Autumn Fare, A New Language, New Friends
There is something so beautiful about passing by a centuries old olive grove bathed in the waning sunlight of autumn. The glow that casts a spotlight on a centuries old olive tree seems to light a fire inside my soul and make me realize that our time here on earth is impermanent.
As we began our journey home to the USA on board a bus to Zagreb last year, we passed through many centuries old villages perched on hilltops that have become familiar to us in our travels: towns with their stone church towers rising above the small medieval villages who like the autumn season have seen sunshine and populations waning, but are looking past winter to an eternal spring.
A persimmon tree captures my attention naked of all its leaves but bursting with the red orange globes that contrast sharply with the stark chocolate brown branches.
Even in the cold approaching winter, Croatia is a beautiful place.
As we passed the mountains just a few hours down the highway on the road to Zagreb, the season immediately changes. The fir trees are carpeted in a winter snow looking postcard pretty, and we stop at a roadside gas station and marvel at the snowy wonderland surrounding us. The Croatian countryside and its villages are magical in every season.
We were in one of these tiny villages last autumn with our Croatian teacher Suzana. We feel lucky to have met “Suki” who has become not only our language teacher, but a good friend. She’s from Pula, a true Croatian native that speaks four languages and runs a language school in the city.
With parents from both Croatia and Italy, Suki has taught us so much about the customs and culture here in Istria. She’s brought us delicious local pastries to some of our lessons and wine and sarma for dinner. As part of our Istrian education she took us on a “field trip” last December to the medieval town of Svetvinčenat where we walked through its castle grounds, then stopped and sat with other townspeople in the town cafe.
We had a macchiato and the ubiquitous rakija or Croatian brandy locals sip before dinner or after. After stopping there, off we went to the tiny medieval village of Roč for dinner.
The town’s name is pronounced like “roach,” the insect well-known in the Southern USA, but fortunately the roach is uncommon in our home abroad. It’s one of the few things I don’t actually miss from Louisiana.
Only about 150 people live in the tiny village of Rôc that sits up on a 374-meter mountain in a beautiful fertile valley. Although small, the village has a rich culture and history tied to Croatia literacy and the Glagolitic script. This medieval script (known here as Glagoljica) is the first Slavic alphabet and was used by Croatian priests in the early 11th century. You can find the script in some of the churches throughout the country.
In Roč, we would indulge in a traditional Istrian winter feast with Suki. The small family restaurant we visit there is called a konoba, a typical tavern type establishment in Croatia, normally run by a family in a warm rustic home-like atmosphere with a fireplace and just a few tables. The Rôcka Konoba is tucked inside the city “Vrata,” or gate, which boasts its city’s founding date of 1064.
The konoba offers warm comfort on the cold overcast day we spent in Roč. We began our meal with the traditional Istrian soup or Istarska Supa as it’s known here. The soup is made from warmed red Istrian wine mixed with fresh olive oil and a dash of sugar served over crunchy fire-toasted homemade bread. It is simple fare that was originally created as the meal of Istrian farmers and workers.
It is served in the traditional vessel, a small pitcher called a bukaleta, and is passed around from person to person. It definitely takes the chill out our bones and is surprisingly delicious. The warmth of the wine combined with the olive oil and toasted bread is very satisfying, and I try to imagine coming in out of the cold after a day working on an Istrian farm to be greeted with this warm indulgence.
We had tried the soup previously a month earlier when we had visited another medieval Istrian city about 7 km away from Roč called Hum, billed as the smallest city in the world with only 17 residents. We had gone there with our expat friends Shivani and Gregory and marveled together at the tiny city complete with a old stone clock tower and ancient city walls. Sitting in the small deserted city in the dark of night in autumn sipping Istrian supa was another unique Istrian experience that I’ll never forget.
Since wine is almost as cheap as water in Istria, we are already planning on how we can make this at home for dinners in the winter. As Suki is famous for saying to us, “Why not?”
The Istrian soup is followed by truffle and cream covered ravioli, gnocchi with a beef goulash, and seared meat on a bed of arugula. All the pasta is handmade and you can really taste the difference. We are approaching full at this point when another course of homemade sausages, pork tenderloins and beef tips on a bed of sauerkraut shows up. It’s too delicious to stop at this point, and so we eat as much as we can and pack the rest for dinner tomorrow. The sausage was especially delicious as it tasted like it had actual chunks of meat, not just ground up beef or pork. And the sauerkraut here is not as tart as it is in the states, much milder and more palatable in my opinion.
The fire next to us, the lively conversation and the cozy atmosphere of the place lulls us into a happy satiated place, and we are about to bust when there are homemade frittules brought out to us. The little balls of fried dough are dusted with powdered sugar and are reminiscent of a denser version of the New Orleans beignet. There’s always room for dessert.
Our friends Carolyn and James enjoyed this meal so much they returned there around Christmas with their children. Carolyn told me later that James got so comfortable by the fire that he fell asleep. It’s that kind of a place.
Our meal ends this visit as most do in Croatia with a shot of Istrian rakija. The Croatians believes it aids in digestion and who are we to disagree? Depending on the type you get, it can either taste like a cross between jet fuel and licorice, or as a delicious sweet berry or honey liqueur. Thankfully we get the berry (or the ladies version) and end our delicious dinner at Konoba Ročka.
We journeyed on to New Orleans last Christmas and were able to spend it with all of our family eating Louisiana cuisine like stuffed mirlitons, roasted turkey, pecan pies, pralines and gumbo. This Christmas we’ll be celebrating in Croatia. Last winter the time we spent with our children, our friends and family was delightful beyond words after being gone so long from the USA.
But this delicious meal in this tiny medieval village on the cusp of winter where people a thousand years ago were working, creating languages, eating and surviving, and the warm feeling of friendship made this dinner such a warm and wonderful memory. It is one of many here that I’ll carry with me in my heart forever.