Jun 272018
 

On this date in 1358, the Republic of Ragusa, centered on Dubrovnik in Dalmatia, became independent from Venice and remained an independent maritime enclave until 1808. I am sure that if you ask the average English speaker where Ragusa is (or was), they will have no idea. If you ask a French, Italian, or Dalmatian speaker you are likely to get a more informed answer because in those (and other) languages, Ragusa is another name for Dubrovnik. Its Latin motto was “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (It is not good to sell your liberty for all the gold [in the world]). The Republic of Ragusa was a compact area of southern Dalmatia – its final borders were formed by 1426 – comprising the mainland coast from Neum to the Prevlaka peninsula as well as the Pelješac peninsula and the islands of Lastovo and Mljet, as well as a number of smaller islands such as Koločep, Lopud, and Šipan. In the 15th century the Ragusan republic also acquired the islands of Korčula, Brač and Hvar for about eight years. However, they had to be given up due to the resistance of local minor aristocrats sympathizing with Venice, which was granting them some privileges.

According to the De administrando imperio of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, the city was founded, around the 7th century, by the inhabitants of the Roman city of Epidaurum (modern Cavtat) after its destruction by the Avars and Slavs ca. 615. Some of the survivors moved 25 kilometers (16 miles) north to a small island near the coast where they founded a new settlement which they called Lausa (“rocky island”). Excavations in 2007 revealed a Byzantine basilica from the 8th century and parts of the city walls. The size of the old basilica clearly indicates that this was a sizable settlement at the time. There is also evidence of older settlements (possibly Greek).

After the Fourth Crusade, Ragusa came under the sovereignty of Venice from 1205 to 1358. In this period it adopted Venetian laws and customs. After Venice was forced in 1358, by the Treaty of Zadar, to yield all claims to Dalmatia, Ragusa became an independent republic although it was to be a vassal of Louis I of Hungary. On 27th June 1358, the final agreement was reached at Visegrád between Louis and the Archbishop Ivan Saraka. The city recognized Hungarian sovereignty, but the local nobility continued to rule with little interference from Buda. Ragusa profited from the suzerainty of Louis of Hungary, whose kingdom was not a naval power, and so they had little conflict of interest. The last Venetian conte left, apparently in a hurry.

In 1399, the city acquired the area between Ragusa and Pelješac, called the Primorje (Dubrovačko primorje). It was purchased from Bosnian king Stephen Ostoja. A brief war with Bosnia in 1403 ended with Bosnian withdrawal. Between 1419 and 1426, the Konavle region, south of Astarea (Župa dubrovačka), including the city of Cavtat, was added to the Republic’s possessions. In 1458, Ragusa signed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire which made it a tributary of the sultan. When in 1481 the city passed into Ottoman protection, it was to pay an increased tribute of 12,500 ducats. For all other purposes, however, Ragusa was virtually independent and usually allied with Maritime Republic of Ancona. Ragusa could enter into relations with foreign powers and make treaties with them (as long as they did not conflict with Ottoman interests), and its ships sailed under its own flag. Ottoman vassalage also conferred special trade rights that extended within the Ottoman empire. Ragusa handled the Adriatic trade on behalf of the Ottomans, and its merchants received special tax exemptions and trading benefits. It also operated colonies that enjoyed extraterritorial rights in major Ottoman cities.

Merchants from Ragusa could enter the Black Sea, which was otherwise closed to non-Ottoman shipping. They paid less in customs duties than other foreign merchants, and the city-state enjoyed diplomatic support from the Ottoman administration in trade disputes with the Venetians. Ragusa reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, when its maritime mercantile regime rivalled that of Venice and other Italian maritime republics.

Ragusa adopted what are now regarded as modern laws and institutions early in its history: a medical service was introduced in 1301, with the first pharmacy, still operating to this day, being opened in 1317. An almshouse was opened in 1347, and the first quarantine hospital (Lazarete) was established in 1377. Slave trading was abolished in 1418, and an orphanage opened in 1432. A 20 km (12 mi) water supply system, instead of a cistern, was constructed in 1438 by the Neapolitan architect and engineer Onofrio della Cava. He completed the aqueduct with two public fountains. He also built a number of mills along one of its branches.

The city was ruled by the local aristocracy which was of Latin-Dalmatian extraction and formed two city councils. As usual for the time, they maintained a strict system of social classes. The republic abolished the slave trade early in the 15th century and greatly valued liberty. The city successfully balanced its sovereignty between the interests of Venice and the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

The languages spoken by the people were the Romance Dalmatian and common Croatian. The latter had started to replace Dalmatian little by little since the 11th century among the common people who inhabited the city. Florentine and Venetian became important languages of culture and trade in Dubrovnik. At the same time, Dubrovnik became a cradle of Croatian literature.

The economic wealth of the Republic was partially the result of the land it developed, but mostly because of seafaring trade. With the help of skilled diplomacy, Dubrovnik merchants traveled lands freely and on the sea the city had a huge fleet of merchant ships that travelled all over the world. From these travels they founded some settlements, from India to the Americas, and brought parts of their culture and flora home with them. One of its keys to success was not conquering, but trading and sailing under a white flag with the Latin word “Libertas” (freedom) prominently featured on it. The flag was adopted when slave trading was abolished in 1418.

Ragusa gradually declined due to a combination of a Mediterranean shipping crisis and the catastrophic earthquake of 1667 which killed over 5,000 citizens and levelled most of the public buildings, and consequently negatively impacted the whole well-being of the Republic. In 1699, the Republic was forced to sell two mainland patches of its territory to the Ottomans in order to avoid being caught in the clash with advancing Venetian forces. Today this strip of land belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina and is that country’s only direct access to the Adriatic.

In 1806, the city surrendered to the Napoleonic army, since this was the only way to end a month-long siege by the Russian-Montenegrin fleets. At first, Napoleon demanded only free passage for his troops, promising not to occupy the territory and stressing that the French were friends of Dubrovnik. Later, however, French forces blockaded the harbors, forcing the government to give in and let French troops enter the city. On this day, all flags and coats of arms above the city walls were painted black as a sign of mourning. In 1808, Marshal Auguste de Marmont abolished the republic and integrated its territory first into Napoleon’s kingdom of Italy and later into the Illyrian provinces under French rule. This was to last until 28th January 1814 when the city surrendered to Captain Sir William Hoste leading a body of British and Austrian troops who were besieging the fortress.

I have visited Dubrovnik several times because Croatia is home to a set of traditional dances that are related to morris dancing and other European dances that I have researched and written on for 4 decades. Colleagues have organized academic conferences in the region, and I have also brought dancers to perform alongside locals. One of my favorite dishes when I visit is octopus salad, a dish much loved by locals as a first course. All I really need to do is describe the dish for you to get the idea. It is made from slices or chunks of octopus with vegetables, sometimes potatoes or lettuce, marinated in olive oil and lemon juice, and chilled. The trick is knowing how to cook the octopus so that it is tender, because it is all too easy to have it turn out tough and rubbery. Local cooks have all manner of “tricks” which are more superstition than useful. Some will tell you to add a splash of wine to the cooking water and add the wine cork to it when cooking, for example. This is a waste of time.  There are 2 mistakes that novice cooks make all the time: (1) cooking the octopus too quickly (2) cooking the octopus too long. What I did not know for many years is that you do not have to immerse octopus in water to cook it.

Start by peeling an onion and studding it with cloves. Place it in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid and place the octopus beside it. Put the lid on and set the heat under the pot to the lowest possible. The rule of thumb for cooking time is 1 hour plus 30 minutes per kilo. Croatian cooks poke the onion with a fork, and when it is soft in the middle the octopus is ready. However, what counts as “soft” is a matter of experience. The bigger the octopus, the bigger the onion, also. Remove the octopus from the pot and let it cool to the touch. Cut off the head, and then cut the tentacles into chunks (keeping the tips whole). Now it becomes cook’s choice. Toss the octopus with a vegetable or vegetables of your choice. This could be salad greens, or diced, poached potatoes, or even just chopped parsley – or any combination. I have had it all ways. Dress the salad with extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice, toss again to coat evenly, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Serve in small portions on chilled plates.

Feb 032016
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Blaise, a saint who had an enormous following in the Middle Ages and is still venerated in a great number of places (under various names) throughout the world. Very little is known about the historical man. Reputedly he was bishop of Sebastea in historical Armenia (modern Sivas, Turkey) in the 4th century, but nothing written about him has survived any earlier than the 8th century. This is typical:

Blaise, who had studied philosophy in his youth, was a doctor in Sebaste in Armenia, the city of his birth, who exercised his art with miraculous ability, good-will, and piety. When the bishop of the city died, he was chosen to succeed him, with the acclamation of all the people. His holiness was manifest through many miracles: from all around, people came to him to find cures for their spirit and their body; even wild animals came in herds to receive his blessing. In 316, Agricola, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, having arrived in Sebastia at the order of the emperor Licinius to kill the Christians, arrested the bishop. As he was being led to jail, a mother set her only son, choking to death of a fish-bone, at his feet, and the child was cured straight away. Regardless, the governor, unable to make Blaise renounce his faith, beat him with a stick, ripped his flesh with iron combs, and beheaded him.

The two main elements of this tale have led to him being associated with throat ailments and with wool combing.

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The cult of St Blaise was very popular in the 11th and 12th centuries as is attested in numerous shrines and villages dedicated to his name – primarily in Spanish speaking countries (san Blas) as well as in Italy (san Biagio) and Croatia (Sveti Vlaho). Likewise, the Blessing of the Throats ritual was, and is, common worldwide on the feast of St Blaise. Crossed candles are themselves blessed on Candlemas (Feb 2), then lit on St Blaise and pressed to the throats of those who wish, accompanied by one of several special prayers of intercession.

Given the importance of the throat in the veneration of St Blaise, it’s not surprising that special dishes are associated with this day. Here’s a couple.

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There is a small village called san Biagio a few kilometers southeast of Mantua, where I live now, and a few of my students live there and look forward to celebrations on the day. Of particular importance is torta di san biagio – a chocolate and nut pie encased in a special pastry that uses white wine in place of eggs. I am told that these pies have been made in Mantua for 450 years. In some parts of Mantua they make gigantic pies (3 meters across) to feed the whole community.

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Torta di San Biagio

Ingredients

Pastry

400 g flour
80 g cold butter
80 g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, scraped
120 ml dry white wine

Filling

300 g blanched almonds
100 g caster sugar
2 eggs
100 g dark chocolate
1 lemon, grated rind

beaten egg plus milk (for glazing)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 160°C.

Make the pastry by processing the butter and flour in a food processer to make a sandy mixture (or do this with your hands if you can). Pour the mix on to your counter top. Make the mound into a hollow volcano. Pour the wine into the hollow, a little at a time and combine it with the flour and butter mix. Then add the vanilla seeds. Knead to form a compact dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Chop the almonds in a food processor. Coarsely chop the chocolate and add it plus the sugar and lemon zest. Turn into a mixing bowl and add the eggs. Beat all the ingredients together thoroughly.

Roll out the pastry to about ½ cm thick. Line a pie dish with the pastry, trimming and saving the excess. Fill the pastry in the dish with the chocolate filling, smoothing it down flat.

Roll the pastry trimmings again, cut into strips, and make a lattice on top of the pie (to form lozenges), as shown in the photo. Brush the top with a little beaten egg wash.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

Note: the pastry will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, or can be frozen.

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St Blaise is the patron saint of Dubrovnik. There on this day they make šporki makaruli (dirty macaroni). If you are health conscious use vegetable oil instead of the pork fat.

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Šporki Makaruli

800 g finely diced beef (or veal)
100 g pork fat
500 g onions, peeled and diced
40 g tinned tomatoes, chopped
1 cup red wine
parsley, garlic, powdered cinnamon, powdered cloves (to taste)
1 bay leaf
500 g macaroni
goat cheese
salt and pepper

Instructions

Sauté the onions over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet until they are soft. Add the meat and brown gently. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and the wine. Bring to a slow simmer. Add all the seasonings to taste. Cook uncovered for about 1 to 2 hours – depending on the quality of the meat. If the cooking liquid reduces too much add a little stock to moisten.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water. Drain and place in a deep serving dish. Pour the meat mixture over the pasta and toss thoroughly. Ladle into serving bowls and top with crumbled goat cheese.