Maria’s grandparents lived in this house, before she and her husband Ion took over the smallholding, in a countryside village about 15 minutes drive from Iaşi.
Maria has delivered handmade cheese, cream and occasionally milk to nine customers’ homes in the Tataraşi, every 10 days or so, for the past 40 years. Some of the older people died and now she delivers to their descendants. She delivered these products throughout the communist era, outside the state’s rationing system of the 1980s: a small-scale, subsistence ‘black market’.
Maria learnt to make cheese from her grandmother, who also used to make butter. “She’d put the butter on a plate and make it round like a haystack and then take the spoon and make all sorts of patterns. People bought it by the 100gms. Both my mother and my grandmother used to go market. And I used to go with them to the market. Now I sell at the market. I sell whatever we have, beans, corn, in summer we sell vegetables from the garden. In the market, customers look at the way we look, how clean our hands are, how clean our apron is, what the basket looks like, how white the cheesecloth is. They look and then they choose whom to buy from.”
Some years Maria sells wine, but this year she’s putting it aside as her son is getting married this coming summer. They sell homemade plum brandy. They have various fowl, goats, sheep, cows, horses, honeybees and a dappled, snorting pig, which is being fattened up for Christmas.
We were talking in Maria’s back room of her house, when she flung open the doors of a cupboard to reveal her cheese-to-be. Each day she milks the cows and stores the milk in these earthenware jars. The jars were made by Roma pottery makers, who used to come around and sell at the door, but they don’t come anymore, so when Maria breaks a pot, she can’t replace it.
“If both shelves are full of pots, then I know I have enough for all of my customers. It takes about a week or ten days to fill up both shelves. The cream rises to the top. And then it has to sit and curdle because you can’t put fresh milk into cheese. The milk curdles and you separate that out and make the cheese with it. You warm it up on the stove and you put it in cheesecloth and leave it to strain, leave it dripping until it is dense.”