[Once again, struggling to keep my head above water amidst my visa tribulations among other things. I am so sorry for the short post. I am very fond of Croatia and Croatian cuisine, so I cannot let this day pass unmarked. I also do not want to disappoint my faithful readers.]
Today is Statehood Day (Dan državnosti) in Croatia, an annual holiday to celebrate the country’s 1991 declaration of independence from Yugoslavia. Statehood Day is an official holiday in Croatia. After the independence referendum held on May 19th, 1991, the Croatian Parliament formally proclaimed independence with Ustavna odluka o suverenosti i samostalnosti Republike Hrvatske – the “Constitutional decision on sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Croatia.” Statehood Day used to be May 30, marking the day when in 1990 the first post-Communist multi-party Parliament was constituted. There was some public controversy regarding which date is more suitable for the day to celebrate statehood. Since 2002, June 25 has prevailed as Statehood Day, and May 30 is marked as a minor holiday. This holiday is not to be confused with Croatia’s Independence Day, which is marked each year on October 8. Croatia declared independence on June 25, but as per the Brioni Agreement, a three-month moratorium was placed on the implementation of the decision, and the government did not cut all remaining ties with Yugoslavia until October.
Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia at the same time, and its Statehood Day coincides with Croatian Statehood Day, on June 25.
One small tidbit about Croatian culture to amuse. The European gentleman’s fashion of the cravat originated in the 1630’s and was of Croatian military origin. In the reign of Louis XIII of France, Croatian mercenaries were enlisted into a regiment supporting the King and Cardinal Richelieu against the Duke of Guise and the Queen Mother, Marie de’ Medici. The traditional Croat military kit aroused Parisian curiosity because of the unusual scarves distinctively knotted at the Croats’ necks; ranging from the coarse cloths of enlisted soldiers to the fine linens and silks of the officers. The sartorial word “cravat” derives from the French cravate, a corrupt French pronunciation of Croate i.e. Croatian (Hrvatska in Croatian). The Spanish word for a neck tie is a cognate – corbata. Croatia these days celebrates Cravat Day on October 18.
Note also that Croatian is written using the Roman alphabet, whereas their close neighbors, the Serbs, use the Cyrillic alphabet. Croatian and Serbian are very close, mutually intelligible, languages, but there is zero love lost between Croats and Serbs. Hence they use any means possible to distinguish one from the other.
Croatian cuisine is quite varied in general, but is also known as a cuisine of regions because various areas of Croatia have their own traditions based on their history. The most notable divide is between the coastal area and the inner mainland. Mainland cuisine is characterized by earlier Slavic traditions combined with more recent contact with neighboring cultures – Hungarian, Austrian and Turkish primarily – using lard for cooking, and spices such as black pepper, paprika, and garlic. The coastal region bears the influences of conquerors – Greek, Roman and Illyrian – as well as of later Mediterranean influences – Italian (especially Venetian) and French, using olive oil, and herbs and spices such as rosemary, sage, bay leaf, oregano, marjoram, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, lemon and orange rind. Coastal cuisine is dominated by seafood; the islands, in particular have few animals for meat. Goats and sheep are the most common.
How I wish I could regale you with tales of fabulous meals on my trips to the Dalmatian coast and islands. How about being taken to a deserted island in the Adriatic by a fisherman who caught fish that morning and roast them over a driftwood fire on a beach of sparkling sand beside shimmering warm waters? Or being served goat’s milk by my host on Lastovo island for breakfast, still warm from the udder? Freshly pressed olive oil, new made wine, octopus salad, deep fried squid . . . the list goes on. I never have managed yet to get Dalmatian goat tripe stew in Croatia because goats are not butchered often. They are kept mainly for their milk and wool. One day.
Here is a recipe for black risotto, which is a specialty of Dubrovnik (marvelous old town). The black coloration comes from squid or cuttlefish ink. I make it when I can in a very simple way by cooking rice with canned squid in its own ink, which is quite easy to find in good supermarkets. Here is a more authentic recipe.
©Dalmatian Black Risotto
2lbs/1 kg squid or cuttlefish with ink sacks
2 large onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1lb/450 g short grain/Arborio rice
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Clean the squid or cuttlefish (or buy them pre-cleaned). The basic process involves cutting off the head and tentacles, then popping the head off. Remove the contents of the body, and pull off the skin. Cut the body into thin rings.
Bring a pot of fish stock to a gentle simmer.
Sauté the onion in a little olive oil until translucent in a large, heavy skillet. Add the squid or cuttlefish and rice, and cook gently for about 5 to 10 minutes on medium-low heat. Make sure all of the rice is well coated with olive oil. Do not let the ingredients take on any color. Add the garlic, parsley, salt and pepper to taste, ink, a splash or two of wine, and 2 ladles of the hot fish stock.
Here is where long experience comes in. There is no way to explain this process in words. Keep the stock in the skillet at a low simmer and let it evaporate as well as be absorbed by the rice. When the skillet is almost dry, add another ladle of stock, all the while stirring the rice continuously with a wooden spoon. It will probably take 20 minutes or more to cook the rice in this fashion. Ladle, stir, dry, ladle, stir, dry . . . until the stock in the skillet becomes thick and creamy, and the rice softens. After about 15 minutes you can begin biting on a grain of rice to test it. When it is almost cooked, add one more ladle of stock, stir so that you have a creamy, but not over-runny, mix and remove from the heat. Let it sit covered for 5 minutes and serve in shallow bowls with a green salad. Some people like to sprinkle the risotto with grating cheese. Do it if you wish. I think cheese compromises the deep flavors of the squid and ink.