bins across the country, contrasted with images like that tweeted by Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News, showing a bounty of tomatoes, peppers and courgettes in Kherson, a city on the Ukrainian front line. Florian gestures to the produce all around him. It is all from Romania, he explains, so it doesn’t have to come far to get to this market. He doesn’t sell tomatoes or peppers, but Dan, at a nearby stall, does: they come from; Greece, from Bulgaria. Yes, Dan says (thank you again, Google Translate), tomatoes are more expensive now. That’s because — he makes a shaking gesture with his hands and says “Turkey” — ah, that’s because of the earthquake, I understand.
Both traders wonder what the heck is going on in the UK (even though I don’t speak Romanian the meaning is clear). When I say “Brexit”, I get a sigh and a shake of the head. Although I know that’s a simplistic explanation, it is the easiest without a common tongue. I’m not up to explaining the intricacies by tapping into my phone. Such as: increased red tape when it comes to sourcing seasonal workers and delays at the border that have made Britain an unattractive market for European growers and sellers, soaring energy bills — and a lack of government support for rising fuel costs — which have left Britain’s own farmers in the lurch. APS Group, the largest grower of tomatoes in the country, has left glasshouses unplanted for the first time in its 80-year history.
Is the answer for Britons to cherish the turnip, as environment secretary Thérèse Coffey suggested at the end of last month? No, it’s not — if only on the basis that turnips aren’t even in season, as Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, has pointed out. One of the joys of being in Bucharest has been discovering local, native and seasonal greens. You’ll have to forgive me, because I’m a city girl, but at first I didn’t recognise the baskets of spiky little leaves one trader was eager for me to buy from him, but in Romanian and English we figured it out in the end. Urzici — nettles, traditionally gathered in spring, from which I made a velvety soup, using a base of those sweet, slender leeks and fennel seed bought loose in a little paper bag. I tried loboda too, which I’ve never seen in Britain. Atriplex patula, sometimes called “French spinach” — I discover — has soft, gorgeous reddish-purple leaves and adds an earthy sweetness to salads or, like the nettles, can be whizzed up into a soup.
Perhaps the new agreement between Britain and the EU on trade rules affecting Northern Ireland — which has the potential to resolve the issue of imports and border checks there — is a harbinger of better times. That said, I won’t hold my breath. I’ll be back to the market tomorrow, scenting spring and wishing that in Britain we had a better awareness of what to eat when, and why. Better for the planet, better for us. Yes, we live in the 21st century, and global trade is a reality. But it’s worth working to recapture the joy we can sense when winter begins to fade, when even the nettle’s sting can prick us into happiness, towards the promise of greener flavours to come. Mulțumesc!
Simple leek and nettle soup
2 or 3 pleasing leeks, tough greens cut away, well washed, chopped into 2cm pieces
5 or 6 big handfuls — wear gloves! — of nettles, well washed
2 tsp fennel seed
2 tbsp butter
Glug of olive oil
Salt and pepper
3 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
Dash of Vietnamese fish sauce, if you’re not vegetarian
Parsley, dill, if you have them to hand and you like them
Sweat the leeks in the butter and oil in a heavy pan until they are nice and soft. Add salt, pepper and fennel seed, and let it continue to soften with the fennel for a few more minutes. Add the nettles, swirl around, pour in the stock and let it simmer for around 10 minutes. Allow to cool and liquefy in a blender; if you really let the blender run you won’t need to add any cream at all, but a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche will be delicious. (I’ve been buying smetana in Romania.) Taste for seasoning: now’s when you’ll add the fish sauce if you want it, and the chopped fresh herbs. Enjoy!