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The Best Summer Day Was In a Garden

That Sunday in August was going to be one of the hottest days of the summer. I had told Sam the day before that we were invited for lunch at Ioana’s place and that we had to drive to Leuven the next morning. It's better if we leave earlier, when it’s not that hot, I said. Okay, he confirmed without hesitation. After one more episode of Paw Patrol. We left late and what a surprise, we arrived late. But when the door opened and I saw that big warm smile welcoming us, I knew I didn’t have to apologize.

Ioana invited us on the terrace and left us alone for a couple of minutes, until she finished preparing an energy smoothie with kiwi, orange and mint. While I was sitting there, admiring her pretty garden of roses and wild summer flowers and pretending I couldn’t hear Sam asking me every five seconds when we would go home, I was thinking, how come I couldn’t see all the things I see now about Ioana, when we used to work together and talk almost daily. She used to be more interested in packing her bags and travel around the globe than in making smoothies, packing her own lunch or spend one hour in the kitchen. And here we were, years later, drinking homemade green potions and preparing to go to the garden to pick vegetables for lunch. Isn’t it ironic how we start appreciating people more, when the distances get longer and we don't see each other so often?

The best friendships are like good wine. The older it gets, the more flavourful and rich it becomes. Especially when it's paired with good food and long conversations.

Wild summer flowers from Ioana's garden

Romanian homemade cuisine. When food is the answer to life, the universe and everything.

By the time we finish our smoothies and catch up on our lives, the heat overwhelms us and the only sounds we can still hear are our voices and the crickets. We should hurry up to the garden if we still want to get some vegetables for lunch before getting baked in the midday sun. We take the car and drive for a few minutes. After we park, we have to walk for another five minutes on a small country road that takes us to the garden. It’s a small and very well maintained and diverse garden, one of the few CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) gardens in the region, started in 2012 by an American living in Belgium. Today, the community has more than one hundred people who contribute with an annual fee, help the farmers on a voluntary basis, and harvest biological seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruits once or twice a week. There are always signs that tell you how many pieces of each vegetable you are allowed to pick. If it’s the beginning of the season and the quantities are limited, you are allowed to pick one or two. Later in the season, you can pick enough tomatoes to make tomato juice and enough strawberries or plums, to make jams. Before we spread in all different directions, to pick raspberries, tomatoes, aubergines and cucumbers, Ioana is telling me that she already started to build a small stock of juicy summer tomatoes in her basement, so she can make her mom’s tomato juice recipe at the end of the summer.

Tomato paradise
Picking raspberries means cultivating patience
Pick 1 large or 2 small ones please
Food for one week

Ioana didn’t use to be this passionate gardener who makes all these kitchen experiments every day. On the contrary. She had lived with her family her whole life, before moving to Belgium, and she was used to the comfort of her mother’s homemade food. Why cook if you don’t have to, was for many years her guiding mantra. Growing up, she used to be that small child who didn’t like spinach and liver and always had the biggest sandwiches in the class. (If her mom is reading this, please know that she was always eating the whole thing…) Parents want the best for their children and push all sorts of foods they believe healthy, but without realizing, these become precisely the foods children will hate most. You need more iron, you need more bread, you need more vitamins. These childhood obsessions become the things we dislike the most as adults. The distaste for onion though, did not have anything to do with her parents. When she was in kindergarten, she once wanted to prove to someone that she could eat all the onions on the plate.

I felt so sick that I didn’t want to see onions in my plate for a long time. Today when I cook, I chop the onions extra fine, to make sure I don’t see anything that would resemble my kindergarten nightmare.
Ioana at 3, uncertain if she was going to eat onions ever again.

Like in many families I know, Ioana’s mother was the family cook, making sure there was warm food on the table every day. On those rare occasions when her dad had to make something for her and her brother, it was always fries and eggs. And on those super rare occasions when he had to go the extra mile, he was making them chocolate milk, by mixing the cocoa powder and sugar with water.

They used to eat traditional meals, typical for most Romanian families. Traditional meals are usually soups (ciorbe), various stews, mainly with chicken (papricaş) or pork (tocăniţe), onions, peppers and sour cream, lots of cooked vegetables, and thick sauces. A traditional stew can be made from any piece of meat, and there will always be potatoes, rice or polenta as a side dish. During the communist times when there was not much choice in the grocery stores and no fine ingredients to be found on the market, mothers learned how to cook delicious meals out of basically anything. Stock and soups from chicken feet, pork pieces in aspic, made out of pig’s trotter, ears and tails (răcituri), vegetables and eggs in aspic and so many other creative things you would never imagine to make when you have the supermarket under your nose.

But cooking in a traditional way is also hard to change. The generation of our parents is still attached to this way of eating, so it's really hard to convince them to try sushi, steak tartar or a piece of duck breast which is still too red. As for Ioana’s mom, she actually started to experiment with more modern recipes and new ingredients, while teaching Ioana how to cook stews and traditional soups. Cooking and kitchen experiments became an important part of the mother and daughter conversations once the distance between them was longer. It became the reason to talk more often and brought them closer together. For the little girl with the biggest sandwiches in the class, who never cared too much about food, starting to cook was part of her becoming an independent grown-up.

Ioana's parents, proud that she finished her spinach first, before eating the cake.

From fluffy cakes to serious stuff

When we get back home from the garden, Sam is already impatient and asks every five minutes if he can play on my phone. I explain that we first make this tasty omelette and littles breads and salad with fresh vegetables from the garden. I show him the nice flowers that Ioana picked from her own garden and the hanging dried mint and the pretty watercolor illustration on the wall. He is not impressed. I give him my phone. Back in the kitchen, we cut vegetables, beat eggs and Ioana is frying a bit of slanina brought from Romania, to add some homemade taste to the omelette. A few small hand shaped breads are bursting in the oven and fill the house with the wonderful smell of homemade baked bread. Some say that if you want to increase your chances to sell a house, you should always bake a bread right before your buyers arrive.

Ioana's watercolor paintings
Dried mint makes the best winter tea
Small homemade breads
Fried "slanina"

When I decided to interview Ioana, there was one question that boggled my mind: how do you get from zero to hero when it comes to cooking? What’s the trigger that transforms a woman who used to spend zero minutes at the stove, to one who makes her own tomato juices and jams and passionately combines ingredients like a true foodie? Before moving to Belgium and starting to really cook on her own, the only kitchen experiments she can remember, were the ones performed with her friend Ioana H. during childhood. They were baking simple cakes with jam filling (albiniţa) and kept themselves busy during the long summer vacation days when parents were gone for work. Oh, and she could also make fries with grated cheese on top.

But life always pushes you to new places and new discoveries when you let go and embrace an open growth mindset. With every new Belgian dish she tried, she was a step closer to take her cooking destiny in her own hands. She didn’t want creamy soups that looked like baby food, so she went back and recreated her mom’s soup recipes. She didn’t want complicated meals that took three hours to make, so she started to make her own wok recipes, with simple fresh ingredients. She didn’t want to eat processed food and supermarket veggies, so she found her way into local markets and community gardens. Necessity is the best motivator in life, but it takes men and women of action to really accept the challenge and change habits. Doers will do what they have to do to feel better about themselves and to change what they don’t like around them. I like to think that people who like to cook are by definition doers and doers will sooner or later start cooking.

The Best Food is Simple Food

As we sit at the table and eat our lunch, I savour every single bite of our fresh vegetables salad. The sweet tomatoes remind me of the juicy tomatoes I used to pick from my grand grandmother’s garden, and eat on a slice of bread with butter and salt, on a sunny summer afternoon. The basil fills my nostrils with a fresh summery aroma and I could eat three bowls of this super simple summer treat.

I ask Ioana how she and her husband decide what they eat during the busy week. It’s simple, she says, I check what’s in the fridge, what’s in the pantry, and if I still need something, I go to the garden. Trying to use everything she has in the house and not wasting anything, is something very important to her. When she moved to Belgium and was still a novice cook, her husband Dieter was doing most of the cooking.

He used to make these fifty ingredient meals, with many strict and complicated steps that took hours to make, and the only thing I could think about was "Why?"

Why bother when you can combine ingredients and flavours in so many simple ways and you can make something delicious with a few good fresh ingredients. Making woks and simple pasta sauces became Ioana's speciality. Improvising and trying to diversify and alternate which ingredients she uses, became her guiding principle. If one day they eat fish, the other day they eat pork, then vegetarian, than beef or chicken. One time pasta, another time rice or couscous. One time she uses parsley and oregano, another time ginger, garlic and soy sauce. She tries to cook something else every evening, and she usually has leftovers for lunch the next day. One time she made this delicious homemade pesto sauce that was so good, that she only added it on the pasta and sprinkled some cherry tomatoes on top. Sometimes she also uses parsley in the pesto, and she loves the unexpected flavour that parsley gives to the sauce. I am the cook now, she laughs. My friends stopped making fun of me because they came over to our place and they saw what I can do now. I am not the clumsy girl I used to be. I like to eat healthy and making your own food and knowing what is in your plate, is the only option for eating healthy. Now if I ask Dieter what he wants to have for dinner, he often says “Surprise me”. I have to admit that I didn’t manage to find this recipe so far…

Long after we finished eating, we are still at the table talking. I realize we could easily spend the whole afternoon like this. Eating, drinking, talking about food and books and films, no worries, just enjoying the moment. But then I remember I have a kid with me. He is bored. Food is not something that excites a five year old, unless it involves making a surgery on a potato croquette by removing its interior and filling it with apple sauce. Parent duties come before everything else, so we prepare to leave. I feel my energy level high and a burst of optimism and joy of life fills the rest of my day. I am grateful to have friends like Ioana, who can bring so much positive energy, calm and serenity to the people around her. We drive back home with Sam, children music playing in the car, we singing along in the beautiful late afternoon light. From all the days we spent outdoors this year, I realize that the best summer day was in a garden.

Ioana Sanpetrean is 35 and she moved to Belgium 5 years ago, for love. She works in marketing and she is a creative and curious spirit, following her heart in search of beauty. She loves life, art, nature, poetry and she is a ferocious reader. When all her hobbies are not enough, she also practices tango and pole dancing. Ioana is grateful to be on Earth and be able to enjoy all its wonders. You can follow her IG account vacante_ocose, where she shares her new discoveries.

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