The bakalarities of summer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
"There is no sincerer love than the love of food" (George Bernard Shaw)

Submitted: January 11, 2017

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Submitted: January 11, 2017



“Bakalar na bijelo,” says Nenad. Bakalar is some kind of paste made of fish; it doesn’t sound too interesting so I opt for anchovies to accompany my glass of white wine. It’s winter, just after the New Year’s day and rather cool, and we are in no hurry to leave the warmth of konoba – a typical Croatian tavern. The place is almost empty today, but Nenad assures me that it is quite lively in the season. I assume this also stands true for the town of Rovinj itself. Some restaurants here practically cry “summer tourists”. The konoba we are in is located away from the marina and the paths of the indiscriminately hungry, yet still close to the central town square which opens onto the sea.

Before I get a chance to examine the details of the interior decoration, which include musical instruments, fishing gear and various knick-knacks probably older than me, our appetizers are served on an oblong metal plate, sparse garnish of lemon and parsley not distracting the attention from the fish. Bakalar is a lump of white mass that resembles to me a processed version of the so-called “crab salad” – the staple dish of Russian family feasts and workplace cafeterias, made with surimi sticks and mayonnaise. Still, it looks safe enough to try.

I put a forkful of the surprisingly thick mass on a slice of soft crusty bread in hopes of making the taste tolerable.

There is nothing tolerable about bakalar. It is simply beautiful. Rich and gentle fish flavour captured in the texture of a spread – it may sound like a convenience food trick, “nature-identical flavourings, no preservatives”, but I know, I can taste it that this is the real thing, cooked in the very kitchen I can glimpse from our table, no tricks, fresh and simple. I reach for another slice of bread, and Nenad, chuckling in approval, puts some more bakalar on it.

Half a year later, revisiting the same konoba, we unanimously decide on the appetizer. Actually, bakalar is available pretty much everywhere in the region, being a local specialty, yet it is most appropriate to have it here, sitting outside and enveloped by the buzz of a busy pedestrian street. Rovinj isn’t just lively in summer, it’s downright crowded; to the passers-by who are taking photos of the picturesque tavern, our table is merely a part of the evening scene, and to me they blend into the background themselves, supplanted by the immediate experiences – the chill from the wine in my glass reaching down to my fingers, the heavy, but pleasant smell of the grilled fish, the splashing of the sea in the distance. Finally, a wide glass vase that serves as an ice bucket for wine and water, and a wicker bread basket on our table are brought into balance with the arrival of the familiar metal dish with the starters. This is when first get the idea of making bakalar myself, and it makes the thought of eventually returning to Moscow from my vacation less sad.

Next time we have bakalar in a small restaurant crammed between two other joints at the sea-front. Until a few years ago the place was a bar with history (quite literally: explaining that it used to be the favourite watering hole of Croats in Rovinj, Nenad gives me a crash course in history of the region); it reopened in the new season under the same name but as a fish restaurant with a flimsy two-fold leaf of a menu – which includes bakalar served on polenta. This combination strikes me as odd, and I choose homemade pasta, pljukanci, instead, but I try a little bakalar off Nenad’s plate, first with polenta and then simply on a piece of bread. I admit it looks very neat the way it is served – three generous lumps of the white paste, each sitting on top of a yellow square of polenta in geometrical beauty. However, I find that a thick slice of crusty bread, broken into parts by hand, is a better match for bakalar – more fitting to its character, complementing its texture and bringing out the taste. Nenad agrees with me on this. “The problem with bakalar,” he notes, “is that one ends up eating a lot of bread with it”. Nevertheless, he seems to have come to peace with the new restaurant that has replaced his historical bar.

On the day of our departure we walk around the town in the morning, snatching the farewell impressions. The viewpoint on top of the hill is not too different from the way it was in winter – it had this summer feel even in January, with green cypresses and the vivid blue of the sea. On our way down we turn off the busy street and end up in one of the narrow side streets climbing up the hill, so steep that it is mostly comprised of stairs. A café is sprawled across it – at every landing there is a low table surrounded by cushioned seats, with a passage left to the side. We are not the only tourists by far to be attracted to this unusual place. Luckily, we manage to get a table outside, just at the bottom of the stairs, the best seats in the whole café, looking out on the staircased alley and a colourful little square it terminates in.

Bakalar is nestled in the small-print menu among sandwiches and cakes. We order some house wine to go with it; it feels appropriate to toast Istria goodbye with a simple traditional meal. Suddenly, a man sitting across from us on the stairs – he is quite picturesque with his long white hair and big moustache and might have posed for one of those fisherman paintings sold in the next street – strikes a conversation with Nenad. The man turns out to be my friend’s old acquaintance and also the owner of the café. As they chat enthusiastically in Croatian, catching up after not having seen each other in many years, I can pick out some familiar words, but I’m not trying to follow the conversation. I’m having my own, silent dialogue with the town around me, taking in the bright clothes hanged on the lines over the little square, the multilingual hum of the tourists passing by, luscious vines on the stone of the walls, the warmth of the day that started out grey and cloudy, the coolness of wine on my tongue – and then the bakalar arrives as an exclamation point. It is not shaped into lumps, just spread on the plate with some olive oil drizzled on top; the bread in the basket is warm, lightly toasted and also sprinkled with oil. It tastes even more beautiful than it looks – probably the best I’ve had during my vacation and definitely the most photogenic.

It is this last day at the seaside that I think of in the sudden unfamiliarity of my kitchen in Moscow a week later when I set to make bakalar and translate a memory of an Istrian summer into reality that can be tasted.


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