Back in March, Ligia and I attended a retreat organized by Do Good Academy on a mountaintop in the region of Brasov, Romania. At that retreat, I sat down with the co-directors of the Hippocrates Health Institute, Brian Clement and Anna Maria Gahns-Clement, for an interview that focused on the questions asked most frequently about raw food by Romanians. The interview was then featured in the July episode of De Vorba cu Ligia, one of our web shows here in Romania. Since the interview was recorded in English, I thought you might enjoy it as well.
Here are over 500 photos from the latest edition of our Raw Generation Expo. It’s one of our worthwhile projects, an event through which we promote healthy foods and a balanced life. This one took place in Cluj-Napoca and it was the second regional edition we held there. We’re coming up on twelve national editions and this one makes six regional editions. Here’s to a good life for everyone!
Raw Generation Expo Cluj a fost un eveniment extraordinar de bine primit, care a incununat cu succes seria expozitiilor de anul acesta. Am avut parte peste 40 de expozanti (mai multi ca la prima editie) si in ambele zile foarte multi vizitatori fericiti. Mai jos puteti vedea o parte din pozele de la eveniment. Multumim Cluj-Napoca pentru primirea frumoasa si ne revedem in toamna lui 2017!
I was invited by the folks at Light, who are working on some pretty interesting camera technology, to write about my favorite vantage point. I explained to them, as I’m explaining to you now, that I don’t have one. I get bored with shooting the same locations and I’m always on the lookout for new things to shoot.
Then I realized that over the past few years, I’ve been working in the exact same location, putting in lots of time and effort, being happy with the challenges offered by that very same spot and enjoying the beautiful results. But you didn’t know about those photos, because I haven’t published them on my website, and it didn’t occur to me earlier that it was a vantage point. I’m talking about my studio work for my wife’s printed books, in other words, about my food photography.
My favorite vantage point over the past few years has been the whitebox (the official name for it is a seamless tabletop background sweep cyclorama). Here’s what it looks like:
That’s where I’ve been spending my time. Lots of my time. Here’s one example of my work:
This is one of my wife’s raw desserts. It’s a raw vegan whipped cream, mint and strawberry cake. You can find the recipe for it in her Raw Desserts book.
And here’s another photo from the same book. I apologize if it leaves you drooling. It’s a raw vegan brownie with a raw chocolate glaze.
Here’s how I work. I don’t have a set position for the camera or for the speedlites. I work handheld and I vary my camera position, angle and lens until I find what I think is a good frame for the photo. Then I’ll shoot a few photos to see how the lights fall on the subject and whether I need to vary their positions as well, in order to bring out the colors and sculpt the dimensionality of the photo with lights and shadows.
I use three independent speedlites triggered by the on-camera flash, which I sometimes choose to also fire or to only have it act as a remote for the other speedlites. For this photograph, I worked with my Canon gear: one of my three Canon cameras, an EOS 60D and three Canon speedlites. I love my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens and I tend to use that a lot for my studio work. I also use ambient light from within the room itself (I turn on wall and ceiling lights) and I use a mix of warm and cold lights. I know most people say you should use the same temperature lights, but I prefer to mix them in order to get a warmer ambient light. The speedlites overwhelm the subject with their cold light, but there’s a hint of warmer light all around the photo, which I like, and this comes out when I edit the photo as well. I suppose I started doing this when I began to shoot video. People leave a lot of work for post-production, but I do like it when I capture the mood light of the video live, as I shoot it, so I fiddle less with it in post.
I’d like to say I’m the set designer as well, but for my food photography, I leave that to my wife. She’s the award-winning raw chef with seven published books and I’m the photographer. Sometimes we’re inspired and we love the results, and sometimes we’re not happy with what we get. So we re-do the photo shoot at another time. There have also been instances where we’ve re-shot certain recipes for later editions of her books, because we weren’t happy with the photographs and as our skills improved, we knew we could do better.
I wish I could be more helpful than this but for me, every studio photo is a new challenge and I vary my angles and lighting in order to get what I think are the best photos of my subjects. My wife and I then cull through them and pick the ones that’ll go into her books. I then edit each one carefully, add it to the collection designated for that book in my Lightroom catalog and carry on doing this until we’re ready to turn things over to the publishing house.
Wild garlic leaves make a delicious soup in the spring, they’re wonderful in salads and they’re packed with healthy nutrients, since they grow in rich, pesticide-free forest soil. Here you can see Ligia picking wild garlic this past spring, in a forest near Medias. The forests near our town are full of them!
Spring is almost here and if there’s a forest near you, go pick some wild garlic! The soup is finger-licking good, especially with nice, home-made bread on the side.
I made a short video last year, which I wasn’t sure I should post publicly, because it contains disturbing imagery. However, I finally convinced myself I should, simply because I want you, dear reader, to be able to make informed decisions when you go shopping for food.
The video you’re about to see shows the guts of farm-grown chickens. These are from an independent farm where they grow in crates, as they do in most farms these days. They’re not free range, and they’re certainly not organic. The name of the farm doesn’t matter. What matters is that these chickens weren’t treated as badly as those in true factory farms, and yet their insides tell a dark story about the way we, as humans, treat our food.
Their internal organs are pretty much destroyed, at around 6-7 months of age. They’re large, heavy, hard, tumor-laden, distended, they’re retaining huge amounts of water — they look as if they’ve been eating the most unhealthy crap there is — and they have. All of that chicken feed they get as food makes them look like this, coupled with the lack of movement, the drugs, the stress of living in crates, in the stench of thousands of others like them, unable to roam, forage for food, smell the clean, fresh air of unpolluted nature.
These chickens (and others in much worse condition) are what you find when you go to the supermarket. Sure, you don’t find their guts for sale. You find their meat, which looks decent enough, especially after it’s been pumped full of water, nitrates, MSG and colorants. But their guts find their way into pet food. They’re what you feed your pets.
Please, think about all this the next time you’re buying chicken (or other meat) at the supermarket. I’m not trying to convince you to stop eating meat — that’s your decision to make — I’m just trying to help you make better decisions when it comes to food.
Look for free-range chickens, for organic chickens, buy from local farms where you can see them roaming the land, scratching the earth for worms, not from factory farms.
Or you could try not eating meat. We don’t. We’re raw foodists. But as I said before, I’m not trying to force our lifestyle on you. You are free to choose what you do. Just be aware of the consequences.
Romanian cuisine was (and still can be) wonderfully varied and delicious. Not only are there different dishes in each region of the country, but even the basics, the staple traditional dishes, are prepared differently from region to region. Visiting Romania should be a delectable experience for one’s palate — the potential and the means to bring it about are there.
Sadly, if you should walk into more than one restaurant in Romania these days, your chances are better than 95% that you’ll see the same limited menu — the same soups, the same entrees, the same salads, the same meat dishes, the same desserts, the same drinks etc ad nauseam… It doesn’t matter if the restaurant is part of a two-star, three-star or four-star hotel or pension or if it’s a standalone place in a mountain or seaside resort or just some place alongside the road. Beside a few dishes or drinks that sometimes vary, they share the same boring menu.
They all have vegetable soup (most of them don’t know how to make it). They all have tripe soup (in varying degrees of stomach-turning oiliness). They all have fried trout, most of it bland beyond belief to the taste. They all have, of course, lots of pork, beef and chicken dishes (the same fattening dishes across the board), so it’s no wonder most Romanians are starting to look like potbellied pigs. They all have the same salads, and most seem to compete in using the most withered vegetables, drowned in a sea of oil and topped with nose-turning vinegar.
The question then arises, can you find decent food as you travel through Romania? Sure, if you manage not to get sick of eating the same dishes… We’ve traveled a lot through the country (we’d like to travel some more) and we have come across a few restaurants that do some dishes well. We’ve also seen a few restaurants that have impressed us by straying from the boring sameness with different and delicious dishes. But these places were few and far between, and when you’ve been on the road all day and you walk into a restaurant only to see the same menu, it’s a very disappointing experience.
There’s also another factor that adds a certain degree of difficulty to our search for food. We’re raw vegans, which means we prefer to eat raw, uncooked vegan foods. When we don’t have a choice, we’ll eat cooked vegetarian dishes, such as soups, side dishes or salads. But that doesn’t mean we don’t look at the whole menu, just to see what a particular restaurant is offering to the general public, and that’s when the disappointment sets in.
Having grown up in Southern Transilvania, my palate is naturally accustomed to Southern Transilvanian foods, which include Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian dishes. Those dishes were, surprisingly enough (by today’s standards) mostly vegetarian dishes (ovo-lacto-vegetarian). As I grew up, we ate meat once a week (on Sunday), and it was most likely chicken. We ate beef very seldom (I remember only a few occasions during my childhood), but we did eat pork quite often (to my chagrin) in winter-time. I loathed the stuff, but that’s what we had in the pantry, so that’s what I ate.
If you should go to a restaurant in Southern Transilvania these days, their menu won’t reflect the traditional cuisine of the region at all, even if they say they’re a traditional “Transilvanian” restaurant. (Somehow the stupidity of calling a restaurant “Transilvanian” when it’s located smack-dab in the middle of Transilvania escapes the owners…) They have the same dishes you’ll find everywhere else, prepared in mostly the same ways. And they’ll have mostly meat dishes. Where are the traditional soups, entrees and dishes I grew up with? They’re certainly not on the menu!
My grandmother used to make a delicious sweet potato soup. She also made a sour potato soup with tarragon and milk that makes my mouth water even now. She also made cabbage soup, a nice thick soup with dill and all sorts of condiments, completely unlike the pig food they call cabbage soup in restaurants these days. In the spring, she’d make a wonderful sour salad, watercress or wild garlic leaf soup. Her noodle soup was the best. And she’d also make a dumpling soup that had me licking my fingers and begging for more dumplings.
The meal that had me begging for more was chicken drumstick stew with mashed potatoes. That was the best. But she only made that once a week, on Sunday. She also made a delicious mushroom stew. Oh, and her pea stew was so good! Her fried onion sauce, usually served with mashed beans or whole bean stew, sure made my mouth water. She also made a mean potato stew with sweet sauce. Her fries were amazing, particularly when she sprinkled a little grated cheese on top! I can’t even find proper fries in restaurants these days! Most restaurants decided it’s better (for them, not for the customers) to buy frozen, pre-cut fries and warm them up instead of making them from fresh potatoes, as is the rule.
For dessert, my grandmother also made “gomboti” (a sort of dumpling) filled with plums, apricots or peaches. Or she made “clatite” (a small crepe) filled with fruit jam or honey. She made a lot of desserts as well (layered cakes and more) all of them delicious, unlike the cakes you find in pastry shops these days.
My mother and my wife both cook (my wife is a raw food chef) and they both make their own versions of the vegetarian dishes listed above. They’re all delicious. And as we visited various Romanian friends during my childhood and later life, I got to eat some pretty interesting variations on these same recipes.
When we go to restaurants, I can’t find any of these traditional dishes. Instead, what we’ll find is lots of bland, badly cooked side dishes and lots of meat dishes. And when we go to restaurants in other parts of the country (Moldova, Muntenia, Dobrogea), we can’t find any of the traditional dishes from those regions, either.
When did Romanians start to eat meat every day? That was certainly not the case 15-20 years ago. And look at them now, as a nation… They’re almost as fat as the Americans. Most Romanian men over 30 have pot bellies, which they proudly display and rub as if they’re some treasure. Hey, guys, I got some news for you, big bellies are nothing to brag about. In fact, they’re a sign you’re overeating and they’re also a precursor to erectile dysfunction. Think about that as you gulp down steaks and other fat-laden dishes…
My questions for Romanian restaurant owners are these:
- Where are the foods that set Romanian cuisine apart?
- Where are the traditional dishes we know and love?
- Why do you all have the same menus?
- Will you serve more vegetarian dishes?
I’m curious to see what answers I’ll get (if any).
Here’s episode 15 of Ligia’s Kitchen! When you watch it, you’ll find out how to make a delectable raw apple cake. To those who’ve patiently waited for it, sorry — we’ve been bogged down by renovations and other projects these past couple of weeks.
LK-015-RO-HD with English subtitles
We just published episode 11 of Ligia’s Kitchen, which will show you how to make a delicious (and quick) raw whipped cream cake with frozen sour cherries. One of the fringe benefits of producing my wife’s cooking show is that I get to eat all the yummy treats she makes. This cake had me licking my fingers. It was delicious, and as you can see from the video, it takes about 5 minutes to make it.
English subtitles are available on YouTube (toggle them on/off with the CC button).
I mentioned this place back in April, in my two-part article about Venice, but I wanted to tell you about it in more detail. It’s called Al Ponte di Rialto Self Service. It’s an unassuming name for an unassuming edifice, but don’t let its looks fool you. It’s some of the best pizza in Venice, Italy, and for us, some of the best pizza we’ve had in Italy. The prices are modest, which means you can eat yourself full without breaking your budget, then head out for a day of sightseeing.
On a related note, want to know what to avoid in Venice? Avoid pricy restaurants, particularly the one next to this cathedral, with a view over the laguna to one of the neighboring islands.
I’d tell you its name, but I forgot to write it down, and it’s also possible I’m blocking it. My wife and I got a mild case of food poisoning after eating a pizza there. Sure, we felt like kings sitting on a table overlooking the laguna, on a sunny and breezy late-winter day, but our stomachs told us otherwise afterward. And when you’re unfortunate enough to get food poisoning as you’re crossing the laguna on a boat, it can get mighty rough.
This was the pizza that made us sick.
So, keep this in mind while in Venice: avoid pricy restaurants with incredible views, and go for the unassuming places with clean kitchens and delicious food, like the Al Ponte di Rialto Self Service.