ELEANORA & PUNJENE CROATIA
The ferry carried us back through the Adriatic to Split where we met Stipe, our airbnb host and his tennis player girlfriend, Daniela. On our walk to the apartment, we learn that Stipe is the former president of the most spirited, energized and organized futbol fan club in Europe, the Torcida of Split also known as Hajduk Split. Leila does not realize it, but this is kind of a HUGE deal. Split is the sports capital of Croatia and the “Torcida of Split” are known worldwide for their fanatic display of dedication to their futbol team. You can see the Hajduk Split signs, emblems, and graffiti on every corner and alleyway of Split. Amongst and between the artistic signs of affection lining the streets of Split are sports clubs and bars where the fans celebrate their pride chanting: “Na Poljudu, Na Poljudu, Sa one strane Marjana, Navijamo, Navijamo, Navijamo za Hajduka!” or “
At 8 foot 13 inches, Stipe, is under that “superman” category of being unbelievably big and brawny. That being said, do not to let his formidable stature and former occupation intimidate you, because underneath it all he is a straight up, big hearted, Mama’s Boy. And who is his Mama? Well that is where our adventure in Split really Begins..
8:45 on a Monday morning and Boom!!! Is it the Torcida flares blasting? Fireworks? An Earthquake??? Nope. It is the arrival of Stipe and his Mother, Eleanora, entering our apartment bearing peppers, potatoes, meat, flour, various spices and herbs, cigarettes, and fruits to munch on. Today we are learning how to make Punjena Paprika, but by the looks of the bountiful produce accompanying the mother and son duo, I think we will be discovering a lot more than stuffed peppers. As we dice vegetables, add spices, mash potatoes, fry meat and taste little tidbits of lip-smaking Croatian cuisine, Eleanora relives her tale to the kitchen.
Eleanora grew up in Posušje, a small village on the border of Croatia and Herzegovina. Her parents both worked full-time and once the girls were old enough, their mother declared, “it’s time you learned to cook for yourselves…you have plenty of stuff at home to work with, be creative and figure it out.” So at 13, alongside her two younger sisters, Eleanora began her cooking career. Growing up in a village on the countryside, Eleanora was born into the ideal environment to learn how to cook. She had older village women, fresh meat and produce, and readily available herbs & spices at her disposal. She smiles as she recalls memories of her sisters and herself practicing the different recipes of their aunts and mother. “That was the best way to learn and remember.”
At 18, Eleanora moved from Posusje to Split to start Economics school. At the same time, she worked in one of the few restaurants that existed in Split, Pipinella. The restaurant was started by her cousin and she did everything from cook to waitress to clean. The restaurant is still in existence today, and makes its mark as one of the hippest, most delicious lunch spots in Split. Not a surprise!
Eleanora paused her stuffing of a pepper and called Daniela beside her. She asked her to translate a story: “One day, a handsome young German moved to Split. Being so far away from his mother’s cooking in Germany, he was in search for some food cooked with love. He happened upon Pipinella and his tummy and heart left, feeling very full and satisfied. He decided to come back the next day and then the next, until he brought the cook home as his bride.”
Yes, you guessed it, the cook was the same big-hearted Eleanora.
After graduating from college, Eleanora started working in the accounting department for the most popular Croatian newspaper, but she never stopped cooking those amazing meals for her family. Sadly, Eleanora’s husband passed away 10 years ago but she keeps his spirit alive by cooking food with love to fill her sons’ tummies and hearts.
Being such a loving and warm mother, we wonder how Eleanora puts up with Stipe’s thuggish involvement with the Torcida. Stipe retorts with a story: One time I called my mom from the holding cell at jail after a fan gathering, I tell her where I am and she says “as long as your not in the hospital, I am happy.” Stipe holds his mom close to him, looking down to her as he translates his answer to English. She smiles and nods her head in agreement. I realize that Stipe and his mother have the same potential for passion; the love that Stipe portrays for his team is the same unconditional love you can find in Eleanora as she cooks.
Eleanora breaks all records as to what is normal, her energy is unbelievable. If it takes people 2 hours to make one dish, she makes three, if it takes the average person 20 minutes to clean, she does it in 5. She cannot be topped! Continuing with this same theme, we thought we were going to watch her prepare stuffed peppers, but instead she teaches us each and every detail on how to make the following items in a proper meal (click the blue title for the recipe): Croatian Rustic Bread, Punjena Paprika (stuffed peppers), Sarma (stuffed collard greens), mashed potatoes, and Uštipci (fried dough).
The meal is ready and Eleanora announces “sjediti” or sit. Without even realizing it, Eleanora has already set the table and is plopping the peppers and stuffed chard on our overflowing plates. Each item of the meal is it’s own delicious treat. The bread is crispy on the salty outside and dense and soft in the inside, the stuffed chard is mouth-watering, and the stuffed pepper is full of perfectly spiced meat, the mashed potatoes were creamy and sweet, and the fried dough is like a kid’s dream. Let’s just say we fully indulge and enjoy every bite. I eat so much deliciousness that I had to take a nap.
Waking up from our “paprika pass out” we are told that Eleanora wants to make us a popular Croatian dessert after she gets back from work. Arriving at 9 PM Eleanora enters our apartment to show us how to make Palatschinke aka Croatian crepes!! As Stipe, Daniela, and their friends come in and out for the bountiful crepes, we stay in the kitchen chatting with Eleanora until midnight. We stop needing a translator because it is just a joy to be around each other. Upon leaving, Eleanora tells us to consider ourselves family and to come visit her again soon. I will always look back on Split and smile in remembrance of our time with Eleanora, our Croatian mother who made us feel so much love.