It’s been quite a while since I last visited the Matis family in Rasca so this May I took the chance to spend seven days with them.
Their home is also a guesthouse and is situated in the Apuseni mountains and has a number of small meadows surrounding it for the production of milk, some potatoes, some mixed wheat/barley grains, a little vegetable garden and some fruit trees.
Traian and granddad (now passed away) taught me how to use the kosa (scythe) over fifteen years ago. Spent most of the first week rather more “ploughing” the meadow much to their amusement, however I did eventually
cotton on to the technique and even passed as a Romanian on several occasions. People would pass me by and enquire as to this or that ( I had no idea what they were saying), so I guess I must have been mowing rather than ploughing by then and who’d guess an Englishman would be mowing a meadow in Transylvania?!
Special mention must go to Jenny and the girls who cooked some wonderful Romanian dishes and supplied the working men (and
tourists) with nourishment all day long. Grandma Sabina is the most excellent baker I know and this was one of many of her jobs including feeding the homestead recycling system- the pigs and chickens. As in the old days in England swill is made from the household waste food and heated up to sterilise it, nothing is ever wasted and even the chickens get the final scraps. Oh to have this system again back home…
The homesteads in the Apuseni mountains have tended to be small, about five hectares each, but some are slightly larger, some smaller. The reason for this is because they have been traditionally farmed by the family unit (grandparents, parents and young adults/children) and in most cases without horses, so all the work was undertaken by human muscle power alone. This would have limited how much land any one family unit could actually manage. Interestingly, when researching Wimpole’s past, I found that most family units (up until the industrial revolution ) were about ten acres or a yard land, which again is as about as much as any family homestead can manage without horses or the new fangled iron horses of today.
Hired help is also an alternative, although wages have to be paid, and with Traian and Jenny’s daughters now working and living in Cluj, they rely on Florine and Johan for the muscle power although Traian has now bought one of those iron horses.
I must mention Johan who at 75 jumps about like a spring chicken and has a wealth of knowledge and spends quite a bit of the winter cross country skiing- something he has persuaded me to do with him this coming winter, no slacking here you know!
So, after fifteen years away from Rasca, it was very noticeable that changes were occurring… places where I once passed through and saw men hard at work mowing the meadows, women and children bringing out the food, mown grass drying to make hay and hay ricks springing from the ground, I saw none but abandoned homes.
Meadows are slowly losing their grip to the ever advancing forests and old ricks are withering away unused. All the hubbub of a small farm- dogs barking, cockerels crowing, chickens scratching around- is long gone in these abandoned places. However, in its stead, the stealthy fox stalks this changing landscape, deer venture forth and wild boar seem to be beginning to roam more confidently. As one way of lifestyle ebbs away so another comes forth.
So what can the rural change in England over the last few hundred years predict? At the time of the industrial revolution in England in the 17th and 18th centuries things began to change… young people left the land, sometimes because of changing climatic conditions, but mostly to find better paid work in the blossoming cities and new industrial heartlands.
This in itself made life harsh for those left behind, the parents and grandparents, because the raw power from the young vibrant adults had gone. Without this power land became harder to manage and more so as the older generations passed away. The only way forward was either to give up and find work elsewhere or find other sources of power. The power then was the horse but these were expensive and only those with money could afford to make the change.
One major result of the demographic change was the abandonment of the homesteads resulting in changes to the English landscape- some benign, some not. Those that could afford to finance alternative power could also purchase the abandoned land at a low price and thus extend their own lands, five acres here, five acres there. With more meadows and fewer people it became easier to graze livestock and turn the rich, manmade, biodiverse meadows into pastures or arable land. Time eroded memories until most never knew how some large farms managed to acquire such large tracts of land.
In fact Wimpole is an excellent example of land abandonment in the 17th century with the Chicheley family engrossing such land but also purchasing from those that wished to leave (like Robert Finch who lost nearly all his family including his wife and second born child); Chicheley bought eight acres of free land and the right to common for the princely sum of £400, not a small amount in the 1640s. Climate, pestilence, war and the industrial revolution all had a hand in shaping Wimpole during this period but it has resulted in a fine landscape full of wildlife.
Some changes are benign and move slowly, others change whole landscapes for the worse, in some cases in less than a decade; worse still the advent of inorganic fertilisers and chemicals has wreaked havoc upon the once beautiful English landscape. Whole farms are now just green deserts where not a sound can be heard except for the roar of the combustion engine. One can only hope that Romania manages to subdue the worst consequences of western global farming practices with imagination and forethought so that their children’s children can wander through meadows full of flowers and sound.
Traditionally an Apuseni homestead in Transylvania would have a few milking cows (Traian has two) which are normally kept inside… there’s a good reason: if you have limited land you need hay for the winter, the longer the winter the more hay you need so Traian needs four ‘farcituri’ (a hay rick and a very good one too), which should last until the new hay is made. I guess that’s going to be about a ton, ton and a half for each rick and, as he only has two cows, that’s about 15 ton of hay per year (as a rough rule of thumb) which means about 4/5 hectares of meadow.
It’s a lot of work to make all this hay by hand and one can understand that, when labour is short, you have to find other ways to feed the cows and that usually means more fertiliser, chemicals, a tractor eventually and possibly acquiring land close by to out pasture them during the summer.
Interestingly, when Traian feeds the cows he adds fresh grass to the hay which stretches the hay out and adds more taste and moisture to it making it more palatable for the cows. Another advantage of adding fresh grass is the fact you don’t have to turn it into hay thus saving labour, a real advantage when you actually make it by hand. I am reliably informed that in Sussex, England this was also the norm and it was called ‘sweetmeat’.
Another important note to mention (as some people may think keeping cows inside is unkind) is that when you graze a grassland/pasture it becomes heavily infected with intestinal worm eggs which in turn reinfect the grazing animal and until recently there wasn’t an effective way to treat chronic worm infestations. Once cows have a heavy worm burden milk yields are drastically cut and, when you depend on the milk to live, that is not a small consideration. Feeding cows inside keeps the grassland/meadow free of intestinal worm eggs.
Every day, twice a day, the cows have to be milked by hand, each one producing about 20/25 litres a day. My efforts in helping to milk the cows was soon curtailed as I was ushered out with the kind words of “you should go and explore the valley”!!! To be truthful I was pretty slow… it’s not so easy actually.
One asked as to the value of the milk as some was sold… quite a bit is used for home consumption ( cheese, milk and butter), the whey is fed to the pigs and what is left is sold at the global market price – the princely sum of 25c/litre. Bearing in mind that for six weeks the cows go dry until they have another calf, one can work out the maximum value of the two cows to the homestead. Depending on the amount milked per day the income would amount to approximately €3000-€4000 per annum. Not a lot and, without other income, you can see why small farm homesteads are becoming abandoned in the Romanian countryside in favour of much better paid jobs in the city.
The work doesn’t stop there either… the dung has to be mucked out and later spread on the meadows to provide fertility for next year’s grass. Some will also be spread on the land earmarked for potatoes and, of course, the vegetable patch.
Then there are the pigs, these need feeding with swill, potatoes and of course a ration of fresh grass.
When fat they will be slaughtered and nothing but the squeak will be wasted; my favourite part of a pig now is the smoked fat with some fresh peppers. Funny how the western world now shuns fat because of its link to heart disease, odd thing is I saw a lot of very fit older people in Romania and they eat a lot of fat, drink palinka (another favourite of mine – plum brandy ) but work hard.
Others who benefit from those that don’t clean the plate (and are actually very glad of it) is the guard dog who remains anonymous ( I called him ‘dog’) and the chickens whose job it is is to lay eggs for the table and fine ones they lay too – lovely deep yellow yolks because they have an abundant supply of nutritious insects to feast on. When mowing they dart hither and thither snatching the escaping crickets and grasshoppers.
One very obvious change I also noted was the increased cultivation of potatoes. A change in land use now that tractors have become more widely available. For the small farm homestead this provides the new power and a new source of cash. Inevitably there will be an increase in potato production as more land becomes available for those that can afford to buy the land that others no longer want.
Some of the smaller potatoes that can’t be sold are used by the families but some are also fed to the pigs and cattle although they do need cooking, “waste not want not” is my motto. Of course with more potato production comes the disease potato blight which needs agrichemicals to keep it at bay but also various other herbicides. Unfortunately both chemicals and the containers are sometimes unwisely used and discarded- a problem in a developing modern agricultural system and one the West still needs to address itself to.
Unfortunately the same applies to plastic bottles discarded as recycling systems aren’t in place. This will come as a young developing country learns to deal with it. Even now England still can’t cope with the increasing use of plastic.
However there are still many traditional meadows adorning the Apuseni mountains and long may it last. One can only hope that the agricultural changes are more benign and plans are put in place to make global farming more friendly. The gallery below shows some of the flowers seen in the Matis family’s meadows surrounding their house.
Anyone wishing to visit Rasca (which I thoroughly recommend) can make contact through Romana +40743567782 or email Matis_cristinaramona@yahoo.ro and you can also go to the Romanian tourist information here although it’s only in Romanian unfortunately.
A gallery of some of the views in and around Rasca