March 21, 2010
Beautiful "Brac" and Baked Capsicum
Sitting down to watch the wonderful series called "Francesco's Mediterranean Voyage", it didn't take long for me to feel immersed in the Adriatic Coast and the beauty of it all. It transported me to my trip with Mitch last year and we both sat smiling and feeling totally mesmerized at the places Francesco filmed. The Croatian islands and the town of Dubrovnik were so entrancing. I remember we loved those places so much. We had too many highlights and Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, Pula and Brac were definitely amongst them.
I recall getting off our 'German Wings' aeroplane after we landed in Split. A bus drove us to the town, dropped us off and our trip together really began right there. Before this, we were terribly spoilt and escorted everywhere by Mitchell's best friend Maximillian and his beautiful mother Gaby. If it were not for them, we most certainly would not have experienced parts of Germany like we did. Germany, however, is not on my agenda today. Croatia is.
As soon as we got off the bus, we were literally inundated with Croatian ladies flashing photos of their premises and beckoning us to pick them. We chose one lady, and as we followed her, we realised another two couples were also struggling with their luggage trying to keep up with this lady. She asked us all where we came from and everyone gave us a special "sigh" upon hearing we were Australians. The distance I guess.
I was in two minds whether or not to say something in the Balkan language to this lady. You see, my ancestry is on the Serbian side, actually Montenegrin to be precise, and there has been major animosity and hatred amongst these people for centuries. Wars, religious differences, border conflicts, the list goes on. But essentially we are the same people. The Croatian language is very similar to the Montenegrin language. Having just arrived I chose to keep quiet and remain "Australian only".
As she began to point out where to place each of us, for some reason I piped up and said something in Montenegrin. She stopped, stepped back and stared at me. I thought to myself, "Oh oh". Now for sure we shall get the crappiest of her rooms. She looked at me, smiled and said "so, you are one of us". I couldn't believe it. We scored her best room so the American and the Swedish couples were not impressed. And all of a sudden, my son was very happy and relieved to have me there. There is no doubt, my ability to speak the language gave us special privileges and better treatment over other "tourists". Not fair I know, but them the facts.
Here is Mitch standing in the entrance leading to our room. Scary.
The cutest bakery ever two doors down.
Our place of lodging.
We only stayed two days in Split, a stopover on the way to our real destination, Montenegro. However we were utterly charmed with the way of life and with the preservation of the "old" ways. We explored the "old town" and the markets. Thank god for Mitch and his fine sense of direction. I really would have become lost in the alley upon alley ways that snaked all through the city. Amazing and gorgeous but also a reminder that the place was built like this making it possible to escape from the pursuing enemy of the day causing the enemy confusion and enabling the defenders to trap and capture them. Actually, more likely kill them. Harsh, but such was life.
We decided to take a ferry out to one of the Croatian Islands and we chose Brac, pronounced "Brarch". We were so glad we did. The island was fairly quiet with not many tourists. We caught a bus and the hilarious driver took us all over the island. It was breathtakingly beautiful. There were literally hundreds of vineyards, beautiful old stone houses, vegetable gardens galore, archways covered with overgrown vines, little villages with rocky roads hardly big enough to accomodate one vehicle let alone two. The water was never far away, a continual reminder that Brac was an island, but for all the seasaltiness heavily weighing in the air, we were amazed at the green trees and the greenery in general. Stunning.
I soaked up this beautiful visual feast however poor Mitch fell asleep and he missed some of the most gorgeous scenery. I was rather upset actually. The driver talked and I let on that I understood him. We spoke for a while and then he prodded Mitch and said "wake up boy, your mama didn't pay for you to sleep", "look at the sexy young girls walking there", "how can a young hot blooded fellow like you just sleep and miss all this", "wake up or I shall come and shake you myself". Gosh we laughed. He did wake up and the driver threatened to stop the bus if he slept again. Sure enough Mitch closed his eyes and he did! It was so funny. Mitch did not dare shut his eyes after that. It was all in good fun and the driver himself was quite a story.
He picked up locals along the way, didn't charge them the full fare if anything at all depending on who they were, and as loud as you would they discussed the news of the day. I recall an old lady got up and he ordered her to sit back down. He pulled the bus over, got out of his seat, picked up and carried the old lady's shopping bags out of bus and placed them under a big, shady tree. He then helped the old lady off the bus and asked who was coming for her. She said she could manage, thanked him, and after some more reassurance that she was fine, he hopped back on and continued to drive. My heart melted. Mitch thought that was rather special too. With all the bends and tight negotiations on this road, Mitch later declared he was a very skilled driver. The driver told us this was his life and he never felt bored. Disembarking the bus, we bade him farewell and we thanked him for the most wonderful afternoon. Mitch and I still smile when we think of that driver. I wish there were more like him in the world.
I love this photo because my foot is in the waters of the Adriatic Sea in Brac. It is so clear and so clean you have to look really hard to see where the water comes up to on my leg.
I feel so contented sitting here remembering our trip and it is funny the things that stay with you. A simple pleasure such as dipping my leg in the water. Shaking my head at the spectacular beauty of an "unknown" island. Marvelling at the courtesy, humour and character of a bus driver. Of course there was so much more, but both you and I only have so much time to spare.
If there is one food that connects all the states of the former Yugoslavia it would have to be the "paprika" or capsicum or banana pepper or bell pepper or whatever you call them in your neck of the woods. This is one food that resonates deeply with me and one food that always triggers childhood memories whenever I smell them baking in the oven. Yes, I did say "baking". Not grilling or broiling. Baking.
I was brought up with peppers long before many Australians had ever heard or seen them. In the sixties, this was one veggie that simply was not available on the greengrocer's shelf. You grew them or you simply did without. And grow them my folk did. There were always peppers marinating in the fridge, or being tossed into an omlette, getting ready to be stuffed or simply being baked. I watch these days as most recipes and shows and books talk about "grill" them till skin has blackened, then peel. Sure you can do this. But it is not being respectful to the capsicum or the pepper. It is fast and it is in keeping with getting things done as quickly as you can. A reflection in general in today's society.
I find grilling them till blackened is a shortcut that sees the pepper lose it's character. Like grilling a lamb chop, the fat is rendered sure enough; but you are left with a drier piece of meat, no fat, but also no moisture and lots of shrinkage. The same goes with peppers. They shrink and they lose their sweetness if they get too black. Your timing has to be good. You can get them black quickly and not even soften the underside if you are not careful. Grrrr. Awful.
To be truly respectful and totally Balkan the pepper needs to be baked. The flavours only then have time to develop, the heat gradually allows liquid from the vegetable to seep into the baking dish and this moisture helps to "steam" the skin away from the flesh. A touch of colour is good, infact necessary, but we absolutely do not want 'blackened'. That is just another word for burnt. And burnt peppers are not what this Balkan aspires to create.
Enough capsicums or banana peppers to fill a baking dish
the very best olive oil
onion or spring onion if desired
Place the peppers into a baking dish; drizzle with some oil, sprinkle with a little water. Place into a cold oven and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour in a moderate oven till the vegetables have collapsed and the skin slightly browned. Allow to cool in baking dish. When cooled, peel skin, and layer into a dish. Sprinkle with some good quality sea salt, slurp with a generous amount of oil, flavour with a crushed clove of garlic. You may use onion if you prefer and it is definitely a very Balkan thing to add a good splodge of white vinegar. I usually don't, however if I am wanting to use it immediately then I may add a teaspoon of Balsamic. It all depends on the mood I am in. And if you know a Balkan the way I know a Balkan, watch out - their mood sees you being best friend one minute and worst enemy the next!