"A mother is like the olive tree. You neglect her, but she still gives and gives. But a wife is like the grape vine. If you do not tend to her she will not bear fruit and will go traveling to the neighbors." This was the saying told to us in the simple cellar of the Senjoković winery on the Island of Brač in the Adriatic Sea. The Senjoković family has been on the island for generations, but they have only been selling their wine for four years (since 2008). Brač was once a major European wine producer; over 90% of the island was covered in vineyards. But a plant disease in the early 20th century wiped out the majority of the vines, forcing many Croatians to leave their homes (many of these immigrants became wine makers in Chile, Australia, and California). The Senjoković family is now one of the first families in the area to attempt commercial wine production again.
The entire country of Croatia is in transition. They are dealing with the remnants of a harsh past and looking with uncertainty to the future. 20 years ago this was a brutal war zone and next year it will become part of the European Union. People are unsure whether joining the EU will be good for the country or not. On one hand research money and loans will be more available, but on the other hand competition with much bigger countries may make them insignificant.
Despite this uncertainty and history Croatia is an incredibly safe place filled with jovial people. (An American Fulbright student here "proved" to us that Zagreb is safer than any American city by specifically walking us home one night via the darkest alleyways and the sketchiest park trails in the entire city!) People here value their families and they do not want to leave Croatia for better economic conditions elsewhere. And even though unemployment is high and many industries are stagnant, everyone finds time to travel to the coast for a week or two (or 4!) of vacation with their families.
Graduate students here, who are making next to nothing and have slim job prospects, keep buying me lunch because I am a guest. (I've learned that "I just go to toilet and then we go" is code for "I am secretly going to pay the bill.") And, oh man, have I eaten some good food! My diet has turned 180 degrees in Croatia. In the United States I do not eat meat and I cannot afford fruit or alcohol, but here fruit is plentiful, meat is always served, and alcohol is traditionally drunk before, after and during the meal! In the middle of the day we take a break from work to enjoy leisurely meals, to drink beer, wine, and homemade brandy, and to eat eat from a cuisine somewhere between Central Europe and the Mediterranean.
I have eaten čevapi (rissoles of minced beef), ajvar (a paste of red bell pepper, eggplant, paprika and garlic), gnocchi in a thick beef gravy (njoki s komadićima bifteka), and štrukli, burek and whole suite of other cheese filled pastries. On the coast I ate stingray with potatoes and carrots in a white wine sauce (gregada). On the Adriatic Islands I ate grilled squid (lignje na grillu) served with blitva (swiss chard, potatoes and garlic), and in some old alleyway in Split I ate mussels in a tomato broth (dagnje na buzaru). In the eastern part of Croatia the food is heavily influenced by Hungary and paprika practically flows from the tap! Here I ate game meat with dumplings and cottage cheese (perklet od divljaci), and I ate the classic fiš-paprikaš (chunks of river fish [carp, pike, and catfish] stewed in a tomato and paprika broth over a wooden fire) all while drinking grasevina wine from the local cellars mixed with seltzer water. Yesterday we went to Istria, considered to be the Tuscany of Croatia --- here we ate sea bass carpaccio with capers, octopus salad and some amazing pasta.
The beer is nothing to write home about, but everyone in Croatia has their own homemade brandy. I have had tried brandy made from walnut, quince, cherry, honey, plum, carob, and even mistletoe. Every once in a while you'll be offered some local firewater made from grape or blackberry --- that stuff doesn't go down as easy as the brandy!
Many times I do not even know what I am eating. After visiting an experiment partially funded by the national fertilizer company we went back to company headquarters to have a four course lunch. We started with pear brandy, prušt (Croatian prosciutto) and a creamy cottage cheese, then moved on to some brothy soup with spindly noodles, then we ate our main dish, some cutlets with potatoes and broccoli, while we drank a local white wine, and we finally finished our meal with crepe like pancakes covered in chocolate sauce and filled with a walnut mash... then it was time to go back to work!
But things are changing in Croatia. Although many young people are not willing to move out of the country to find employment many are having to move to the capital to find a job. One quarter of the entire Croatian population now lives in Zagreb. Also, Croatia has also been told that they must reduce government spending and increase productivity before they become full members of the European Union.
One of my hosts was not able to buy me lunch. A young single mother of two, this assistant professor apologized but she did not have time for a meal. Instead, we went to McDonald's and got ice cream from the drive-through. She said everyone was very curious about McDonald's when it first came to Croatia, but now it is just normal.
Papa Senjoković Papa Senjoković years ago The next generation (and me!)
Croatia-Italy EuroCup Game
(watching on the big screen in the main square)
I have no idea who this guy is No hot dogs at this game. (big vat of spaghetti)
Lunch at the Factory
Typical Croatian Soup Local White Wine Pancakes, chocolate sauce & walnut mash!
(In the foreground is bruet pura [remotely related to bouillabaisse]
Grilled squid and blitva(deer with dumplings and cheese)
octopus salad (Istria)
Sorry folks, but that sausage in the middle is partly made with horse meat.Another meal bought for me (some chicken with mushrooms over noodley thing)
Cherries from the Market
Croatian beer with new friend Igor
Drinking something called a "Pipi"
(don't worry - it tasted like vodka with orange soda)