In Flight Istria Day 2: Tito’s Manservant

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I sometimes feel like the only adult in the world. It’s an arrogant feeling, I’m aware, but it’s more a view of assumed maturity; seeing people making the same mistakes I’ve made before, the same clichéd patterns of behavior cropping up. So here I am in the back of a van driven by an admitted drunk, who’s arguing with the professor about the meaning of life. In the back, our cameraman is being unsubtly romantic to the only girl, an American TV presenter who’s trying to sleep. Occasionally, he pauses to shout directions, or condemn the music.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 1: the face of Miro, the owner of Tomas’ restaurant, as he slumps for a second mid-song, great wrinkled chops and soupsucker moustache sagging onto the pressed-white waiters’ uniform he’s worn since he was (former Yugoslavian dictator) Tito’s personal waiter. In the background, amidst memorabilia, pictures of him show him wearing the same outfit progressively younger, long grey-white locks then black, great truffled nose shrunken to youthful proportions. He waves an arm over the many plates of rare Bosphorin (Istrian Ox) dishes he’s prepared and tells us stories about Tito being a secret drunk.

(The drunk driver is claiming the road ahead is foggy. We point out the road is clear and his eyes are foggy. He tries to clean his glasses.)

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Hi-resolution mental snap 2: The Cave of Pazin. A normal town and Venetian castle, at the end of a normal street. Rounding the castle (small, more like an elaborate town hall), there’s a terrace and balcony. Walking closer to its edge, there appears a pit the area of Grand Central which just drops and drops. Buildings cluster on the rock right to the edge of the hole. Beneath the cliff face, there’s a ten-storey cavern that has whole fallen trees clustered in its maw, looking like twigs from up here. It’s deeper than St Paul’s is high, easily. My head spins looking through the camera zoom and I have to step back from the edge, sharply. To my right, an old building is slowly toppling, abandoned, into the depths; elsewhere a terrifying zipline crosses the shallowest part of the hole.

The driver stops the van suddenly. He’s concerned about the two bottles of wine rolling around his feet while driving, worried that the police will stop him. He talks to himself as he packs them in the boot. The TV presenter observes this, worried. The driver starts the van up and immediately takes a wrong turn into the police station parking lot. We all laugh, sadly, and go quiet as a police car goes slowly past. The romantic is quoting music lyrics as come-on lines.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 3: truffles, everywhere. Truffle prosciutto, truffle pasta, truffle cheese. Walking into the restaurant in Hum, the world’s official smallest walled town, your head is hit by the scent, swamping all other flavours and smells, like the fantastic musk of a bestiary. The mayor of the town brings two jars of truffles that are labelled at unreal prices, just to show, before sloping off for a soup by himself. I wander the streets and take photos of walls, corners, and bricks.

At 2.45am, we’re still driving, this time through Pazin in the mist. I’m terrified that we’ll fall into the Cave. I’m sure they said our farmhotel was close… But then the driver admits we’ve been driving the wrong way for 30 minutes. He starts swearing about Apple Maps in Croat before switching the radio to something like Madness and cranking the volume up.

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Hi-resolution mental snap 4: Miro is singing and has put his arm around my shoulders. It is a sad song so I, all six foot bearded 13 stone, start faking crying, which cracks him up. He tells us more about Tito, when he waited on him on Brione Island in Vanga. What was he like? “A real fucker… The First Lady was too posh… He had a secret room behind the library bookcases. No-one knew what was going on there. I think that was where he went to lie down! Tito was drunk all the time. Loved Martell brandy. Always he had a taster for the food and drink- except for Martell, he trusted Martell. I gave him the last Martell in his life, before he went to Ljubljana to die.” Then the singing and accordion-playing starts and our driver starts drinking…

In Flight Istria Day 1: Agrotourism

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I barely have a ticket. I don’t really know where I’m going. I’m told it’s Croatia but I don’t know where. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do when I get there. I do know that it’ll probably be okay, so I’m not really panicking. The mountains beneath the plane loom like alien snowcones, the lake shores are edged with white. The fat Croat behind me snores again. He wakes, aggressive later, and elbows his way a few steps ahead as we line up to get off.

(Later) I got met at the airport by Vedran and his crew. All is fine. Vedran is a worldly Croat who’s doing a PHD in political science on the side. He’s easy to divert onto conversations about philosophy and politics, but his first love is local food. Gastronomy is why I’m here.

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(Later still). We drove for five hours. We drove through the snowy mountains. The houses mainly alternate between newish German-style villas and abandoned local wooden styles, though there’s a smattering of other architectures. As we get up into the mountains, the snow creeps up the walls of the houses, until some of them are simply buried and uninhabited. There’s hours of woods, cliffs, snow, dotted houses with shacks and wood stores. Then we go down, down, down, past a bay of houses, past great craggy mountains (“what’s that one called?” I ask, of a four-pronged peak. “Rocky”, is the rough translation. Similarly, the large town we pass is called “River”.), through tunnels and (I’m sagging now, conversation faded).

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We finally, finally, FINALLY, arrive at agrotourism Ogrone and are mobbed by dogs. The place is based entirely on local produce – everything made here uses only ingredients from the farm itself – chickens, salad, potatoes are all grown here. The lady running it speaks no English and has the charming guileless appearance of a homely, nice middle-aged lady who loves taking in visitors. Signs around the walls testify that she’s more than that; apparently, she won the best rural woman (peasant) prize, amongst many others. And, aside from the roaring fire of Ogrone, where she cooks up a thick luxurious minestrone and a fire-baked chicken stew, she also runs several other businesses around the area. Today, she was approached by one of the big political parties to be their electoral candidate; she turned them down.

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Bed is in a silent house. I’ve no idea where we are but I’m full and tired. Tomorrow, apparently, I’m going to be interviewed by Radio Pazin. God help us all.

Holidays in the Kaiber Kush

All dreams begin and end with an elipsis… …so I’m feeling a bit lonely right now. My friends have all bummed off and left me to entertain myself, except one who I’m just walking up to the top floor of the hotel to say goodbye to, before I go and find something to do. We get to the top floor, and it’s a bit like an modernist pub, with banquette seating and high windows that show arid, impossible old mountains scraping at the air. It turns out my friend is meeting a buncha people including Peter Kay, the northern comedian, so I do my balloon trick (something involving a highly-inflated balloon and pratfalls, as far as I can remember) and Peter Kay outdoes me, without even getting up, by punning about balloons, whilst doing a trick where the balloon cord is trapped under his buttocks.

To the tune of: Leadbelly – Ham An’ Eggs

All dreams begin and end with an elipsis… …so I’m feeling a bit lonely right now. My friends have all bummed off and left me to entertain myself, except one who I’m just walking up to the top floor of the hotel to say goodbye to, before I go and find something to do. We get to the top floor, and it’s a bit like an modernist pub, with banquette seating and high windows that show arid, impossible old mountains scraping at the air. It turns out my friend is meeting a buncha people including Peter Kay, the northern comedian, so I do my balloon trick (something involving a highly-inflated balloon and pratfalls, as far as I can remember) and Peter Kay outdoes me, without even getting up, by punning about balloons, whilst doing a trick where the balloon cord is trapped under his buttocks.

The landscape is like this, but more craggy.

Deflated, I say goodbye and head downstairs. I head out into the sunbathing area, which is a big crescent of white sand crammed with cheap loungers, that backs up against the brick walls of the hotel. The hotel looks awfully like a power plant converted into a villain’s lair; it isn’t, but it just looks like that. I sit on a lounge and, wondering what to do, stare at “the pool”. It’s a horrible oily dark colour and they’ve just poured water between the (obviously imported) sand bank and the hotel’s thick circle wall. I was thinking about a swim, but now I’m not; especially as a passer-by points out the ominously large outflow in the wall.

Poached egg dish
Good Eggs.

So I go for a walk instead, passing through a gap in the cyclopean wall. Outside, there’s a mountainous desert, with sand-riddled rocks pushing their red extremities up through a thin layer of grey sand. Looking back the hotel is totally alien to the landscape but also very much the focal point of it – how I always imagined Gormenghast to squat in its environs. I go a little off the track, and am just turning to empty some receipts out of my pocket. When I turn back, I’m on a precipice; thinking now, I realise it’s a flashback to climbing Mount Olympus mixed with crawling to the edge of Masada. I have bad vertigo – I can’t go near edges – and here I just collapse into a squat and wait for the feeling to go enough that I can move. There’s a hole worn in the red sandstone that has an excellent view of a desert floor far below. I’m completely concealed from the road here, and I hear lots of noise, shouting and clashes; the hotel’s been attacked! I stay hidden in my cubbyhole.

Abruptly, through another hole to my right, a square pan appears and an Arabic voice instructs me to cook some eggs for their leader. They’ve found me. Quickly, I poach some eggs, and a floating Wii-style icon starts moving them around, feeding them to an unseen face. He mops it all up, though it’s strange to see poached eggs slice themselves open; they’re perfectly cooked, thankfully. Next the rock fades and a strong, handsome woman’s face appears. Beneath it is a name in stone-cut Cyrillic – Katerin – as I realise my next challenge is Katherine the Great, my focus sort of zooms in on her, as her skin turns the colour of blue frost. I imagine there are more dictators waiting – and I get cooking…

Little Birds get crunchier every day

(This started out as a Facebook comment then I realised I could write about it for days…)

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie… it’s not so long ago that starlings, pigeons and so forth were delicacies – think quails’ eggs, larks’ tongues in aspic, and that rare Ortolan bird that French Gourmands still eat illegally

Why did we stop eating fiddly things like these little birds? Firstly, cos we killed lots of them – small things go first in the delightful brutalism of man’s kingdom, especially small tasty things with lots of meat on their bones. The ones we’ve not hunted to extinction are the ones we didn’t domesticate so either we couldn’t or they weren’t worth it. The tasty, wholesome wild animals mostly got eaten to extinction (like the Roman’s favourite spice, Silphium they just couldn’t be cultivated) and the nasty stuff is what we’re left with.
Second, the ones that are left are ‘vermin’ – something we call them because we’ve turned the world into our plaything, there aren’t that many niches left that we haven’t bulldozed or filled, and anything that both manages to successfully buck our absent-minded attempts at extinction and make itself unappetizing or a carrier of disease needs a jolly good perjorative name!
Most importantly, we don’t eat them because we’re can’t be arsed – consumer culture means that we’ve bred loads of stupid things that won’t run away and taste much better, so it’s aristocrats, gourmands, the poor or the starving who’ll chase after something that’s become so damn difficult to catch. Even the toffs prefer to hunt things that are good and easy to kill – where’s the challenge in shooting the stupidest bird in these islands, the Pheasant, with a shotgun? Or a big deer? Hunting a bear with a sword, now that’s a good challenge.
I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to eat wild birds, except that there’ll be something tastier and cheaper you can get at your butchers. So what are the delicacies worth eating these days? I reckon the outré, the funny, or the challenging. So, for challenging, how about Live Octopus, like in the movie Oldboy?

For challenging, why not get an everyday food that could kill you, like Casava or Ackee, the former which is a good source of cyanide if prepared badly, the later hypoglycin (also poisonous)? If you want something more exotic, a good bet is the puffer fish sushi, Fugu, laden with lovely neurotoxins that paralyse and kill in a moment. And if you’re looking for something illegal, dangerous and probably horrible how about Bear Paw?