Thursday, June 24, 2010

Split: Non Fish Edibles: Cevapi. And non-Cevapi.

Split is a seaport town full of fishermen and sailors, a breed of men who, oddly enough, do not want to eat fish every day. When you eat at a cheap konoba like Fife's the local characters - the grizzled, sunburned guys who work the boats - rarely order fish. After a day of tossing nets and getting slimed by conger eels and mackeral about the last thing you want to be near at dinner time is fish. And after a week of fresh fish there are some days when a nice hunk of meat goes down well. For me, that means cevapcici, the grilled meat tubules that fueled the fabled glory days of Yugoslavia. In Split, we checked out Ba!Će cevapi, located near the old city hall and fish market on the northern end of the Riva. Ba!Će serves "Bosnian Style" cevap, which means veal and no pork.
The bread, although toasted and dabbed with the cooking cevap juices, was very Croat style lepinje... heavier and spongier than the somun that one gets in Bosnia. Still, one of the best buys in town at 30 Kuna for a ten piece cevap feast, complete with cheesy kajmak and onions. Croatians love their cevap with ajvar, a red pepper relish, and that is how it is usually offered up in konoba restaurants, such as the one we went to with Captain and Madame Squid located a few alleys north of the Ethnographic museum in Diocletians Palace.
While you can find cevap anywhere in Croatia you can only find Dalmatian ham - prsut - in Dalmatia. What's the big deal you ask? Don't ask. Eat. This is a ham that drives vegetarians to eat meat. This is better than 90% of the Italian proscciuto you will ever come across - the stuff is air cured in dry mountain valleys and has a great fermented flavor that makes it one of the best things Europe ever produuced that you can put in your mouth and digest. The prsut of happiness. Usually you get prsut as an appetizer - the only problem is that in the summer it is often too hot to go for more than one course at a konoba. Madame Squid took us to a small konoba behind the train station one afternoon - Lučac on ulica Svt. Petra Starog street. I had tripiće - stewed tripe in a very light tomato sauce. Fumie went for a cold salad of boiled octopus and potatos. A few Days later Camille reproduced this at home, and it is one of those dishes that makes you wonder why the world hasn't discovered this and subsequently gone on a mad crusade to kill all the world's octopuses and smother them in oinions and potatos.Pizza is another great thing about travel in Croatia: the Croats don't simply copy Italian pizza, they adapt it and move forward. Split used to be a part of the Venetian Empire, but Venice was not known for pizza. When the hordes of sandal wearing summer tourists show up, pizza is what keeps them going. And there is some killer Za to bve found.
Like this double crust pizza filled with swiss chard blitva and onions. This same pizza place - None" near the fish market, made a foccaccia stuffed with anchovies that was fantastic: a combination of tomato, fresh fish, and crusty bread that should make this a must-try place in Split.
They also make cevap, sandwiches, and salads. Its worth wandering around the northern end of the old town just to find them. Just follow Captain Squid - when it comes to matters of the stomach, he never leads you wrong.
The market in Split at this time of year is an explosion of Mediterranean color - the tomatos are worth eating like fruit. Who would dare cut them up into a salad? A splash of olive oil, pinch of salt, and you are done.Greens are everywhere like rucola and chard and wild asparagus that we would never see in dowdy Central Europe (where greens are boiled, boiled, and boiled, then pureed, and eaten with a spoon.) How I can live without a steady supply of greens in Budapest is still a mystery - we actually do have an illicit supplier of swiss chard at our local market. The local olive oil in Dalmatia is some of the best in the world, and we always bring some home with us. We got a mild bottle of oil from the island of Solta from one old woman in the market, and later picked up a spicy oil in the fish market. And the cheese... the cheese...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Brač: Island of Meat.

It might seem strange to sail out to a Dalmatian island in search of... meat... surrounded as you are by fresh fish and seafood. Squids, molluscs, all manner of tasty creepy-crawlies unavailable in landlocked Hungary. But strange is my middle name (or at least, my middle name is kind of strange...) so it was on Dejan's advice that we rented a car in Split and took a ferry to Brač, the largest and closest Island to the mainland, a mere hour away. The goal was a nice beach and a visit to the highest island mountain at Vidova Gora, located above Bol on the southern coast. Dejan's convincing advice, spoken in his fluent local English (British vocabulary with Croatian syntax) told of a land populated by delicious meat. "You go to Vidova Gora. It is in National Park, highest place on island. In forest there are lambs. Hundreds of lambs. Everywhere there are lambs. It is scary. So many lambs. And they are killing them! Killing lambs every day. And roasting them. They are roasting lambs there for you to eat." It sounded horrifying... I imagined meat maddened Croats driving up the mountain to the music of Ustasha-rocker Marko Perković "Thompson", getting out of their air conditioned cars, and blasting away point black at the defenseless baby sheep. The truth was a bit more prosaic. We drove through olive groves and up a stunted alpine pine forest and treached the top, where a stunning view of the Adriatic awaited. And then to the spare Konoba Vidova Gora - the charnal house of the lambs that Dejan had described in such horrifying detail.
The islands are dry and rocky, perfect for olive growing. the oil here was excellent, and on sale in three liter flasks for KUNA 180 (about US$10 a liter) but everybody tells us to wait until we can find some olive oil from the island of Solta at the Split market.
The spit roasted lamb wasn't available - it was mid week lunch, after all - so we had grilled lamb. And yes, it was worth the drive. Simple, fresh, local lamb piled on a plate and eaten with salad, good bread, and olive oil. You could taste the pine and ropsemary that the sheep had fed on in the high mountain pastures. I could only agree with the local sentiment: Kill the lambs! Kill them all! They are roasting them... and eating them!
Having eaten our fill of innocent fluffy baby sheep, it was time for a swim. Igor drove through the twisting mountain roads with confidence - he has driven off more mountain roads in Italy than I can count, so I can trust him completely to know what he is doing. Just north of the costal village of Bol we found the Zlatni Rat beach. Perhaps the most perfect beach near Split, Zlatini rat is divided in to Nudist and Somewhat Nudist beaches, so we split up, with Fumie and I going to the Ugly peoples' clothed beach while Igor and Camille went to the "Look-At-My-Genitals!-Is-This-Not-Completely-Natural-and-Normal?" beach.
We stopped for a coffee in the small village of Nerežišća, once the capital of the island, where we found this old stone church jauntily sporting a pine tree. Although a lot of people keep homes here, and summer visitors fill up the islands' homes, many of the villages have a low population due to emigration in the past. Go to Argentina, Chile, or Australia and you can meet lots of people from Brač. Go to Brač and you can meet the lambs they dream about.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Split. Croatian Seafood Heaven.

Starting out at 6 am in the morning from Budapest we hopped a train to Zagreb, Croatia, and a 3 pm connecting train from Zagreb to Split on the Adriatic coast. Budapest was getting too rainy and Hungarian politics was turning more antic than usual. For a week, every time the new government spokesman for FIDESZ opened his mouth about the economy the forint would drop. The newspapers were gauging how much each Hungarian lost with each subsequent statment. People were watching their summer vacation savings erode with each imbecilic pronouncement as the world realized what we knew months ago - our new governemnt has never had a clue as to how to manage an economic crisis. Poor Magyars. Hungarians love to go to the Croatian coast during the summer, and a lot fewer are going to be able to go this summer. Luckily, we had a bit of work to get us there, and our friends Camille and Dejan (La famille Squidovič) now live in Split.
We arrived late but still in time for dinner at our favorite konoba, the Fife Buffet at the southern end of the Riva. They are locally famous for "Good food and bad service" as they advertise on TV. Black cuttlefish rissotto, grilled fish, shots of travarica. After a grueling train journey nothing goes down better. In the morning we headed straight to the Split fish market to stock up on the one thing that we absolutely can never get in Budapest: fresh fish and seafood. Hungarians eat carp, and lots of it, but most find the taste of ocean fish strange and unpleasant and apart from a few pricey restaurants, you won't find fresh seafood anywhere in Hungary.
Which is why we gorge on it in Croatia. We picked up a few of these adriatic clams, and yes, I will eat them raw on the halfshell in a triumphant gesture of Bronx-born seafood bravado. Croats will eat anything that swims or crawls in the sea, but not everybody goes all the way... I found whelks at one fishmonger for 20 Kuna a kilo, and we made them in two ways: boiled in salted water and grilled in their shells, Japanese style with soy sauce.Essentially sea snails, whelks have a deeply oceanic flavor, slightly bitter, and chewy meat, and you want to avoid eating the grey internal organ bits. This rivals my winter experience eating raw sea cucumber and sea squirts at a Korean restaurant in New Jersey. By now I've basically eaten all of the grossest seafood there is. It's all downhill from here.
Fumie needed tuna, and she needed it badly. These big adriatic bluefin tuna are probably wild caught, but there are a lot of fish farms in the islands where live tuna are fed and raised for the Japanese market. The price of this tuna was about four times less than a similar piece of tuna would cost in Japan.
The fat belly meat of the tuna commands the best price in Japan, but here it is just another bit of fish, likely to be sliced thin and served marinated in tuna carpaccio. We took ours and made tuna sashimi (we brough our own wasabi and Kikkoman soy sauce - which are not available in Croatia) and some tuna steaks.
Conger eels are used in fish soup. They have a rich white meat and a kind of sad face. We might try a fish stew party before we leave, since Camille has become the undisputed master of mediterranean fish cooking since she moved here. French chef + Croatian fish = happy food. Such as her octopus salad with fresh broad beans. Tasted as good as it looks.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Nagy Akos' Small Cimbaloms

Over the years this blog has followed my fascination with the cimbalom, an instrument so devilishly diffficult and ungainly that I happily pay other musicians to play it instead of myself. Yet over the years I have learned to play at a basic level in order to intelligently inform my cimbalom player about stylistic points and things I want to hear when we are playing in styles other than Hungarian cimbalom - mainly Klezmer and Romanian. These are cimbalom styles that, traditionally, were played on small cimbaloms, known in Yiddish as tsimbl and in Romanian as ţambal mic. This month Australian cimbalom player Tim Meyen was in Budapest to pick up a new small cimbalom made by Akos Nagy, the indisputed master of modern cimbalom making. A couple of years ago Akos and I worked on designing a quality cimbalom for students and beginning players of klezmer music who needed an instrument that would be both affordable and satisfy Akos' rigid ideals of what a quality instrument requires to play and sound well. (Basically... no cutting corners, which meant no making it less heavy...) It seems that Tim is the lucky fellow who got the firstborn of the lot. Great sound and a lot less weight!
Tim ordered a few custom specifications above the basic level of instrument, such as brass strings on the middle courses, which sound brighter and stand up to a good beating. He also had legs and damper pedals included which would be left out of a basic student klezmer model designed to be placed on a stand or table to be played in the traditional manner. I tried this out and yes - it can play almsot the full range needed for all but the most vituostic cimbalom parts used in east European folk music. Unlike my Romanian Hora factory small cimbalom, the higher notes are clear and distinct, the instrument holds a tuning perfectly, and it doesn't look like and 11 year old constructed it out of cigar boxes.
Tim is spending a few months in Romania doing more field research on cimbalom players, but while he was in Budapest the Técsői Banda was also here from the Hutsul region of the western Ukraine. We went out together to the new Gang garden bar on Csengery utca to hear their farewell gig. And more small cimbalom... soon another mutual friend of the Técsői Banda, Shaun Williams, is due in town to pick up his Akos Nagy small cimbalom... looks like a virtual blizzard of small cimbaloms is in the air this year.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe online now!

The YIVO Institute in New York has finally set up a website - the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe - that showcases some of the treasures of its vast collection of historical and linguistic documents, sound recordings, and cultural objects relating to Yiddish culture. For all the popularity of klezmer music or Jewish geneology, there are few websites that actually offer much content on-line... such as the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Culture or the Joel Bresler's amazing Sephardic Music: A Century of Recordings site. It's a great place to lose oneself for an evening among articles written by some of the best and most knowledgable experts in various fields of Yiddish culture. The section on traditional music and traditional Yiddish dance are written by Dr. Walter Zev Feldman, whose publications are essential to understanding the background of Yiddish musical culture but, alas, are usually published in journals so obscure that only a handful of professionals ever have access to read them. Zev's research into Yiddish dance, in particular, is a real step forward in reviving an art form that had very nearly been lost in entirety. The new YIVO site brings together contemporary leaders in Yiddish culture like Prof. Dovid Katz on the history of Yiddish, Judit Frigyesi on liturgical music, and even a section of Hungarian Jewish literature by János Kőbányai, editor of the Hungarian Jewish magazine Múlt és Jövő. The YIVO is a unique institution: founded in Vilnius in 1925 as the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut. YIVO preserves manuscripts, rare books, and diaries, and other Yiddish sources YIVO was initially proposed by Yiddish linguist and writer Nochum Shtif (1879–1933). He characterized his advocacy of Yiddish as "realistic" Jewish nationalism, contrasted to the "visionary" Hebraists and the "self-hating" assimilationists who adopted Russian or Polish. YIVO founder Max Weinreich - who was raised in a German-speaking family but became fascinated with Yiddish and founded the YIVO Institute in his apartment in Vilnius in 1925 - predicted the tide of Naziism in Europe and moved with the collection to New York in 1938. With the destruction of Europe's Jewish communities, this left the YIVO as the main repository of hundreds of years of Yiddish history and literature. YIVO's music archives were the foundation of the modern revival of Klezmer music, and it still serves the scattered Yiddish language communities of the world as library, patron, and research institute. Today Yiddish is no longer a shrinking language: it is just that the profile of those that speak it has shifted from secular Ashkenazic Jews to the orthodox and Hasdic communities. But like a lot of "minor" languages, a good session of Youtube searching can turn up some fascinating finds, like this new cooking video in Yiddish by the folks at the wonderful Yiddish food blog In Mol Araan: