ISTARSKA KUHINJA - Istrian Cuisine
Foreword by Milan Rakovac 1982,
translated by Margaret Walker
Food! – what and when to eat it and how to prepare it, and in Istria that has always been an important question. Particularly WHAT, because there has not always been enough food here. In the time of Bishop Jurja Dobrile in the first half of the nineteenth century, Istria was ravaged by hunger, and Dobrile gathered help by sending a desperate appeal to Vienna. Under Italy, in one village of Poreć, the father of the family fed his four children in this way: two would get dinner and the other two got lira. The following day, those two who had been paid in lira would eat, and the other two would get the same in money. Big families, a few stingy acres, huge taxes, frequent droughts, hail, and nowhere to turn for a decent salary. The lives of the miners in Rašli or the road workers in the times of Italy who lived besides us in the village were ruled by the lord.
But here will not be words about history and social hardship, but about eating! Before you, dear readers, is the first Istrian cookbook!
In Istria one always approaches the finished meal devoutly, accurately, with respect and gratitude to the land which gave the produce. Food here was prepared with a lot of imagination, labour, love, and the meal approached with ceremony. I say “prepared” and “approached” because the recipes here in this book were well-known a long time ago. They had been prepared throughout the centuries, but their attributes were simple – a few ingredients and a lot of imagination. When there was so little for meals, they had to have so much more spirit in order for an impoverised diet to be made attractive.
It must be said as well that the meals here are mostly represented by Istrian farm food, but there actually existed two quite different, and until recently, completely separate Istrian cuisines: that of the coast, with a lot of fish and seafood, of course, and a continental cuisine that had lots of pasta. Today, however, one can speak about creating a uniquely Istrian cuisine. Now, everywhere throughout Istria, you can get soup, roast sausage with sauerkraut, gnocchi with chicken livers, redfish casserole, and octopus salad.
Istrian cuisine is distinctive to Istria, with a series of dishes that is difficult to find elsewhere. Although it considerably resembles the north coast (around Rijeka) and the Dalmatian cuisine, it must be said that all three cuisines notably came into existence under a significant impact from Italian cuisine. Of them, Istria is the most influenced by Italy.
Classical Istrian cuisine, it must be said, was established on several basic ingredients, among which the ultimate place belongs to wheat and maize flour. Gnocchi and polenta are centuries old standard foods in these communities and Istrian cuisine is almost unthinkable without them. Immediately following flour are sauerkraut and beans. Grah, that is a soup with beans, which cooked in this way wasn't soup as a separate course but, most often, the only main meal.
It is precisely this prosaic ingredient of the meal, flour, which best shows how people in Istria (read “women”) compensated for the narrow choice by using their imaginations. They invented entire “necklace-of-pearls” cuisines of the most versatile form and name, behind which hid so little: flour, a handful of salt, a drop of water – and nothing else! Occasionally eggs as well, and sometimes a little milk.
Tarafulji, njoki, lazanje, lazanjuni, lazanjoti, posutice, makaruni, makarunići pod šaku, makaruni pod žlicu, tajadele, ravioli. Put them all together and you get pasta, but what pasta! – with the distinctive King of Istrian Pasta in the lead, fužima – bows made out of flour. Yet fancy was forced to work even further than this, because by what could the pasta be flavoured? Hardly anything – it was known in many Istrian homes for lunch to be macaroni “enlivened” with two or three mere doodles of ham fried in the pan or a taste of lasagna coated with milk (when there was some) or sprinkled over it a handful of fried garden spinach, willow, cabbage, savoy cabbage, or cooked sauerkraut.
For me, the incomparable tastes are “pljukanci” (Istrian pasta) with a sauce from dry ribs, masquerading as a real feast if we have beside it a salad from rocket and potatoes, as well as the requirement that it is flavoured as recommended by Grandma: wine vinegar, but instead of oil, pancetta, bacon, fried and poured through the salad hot, like that. Or polenta, beside fried pork offal, or fried sausage and pork neck sprinkled with grated goat's cheese, or a dish of savoury mackerel.
As well as this, it was known when particular foods should be eaten: coffee and bread, early in the morning, quite early, through the closed shutters, or other morning meals (breakfast, brunch, snacks) between eight and nine o'clock, boiled eggs, polenta, fried eggs, fried potatoes, eli ča takovega, a snack of noontime gnocchi, fuži, macaroni, minestrone, and so on; dinner, (an easy dinner), vegetables and things like that, kumpiri spod čripnje (potatoes baked with onions) on a salad of peaches and posutice pasta.
It also needs to be said that although Istrian foods are very simple things to prepare, this does not mean that it is easy to prepare them. You will find here a recipe for kroštule, fried pastries – let's say, nothing simpler – but only for the rare hostess do they succeed in the way she needs, at once firm and soft, yet crisp and browned.
In a world that overwhelms us with things other than those around which we grew up, like fast food and ready-made meals, these age old Istrian dishes will perhaps likewise help us to remain people of this area, at least a little like the grandfathers who waited at the hearth in January for the members of the household that had come home at Christmas, knowing that the oak would shade them, hearing the Bora play through the rooves. They would ask for two, three or more hours of this peaceful time, passing roast potatoes from hand to hand, having a hearty sip of wine, remembering what it was like, exchanging what is and what might be tomorrow, renewing and creating... but for others, [it is enough] to taste the richness of the Istrian cuisine with the most valuable aspect, I think, of its character – a humble and restrained closeness to natural food.
(There are words in the Ča dialect that I’ve had a guess at. Sincere apologies! The Istrian version of the Ča dialect wasn't in the Croaticum syllabus. I also contacted Zagreb and was told that the publishing house had closed - MW.)