Jun 252014
 

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[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.

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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.

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©Dalmatian Black Risotto

Ingredients

2lbs/1 kg squid or cuttlefish with ink sacks
2 large onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
parsley, chopped
1lb/450 g short grain/Arborio rice
extra virgin olive oil
white wine
fish stock
salt and pepper

Instructions

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.

Feb 212014
 

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Today is the birthday of Andrés Segovia Torres, 1st Marquis of Salobreña, usually known simply as Segovia, a virtuoso Spanish classical guitarist from Linares in Andalusia. He is often considered the father of modern classical guitar although that title should probably go to Francisco Tárrega. Nonetheless his influence was profound in re-establishing the importance of the guitar as a classical instrument, in advancing technique, and in spreading the popularity of classical guitar through performance and teaching. Practically all professional classical guitarists today are students of Segovia, or students of his students. Segovia’s contribution to the modern repertoire included not only commissions but also his own transcriptions of classical and baroque works. He is remembered for his expressive performances, his wide palette of tone, and his distinctive phrasing and style.

Segovia was born in Linares, in the province of Jaén in Andalusia. He was sent at a very young age to live with his uncle Eduardo and his wife Maria. Eduardo arranged for Segovia’s first music lessons with a violin teacher after recognizing that Segovia had an aptitude for music. This proved to be an unhappy introduction to music for the young Segovia because of the teacher’s strict methods, and Eduardo stopped the lessons. His uncle decided to move to Granada to allow Segovia to obtain a better education, and after arriving in Granada Segovia recommenced his musical studies, largely on his own. Segovia was aware of flamenco during his formative years as a beginning guitarist, but did not have a desire to learn the style. Instead he was more drawn to classical guitar that was undergoing a revival, especially under Francisco Tárrega. Tárrega agreed to give the self-taught Segovia some lessons but died before they could meet. Instead he continued to develop his own style without teachers.

Francisco Tárrega

Francisco Tárrega

Segovia’s first public performance was in Granada at the age of 16 in 1909. A few years later he played his first professional concert in Madrid which included works by Tárrega and his own guitar transcriptions of J.S. Bach. Despite the discouragement of his family, who wanted him to become a lawyer, and criticism by some of Tárrega’s pupils for his idiosyncratic technique, he continued to develop his own style.

He played again in Madrid in 1912, at the Paris Conservatory in 1915, in Barcelona in 1916, and made a successful tour of South America in 1919. Segovia’s arrival on the international stage coincided with a time when the guitar’s fortunes as a concert instrument were being revived, largely through the efforts of Miguel Llobet. It was in this changing milieu that Segovia, whose personal drive and artistry coupled with new technological advances such as recording, radio, and air travel, succeeded in making classical guitar much more widely popular.

Here is Segovia playing Asturias (Leyenda), a work written by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz, and which is probably one of Segovia’s most widely known pieces. It was originally written for the piano, and set in the key of G minor. It was first published in Barcelona in 1892 as the prelude of a three-movement set entitled Chants d’Espagne. Despite the name (given to it by a German publisher) this piece is not considered suggestive of the folk music of the northern Spanish region of Asturias, but rather of Andalusian flamenco traditions. The original piano score clearly mimics guitar style.  During the piece you hear passages suggestive of the bulería, malagueña and copla from the flamenco repertoire. I’ve put the original piano version after the recipe if you are interested.

Because the piano piece was so evocative of guitar it was an obvious move to transcribe it for guitar.  It was transcribed several times, shifting it to E minor. This is Segovia’s transcription.

Andalusian cuisine is not especially well known outside of Spain, although gazpacho (in rather limited varieties) can be found widely.  Olive oil features heavily in the cuisine because the provinces of Jaén (where Segovia was born), Córdoba, Seville, and Granada are major producers.  Typically olive oil is used in all frying including deep frying giving the dishes a distinctive savor.  Here’s my recipe for puntillitas – baby squid deep fried.  As ever, I’ll give you the general idea and you can play with quantities. This method is typically Andalusian, and you can use it for any small fish.  It is simplicity itself.

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©Puntillitas

You really should use baby squid for this rather than adults, but you can make a version with larger squid (you just have to cut them into small pieces).  To begin let me explain how to clean squid.  Typically when you buy baby squid they are uncleaned.  Big or small, I always clean my own squid; it saves a lot of money.

Pull off the head and tentacles; they will separate easily and most of the innards will come out too. Cut off the tentacles and discard the eyes and innards. Squeeze firmly on the base of the tentacles and the beak should pop out. Discard it.  Reach into the body with a finger and you will locate a long cartilage (thin and clear).  Discard it.  The body is covered in a mottled membrane which is edible, but most people prefer to remove it.  It easily peels away. Wash the bodies and tentacles well, giving each body a squeeze to make sure everything is out. If you are using large squid cut the tentacles and bodies into small bite-sized pieces.

Pat the squid pieces dry well with paper towels.

Place the squid in a plastic bag with enough flour to coat them.  Do not worry about using too much; the excess will remain in the bag.  Close the bag tightly and vigorously shake it until you can see that all the pieces have a good coating of flour.  Reserve them on a plate.

Heat olive oil in a deep fryer or in a heavy skillet (deep enough for deep frying) to 350°F/175°C.  Fry the pieces in batches until they are golden brown.  Use a slotted spoon to toss them to ensure they are evenly browned.  Drain on wire racks.  You will notice that with this method of cooking the pieces are not evenly coated as with a batter.

Serve hot with lemon wedges.

Oct 082013
 

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Today is Independence Day in Croatia. In June 1991 Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, with the declaration officially taking effect on 8th October of the same year. It still took 4 years of war with Serbia for the sovereignty of the nation to be lasting, however. But eventually Croatia became self governing following 900 years of domination by other states. 8th October is also significant because it was the coronation date in 1076 of Dmitar Zvonimir, who was, for all intents and purposes, the last king of an independent Croatia before it fell under the control of foreign powers.

Ethnic Croats probably arrived in the area of present-day Croatia during the early part of the 7th century. By the 9th century Croatia consisted of two duchies, which combined to become a kingdom under Tomislav in 925. The kingdom of Croatia retained its sovereignty for nearly two centuries, reaching its peak during the reigns of kings Peter Krešimir IV and Dmitar Zvonimir.

Not much is known about Zvonomir although he holds a prominent symbolic place in contemporary Croatia as a great leader of a free Croatia (hence his coronation date and Independence Day coincide). He was crowned on 8 October 1076 at Solin in the Basilica of Saint Peter and Moses (known today as the Hollow Church, an archeological site) by a representative of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085). After the Papal legate crowned him, Zvonimir gave the city of Vrana and the Benedictine monastery of Saint Gregory to the Pope as a sign of loyalty. He is also known for building a three-naved basilica near Knin, his capital, and the city is today nicknamed “Zvonimir’s city”. He continued the expansive and pro-Roman policies of his predecessor, maintaining a close alliance with the papacy. He supported Gregory in his fight for supremacy over the Holy Roman Empire, and made many domestic reforms, including the abolition of slavery.

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There are several versions of the story of Zvonimir’s death. The most commonly accepted one, recorded by Thomas the Archdeacon, asserts that he died of natural causes.  Another account, from the Presbyter of Doclea, says that on 20 April 1089, desiring to heal the East-West Schism Pope Urban II asked Zvonimir, his strongest Balkan ally, to come to the military aid of Alexios I Komnenos against the Seljuks. Zvonimir convened the Sabor (council of nobles) at Kosovo Polje near Knin that year to mobilize the army on behalf of the pope and the emperor, but the nobility refused him and a rebellion erupted, leading to Zvonimir’s assassination at the hands of his own soldiers. His death marked the collapse of Croatian royal power. A legend arose, known as the Curse of Zvonomir, that as he lay dying he swore that because of this betrayal, Croatia would be ruled by foreigners for 900 years.

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When Zvonomir’s successor, Stjepan II, died in 1091 Ladislaus I of Hungary claimed the Croatian crown. Opposition to the claim led to a war and eventual union of Croatia and Hungary in 1102 the terms of which are not clear, but which seemed to have given Hungary some control over Croatia. For the next four centuries, the Kingdom of Croatia saw increasing threat of Ottoman conquest and struggle against the Republic of Venice for control of coastal areas. The Venetians gained control over most of Dalmatia by 1428, with the exception of the city-state of Dubrovnik which became independent. Ottoman conquests led to the 1493 Battle of Krbava field and 1526 Battle of Mohács, both ending in decisive Ottoman victories. In 1527, faced with complete Ottoman conquest, the Croatian Parliament elected Ferdinand I of the House of Habsburg to the Croatian throne. From that point until 1918 Croatia was under Habsburg domination with constant threats from Ottoman Turks, as well as Venetians and the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1918, after World War I, Croatia was included in the unrecognized State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs which seceded from Austria–Hungary and merged into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.  A fascist Croatian puppet state existed during World War II. After the war, Croatia became a founding member and a federal constituent of Second Yugoslavia, a socialist state. In 1991, as part of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Croatia declared independence.

I spent several summers shortly after the Croatian War of Independence on islands off the Dalmatian coast conducting fieldwork on local culture, participating in conferences, and assisting local governments in their efforts to expand tourism.  As such I had considerable opportunity to sample the cooking of the region dominated by seafood from the Adriatic, combined with locally produced olive oil and wines.  Octopus features in many dishes, most especially the signature salata od hobotnice, octopus salad, as well squid in crni rižoto, black risotto, made by boiling the rice in squid ink.  You can make a very quick and cheap version of this by placing a tin of squid in its own ink in with some rice as it is boiling, draining the rice when it is cooked, and then mixing it with the heated squid and ink.

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Although seafood heavily predominates in Dalmatian cooking, there are traditional meat dishes due to the fact that island families often keep goats for milk and sheep for wool and meat.  Here is a recipe for tripice na Dalmatinski (Dalmatian style tripe) I got from a cook on the island of Lastovo. This is one of those recipes that is enjoyed in many countries, each with a slightly different regional twist.  However, the basics are the same: tripe and bacon simmered in a tomato and garlic sauce.  Most of the variations concern the kind of bacon to be used, and, believe me, this makes a considerable difference.   My favorite is pancetta, which is fairly easy to come by in the deli meat section of good supermarkets.  Pancetta is sometimes referred to as Italian bacon, but it is quite different from other kinds of bacon.  The meat is taken only from the belly, so that it is very fatty.  It is cured in salt and spices, but it is not smoked.  When it has finished curing it is rolled in sausage shapes and sliced very thinly.  It adds a much more delicate sweet meaty flavor to tomato sauces than ordinary bacon.  Basically, though, you can use whatever cured pork you favor.  Prosciutto is excellent, as is Canadian or Irish back bacon.  Even if you use plain old supermarket bacon you will still be rewarded with a hearty and robust meal.  Sheep or goat tripe is best for this dish but ox tripe will work.

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Tripice Na Dalmatinski

Ingredients:

1 ½ lbs fully cooked tripe, cut in bite-sized chunks
6 slices pancetta (or an equivalent amount of cured pork or bacon)
1 onion
1 cup light stock (veal or chicken)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
extra virgin olive oil
black pepper

Instructions:

Cut the pancetta slices into 4 or 6 pieces and gently fry them in a little extra virgin olive oil so that the fat is rendered, and the meaty portions are well cooked but not crisp.  Remove the pancetta from the pan and reserve.

Thinly slice the onion and sauté in the oil and bacon fat until soft.  Finely mince the garlic and add to the onions for an extra minute.  Do not let the garlic take on any color.

Heat the stock and dissolve the tomato paste in it, then add this mixture to the garlic and onions.  Bring to a gentle simmer and add the tripe, pancetta, and the chopped parsley, plus a few grinds of black pepper.  Continue to simmer for about 30 minutes.

Serve with boiled new potatoes and crusty bread.

Serves 4.