Part 8: A Perfect Day

For 13 seasons, of wildly inconsistent length, the great food, cooking and travel show New Scandinavian Cooking has delighted lovers of those things in a way, and with a longevity that few shows have. The hosts, including Sara La Fountain, Andreas Viestad, Tina Nordstrom, and Claus Meyer, have covered the geogastronomic region we know as Scandinavia with charm, energy and great fun. Running as a parallel sister show was Perfect Day, equally fun and enjoyable, with more of a travel element than NSC and rotation amongst the hosts.

I mention this show for two reasons. First, I want to encourage you to see the show which is available online for a fee, and is periodically available on PBS stations. Second, the words Perfect Day are how I think about each day as I plan our European travels. This is why I spend a hundred plus hours working on itineraries for trips lasting between 10-12 days. I know some people book a flight and a couple of nights in a hotel and then just hop in the car and start driving. That would be fine for me if I had 2 or more months at a given location with a general plan beyond the first few days. But to not have a well-organized, coherent plan of travel, and especially a plan for our meals, for a couple of weeks is the equivalent of taking a thousand dollars, setting it on fire and cooking marshmallows over it. It’s just too much of a crap shoot for my taste. I can endure one or two average meals over the course of 2 weeks but anything more than that has me feeling like a termite in a granite quarry.

So having said all of that, I’ll tell you about a Perfect Day we had on our recent trip to Croatia.

It takes place on the Adriatic Island of Brac (pronounced Brahtch) on a warm, sunny Wednesday. The previous evening’s arrival will be saved for an upcoming post entitled Why Do These Things Keep Happening To Us? but for now let’s look at… a Perfect Day.

We awoke at about 7:30 at our hotel on the waterfront in Bol. The Hotel Kastil was once a Turkish fortress. Made of the stone that the island is famous for, it has been converted into a modern and very lovely hotel. As is quite common in such conversions, the rooms are rather small, with storage space in both the bedrooms and the baths at a premium. Nevertheless, the beds are comfortable and the facilities are modern and clean. Oddly, all of the pictures of the hotel that I’ve seen are taken from perhaps a few hundred feet out in the harbor. With the mountains in the background, a few little boats in the water, one or two cars and just a couple of people, the whole scene appears like a sleepy little waterfront hamlet. But that’s not an accurate picture at all. The hotel is on a busy waterfront street with restaurants, cafes, and within easy walking distance of all the activities one finds in a small but active resort town.

After putting ourselves together we went down to the dining room where the terrace, overlooking the harbor and shaded by pines, awaited us. Breakfast was a reasonably full buffet featuring several kinds of sliced meat and cheeses, including Croatias wonderful prsut (their take on Prosciutto), as well as scrambled and boiled eggs, sliced vegetables, olives, breads, pastries, fruit and juice. All of it was fresh, delicious and very satisfying.

In many places that would make for an excellent beginning to the day, but the two gallon (or thereabouts) coffee urn, filled with what I would call Americano style coffee, dark and very strong, would please most any tourist seeking the bottomless cup of coffee, something one rarely sees in Croatia, where coffee is mostly made to order, and where asking for a second cup is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. But sitting on the terrace, looking at the blue water, the boats bobbing in the little harbor, the sun peeking through the branches, warming whatever it touched, including me, while listening to the sounds of the waterfront coming to life, and drinking that third cup of coffee, the scent of pines soothing me, was as fine an early morning as I could ever ask for.

After washing up and asking the receptionist to make a dinner reservation for us, we began a very leisurely stroll to the Zlati Rat, the Golden Horn, Croatia’s most famous beach. We ambled along the paved walkway, dotted with little souvenir stands featuring all the usual knickknacks as well as more interesting clothing, handicrafts and art. I have little interest in that sort of thing but Shosh enjoys poking around, and occasionally finds a gem.

While she did that I stared out at the sparkling, multicolored water and absorbed the fresh aroma of the hundreds of pine trees along the way. It’s a scent from my childhood that means summer warmth, happiness and youth. I never tire of it. Combined with the gentle waves and salt scent of the ocean, it’s perfect!

We arrived at the Zlatni Rat, and though the sun shone brightly, and the breeze was light we had no interest in going into the water, which was cool enough to attract only a handful of swimmers. The photos of The Golden Horn, typically taken from a distant overhead vantage point, appear to be of a fine sand beach but that is not the case. It is in fact a stony V shaped strip, very pleasant to look at, but to me, quite uncomfortable to lie on. Still, I could feel the soothing calm of the Croatian coast leaching all of the tension out of me.

 

When we looked at our watches we realized that a couple of hours had passed since we had left the hotel. So with the kind of relaxed gait that comes from breathing sea air, and feeling the warmth of the Adriatic sun, we made our way to Mali Raj (Rai), a highly regarded restaurant set back a hundred meters from the beach. With comfortable shaded wooden booths, stone carvings of animals, and Christ, spread about the property, and  various plants, flowers and bits of greenery within the casual outdoor setting, we sat down, entirely ready for a filling and satisfying lunch.  And we were not disappointed!  

The plates were supremely simple. Mine consisted of perfectly grilled squid with a side of blitva with potatoes. Blitva is the ubiquitous Dalmation boiled chard, slightly bitter and beloved by most southern Croatians. When olive oil and lemon are added the bitterness recedes so that the healthful deliciousness emerges. If you like greens, you must try this. It’s a great example of the Mediterranean diet that is now so highly regarded. Shosh had skewers with large chunks of firm, fresh grilled fish, featuring tuna and shark. Her blitva included fresh favas. No garnish other than squeezes of lemon adorned the plates. With bread and sparkling water for me and a glass of local wine for her, it was enough.

We sat there for a while, relaxed, warm, letting the exhaustion of the preceding months, the flights, and the traveling within the country lull us to the verge of sleep. And so we took the leisurely walk back to the hotel for a nap. Ahhh…

 

On Cookbooks Part 2

 

Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook

 In the last Blog Post on cookbooks I shared some general thoughts on how to find volumes that will be enjoyable and useful to you. In this post we’ll look at what is certainly my favorite cookbook.

One Saturday afternoon in the winter of 1975, while walking from a movie theater to the pinball arcade on Washington Street, in what was then known as The Combat Zone in Boston, my friend and I stopped in at the Barnes and Noble. I was 21 then and enjoyed browsing in bookshops just to see what I might come up with. There was a large series of shelves near the front exhibiting the new stuff and the cover of Mitcham’s book immediately caught my eye. Jackson Lambert’s, drawing of P’town on the halfshell, its’ houses, churches and pier, with a large cod lurking behind it was the kind of whimsy I could appreciate.

I picked it up, spent ten minutes thumbing through it, reading the introduction and the recipes and knew that I’d found my guy. Mitcham drew the marginal art which remains fun and endearing in the extreme. But it was the recipes that grabbed me. His combination of French, Italian and general “American” cooking was mouth-watering, but this was my first in-depth introduction to Portuguese cuisine, for which Provincetown was well known.

I bought the book, and while we went to the arcade and spent an hour there playing pinball and various other games, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could read my new find. That evening after dinner I sat in front of the television to read it. The TV was largely ignored as I learned about Pepper Pickled Quahogs, Portugee Style Stuffed Quahogs, Moules Mariniere, Lobster Fra Diavolo and the greatest dish of all, Squid Stew. There were many more recipes, of course, with tips and thoughts on how best to treat the myriad denizens of the sea of which Mitcham was so profoundly enamored and familiar. His passion was transmitted to me as though by electric current and remains to this day.

Howard Mitcham has been described as the first of the celebrity chefs. I think that’s inaccurate. He might be better described, to borrow Hunter S. Thompson’s appellation, as the first of the gonzo chefs, Mitcham was a big fish in a little pond. His hard drinking and wild antics were legendary. Continue reading “On Cookbooks Part 2”

On Places

Bukk National Park

For at least 100 million Poles, Hungarians and Ukranians the word buk, bukk, or бук means beech, as in fagus sylvatica, the European beech tree. There may be other languages with the same or a cognate word referring to the beech tree but I’m not familiar with them. It is a word known to readers of Michener’s Poland featuring people named Buk and Bukowski from the village of Bukovo. And you might have read the inimitable Charles Bukowski, drunk, factotum, poet and novelist of the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles from the 40’s until his death in 1994.

For me, no bukk is dearer than the Bukki Nemzeti Park, the eponymous national park, the heart of which is about 170 kilometers northeast of downtown Budapest, Hungary. Sandwiched between the small but memorable cities of Eger and Miskolc about 40 kilometers still further northeast, the park contains over 800 caves, mountains, streams, forests, and fascinating villages. Spread throughout are traditional inns, guesthouses and restaurants. This is a world where little English is spoken but I didn’t find that to be a serious impediment to enjoying the area. The Lippizaner horse museum is in Szilvasvarad along with the stables where these much loved and unusual animals are kept, pampered and trained. What I discovered in the park turned it into one of the most enjoyable days I have ever spent in Europe. Continue reading “On Places”

On Hotels

Since I got an iPhone I rarely use a paper map for actual navigation. I use maps a lot for planning, to create the itineraries, and get a good sense of timing and mileage, but when I’m on the road I almost always put the destination into the phone and go. This can have hilarious (in retrospect) consequences, as we discovered on the ride from Chania, Crete to Viglatoras, about 40 minutes southwest of Heraklion.

We followed the blue line on the phone along the E75 and took a right where it was indicated onto the Nikolaou Plastira. This meant no more to me then than it probably does to you right now. On the phone it looked like a real road, but as we went along it became narrower, then took us into a vineyard until it was little more than an ox path. The tracks were bumpy and wildly uneven, really only suitable for farm machinery, and we became concerned that we’d get hung up in the ruts that seemed deep enough to catch and hold a Sherman Tank. It was rainy and night was rapidly approaching. Continue reading “On Hotels”

On Cookbooks

Everyone that cooks regularly will eventually settle on one or two cookbooks that they use frequently, maybe even exclusively. Such books will stand in for the trusted friend or family member, working with you in the kitchen when that person is not around or available.
After a while you understand the author in such a way that you know the recipes you’ve prepared are great, and more importantly, those you haven’t cooked yet will be.
If you don’t have your mother to work with, or professional culinary training, then a cookbook may be your best shot at becoming a good cook.

There are thousands of cookbooks in the known universe that range from useful, professionally, written, and with recipes that will taste utterly delicious, to those that have been written by 6 year old children, seemingly with a taste for few things beyond chicken nuggets and string cheese.
Examples of the former are such indispensable classics as The Joy of Cooking and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Examples of the latter are far too numerous to list here.

Continue reading “On Cookbooks”