Istria may have been prized by Venice, France, Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia, but it was not a wealthy region. Marcus Tanner, in his notable work CROATIA writes that the Venetian Empire made economic slaves of its subjects, permitting them to sell their produce only to Venice and then setting the price. My mother Silvana said of her village Tar, ‘We grew vegetables and sold them to Venice.’ In my Istrian cookbook ISTARSKA KUHINJA Milan Rakovac writes that ‘in the first half of the nineteenth century, Istria was so ravaged by hunger that the Bishop Jurja Dobile sent a desperate appeal to Vienna.’
Even though my mother’s Mikatović family was wealthy enough to send their children away to school, Silvana’s accounts of her meals in Tar sound unvarying and monotonous, cooked only from food that was locally available.
‘We ate fish at my grandparent’s house almost every night’, she said. Hardy surprising since from Tar, on its hilltop, is a lovely view of the sea. Lunch differed more often and included gnocchi, pasta or risotto, but the meat or cheese fillings we might expect today were only made in the kitchen for such special occasions as Easter, Christmas or birthdays. Some winters they ate sausages and sauerkraut every single day.
Though the villagers in Tar cooked over open fires, Silvana’s family owned an oven with a door in which they burned wood. I would like to know where they got the wood, because the most striking difference between photographs of Istria in the 1920’s and those of today is the deforestation. A million tree trunks supported Venice, and Istrian wood was loaded onto ships in nearby Novigrad to sail across the gulf to that greedy seat of empire. What wood remained was used in every aspect of daily life, as the barren images of the 1920’s bear witness.
Silvana’s Slovenian grandmother prepared snails to eat by washing them three times in brine. She had a large marble tabletop into which two round holes had been cut, and this she used as the washbasin. One hole held clean water and the other used water which could then be thrown out. Vegetables were stored in the top of the house under the roof. Pomegranates were picked before Christmas when they were still slightly green and also placed under the roof to ripen when it was snowing outside.
Silvana remembered picking the tiny, fragrant wild strawberries out in the countryside in August a month before she went back to school. She said they hid under the leaves and were delicious. She remembered a fig tree in her family garden. In the vineyards, a fig tree was also planted at each end of a row of grapes.
Silvana said that she didn’t go into their kitchen when she was young, because that was for the cook. Her mother Dolores also wouldn't enter the kitchen as it was the servant's area, and not her world. Every morning the cook would ask Dolores what she would like for the main meal that day, then she would shop appropriately at the markets. The cook sprinkled lemon juice and sugar over berries two to three hours before they were eaten.
Fractious babies were settled with walnut brandy and the elderly, as today, ate prunes as a laxative.
Christmas seems to have the domain of Silvana's grandparents. Her grandfather decorated the tree, much to the delight of Silvana and her cousins, and then they went to midnight Mass. When they woke up, they found their grandfather in the kitchen basting the roast dinner.
Tanner, M CROATIA 1997 Yale University Press
ISTARSKA KUHINJA Istarska naklada