Bram Stoker’s supper treats
“Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of Marmion where the girl was built up in the wall,” wrote assistant schoolmistress Wilhelmina Murray in her journal on the 24th of July, shortly after arriving by train in the coastal Yorkshire town, “It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.”
A little over a hundred years later the steam train with Professor Plum and myself on board pulled in to Whitby station and we came to follow in Mina’s footsteps. Like her we were here to enjoy the town’s romantic ruins and revel in the associated Gothic stories. The one big difference, though, is that the Whitby Gothic story that most interested us, and almost all the former whaling port’s other visitors is the one that Mina appears in, a story she had no idea would happen around her on her first arrival in Whitby: Bram Stoker’s vampire classic Dracula.
Dracula is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic and influential Gothic novels, giving the world its definitive view of what a vampire represents. The character has been endlessly referenced, adapted and parodied. In fact, a graphic in this month’s Empire magazine suggests that there have been more cinematic screen actors as the Transylvanian count than as any other character, more even than Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood. According to Empire there have been 31 big screen Draculas, from Bela Lugosi through Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, David Niven, Udo Kier, Klaus Kinski, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Leslie Nielsen, Gerard Butler, Richard Roxbrugh, Rutger Hauer, Adam Sandler and many more, right up to Luke Evans in the still in production Dracula Untold (and this is without considering such TV Draculas as Marc Warren and Jonathan Rhys Meyers or video game Draculas like Jeff Goldblum and Robert Carlyle).
It is this, Dracula’s cinematic legacy, that drew us to Whitby, giving us the opportunity to view silver screen horrors both old and new, including a handful of outings for the town’s ever revived vampire icon.
Ironically, one of the first things that Mina encounters on her visit to Whitby is a local who proves rather grumpy about tourists from York swanning in and asking questions about ghosts and ghouls: “I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss. Them things be all wore out. Mind, I don’t say that they never was, but I do say that they wasn’t in my time. They be all very well for comers and trippers an’ the like, but not for a nice young lady like you. Them feet-folks from York and Leeds that be always eatin’ cured herrin’s an’ drinkin’ tea an’ lookin’ out to buy cheap jet would creed aught. I wonder masel’ who’d be bothered tellin’ lies to them – even the newspapers, which is full of fool-talk.”
Perhaps fortunately for us, today’s Whitby, for all that tea, herring and cheap jet remain pretty available, has been somewhat keener to embrace its Gothic identity in the name of tourism. In fact, especially at this time of year, the whole town is filled with Dracula-related and other Gothic paraphernalia. It is by no means unusual to visit a cafe or tea room and see decoration like this emergency garlic supply.
It should come as no surprise that all it takes to ward off a bloodsucking fiend is a simple vegetable bulb when you read quite how food obsessed significant portions of Stoker’s novel are.
Before Mina makes her way to Whitby, the story opens on the travel diary of her fiance, young lawyer Jonathan Harker. Were he writing today, Harker would undoubtedly be the kind of character who spends most of his time taking Instagram pictures of his dinner (not that I can really judge). In the first chapter he is more concerned with trying to get recipes for Mina than he is his impending meeting with the mysterious aristocrat who wants to buy property in Britain.
This week, therefore, as we’ve been in Whitby and it is Hallowe’en, I’m paying tribute to the recipes Jonathan Harker wanted to bring back from Transylvania for Mina. After all, in the meta-narrative everything we read has been compiled by Mina as being important to the story, so she obviously thought there was something to the recipes she’d never get to try.
The story begins with Jonathan (who is only making the journey himself rather than his employer Mr Hawkins given the latter’s love of a rich diet and the resultant gout) crossing the Danube in Budapest and passing from West to East. Both in terms of the narrative and the food on offer, it is significant to appreciate that, although we may view this region as Central Europe today, Stoker’s view of Transylvania as trapped between the two is important to understanding the region and its history. We tend to view Transylvania, and its most famous fictional resident, as Romanian, given modern Romania governs the region. However, for centuries Transylvania saw itself fought over by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the West and the Ottoman Empire in the East.
Modern versions of the Dracula story tend to play up the relation between Stoker’s undead monster and his loose inspiration Vlad the Impaler. In actual fact, Stoker does little but pay lip service to the real Dracula’s past, but this is in the form of referencing his role in fighting against the Ottoman Turks. By the time of Dracula Romania had been recognised as a state independent of the Ottoman Empire, although only as recently as 1878. Transylvania remained part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire up until the First World War saw both it and the Ottoman Empire dissolved in the victory of the Entente powers. Romania, for their part, were convinced to join up on the side of Britain and France in 1916. Their reward in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon was Transylvania.
Romanians may have been in the majority in the Transylvanian population, but the ruling class were mostly of Hungarian or Germanic descent. Just look at the way Jonathan Harker refers to the region’s major city as “Klausenburgh” rather than “Cluj-Napoca” as it is typically called now that it is part of Romania. Dracula, for his part, identifies as a Szekely, the old Hungarian people of the region, so he is himself not Romanian.
In terms of the food available to Jonathan as he travels in Transylvania, then, there is a mixture of Romanian, Hungarian and Turkish influences. In Klausenburgh he records that: “I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem. get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”
Having been kept up during the night by strange dreams and howling dogs, or possibly just the paprika, Jonathan breakfasts on: “more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was ‘marmaliga.’ and egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call ‘impletata.’ (Mem., get recipe for this also.)”
It may be worth noting that these are the sort of dishes that are likely to involve a healthy amount of garlic. It’s possible, given Jonathan Harker’s disturbed night in the Hotel Royale, that the hotel management are prepared to deal with the vampire problem through the items on their menu. That may also be the in-universe reason why Mina chose to keep these references in the compiled version of diaries and letters she provides for the other characters.
Even less likely to shy away from cashing in on the Dracula tourism than Whitby, Cluj’s Hotel Transylvania lays claim to being the place of Jonathan’s stay and offers a “Dracula Menu” of paprika hendl and impletata, referring to the: “same menus that were offered to Jonathan Harker, the main character in the novel “Dracula” which dined in the hotel 150 years ago.”
Just what are these dishes, though? How representative are they of Transylvanian food? Well, “paprika” is a term that is somewhat more familiar to us in describing the hot, red, peppery spice than it would have been to Jonathan Harker. That the word is one of relatively few Hungarian terms to have crossed over into English (it’s a diminutive of “papar” meaning pepper) is indicative of the significance of its place in Hungarian cooking. Jonathan’s reference to paprika hendl being “a national dish” would imply that it is paprikáscsirke, or chicken paprikash (hendl is a Germanic term for chicken).
Stoker’s main inspiration for Dracula and its setting was the writings of Emily Gerard. Gerard was a Scottish writer whose Polish husband was a cavalry officer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Given that Transylvania remained a trouble spot for the empire, Gerard’s husband was stationed there. Gerard used the opportunity to collect local folklore that she published first as the article Transylvanian Superstitions and then as the book The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures and Fancies from Transylvania. It’s clear from the references in Dracula that Stoker, who never himself travelled in Central and Eastern Europe, was heavily reliant on Gerard’s view of the region.
Jonathan Harker’s breakfast, therefore, is lifted directly from the pages of The Land Beyond the Forest. In the section on Romanian Life, Gerard describes how: “the food of both children and adults chiefly consists of maize-corn flour, which, cooked with milk, forms a sort of porridge called Balmosch, or if boiled with water, becomes Mamaliga – first cousin to the polenta of the Italians”. She gives no mention, however, of impletata.
This article on “Transylvanian Cuisine, Language and Ethnography” criticises Stoker’s adoption of mamaliga without understanding it in its cultural context, remarking that: “This mix is a traditional Romanian peasant mix, and the hotels in Klausenburg (at the time the unofficial capital of Transylvania, heavily populated by Hungarians and Saxons) were not managed by and did not employ Romanians”. (The article’s author, Christina Artenia, appears a little confused by the order of the narrative, though, in suggesting Jonathan had mamaliga as a side with his paprika hendl rather than, as actually occurs, for his breakfast. As she points out, a paprikáscsirke would far more likely be paired with Hungarian nokedli dumplings).
Both for this reason and my disliking for mamaliga‘s “cousin” polenta, I decided to focus my Mina Murray meal on the two dishes for which her fiance sought to provide her with the recipe, the paprikáscsirke for a main course and the stuffed aubergine dish Jonathan calls impletata for a starter. (As a side note, it is perhaps surprising to see the English lawyer using the term “egg-plant” for aubergine, something that we generally consider an American usage. Under the narrative circumstances, perhaps the original Latin name would be more fitting: mala insana – “the apple of insanity”).
On the subject of impletata, it appears that it doesn’t exist. Googling the word brings up no references to anything at all beyond this passage in Dracula. Artenia suggests it is Stoker (or Jonathan) mixing up various Romanian words such as umpluta (“stuffed”) and impanata (“half-stuffed or feathered”). In her obsession with the Romanian terms, though, she misses that impletata is as likely also a mash-up of those words with the Turkish stuffed aubergine dish İmambayıldı (something even the ever unreliable Daily Mail picks up on).
The likelihood is that the source for this dish may be Stoker’s friend, the Hungarian traveller Ármin Vámbéry. Vámbéry actually makes a cameo appearance in the novel, as Dr. Van Helsing makes reference to: “the researches of my friend Arminius of Buda-Pesth” as the source for his knowledge of Dracula’s genius in war, diplomacy and alchemy during his lifetime. Vámbéry was an expert in Turkish language and culture and travelled extensively in the Ottoman Empire and beyond to Persia, so would surely have appreciated the food of the whole area from Budapest to Constantinople.
More properly an İmam bayıldı that includes meat is a karnıyarık, which is made of chopped onion, garlic, tomato, parsley and ground meat. This, then, was my inspiration for my take on Jonathan Harker’s impletata. I sliced my aubergine in half, scored the flesh and baked it while frying sliced onions and garlic. I then mixed the centres scooped out of the aubergines, chopped tomato, parsley and the meat from some spicy sausages and fried these with the onions. This then made up the filling for the aubergines that I drizzled with olive oil and baked for around half an hour, while I set my chicken to cook.
Paprikáscsirke is made with chicken browned in butter and then a paprika sauce that is finished with a little sour cream. After browning my chicken I removed it from the pan and added onions and garlic. Sweating these for a few minutes, I then added hot paprika (the sweet kind did not exist in 19th century Hungary), flour and chicken stock for the sauce. To the sauce I returned the chicken pieces and added chopped red peppers and tomatoes and some parsley and simmered it all for around an hour. After the impletata starter, I returned to make some nokedli dumplings from simply flour, egg, water and salt before finishing my paprika hendl with a dollop of sour cream.
Finally, the after dinner paid tribute to Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Castle Dracula. Almost immediately Jonathan’s thoughts turn to food once more and the vampire count ingratiates himself with the young lawyer with a quality spread: “I fell to at once on an excellent roast chicken. This, with some cheese and a salad and a bottle of old Tokay, of which I had two glasses, was my supper.”
Tokay, a sweet wine now more typically referred to as “Tokaji”, is Hungary’s best loved alcohol. As well as Dracula, Tokay is a favourite of the Phantom of the Opera and Sherlock Holmes, so it has a noble Gothic fiction pedigree. A glass of Tokay seemed, then, the appropriate way to finish our Transylvanian dinner, raising a glass to Count Dracula and wishing Mina and her eventual husband a Happy Hallowe’en.
And unlike Jonathan Harker we slept perfectly afterwards.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: If Colonel Mustard ever went travelling in Transylvania and the locals wanted to feed him garlicky food to fend off the local nobles he’d be fine. This was really tasty, heartier than maybe Harker in May might have wanted, but perfect for an October night. It went especially well with Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula”, which takes place entirely in Transylvania.