CHEF ANTE & HIS PEKA
While on the island of Brač, in Croatia, Anthony reached out to local islanders via airbnb to see if they could help us navigate ourselves to the best traditional cooks in the area. Marija, who owns a summer home on the island, liked our idea and invited us for breakfast. Over coffee, Marija, a little blond woman with a big smile and contagious laugh, tells us that we are welcome to join her, her husband, and three sons (triplets) in a village outside of Imotski, Croatia (an hours drive South from Split). Marija topped the invitation off with an alluring fact: "my husband is in love with the art of cooking." When we tell our friend, Stipe (an Imotski native), about our invitation to the village, he offers Anthony one million dollars to throw a stone into the red lake, which is located in the region of Imotski. We are puzzled at the bet and assume some meaning was lost in translation.
One week later and The Recipe Hunters are in Marija's little oldsmobile driving through mountains towards a small village, Loncar, inhabited by no more than 10 families. We pass through the town and park outside of a small brown home. Three blonde 15 year old boys of varying sizes and personalities greet as at the entryway: Lino, Luka, and Leon. Lino is the tallest, mature, quiet, smart, and determined; the leader of the pack. Luka is quiet and sweet with a clever look in his eyes. Leon is friendly, unabashed, outrageous, and goofy. After introductions, Marija and the boys accompany us through the neighborhood to their second home in the village where there father is cooking dinner.
The door opens and WHOOSH, a cloud of savory, warm spices engulf us. A tall older man is in the doorway with red cheeks, a glowing smile, and wrinkles that stretch past the edges of his eyes through his worn brow. He warmly introduces himself as “Ante," and swerves his body past us, catching his boys one-by-one in his big arms with a bear hug, before turning back to the burner.
The sun has fallen outside and the cozy stone room is lit by candles. A table with a checkered red tablecloth sits in the corner in between two long benches. On the wall opposite to the door, burners and shelves are laden with piles of dishes, forks, and ladles. Ante is cooking on the corner stove, adding a dash of salt here and a little more fire there, as he hums and twirls about the small room. He motions to his boys to start setting the table and I stand back and take in the room around me. I can’t describe the feeling I have, but I am just so grateful to be in this very moment, surrounded by love, warmth and joy.
We share stories in the candlelight drinking homemade wine, eating bowl after bowl of the most delicious, hearty rabbit stew. Ante does not speak English (his English/Italian vocabulary consists of "super, tip top, and piano”) but he uses his big hands, laughter and smiles to act out what he is trying to say. We learn from Marija that Ante was a cook for the former Yugoslavian army, responsible for feeding over 1,500 mouths!! Marija tells us that Ante and herself lived and worked in Switzerland for 20 years saving up their money to retire in Imotski with their sons. She explains that Ante’s greatest passion is cooking and since he does not work now he spends his days in the kitchen cooking. “Ante is alive when he is in the kitchen and will spend the whole day preparing one meal.”
Ante says something in Croatian and Marija translates: in a few days Ante will be going to choose two pigs to keep for February when he and his brother will make home cured prosciutto and dried meats. Anthony’s ears perk up at this and he tells them about his prosciutto making experience with a fellow Italian in NY. I can tell this is going to be an amazing week. We blow out the candles and walk back through the quiet starry night to sleep.
The next morning Marija and Leon take us sightseeing around Imotski, home to two famous lakes: the blue lake and the red lake. Both are supposed to be two enormous underground caves that have collapsed over time. We arrive at the famous Blue Lake and descend the long bending trail where we take a cold refreshing dip. The water is the most beautiful color of blue and when you swim you can see your toes as clear as day. Leon and I swim fifty meters to catch up with Anthony until I remember the lochness monster and decide it might be best to swim back to shore, as soon as physically possible. Anthony and Leon spend the next thirty minutes in the water practicing hand stands and dives.
Our next stop is the Red Lake, and Leon excitedly explains to us what Stipe meant by the bet. Apparently, it is impossible to throw a rock into the red lake, because of the angle, strong winds and depth. On weekends, locals will load up their car trunks with rocks and bring the family to attempt at a splash. He said that Stipe’s bet is a typical one.
We arrive at the lake and park the car past the swarms of tourists and locals pitching rocks down into the sinkhole, I say sinkhole because this body of water looks much more like a sinkhole than a lake. Along the side of the road, Leon picks up a few stones and hands them to us. I throw my rock over the edge and see it land a meager 10 meters onto a nearby cliff. Anthony laughs and pitches his over the side. A few people stop and stare at his enormous throw, a few asian women pop their heads over the side and jabber at each other. Although the stone did not go into the lake it went pretty far down. Impressive...I begin to scour the earth for some stray pebbles when Marija taps me on the shoulder and points at Anthony, who is blushing, being handed rocks by the giggling asian women. He throws another, soon a crowd appears around him and then I hear a loud cheer and clapping. No way. I rush past some people along the fencing to a man who is pointing at the water below. And there before my eyes is a ring of waves. He did it. I can’t wait to tell Stipe.
On the high note, we decide to return to the house where Ante is eagerly waiting for us to start Veal ala Peka. Peka, also known as sac, is a traditional Croatian cooking style. The method of cooking Peka is as follows: You begin by placing the food on a hot surface, most commonly a fireplace of clay stones. You then cover the food with a cast iron dome (the peka or sac) and then place the hot embers from the fire on top of the cast iron dome. There is a metal band that fits at the base of the dome, to keep the embers from falling off. The food, most commonly meat and potatoes are slow braised for hours resulting in a fall-off-the bone texture.
We enter the kitchen as Ante is finishing cutting up chunks of veal and is moving onto seasoning the potatoes. We follow Ante outside to his cooking area where he and Anthony start a fire. Once the stones below the fire are hot and the wood has turned to embers, Ante places the meal under the peka and covers it with the glowing embers. Ante pours us a glass of homemade wine and says that you always have to enjoy making Peka by surrounding yourself with friends, homemade wine and laughter. We cheers and begin to wait. Marija bakes a yummy chocolate cake and we all take a bite of the dessert as we wait for the peka to cook.
Three hours later, the Peka is done and we all rush to the dining room table to enjoy. The Peka is absolutely mouth watering; the flavourful meat melts in your mouth and the potatoes are crispy and seasoned like heaven, all of this lies in a pool of the most deliicious savory sauce that you pour over the meal once it is plated. Ante encourages us to “mangia mangia” and we all go for thirds. After finishing the meal, we all sit silently around the table in a trance of happiness. Leon turned on some music started and Ante chose Marija to dance. Leon put on another song and then everybody danced...Croatian Dance Party. Ante’s Peka, Made with Love, put us under a spell. We fell asleep that night with our hearts and bellies full.