“The best things often come about by chance or by a whim of destiny. The same is also true for our pigs”. We are with Albert Binder, climbing the wide steps that lead up to the fortified walls of the church of St. Nicholas. We are in Bazna, a Saxon village lost in the timeless landscape of Transylvania in Romania. We are climbing slowly, at the same pace as the story, surrounded by the inebriating smells of spring that come from the flowers and fresh-cut hay.
“It was 1872, in a time of revolutionary change: the Budapest-Bucharest railway line was under construction. Two British engineers – so I was told – came to the Bazna spa to rest and relax and Michael Herlich, director of the spa complex at the time, showed them the village. Between one chat and another the conversation soon came to the local pigs, the ‘Mangalita’, with their flavoursome meat, but somewhat small and slow to reproduce”.
Once in front of the imposing size of the clock tower we paused for a moment. Albert took a huge iron key out of a leather bag, and proceeded to make the bolt of the large oak door sing.
“Before leaving, the engineers promised Herlich that once they returned home, they would send a pair of Berkshire pigs, known for their large size and the quality of their meat. And they kept to their word. But it is here that destiny played its hand: during the voyage from far away England, the sow died. Only the boar made it to Bazna, and so they could only let it mate with a ‘mangalita’ sow. And so, from this unexpected coupling, our ‘porc de Bazna’ was born, subsequently improved over the following decades thanks to a careful selection procedure”.
Once the heavy door was open, Albert guided us inside the St. Nicholas complex, a typical Saxon construction with sloped roofs, covered with vermilion tiles that evoke the scales of a snake. From the top of the tower, we were presented with the distinctive traits of the villages created in the Saxon’s century in Transylvania: pleasant pastel-coloured walls, neatly aligned next to one another along the gentle route of the road, which follows the weaving mass of streams and trenches crossed by an endless number of bridges. The red outlines of Bazna’s houses look like long ships anchored in harbour, which seem to pitch in the May breeze from the sea of plants in the Transylvanian countryside.
The weather was calm, almost still, and the view probably very much unchanged from that which the two famous engineers from the British realm enjoyed. The human panorama however is today completely different. In today’s Bazna, which has a population of around 1,600, only four or five Saxons (of which Albert is one) remain. They were German-speaking farmers from Luxembourg and the Rhine Valley, invited to Transylvania in the 12th Century by the Hungarian King Géza II.
“Bazna was a pole of German culture for 800 years. Our community resisted numerous crises, but not the natural disasters in the 20th Century. As late as the 1940s, 80% of the population was Saxon. Then the curse of Hitler arrived, to which sadly many of our forefathers paid attention, which was followed by the distrust and oppression of the Communist regime. When Ceaușescu died, almost all of them decided to seek a better future in Germany”.
At the beginning of the 1990s, with the dissolution of the Saxon presence in Transylvania, even the Bazna pig, with its strong links to this community, risked disappearing. “It was at this time that the controversial debate on the risks, real or presumed, of cholesterol began”, Ben Mehedin explains, Food and Community Expert of the Adept foundation, the Slow Food partner in the area. “The Bazna pig has a significant fat content: for this characteristic, widely appreciated since its creation, it has all of a sudden become less desired and less demanded by the market, which is now in search of leaner meat. In a short space of time, the ‘porc de Bazna’ has gone from a widespread breed to a true rarity”.
Together with Ben, we leave Bazna and arrive in Bojan, a Saxon village a short distance away. Past the residential area and its turreted church, we follow the gravel road which scrambles around the surrounding hills, topped with a dark crown of oak and walnut trees. “Today, the Bazna pig has been re-evaluated, also thanks to the knowledge that cholesterol is not necessarily harmful: recent studies have shown that the ‘porc de Bazna’ meat has a rich and high-intensity lipid protein content in its fat, the so-called ‘good cholesterol'”, Ben explains, while the car is stopped in the middle of the greenery. “Last year, the local council promoted the first festival dedicated to the pig and its products, and today twenty or so producers have signed up, creatingthe first organisation for the protection and promotion of the ‘porc de Bazna'”. Today, many Romanians are trying to bring life back to this breed inherited from the Saxons. According to Ben, however, this is not without difficulty: the hardest challenge is protecting the unique genetic characteristics of the Bazna pig, which over the last few decades has been dispersed through uncontrolled cross-breeding.
We get out and start walking on the still dew-tipped grass. Suddenly, in a dip in the landscape comes a herd of pigs at a gentle trot. Some are ‘mangalita’, which have a similar line to wild boar and are covered in a thick layer of dark fluff. One of the sows and most of the piglets, however, have the unmistakable signs of the Bazna pig. The first and most easily recognisable of them is the pattern of their coat: the body and the head are dark, but with a wide light strip across the abdomen, shoulders and front trotters.
Taking them to graze is Adrian Scumpu, one of the breeders intent on conserving the ‘porc de Bazna’. “Once upon a time, the Bazna pigs dominated the landscape in these parts: they were called ‘the pigs of the poor’, because they eat anything, were easy to breed, produced many young and grew quickly, building up thick and dense fat”, Adrian tells us whilst taking us to his business, where he also breeds sheep and dogs. “Even during Communism, every family had at least two or three, seeing as despite the policy of collectivisation, the private breeding of pigs was not restricted by the regime’s authorities. Today, following the crisis of the ’90s, there is renewed interest in the ‘Bazna’: I sell around 50-70 per year all over Romania and almost all of them via the internet, with help from my children”.
After a long tour around his company, Adrian invites us to sit at his table, set up outside in front of a low building where all the tools of his trade are kept. On the heavy-duty boards of the table, a range of simple yet aromatic dishes is laid out: slanina afumate (smoked cured pork fat), carnati afumate (smoked sausage), jumeri (pork scratchings), rulade (rolls of meat and fat), muschi tiganesc (loin), accompanied by the inevitable ciape (onions), lichio (a sweet homemade bread, typical in Transylvania) and glass of fragrant palinka (grappa).
“In our tradition, pork meat is often salted and smoked slowly, the best way of preserving it before the arrival of refrigerators. For doing this, every house has a room dedicated to smoking, usually in the internal courtyard. Some however prefer the meat in gelatine, such as toba, thick and made to last longer, and piftie, to be consumed fresh”, Adrian tells us happily, while pouring us another glass of palinka. “For me though, there is nothing better than a nice piece of slanina afumate cut into big, succulent cubes, a slice of bread and fresh onions. For those who were born and raised in these valleys, no complicated recipes or intricate dishes are needed. This delicate whiteness is the taste and smell of home”.
Photos by Ivo Danchev