Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Meals Abroad

It would be impossible--and not worth anyone's time--to recount all the piddling details of my two week sojourn in Croatia. But some details are worth repeating. One afternoon, on the second floor of our rented Korcula villa, three heaping platters appeared before us, bearded mussels and whole prawns threatening to spill off onto the floor. The mussels were clean and uncomplicated in a way you never find in New York and the prawns, though requiring some lobster-like effort, yielded large tails of supple meat. It certainly beat an equally memorable--if less successful--meal served to us in that same Korculan villa: whole squid, cartilage intact. We weren't expecting this particular version of calamari when it arrived on our plates.

But nevermind. There were other meals worth remembering. An afternoon boat cruise took us to a smaller, less-populated island, Lastovo, where the savvy restaurant-owner of Augusta Insula announced his specialty as "Adriatic lobster and pasta." Adriatic lobster is notoriously expensive and, unlike its northeastern kin, dispossessed of claws. I wouldn't have necessarily wasted my time had the man not suggested it and pulled this admiring American to the side of a dock, where he pulled cages up from the Adriatic. He told me to pick my lobsters, and pick I did, and later, they arrived, chopped in thirds, amidst a tomato sauce over al dente linguine. We scooped the meat from the sliced bodies with our forks and fingers, washing our hands in lemony finger bowls. Before the lobster, we had been presented with fried bread (filled with caraway seeds) and fish carpaccio (tuna, monkfish, anchovies, and shrimp) dressed with fine Croatian olive oil and lemon.

Perhaps my favorite meal was in the town of Pupnat, close to the commercial hub of the island of Korcula. Konuba Mate is owned by a single family and they grow and make everything in house, the Croatian answer to the slow food movement. Fresh squeezed lemonade came sugarless; we were expected to sweeten it ourselves with the bright pink sage syrup provided ("pink from the blossoms," our server told us). An antipasto platter included a fresh goat cheese that squeaked when we ate it, juicy grapes, charred eggplant and eggplant pate, aged goat cheese from the same local goats, split fresh figs, ham smoked right there, bitter olives, and a loaf of fresh bread with carraway seeds. For dinner, we shared grilled and quartered lamb along with grilled apples, onions, eggplant, peppers, and zucchini. The peppers in Croatia are the light green of cucumbers, and, like cucumbers, are served with virtually everything. Thin rolled veal came with little polenta cakes and a hand rolled pasta, resembling the pici of Tuscany, floated in a creamy wild fennel sauce (fronds only, a bit to my chagrin). The goat cheese appeared once more, this time in fresh ravioli with sage and brown butter. More pasta, this time with an almond pesto made with fresh basil and tomatoes. And, as with most Croatian meals, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, basil, and judicious amounts of local olive oil.

For dessert, we passed a carrot cake stuffed with a layer of cheese, a creme caramel, a flourless--though not nutless--chocolate cake, a fried pastry resembling funnel cake and dusted with confectioner's sugar, and two granitas, one rosemary-lemon verbena, one lavender-thyme. Various grappas appeared and disappeared, this one herbal, that one amber from the effects of a local fruit whose name we never caught. I drank a glass of dessert wine made there. During our time in Croatia, we never drank anything but the most local of wines, and they were good enough for drinking, if not for some laborious oenophilic conversation.

What else should I recount? Perhaps a meal caught on our way back to Dubrovnik, where we would, two days later, catch our plane home. The town of Mali Ston lies at the base of green Croatian hills, directly on the flat waters where famous oysters and mussels are harvested daily. Even the nicest Mali Stonian restaurants sell their oysters for the equivalent of $1.50 apiece, flat, briny things that make you wonder why you would ever want to eat an oyster anywhere else. Kapetenova Kuca, of course, served far more than oysters on the halfshell. So, too, arrived gently fried oysters, and then a seafood salad of marinated black and white mussels, rock shrimp, prawns, and octopus. Next, two towering dishes of every seafood available: whole cooked fish resembling sea bass, fried white fish and prawns, grilled rock shrimp on skewers, steamed clams and mussels and white mussels (tough to open with a dense, meaty texture), whole prawns that had been cooked in oil in a pan, small flash-fried bait fish, grilled and fried zucchini and eggplant. The list goes on. We ate until we couldn't any longer and then we threw the towel in and I ordered a cherry cheesecake, festooned with sour cherries.

They say Croatia is all about the ocean, and it is. The Adriatic is everywhere and it certainly is nice to look at. But I'll remember, along with that sliver of blue cutting up the coast from white rock, along with the silvery olive trees and the figs plump on the trees and the pomegranates beginning to bend branches forward with their August weight, the unmistakable brine of a Croatian oyster, lingering just long enough.

Augusta Insula
Lastovo, Croatia

Konuba Mate
Pupnat, Croatia

Kapetenova Kuca
Mali Ston, Croatia

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