We’ve been enjoying the holiday in Moldova.
I wouldn’t recommend the place for fine dining. But, at least, if you’re not vegetarian, you can find good wholesome local cooking. I’ve developed a liking for mutton soup and goat stew. Pretty much everything is accompanied by mamaliga, a kind of porridge.
Though the cuisine lacks finesse, the same cannot be said of the wine. It flows in abundance and some of it is very good. My favourite to date is Negru de Purcari, a red blended from local and imported grape varieties.
So we’re sitting in a promising little place in the capital, Chisinau, and we order a bottle of said wine. The sommelier pours me a little to taste. ‘Taste’ of course is a misnomer: the point of ‘tasting’ the wine is merely to check that it’s not corked and for that, you don’t need to actually taste the wine – the sense of smell is sufficient.
The sommelier, without batting an eyelid, disappears to find another bottle.
‘You’ve been unlucky there. He sources it from the best vineyard.’
The voice belongs to a silver-haired man, dressed in a smart, but understated, suit, sitting at the next table.
‘But you should try this.’
He pours a small glass for us to taste of a red wine made from the local feteasca neagra grape. It is both unusual and entertaining. Before the sommelier can uncork a replacement bottle of Negru de Purcari, Karen asks him to change our order. He nods approvingly.
Our neighbour’s table is close to ours and he is perhaps bored of his own company, so we spent the rest of the meal in steady conversation.
After listening diligently to our account of our time in Moldova to date, he – Eugeniu Merciu is his name (he gave me his card) – offers us some advice: ‘Before you leave Moldova, you should visit my home city. Ceadir Lunga. We have a beautiful church – the church of Theotokos of Kazan. Really you should see it’.
And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. We haven’t explored the south yet and I know from my knowledge of our Moldova Rail map that the journey from Chisinau to Ceadir Lunga is not far.
‘Do you like football?’ he asks, as I return the courtesy by pouring him a glass of our red dessert wine. I guessed he’d like it; it comes from the south.
I noticed a look of dismay on Karen’s face when he said that, but pretended not to notice. ‘Yes, we do,’ I say: ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Then you must come to Ceadir Lunga tomorrow. Saxan – that is the name of our club – play the final home game of the season. We are in the top tier: you will see Moldovan football at its best.’
‘I take it we don’t need to buy tickets in advance.’
‘Absolutely no need,’ Mr Merciu says, moving a hand from side to side to dismiss the idea. ‘In fact, you will be sitting in the directors’ box.’
‘How come?’ I ask.
‘Because I am the chairman and you both will be my guests.’