On Pašte and Patience

fullsizeoutput_55b8What a difference a week makes! School started this week in Pula, the tourist crowd is dwindling down to a enjoyable amount, and there is a hint of autumn in the air with the temperatures hovering in the mid-to-high 70s.  The rocky beaches that were swarming with people from all over Europe are now dotted with a few here and there, and we are not getting mowed down on our street by speedy German, Italian, Slovenian and Austrian drivers in a race to find the closest beachside parking spots.

With harvest season on the horizon, it’s fast becoming the popular food festival time here in Istria.  Istria is the peninsula we live on by the northwest side of Croatia just next to Italy and Slovenia.  Olive oil, truffles, wine, grapes, sir (cheese), prosciutto, and of course, the infamous Istrian truffles, are all celebrated in the fall months in Croatia. However, one food festival held mid-summer was all about another well-loved food here in Istria, “pašte” (pronounced “pash-tah”), or as we know it,  pasta.

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Fuži is the popular pasta handmade in Istria by the locals.  The spindle shaped delicacy can be found in restaurants and konobas (small homestyle taverns which cook food over an open fire) all over the peninsula.

Although in the U.S. pasta is primarily known as an Italian food, many people don’t realize that the Istrian peninsula was once a part of Italy.  Rome built the city of Pula, Venice ruled the peninsula in the 1500s, and most of the area went back to Italy after World War I for a period of time.  Because of this, many people in the area speak Italian or a mixture of Croatian and Italian. This language melting pot can be really confusing if you are trying out the few words you know in Croatian, and they look at you like you are crazy.  I speak from experience.  Anyway, this mixture of cultures also makes their Istarski fuži pasta quite delicious as a result.

We attended the Istarski Festival Pašte in July held in the courtyard of the beautiful village of Zminj with its small castle walls that were built in medieval times. The village is typical of many in Istria with its old town center sitting on top of a hill filled with beautiful stone buildings amidst cobblestone streets and topped with a bell tower from the Church of St. Michael. One of the amazing things about Croatia is that many of the festivities here are held among ancient buildings and structures that give ordinary events a priceless ambience. (For example, they hold pop concerts in the ancient Roman arena in Pula.)

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The view from the castle walls in Žminj where the Istarski Festival Pašte was held. Families from all over Istria attended the event. 

 

Traditions, traditions

My daughter Sarah and her husband Jonathan visited us mid-summer, and we had quite a good time on the old Kaštel (castle) grounds at the festival sipping Istrian wine, sampling craft beer, and eating the pasta. That is, once we got it.  It was quite an ordeal to achieve this and had to do with another little known fact about Croatians. They don’t have a lot of respect for the line, or queue as its known in the UK. This means they cut ahead sometimes.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

We saw this tradition in full effect at the festival as the line for the pasta buffet turned into just a mass of people just surrounding each other waiting and talking as more Croatians joined in to make the mass even larger.

Line Jumping Classifications

On a side note, I’ve noticed there are several type of line jumpers here:

First is the “here is my friend I haven’t seen in ages, let me talk to her and bring my whole family to join in the line in front of these people who have been waiting forever” line cutters.   Then there is the one person in line who is holding a spot for 10 other people who show up at various times in front of you, much to your surprise. Of course there is always “the meander in front of you pretending not to know how far the line goes back” cutter. The list goes on.

“Ah, yes, this is Croatian tradition,” says my tongue-in-cheek landlord Edvard.

When we waited at the police office for our visa applications, we found another type of line jumper. And there they even printed out numbers to avoid people skipping the queue. This type was the “I just have one small question for the clerk” line cutter. Needless to say, everyone in line had just one small question for the clerk. That’s why we had the numbers. But these people didn’t feel like waiting when they saw how long the line was and were so sincere in their pleas that the clerk often waited on them to the detriment of everyone else in line. Carolyn, James, Mike and I got pretty good at standing shoulder to shoulder and nose to back to block your garden variety line cutters when the ticket machine was broken at the station, which happened several times. Ah, those were trying days. Not really though.  It’s nothing we haven’t experienced waiting for a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, so I guess line jumpers are a universal problem. But I digress.

We made it!

We finally made it closer to the pasta buffet when a lady from the festival decided that the mob should be separated in half, and one half was brought to the other end of the buffet line. Then it was just mayhem and people were cutting like crazy. Mike and I have discussed many times that Croatia could really use some outside help in setting up more efficient processes. They were definitely needed here.

Finally we fought our way up to the unfortunate folks (I think it was three) that had the monumental task of serving all the different pastas to a hundred or so people and got our dishes. Of course the pasta was incredibly delicious (I’ve yet to have a bad pasta dish in Croatia), and it was served on really nice plates for festival fare, but next time we won’t come hungry. Or we’ll come after we try some Istarski pašte at a konoba first. Konobas are family run restaurants that cook a lot of their food over open fires in stone ovens. Rustic and quaint, they are an interesting and cozy experience all in themselves.

Anyway, Jonathan was really hungry and went back for second go in the line (he’s a brave soul) and accidentally ordered a ravioli that turned out to be a dessert. He thought it was shrimp ravioli because, of course, the signs were in Croatian.

He was very disappointed and almost considered a third attempt in the line, but alas, went and got a Croatian craft beer instead. Yes, they had that, too, at the festival. They had a whole section set up for a variety of craft beers with catchy names which the beer lovers in our group enjoyed immensely. And most importantly for my husband in that section was that they were playing an incredible selection of vintage rock music from English and American musicians, as well some really unique renditions, that made us feel right at home.

Back to the Pašte…

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What was really fun there was watching the ladies hand roll the different types of pašte. It was a beautiful process and was interesting to watch them roll out the dough and cut it, then shape it into what looked like tiny canollis to me. For one type, they just pulled off little pieces of dough from their dough ball and rolled them by hand. They had simple ingredients and they worked very fast. The festival offered their creations served with truffles, mushrooms,  meat and gravy, or vegetables and olive oil and cheese. Delicious!

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I know I’ve been complaining about the line cutters, but Croatians are extremely kind people, especially to foreigners in their country, and I don’t want to give the impression that they are not in any way. They really have been nothing but kind to us and part of the reason we like it here so much is the friendly nature of the people here. Croatians are also very loving, devoted parents, and their kids seem happy and carefree everywhere we go. At the festival they had tables set up for the children to make their own pasta with machines, and they were having a blast.

Croatian children got a chance to try their hand at making their own pasta at the Žminj Istarski Feste Pašte. They took their jobs very seriously.

So the moral of the story is to not go to the pašte fest hungry and have a little patience. Go with an open mind and an open heart.  Good advice for any visit to a festival!

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Here is a picture of my lovely daughter Sarah in front of some Roman ruins that were found during the construction of a building in Pula. The bench has a quote from US author Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Volim Te, Maslinovo ulje (I love you, Olive Oil)

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An olive grove sits in a valley on the way to the hilltop city of Motovun in the distance. (photo by Michael Gelpi)

Falling in Love with Istrian Olive Oil

I have a confession to make.  I have a new love.  Every morning since I discovered the taste of Istrian olive oil, I grab a small piece of fresh bread and douse it with this liquid gold.  And when I say “douse,” I mean douse it like I’m putting out a fire.  Sometimes if I don’t have any bread, I will put some in a spoon just to get a little of that peppery olive taste in my mouth.

I haven’t started drinking it…..yet.   Some people do as it is supposed to have health benefits if you drink a small cup of it first thing in the morning.   The flavor of the oil is very addictive, sort of like the spicy juice from the boiled crawfish in New Orleans where I was born.   And it makes your lips extra soft, too.

Apparently I am not alone in my love of olive oil, known as “maslinovo ulje” in Croatian. The golden liquid has been produced for over two thousand years on the Istrian peninsula, and the rise of the both the Greek and Roman civilizations has been attributed to this precious commodity. Why has it taken me 50 years to become so enamored?  Perhaps it is the superb quality of the oil here, and the prevalence of the trees around the area which serve as a constant reminder of the oil’s benefits.

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I took this picture of some olives on a recent day trip to Grodžjan, a small hilltop town in Croatia known for its art and music communities. Olives are usually harvested throughout the month of October in Istria.

Olive Groves R Us

When you ride through the Croatian countryside, one of the first things you notice is the ubiquitous olive groves that line every highway, roadway and path. The silvery sage leaves of the evergreen tree appear in gardens, parks and common areas all over the rocky Istrian Penisula and add a shimmery glow to the scenery of this wonderful part of the country.  Istria’s unique climate gives the oil a special, distinctive flavor and the location is one of the northernmost areas of olive cultivation. Most of the growers in Istria handpick their olives on a specific date that they choose for optimal ripeness and cold press them the very same day.

Olive oil production is so prevalent here that at a recent local wine festival we visited, someone was selling handmade wooden signs that said “Maslinovo Ulje,” (Olive Oil) specifically for olive oil producers. I mean, who else would buy a sign that says olive oil? How many producers could there be?

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Handmade wooden signs boasting olive oil (maslinovo ulje) were sold at a recent wine festival in Istria.

Well, according to the Colours of Istria website,  the Flos Olei Guide, which is the international guide to the world’s best extra virgin olive oils, has ranked Istria the best olive producing destination in the world several times over.  In fact, 77 of the highest-rated olive oil producers in the guide were located in Croatia, and of that 77, a whopping 75 of them were produced in the Istrian region.

And that’s just the ones that were internationally recognized, there are olive trees and groves in just about everyone’s backyards here. You can’t swing a mačka (cat)  here without hitting an olive tree. And there are plenty of mačke (cats) here, too.

The History of Olive Oil

The olive tree, known as the tree of eternity, is thought responsible for the rise of both the Greek and Roman Empires, who both acquired wealth through the trade of olive oil. What’s especially interesting about where we live in Pula is that you can see many of the artifacts from Roman times that were used in early olive oil production.

For example, in the area below the Roman Amphitheater in Pula, there are several ancient milling stones from Istria that were once used for pressing the olives. The area also houses decantation basins and special vessels called amphorae, which were used to store the oil. The Romans didn’t just use the oil for food, they also used it for lamp fuel, medicinal purposes and to anoint their royalty.

And how do I know so much about this oil? Well,  my friends Carolyn and James and I made a special trip to the Museum Olei Histriae (Museum of Olive Oil) in June to learn about this Istrian gold and how it is produced. The best part of the visit to the museum was that we got to taste several types of Istrian olive oil and learn about the components that make the oil so nutritious.

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James and Carolyn get ready to sample a variety of olive oils at the Museum of Olive Oil in Pula. A bitter, peppery taste is actually a sign of a fresh quality olive oil.
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Our teacher at the museum explains what to look for in a quality olive oil. The proximity to the sea, the mild winters and the location of the groves on western slopes give Istrian olive oil its distinctive flavor and high nutritional content, she said.

Oh, and we got to try this delicious dessert shown below, too. This scrumptious treat was simply cottage cheese with dried figs and walnuts that was drizzled with high quality Istrian olive oil. It was amazingly simple, but delicious.

My husband Mike wasn’t interest in attending the tasting when we went, but he is slowly coming around.  He now uses olive oil instead of mayonnaise on all of his sandwiches, and while he doesn’t totally share my passion for the oil, he loves my cooking which always tends to have a little olive oil thrown into it somewhere.

 

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Buyers Beware

Unfortunately because olive oil has such amazing reputation for its nutritional qualities and health benefits and is very expensive to process, many times the oils we buy in our grocery stores in the U.S. have been adulterated until the beneficial nature of the oil is removed. Companies will add cheaper oils such as soy and canola oil to cut costs.  I recently read an article that stated the fraudulent olive oil trade in Italy is a multi-billion dollar business.  Carolyn, James and I think we have become fairly good at picking out bad olive oil or what the Romans called lampante or “lamp oil.” But experts caution that even the taste can be deceiving as that can be doctored as well.

So before you start burning all your olive oil in your hurricane lamps, here are some tips for buyers trying to locate quality olive oil: first, look for the words “extra-virgin olive oil”on your label and a very recent date of production on the bottles. It is also recommended that you do some research about the company producing the oil in advance of purchase, and buy darker bottles which protect the oil from the light. I found this oil from the California Olive Ranch Co. that is made in the USA which has good reviews if you are interested in finding a good olive oil in the states californiaoliveranch.com .  Let me know how if you like it.

Carolyn and I will be making sure we are getting some genuine olive oil in October as we have already planned to go pick olives at a local company in exchange for some olive oil.  I’ll let you know how that goes in another post.

 

Perfectly Imperfect Bologna

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Reflecting back on our recent visit to Bologna in May, it’s amazing to me what a feast of the senses this city was and that we almost didn’t visit it.  You see when we planned our trip to Italy, we decided to visit Bologna only as a halfway point on our way to reach the picturesque towns of the Cinque Terre, the destination that seems to be on everyone’s bucket lists these days. In retrospect, what the Cinque Terre offered in scenic beauty, Bologna offered in dramatic contrasts and incredible history.

The city of Bologna is gritty, yet beautiful; it is emotional, yet festive, and it is inspiring, yet nonchalant. It is like taking a trip back to another century without losing any of the modern conveniences. It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to. And it’s hard to explain why, but I’ll try.

Before we start I have to embarrassedly admit that I didn’t really know much about Bologna except that its name was a famous coldcut I had eaten frequently as a child of the 70s. (Yes, who from New Orleans hasn’t had a bologna sandwich with mayo on Bunny bread?)  A little more research before our trip showed it was a foodie paradise in a country whose incredible food already tops the charts in most people’s hearts. It is located very close to Parma, where the famous Parmesan cheese and Parma hams are produced, and also near Modena, a city famous for its balsamic vinegar.

“It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to.”

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When we arrived and got lost trying to find our hotel, my first impression of the city was a little tainted by our lodging being so close to the train station.  Graffiti strewn walls and a few homeless people gave the area a little bit of a shady character, although we never really felt threatened, even late at night walking back to our apartment. Still, I wasn’t thrilled. Look at the street name on the wall below: VIA MALCONTENTI. It was sort of my mood when I arrived.

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However, the closer we walked to the city center, the more we were able to discern an interesting and eclectic montage of buildings of Venetian and Gothic architecture amidst a plethora of cafes and stores selling meats and cheeses.  The churches were rough and mildewed-looking with a hint of fertile green that showed plants surviving in nooks and crannies of the ancient buildings.  But despite the imperfections, the dramatic character was breathtaking in its detail.

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Modern dress shops with windows filled with chic, colorful Italian fashions sat next to ancient looking churches and walkways with dramatically high porticos. Alleyways were dotted with ancient churches on one side and rustic cafes and food stores touting incredible Italian food on the other.

Bologna was the ancient church of Basilica di San Petronio juxtaposed against a designer men’s fashion store boasting dapper suits with snappy little pocket handkerchiefs.

 

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It had a familiar “laissez le bon temps roulez” character that I recognized immediately from my hometown of New Orleans, but the impression was deeper, much older, and more dramatic.

People seemed very nonchalant and happy as they sat drinking espresso or Pignoletto, a local sparkling wine, with giant boards of proscuitto and cheese with tigelle, the local bread. The smorgasbord looked so good that we had to try it for ourselves.

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And look at the shops that graced the alleyways by our restaurant — full of ham, proscuitto, mortadella and a multitude of cheeses and salamis. What a feast!

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But a certain mystique that I quite couldn’t put my finger on at first permeated the atmosphere of the city.  Maybe it was the giant fountain of Neptune, or “Il Gigante,” that stood defiantly in the square surrounded by Gothic buildings with messages chiseled in ancient Latin.

The imposing statue of the ancient sea god casts a shadowy image at night against the buildings from another century, lending a certain poignancy and the unsettling feeling of “deja vu” or being in another time period.

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The statue of Neptune is almost 13 feet tall (4 m) and weighs almost 5,000 pounds (2,200 kg) and was built in the late 1500s. In this city of startling contrasts, the fact that the fountain of Neptune, a pagan sea god, was actually commissioned by the early Catholic Church in the 1500s shouldn’t surprise us. But the city was like that. Full of surprises. It was perfect, but not so much.

“It was perfect, but not so much.”

Maybe the mystique of the city came from knowing that the first university was founded in Bologna in 1088. And that the first anatomy theatre sat in the building near the square where pioneering physicians learned the mysteries of the human body. In the dark alleyways at night or as you walked under the shadowy grand porticos that lined the streets you could almost picture a doctor wandering back home thinking of the strange tissues or organs he had just seen inside a dead corpse found in a nearby grave. A little macabre, I know, but our modern medical profession was born with this knowledge.

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Maybe the mystique of the city came from its two towers, Le Due Torri, defining symbols of Bologna that were built in the early 1100s which stood next to each other, one slightly leaning and the other definitely leaning. They are old and dirty and tipping to the side, but they survive from the 12th century and are over 900 years old. I mean, what would  you look like at 900 years old?

And then you turn a corner and you are in front of a shop selling swank little designer purses.

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And then there was the Basilica di San Petronio that looked half finished or stranger still, like is was created in two different epochs. It had the oddest looking exterior that I’ve ever seen in such a monumental church.

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The bottom half of the church is made of marble and the top portion is made of brick. It is considered the largest brick church in the world and one of the ten largest churches in the world, according to Jacopo Ibello of the Heritage Times.  The main reason for its fractured appearance, according to Ibello, was that the city ran out of money. He also said the city had plans for San Petronio to be the largest church in the world, larger than St. Peter’s in Rome, but these plans were sabotaged by jealous popes in Rome who financed buildings on either side of the church to stymie construction.

But its dual colored facade was a masterpiece in its own glory that contributed to the city’s imperfect perfection.

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Inside the church was another startling find, one of the largest meridians in the world created by astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1657. The 220-foot (67 m) line cuts through the basilica on an angle, aligned perfectly north-south, and the sun shines down through a hole in the ceiling on the timeline each day (barring cloudy weather) to show the date.  Mike and I went back to the basilica twice in order to catch the dramatic moment when the light hits the line (see photo below). It felt like a miracle as the sun hit the line right at the correct date, May 14; but of course, it was science. The merging of the scientific with the spiritual was just one more thing I found fascinating about the city of Bologna.

The circle of light hits the brass meridian line in the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna at noon each day to show the date. The line was constructed in the church in 1657 by astronomer Giavinni Cassini and is the longest in the world.

But the fact this beautiful basilica that looks half-finished is the cultural center of the city is what I loved about this city of contrasts. It evoked a stirring emotion that was hard to place. A poignancy of feeling of knowing things can be leaning and unfinished and broken and still be beautiful. That the old can sit with the new, and that things didn’t have to match or be totally uniform to be beautiful and well-revered.

After all, the beauty of age, of wisdom, of discovery and of knowledge aren’t always beautiful in the “picture perfect” sense. We can look at the faults, the neglect, the disrepair and remember that life is not always about perfection but the struggle for beauty, for meaning, for timelessness. It’s about the effort that goes into building things that may or may not last, but whose foundations are bigger and stronger than we are. The quest for knowledge that is dirty and messy, but can lead to enlightenment and discoveries.

And then there was this guy….

 

I took this video when we first stumbled upon this talented singer. We wound up finding him the next day singing in the Piazza Maggiore near the Basilica di San Petronio and spent a few hours sitting at an outdoor cafe listening to him.  He brought me to tears several times with his emotional renditions of songs I knew.  The songs he was singing were American or English ones, and he looked Asian, so I don’t know why I was so surprised when he started speaking in rapid fire Italian to the group of people gathered to listen to him. I mean, it was Italy. Why wouldn’t he speak Italian? But he sang in English so perfectly that I just expected him to be an American or an Englishman.

 

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Like the singer and the metal sculpture by Nicola Zamboni in the photo above, these incongruities were what I loved about Bologna.

It was perfectly imperfect– a masterpiece of combining the best of all ages. It was a mosaic of sorts that picked up all the broken pieces of the centuries and put them together in such a way that they were whole and beautiful.

And it touched my heart.