Negreni Fair: The last true peasant market

This post originally stated that the Negreni Fair was in June. Happily, this is not true! The real date is the 12th – 14th of October 2012.

Negreni Fair is held yearly over three days in a mountain meadow of the small village of Negreni three-hour train ride from Cluj-Napoca. Traditionally, fairs like this were places where people from different regions would meet annually to buy, sell, and meet relatives and friends who would otherwise be divided by mountain passes during most of the year. It attracts attention from all over the world for being the last big peasant market fair in Romania and Eastern-Europe, selling traditional clothing, tools, antiques and farm animals as well as piles of junk and (increasingly) imported products.

I am posting a wonderful description by Dumneazu, a regular visitor to Negreni Fair, to give you a flavour of what the fair is all about. Make sure you plan a trip to the fair on the 12th – 14th of October 2012.

Today, most of these fairs have become folklorized kitsch-fests. Only the Negreni fair – called the Fekete Tó Vásar (Black Lake Market) by the local Hungarian population – maintains its original function on such a huge scale. Each October thousands of Transylvanian peasants, Gypsies from all over Romania, and a few hundred curious tourists and antique dealers show up on the banks of the Cris River to bargain, buy, and beer away a weekend.

The sellers at Negreni are a mix of local Transylvanian Romanian, Hungarian, and Gypsy, and you hear a mix of all these languages spoken simultaneously, a true Tower of Babelescu. For the local Bihor Romanians – a hardy mountaineers who still wear long sheepskin cloaks and play the vioara cu goarne (resonator trumpet or stroh fiddle) – the fair is the annual reunion event, with much palinca din Bihor drunk, and massive vioara cu goarne jams.

Shopping? Well, there are great hats –kucsma – made from fetal lamb skin – yes, lamb fetuses provide the softest fleece for hats. You get the lamb fetuses by slaughtering the mothers for mici (traditional Romanian meat sausages.) Few hats can claim a back story comparable to that. It’s called hasi bárány in Hungarian “belly lamb” and it is not a hat for vegetarians or very sensitive people. But Romania is the kind of place where you can walk around with a horror story on your head and nobody thinks twice. Nice hat!

This woman is a Rudara, also known as the Lingurar (spoon-maker.) The Rom in Romania were held as slaves for 400 years, and during that time many, like the Rudari, lost the Romanes language and now speak only Romanian. I met a lot of them in Bulgaria, where they worked as dancing bear leaders, and in Hungary and Croatia, where they are called Baias – known in the US as Boyash Gypsies. These wooden troughs are used when pigs are killed to mix sausages.

What a wok is to Chinese cuisine, a cauldron is to Transylvanian cooking. Transylvanian cuisine is rather easy to duplicate. Simply take a normal Romanian recipe for stuffed cabbage sarmale, for example, and proceed to quadruple the amount so that each serving provides at least a kilo per person. To be safe, double that. You now have a distinctly Transylvanian portion of food. You may not have seen these used on the Food Channel, but when you have to feed three hundred wedding guests or boil two pigs down into head cheese, you come to appreciate having a village of cauldron makers nearby. Most cauldron makers are from the Kalderash tribe, one of the most widespread groups in the Rom world.

A Gabor Rom selling kazan. Kazan are stills used to distill plum brandy, known as tsuica in Romanian or pálinka in Hungarian. Nearly every well off peasant family brews their own, and Transylvanian pálinka is known for its strength – it is usually about 100 proof. Transylvanians drink a lot of pálinka. A shot at breakfast usually starts the day, and shots accompany virtually all social occaisions. Pálinka is also considered a medicine. Got a stomach ulcer? Try pálinka mixed with honey. Bronchitis? Pálinka with herbs. You’re going to die anyway, so why not from pálinka…. it goes especially well with a breakfast of stuffed cabbage.

Negreni is one of the major meeting places for Transylvania’s large Roma population, and is a major social event where families reunite, feast, and party until dawn. A lot of Transylvanian Gypsies are Seventh Day Adventists – especially among the Gabors and some musician families – who do not drink alcohol or eat pork. (Mind you – beer isn’t considered alcohol by anybody except breathalizer test analysts anywhere in east Europe.) This is replaced with a sense of market capitalism that would make Marx spin in his grave. You name it, they sell it. Chef’s knives and boxed sets of kitchen utensils are big Gabor items, and they do a brisk business in imported bed linens from Turkey.

Their costume – immaculate colored skirts for women, black baggy pants and huge cowboy hats for men, black leather vests for both men and women – make them easy to spot. I’ve met Gabors in Budapest, Paris, Milan, and Istanbul. They look you straight in the eye, and if you are wearing a big enough hat, they shout out the greeting “Szervusz, Gabor!”

Finally… heading back to Oradea from the fair with Dorel and Florica last year, even after a very long day and a few too many palincas, there’s always time for a tune on the train

Lastly, some beautiful photographs taken by London-based artists Petra Storrs of the colourfully dressed market vendors and visitors to Negrehni market.

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