I knew my trip to Croatia would bring with it an opportunity to taste many of the familiar foods of Eastern Europe that I had come to love. I also knew that I might just get the chance to try my hand at it.I was invited to be a guest in the home of my dear friends in the Village of Bateli located 40 miles from the city of Pula, a mountainness area surrounded by old stone homes, fields of lavender and crops of grape vines awaitingharvest later to become that homes’ personal brew served with dinner or a gift for a friend.On my first evening, fresh local fish were brought over by a relative. The men went to work cleaning, preparing and cooking the fish on an outdoor ground grill.I eagerly wanted to get involved and somehow got the job of peeling and chopping the garlic and parsley which was to be added to a local brew of olive oil and spooned over the fish. I seemed to always be in charge of the garlic. At many of the earlier meals, I watched others attack a mountain of garlic, peeling each clove one by one with a paring knife, which to me was both frustrating and archaic. I prefer the smash-and-peel method that any trusty chef knife can provide. I carried a lovely garlic aroma with me that lasted well beyond my return to Sweden.A few days later another relative brought a bucket of fresh mussels to our home. I spent a few hours with Morro and Bepo under the shade of the terrace scrubbing and cleaning them in preparation of the days lunch.Again a mountain of garlic was needed along with some home-made white wine drawn from the still and a few various ingredients from the garden that made for a delicious broth. The mussels were cooked in the outdoor kitchen called a lusiera and served at the kitchen table along with fresh bread.My most memorable day cooking in Croatia was baking bread with Milka who said, “First you must have a babushka, then you can make bread.” We stumbled into her kitchen at 7am, after a late evening, toting our coffee maker, cups and milk. While we made our coffee, Milka mixed, kneaded, punched and gave the sign of the cross to a huge bowl of dough. Speaking only in Croatian she gave us the step-by-step on how she got to this point in the bread making process.
We followed her to the lusiera and helped her build a fire in the wood-burning oven. She pampered the fire until it produced coals of just the right temperature, then swept the oven clean of debris, leaving coals only on the perimeter to make room for our loaves to bake.After another sign of the cross on the well rested dough, we divided it into balls using a lightening-fast rolling technique I had never seen before. Soon, Milka produced loaves ready for the oven. My attempts at this technique was humorous at best, producing the oddest looking, yet still delicious loaf which we affectionately referred to as “My Baby.” Had we swaddled it in a blanket and drawn a face, I could have easily carried “My Baby” to unsuspecting eyes.These experiences of cooking on vacation helped to remind me of my passion to not only cook, but observe, learn and admire those who share it with me.