Romanian Goodies

/ September 6, 2017

Tudor Man has seen enough. He has seen enough of small farmers producing quality food go out of business. He has seen enough of local markets replaced by supermarket chains. He has seen enough of supermarket chains selling cheap imported food, instead of supporting local farmers. So he organized a group of farmers and other small scale food producers to form a new kind of co-operative.

The shareholders are gardeners and horticulturalists from Alba, Cluj, Hunedoara, Mures, Salaj and Sibiu Counties. They function under CAHA (Agricultural and Horticultural Cooperative of Alba), determined to see the fruit of their labor dignified on market shelves, rather than collecting dust in store rooms.

In 2017, the co-operative opened their first store in the city of Alba Iulia, called “Bunătățuri Românești” (Romanian Goodies), where they sell only their own products. Instantly, the new concept touched the souls of local citizens who became loyal customers. The top selling item is caltaboş, local sausages that are the Romanian version of blood pudding. We decided to check out the new market, located on 1989 Revolution Boulevard in Alba Iulia. Walking through the store is a trip down memory lane to a time when food had a face on it – usually grandma’s face.

Red pepper spread with chanterelle mushrooms, dandelion and elderberry syrup, cantaloupe jam, bitter cherry jam, sour cream made of buffalo milk, bread made on the hearth, hot pepper and onion jam, rosehip jam, cornelian cherry jam, pickled green tomatoes, homemade cakes, cheese from Țaga, live trout from Mitica, cold- pressed flaxseed and grapeseed oil. These are just some of the “titles” we glimpsed on our way to the meat counter. We approached the meat counter slowly and in silence, as if we were walking into a sacred spot.

THEN WE READ THE SIGN.

“We have wild boar salami, homemade sausage, ham, pork pate, sausage and meat in lard, blood sausage for cabbage, deer salami and squirrel salami”

The eyes of this PressOne photojournalist teared up behind his round lens, as I had the following dialogue with the meat salesperson:

– What do you mean by squirrel salami…?

– What do you mean?

– When you say squirrel, what exactly are you referring to?

– Squirrels

– Squirrels?

– Yes, it’s a combination of squirrel meat with pork meat.

– Oh! Squirrel with pork…

– Everyone is skeptical. People keep asking us how many squirrels we’ve caught.

– Exactly! About how many squirrels are in a roll of salami? But now I understand, it’s mixed in there with the pork.

– Would you like to try the squirrel salami?

– No, maybe my colleague would though.

– No, no thank you.

At the Romanian Goodies store, customers are king. Everything in the store can be sampled, from the fish from Salaj to the sausage from Campeni.

“Parents are searching for healthy food for their children. What we offer can’t be compared to the produce you find in supermarkets. Our cheese is made out of real milk, not powdered milk. That is just one example,” we are told by a proud customer service representative. There are not sales persons here, because the fresh food sells itself.

CAHA has 45 members, 17 of whom put up the money to open the store in Alba Iulia.

According to CAHA’s website, the members of the Co-operative collectively own “over 500 acres of land with 100 bovine, 100 pigs, more than 500 sheep, 100 goats, and corn, sunflower, wheat, cantaloupe, potato, cabbage, strawberry, blueberry, mushroom, tomato, cucumber, radish, green onion, lettuce and a variety of flowers grown outdoors and inside and in over 50 greenhouses.”

Tudor Man, an Orthodox priest from the village of Tibru, is the brainchild of the association and the president of CAHA’s Administrative Council.

The idea came to him in 2011 and he has refined it after studying the Western model of co-operatives. He is convinced that the future of Romanian agriculture lies in this type of organization.

He started on this journey 5 years ago, accompanied by a few friends.

“Everyone was growing crops and suffering financially. We’d talk about solutions and always ended with ‘What if?’ Finally we took courage and said ‘Let’s do it!’ In the fall of 2012 we established the co- operative with five founding partners. We didn’t receive very much support from the authorities such as the National Program of Rural Development.”

No one understood the structure of a small food co-operative. You begin with some funding, then form the rules of the agricultural association, then you grow food and raise some animals. The next step is to create a small processing line for the goods. Lastly, you commercialize them,” says Tudor Man. “Nobody will succeed if everybody fails,” is CAHA’s motto. Their goal is to help the small-scale producers create more commercial power. If you work on your own, you’ll be crushed by the large-scale retailers,” maintains Tudor Man. CAHA initially worked with a few stores in Alba Iulia. They were always the weaker player on the defensive, because they did not have options. “The problem was that the store owners didn’t like our prices. They kept putting competitors ahead of us. Basically the message was, either sell at our low price or we’ll go to farmers in Poland, Hungary or from God knows where else to find cheap produce. When you try to sell your goods as an individual, the big retailers play you like a fool. They belittle your hard work and offer you very little. Then they mark up your produce between 100 and 500% and sell it for a huge profit. We are not super nationalistic about blocking imports in favor of locally grown produce. But if we compare the goods, ours are very high quality. At least in this store, we know that we sell items of high quality. If you offer quality, you can be part of our project, if you don’t, then you have to leave, that’s CAHA’s policy. Taste and health, it’s that simple”.

The members of CAHA have ambitious plans to grow their business. The next stage is to open a warehouse with the help of European funds. Here, the goods of peasants and small scale farmers will be collected. In addition, the center would have a processing and packaging line.

Tudor Man follows the example of the Cooperative Confederation from the Trentino region of Italy, an organization that promotes the interests of local agronomists and paves their way into the larger market.

In the city of Trentino, there is a special bank where farmers and members of the Cooperative can obtain credit at an advantageous interest rate. Public schools in the area now teach a course on cooperatives.

CAHA representatives know that the term “Cooperative” carries a lot of baggage from communism. But the business model has worked for centuries in sustaining small farmers and providing families with a healthy source of good tasting food. Tudor Man believes that fresh, traditional Transylvanian food will always be superior to supermarket food. We agree with him.