I never really gave any thought to the long line of Italian home-cooks from which I have descended, until I found myself working for an NGO in former-Yugoslavia. It was there that I first learned to throw together the simplest of pasta dishes, aglio olio pepperoncino and a panzanella salad. As a young girl, I barely paid attention when my mother and her sisters would prepare my Nonnie’s famous ‘worm’ soup, spicy cheese bread or white pizza. I never once considered the ingredients or how these wonders ever made it to my plate, although I certainly remember enjoying them. It was not until I spent many a dark winter night in the kitchen of my Italian, German, Portuguese, Australian, and American colleagues in Bosnia that I ever really even considered food as more than just food.
In Croatia, I have found that making that connection between food and people and feelings has been an important part of how I finally came to call this place where I live, home.
The nights we spent in Zenica, Tuzla, and Sarajevo, gathered around someone’s table peeling, stirring, chopping, and (of course drinking) but also discussing the never ending topic of food are seared into my brain as some of my fondest memories as a young adult. I learned that the essential and very tedious task of chopping endless piles of garlic and pepperoncini could actually be fun and sort of relaxing! In those days we sipped red wine from 5 gallon jugs bought in Međugorje, and went to great lengths to bring spices or hard to find ingredients to the table to share with our friends and demonstrate our smuggling prowess. (I can not imagine today being able to fly with avocados, fresh cilantro and cumin in my toiletry bag just to make salsa!) But these days, I go to just as great lengths to bring simple and fresh ingredients to share at the table with my family.
Sometimes I have laugh at myself when I consider the lengths that I go to make sure the polenta I put on the table does not come from GMO corn, or the garlic is not from China. Especially when there are days when a good ole peanut butter and jelly sandwich on fluffy white bread are what I am really craving. It is not a far stretch from those days when friends smuggled celery and frozen turkey for a thanksgiving dinner in Sarajevo. I take heart in the fact that its not just about the food. It is about our connection to food and the emotions we experience while enjoying it.
In Croatia, I have found that making that connection between food and people and feelings has been an important part of how I finally came to call this place where I live, home. In the beginning of ‘My Life In Croatia’ I was constantly disappointed with what was available at the grocery store and market. Or what was not available. It seemed to me that it was stand after stand after stand of the same thing. How was I to know which of the old ladies at the market had really grown her food and had not just bought it at the bigger wholesale market? When I felt adventurous I would ask where the food was grown or how, but most often a seller would balk at my questions or give me some canned response that it was of course totally ‘naturally grown by them personally’. Perhaps many of those products were organically grown and under the eye of the person selling them, but my experiences in Croatia lead me to not believe what I was told.
This means that we always have a few liters of the highest quality olive and pumpkin seed oil, kilograms of different types of garlic, dried figs and hazelnuts and walnuts, garlic, jars of small fish packed in oil along with jars of pickled peppers, cabbage, and tomatoes, bags of beans and other grains and a good assortment of potatoes, honey, and of course wine.At the market in Rijeka, there were more choices and I sensed there was more authenticity, but driving into Rijeka for some salad greens and fruits and vegetables on a daily or weekly basis was a big trek from my small town. The offer in the markets today in Croatia have definitely expanded. I can usually count on being able to find avocadoes, ginger, limes, and cumin at my local grocery store throughout the year. But the food that I am really interested in and what is in abundance, happens to be those basic staples that make up the famous Mediterranean diet. You know the old saying, don’t judge a book by it’s cover? Well I have a similar saying that goes something like… you can tell a cook by what they have in their pantry or cupboard. Or here in Croatia, you can tell a cook by what they have in their ‘spajz’ (shpajz). And while there has been a lot of hype about the benefits of the mediteranean diet, my unprofessional opinion is that the basic staples of this diet have kept people in these parts living long healthy lives because they ate copious amounts of the food they had grown in their and their neighbors backyard. And not what they have been able to sneak across the border or import from lands far away. This means that we always have a few liters of the highest quality olive and pumpkin seed oil (and a few liters of low quality oil…), kilograms of different types of garlic, dried figs and hazelnuts and walnuts, garlic, jars of small fish packed in oil along with jars of pickled peppers, cabbage, and tomatoes, bags of beans and other grains and a good assortment of potatoes, honey, and of course wine always available in our pantry. I could write a full blog about each one of these foods and the various adventures that I have had experimenting with eating them and finding the best of them. They sound boring but when you add in the bounty that comes in during the various seasons, the culinary offer in Croatia is rich.