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.

Jun 252013
 
For the geographically challenged

For the geographically challenged

slovenia  slovenia2

slovenia5  slovenia4

Today is Statehood Day in Slovenia, marking the date in 1991 when the country declared formal independence from Yugoslavia.  Prior to that moment in history Slovenia had been a state (occasionally with a degree of autonomy) within a succession of empires – Roman Empire, Holy Roman Empire, and Austro Hungarian Empire – briefly part of the State (later Kingdom) of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs from 1918 (much of which was soon controlled by Italy) – annexed by Axis powers during WW II – and folded into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia post war until 1991. Complete independence as a nation is, therefore, a new and valued status for Slovenes after two thousand years of domination by outside powers.

Slovenia is best described as a country of diversity.  Geographically it sits on the crossroads of four major European regions: the Alps, the Dinaric Mountains, the Pannonian Plain, and the Mediterranean, with a small portion of coastline along the Adriatic Sea. The territory has a mosaic structure with a predominantly high landscape, about 50% of which is forested. Climate also varies considerably from the Alpine regions to the Adriatic coast. As such Slovenia is home to a rich bio-diversity, home to several unique species including the cave dwelling Olm (human fish), a blind, unpigmented, four-legged, amphibian that lives its entire life cycle in subterranean water systems (pictured). The Lipizzan (or Lipizzaner) horse closely associated with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, was first bred in Slovenia on stud farms located near the village of Lipica (spelled “Lipizza” in Italian).

Slovenia is also on an ethnic crossroads where Slavic, Germanic, Romance and Finno-Ugric linguistic and cultural groups meet. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the population, though not culturally homogeneous by any means, identify as culturally Slovenian, and Slovenian is the only official language.  Italian and Hungarian are the most significant minority languages spoken in small pockets of the country.

My two favorite Slovenes, both of whom have achieved a degree of international recognition, are Slavoj Žižek and Martin Strel.  Žižek is best described as an eccentric and excitable philosopher and social theorist, once labeled “the Elvis of cultural theory.” His frequent op-ed pieces and public lectures are thought provoking, if, at times, theoretically inconsistent. In 2003, Žižek wrote text to accompany Bruce Weber photos in a catalog for Abercrombie & Fitch. Questioned as to the seemliness of a major intellectual writing ad copy, Žižek told the Boston Globe: “If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!” My kinda guy.  Martin Strel is a Slovenian long-distance swimmer, best known for swimming the entire length of various rivers. Strel holds successive Guinness World Records for swimming the Danube, the Mississippi River, the Yangtze River, and the Amazon River. His motto is “swimming for peace, friendship and clean waters.”

It should come as no surprise that Slovenia’s cuisine is extremely diverse.  For people who actually care about such things Slovenia is semi-officially divided into 23 distinct gastronomic regions (not to mention the 6 divisions based on class and occupation), and there are 13 indigenous foods and food products protected by the European Union, including Ko?evje forest honey produced by a unique sub-species of bee.  Slovenia is also the only country I know of where you can be served wild edible dormouse. So . . . what to pick? what to pick? what to pick? Here is a recipe for Prekmurska gibanica, a now widespread dessert originating from Prekmurje. It is a pie stuffed with poppy seeds, cottage cheese, walnuts, and apples. It is trademarked as a foodstuff which by European law cannot be called Prekmurska gibanica unless the protected recipe is followed to the letter.  So here it is (although I will admit to correcting a few slips in the original English translation  – I thought you might prefer “ground” poppy seeds to “grounded” ones, for example).

Prekmurska gibanica

Basic dough

100 g sharp wheat flour
100 g fine wheat flour
100 g fat or butter or margarine
a pinch of salt or sugar
milk, water or sour cream for kneading

Sift the flour on a wooden board, add salt or sugar, and add also crushed fat. Knead the even dough while adding liquid. Leave it to rest for half an hour in a cold place.

Stretched dough

600 g fine wheat flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
a pinch of salt
lukewarm water for kneading

Make a hole in the sifted flour in the wooden board, add fat, salt, egg if desired and knead the ingredients while adding liquid. Knead for as long as the dough is even and stretchy. Make a loaf, oil the surface and let it rest for 30 minutes.

Poppy seed filling

200 g fine ground poppy seeds
80 g sugar
1 bag of vanilla sugar

Add sugar and vanilla sugar to the ground poppy seeds and stir the mixture well. All the fillings are used in two parts.

Cottage Cheese Filling

1000 g full fat cottage cheese
100 g sugar
2 eggs
1 bag of vanilla sugar
a pinch of salt

Crush the cottage cheese with the forks; add eggs, vanilla sugar, sugar and a pinch of salt. Stir the mixture well until it is even and easily spread.

Walnut filling

300 g ground walnuts
100 g sugar
1 bag of vanilla sugar

Mix ground walnuts with sugar and vanilla sugar.

Apple filling

1500 g apples (use the sour types)
120 g sugar
ground cinnamon

Peel the apples, grate them, add sugar and cinnamon and stir the mixture gently.

Cream Topping

60 dl thick sour cream
4 eggs

Slowly whisk the eggs with the sour cream.

Fatty Topping

150 g fat or butter or 200 g margarine

Assembly

Prepare a clay mould “tepsija” (very often round mould, 32-35 cm wide and 7-8 cm high). Cover well the mould with butter and put in a thin layer of the basic dough – named “podplat”, which should cover also the edge of the mould. Stick it with a fork. Roll the rested stretched dough and cover it with oil. Lift the dough and stretch it over the mould so the thicker edge of the dough hangs down. Cut into 8 equal parts in the shape of a mould. On the bottom that is already covered with the basic dough and the layer of stretched dough, spread the first layer of the poppy seed filling, sprinkle with melted margarine and cream topping. Put the second layer of the stretched dough and spread over the cottage cheese filling and sprinkle it with margarine. The third layer follows. Spread it with the walnut filling and sprinkle it with margarine. The fourth layer follows then. Spread it with the apple filling and sprinkle it with margarine. Gibanica is so half way made. Repeat all the fillings again to get 8 uniform layers. Cover the top with the cream topping and margarine. Cut off the thick edges of the stretched dough that are hanging over the mould and form the Gibanica. Stick it with a thin long needle. Bake in the baker’s oven or in the electric oven approx 75 minutes at 175° C. When baked spread the cream on top and leave it to rest a little while. Then cut it into triangles and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.