Updated: Dec 1, 2021
In December, ask her what she is up to and she will smile and say "Nothing. There is nothing left to do. We are ready".
Tanti Ana has a nutty brown complexion, dark eyebrows and eyes, and a robust, round little body bound up in a bright chequered apron, apart from on Sundays when she wears a floral dress and blouse. An early winter inspection of her cellar tells you all you need to know about self-sufficiency -and tidiness. The cellar is dark and brick vaulted with a clean, dry, hard earth floor, not unlike the home of Mrs Tittlemouse in fact. The entrance to this storehouse of good and nourishing things is from outside, down some usefully wide and very well swept stone steps.
On the left, there are three very large oak barrels on their sides. These are full of the local wine, not quite but almost Golden Medias, the wine that produces "a queer sting on the tongue," according to Jonathan Harker, the young West Country solicitor who travelled to Transylvania to visit you know who. Curiously enough, the bung holes in Tanti Ana's barrels are loosely stopped with fat bulbs of garlic.
Beside the larger barrels on their sides there are two smaller upright ones. These are filled with whole cabbages pickling in salt and water, whole because the outside leaves will be used to wrap up a ground pork and veal stuffing to make sarmale, the traditional Christmas Day dish here. Next to the pickling cabbage are two more barrels, cut in half and full of large knobbly carrots caked in earth. And next to the carrots, apples and walnuts.
Tanti Ana turns the pork from her three courtyard pigs, slaughtered in late November and early December, into all manner of good things, such as the high smelling caltabos sausages using the chopped up organs and rice, all squeezed into the metres and metres of white and brown intestine skins which have been thoroughly cleaned in vinegar. At the far end of the cellar, there are four large chipped bright red enamel pots full of snow white, odourless pork lard, 80 kilos in all, and beside these, another pot filled with glorious pork scratchings, the crispy bits that remain after rendering the lard. The Romanians call these jumari and roll them in paprika and salt. They melt in the mouth, better than the best white chocolate truffles from any Viennese chocolate maker.
Then there are the hundreds of glass jars, the largest filled with pickled cucumbers and other vegetables, and the smallest filled with pickled tarragon, walnuts and lots of soft fruit jams. Beside these treasures are about a dozen bottles of plum brandy. On the right, Tanti Ana has laid out three sections with low planks on the ground. In the first, below the small window that is now blocked up with bricks for the winter, there are the largest and finest potatoes. In the second, the smaller and spade-damaged potatoes, which are for her pigs. In the third, there is a great pile of onions.
Everything in Tanti Ana's cellar is from her garden or from the family's land around the village, about two hectares in all. It is farmed by hand and brought in by Lucia, the family horse, in their open sided, plank cart, with rubber car tires.
Farming is a family matter here. Early in the morning, three generations walk or ride out in their carts to the larger, outer lying arable plots on the edge of the village, carrying hoes, scythes and sickles, depending on the work to be done, some food and the baby. The baby is settled in the shade by the side of the field, and the family works.
If you want to find anyone in the spring and autumn, you look for their field. The maize and potato fields, which border the small rivers that run through every village, their banks covered in shady weeping willow, are full of little family groups. The quiet is interrupted only by the soft, good natured banter and occasionally by a shout across to the neighbour's field for help or a cigarette. There are no fences, just the odd stone marking out the boundaries between the plots. The work will last from early morning until sunset, during which time the village is deserted.
In spring, Tanti Ana's fields are ploughed by Lucia, with her husband, Milu, or even a younger man, steadying the plough. In the summer, the lines of maize are kept free of weeds by hoeing and ground covering pumpkins. The hay is scythed by hand when the morning dew is still upon it, to ensure a good cut. The standard expected of a fit man is 25 are a day (2500 sq.m.). If you hire a man to do it for you, the village rate is around 6 lei an are. In the late autumn, the six foot high rows of maize, which are everywhere, are plucked and husked. In the winter, the maize stalks are either left standing in the fields, drying out like parchment and crackling like a good log fire in the wind, or they are cut with a sickle at the ground and bundled up as winter fodder.
The corn maize is stored in white hessian sacks in one of the outbuildings behind Tanti Ana's house. This is ground up with a small hammer mill (the village's large mill with stones 120cm in diameter and turned by steam, closed down many years ago) and used to feed the hens and pigs. The stripped cobs are stored in large rabbit-like hutches on legs and fed to her pigs. The best corn, the old variety hard flint corn - 8 Row, 12 Row and 3 Month - is kept for humans and used to make polenta or mamaliga. The best cobs are kept for next year's planting.
Apart from the occasional water melon, Tanti Ana does not buy from the tradesmen that appear in the village in all seasons, singing out a list of their wares through a loud speaker as they drive slowly along the high street, in dirty white transit vans that hurtle between the settlements. "Castraveti! Cartofi! Vinete! Pepanele! Rossi!" By February, when village cellars are starting to empty, these vans are a lifeline to some families without transport. People become irritable and the pleading season starts in earnest. Not Tanti Ana.
In December, after many months of back breaking work that starts and ends with her hoe, you will find her leaning out of her window overlooking the high street, a picture of contentment. Ask her what she is up to and she will smile and say "Nothing. There is nothing left to do. We are ready".
Then she closes her shutters and goes into a state of reduced physiological activity, a kind of wood mouse torpor, her hibernal solstice, until March -apart from Sundays of course, when she walks to church in her lustrous dark fur coat, or when it snows, in which case she will appear with her birch twig broom, quickly sweep it all up into tidy piles, and disappear inside again.
In "Romanian Furrow", Donald Hall's delightful, funny account of village life here between the wars, the contentment that Tanti Ana feels at this time of year is explained well. "Even in our leisure, we [in urban and suburban societies] must always be doing something. These people had no such fetish; they worked to eat, no more. They were not lazy. It was only that they had not forgotten the meaning of composure."