DOMINA'S FIRE GRILLED FISH
You have to be creative when thinking of ways to meet locals and learn Made with Love recipes in a place where
1: you don’t speak a lick of the language
2: you don’t know anyone.
I have set aside the morning to reach out to locals...but how? I think about Norway and how airbnb helped us connect to friends, so I decide to give it a try. Rather searching according to accommodation, I delve into the profiles of those renting out their apartments. I look for people who mention cooking, who mention their family, or have a profile that just feels right. I send about 20 messages to various hosts messages explaining that we are in search for those who make food with love. I start to think of the possible repercussions:
Will airbnb be upset with the way I am using their website?
Will I be kicked off?
Will hosts be annoyed with me?
Over the next few hours, I receive “book now” messages, no replies, and messages saying people are too busy or not interested. Did I just waste a morning of crucial website time on a hunch?
All of a sudden I receive a response from Vesna, the daughter-in-law of a woman named Domina, who lives on the island and rents out her apartment to tourists. Vesna writes that Domina is passionate about cooking traditional food and that the family is very interested in helping us out with our project. She tells us that although Domina does not speak any English, she would be more than happy to teach us how to grill fish in the traditional wood fired oven! After messaging back and forth, we agree on Friday night at 7 PM, given there is fresh fish at the market that morning.
Friday arrives along with the fresh fish! We spend our morning documenting a cake recipe, snorkeling, and downloading English-Croatian dictionaries onto our iphones for tonight. We are ready for the translational challenge!
We arrive at Domina’s apartment and find her standing outside of her garden waiting for us. We embrace with two kisses, a big grandmotherly hug, and salute her in the only Croatian we know, “Drago mi je,” which translates to: “nice to meet you.” She brings us to her outdoor grilling area where a table is set up with various homemade cakes, cookies, fruit, and walnut brandy. She points to the sweets, fruit, and the liquor saying, “domaći” and urges us to taste all of them. We repeat “Domaći” with smiles as we munch on the homemade sweets. Domina begins cutting up potatoes and onions for a Croatian potato salad. Once she finishes, she walks over to the fire and sets the logs ablaze. She says something in Croatian and I use my iphone to translate. I finally find the right words and understand that she is saying that the timber is special, from the mountains. Although we don’t speak the same language, we communicate using our hands and body language….a grown up version of charades.
As the fire burns, she takes us on a tour of her garden and proudly shows us her organic produce. She picks a small pomegranate off of a tree and breaks it in two, signaling that is delicious because it is fresh and from the garden. The pomegranate seeds are tart and juicy! She then points to the setting sun and we know it is time to put the fish on the grill.
We follow her to the wood-fired clay oven where the timber is dying into embers. She smashes the lit timber in the oven so that the embers break off into small chunks and places them under the grill. We are amazed at her strength; she uses her bare hands to remove some big burning pieces as if they were room temperature. Once the embers are under the grill, she picks up the marinated fish and lightly drops them in a row upon the grill. She dips a few twigs of rosemary into the marinade (olive oil, salt, pepper) and carefully brushes the juicy leaves onto the grilling fish.
She literally has the entire top half of her body in the oven while she dresses the fish and maneuvers the hot burning embers under the grill. Once the bottom side of the fish is crisp and golden brown she picks up the fish and flips it back over onto the grill. I look at Leila whose mouth is agape in astonishment. While the fish continues to grill, Domina walks over to the table where she has a few long stems of fennel, she wraps them into the shape of a heart and places them in the center of the tray. As Domina places the golden fish onto the tray, the backyard fills with the most mouth-watering, smoky aroma.
Domina leaves the room, and brings the platter of fish up the two flights of stairs to the table on the balcony, overlooking the town. Before we sit to eat, she shows us a picture of her husband, Ante who was a fisherman. She says that she loved to grill the fish fresh off the boat and that she misses cooking fish for him. We thank her for sharing her story and Croatia fish recipe with us. We tell her that tonight we will dine in memory of Ante so she hurries down the stairs and returns in a dress looking bright, excited and beautiful.
Sitting with us, she shows us how to debone and eat the fish. By the time I finish one fish, she has already deboned a new one and is pushing it on my plate. I feel like an incapable two year old. I look over and laugh at Leila who is awkwardly smiling with a fish in her mouth and oil running down her face. Crispy, fresh white meat dressed with aromatic olive oil, salt, parsley, and garlic, this is the best fish we have ever eaten.
“Domaći” we state throughout the night: All homemade, grown, and crafted. Everything we pointed to, ate, tasted, smelt, dreamt about or desired was Domaći. This was a night of show and tell. Using broken English, Italian and Croatian we found a way to tell. Using expressions, pointing, and our mannerisms we found a way to show. The food is what really brought us together because it was made in one language, Made with Love in Croatia.