Carp and Tomatoes in the Last Wilderness
Originally published in The Blue Danube.
If the students of Vasile Alecsandri High School bring as much care and concern to the Blue Danube River Project as they have to their school newspaper, The Blue Danube, then we can all be optimistic for the future of Europe's great river.
I do not say this lightly. I was privileged to see a copy of the first issue, and was immediately impressed by the quality and range of its contents. It is a little unfair to single out individual contributions for praise, but I would mention the well-researched article on pollution monitoring on page two, 60 Questions by Petronela Tipau, which said a great deal about the problems of communication between cultures of differing economic standing, and I shouldn't overlook the more imaginative pieces on pages 6 and 7. Then, perhaps, The Dream by Vasile Ifrim, distils the spirit of the newsletter, and indeed the project itself.
At a more personal level, the most evocative contribution for me was one of the more modest ones, the recipe for carp with tomatoes, provided by Raluca Aldea.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Danube Delta in the summer of 1988, taking a trip down river from Tulcea. At first I wasn't impressed; the fabled Danube seemed to be just a wider version of our own River Thames. There was enough river traffic to suggest that this was indeed one of the world's great waterways, but as one of Europe's most important natural features, it was a disappointment.
We stopped for lunch in a hotel that was pleasant enough, though it seemed awkwardly sited, and there it was that I tasted my first carp, cooked in a manner very similar to that described by Raluca Aldea. Now, odd as this may seem to Romanians, it would never have occurred to me, nor to most of my countrymen, to eat a carp. Here, carp are prized exhibits in ornamental waters, or else are the quarry of a special breed of sports-fishermen who seek out the jealously-guarded stretches of still water which hold the really big specimens. The carp in our rivers rarely grow to any great size, and there just aren't enough of them, nor of other species for that matter, to make commercial fishing a viable proposition.
So, as I enjoyed what was for me a very unusual meal, I began to realise that the Danube had more to offer than I'd first thought. To support a commercial fishery based on this aristocrat among freshwater fish, this river had to be rather special after all. And before we were long into the afternoon, the Danube began to take on a very different character. The bends in the river became more pronounced and frequent, the river craft became smaller and fewer, and there was a strange watery stillness in the air. We were in the Delta.
I cannot tell you how remarkable it all was, this fantastic pattern of islands, water, twisted, overhanging trees, narrow channels and spacious lagoons. Nor do I need to try, for most of you who read this will have lived cheek-by-jowl with this wonderful part of our continent for all of your lives. Let me just tell you that, when I was startled by the sound of a dozen or more small frogs plopping in the water as I walked along the bank, hoping to catch a glimpse of something rather larger that was making a strange noise in the undergrowth, I knew I was in Europe's last great wilderness. I have never forgotten that moment, nor will I ever do so.
So, students of Vasile Alecsandri High School, and all the others who are now trying to overcome the effect of years of the abuse and exploitation of this natural gift, I salute you. We all owe you a great debt.