THE PEKA BREAD
I wake up early on Sunday morning to jog off last night’s homemade wine and incredible veal peka. I do a loop around the tiny town of Lomoći and continue up into the rolling hills of the countryside abundant in trees, grape vines, and corn stalks. After encountering a few growling hunting dogs, I decide to circle back towards town. Let’s just say it had been awhile since I had ran at a high altitude, so I had to start pushing myself to finish. In the distance I could see the first house of town, so I used it as my motivational finish line.
As I run towards the house, I look beyond the garden overflowing with vegetable plants and colorful flowers, and see a woman waving at me from the doorstep wearing a giant, sparkling smile. So inviting was the gesture, that I almost stop and ask for breakfast! Instead, I wave and smile back and use her smile as the perfect jolt of energy to finish the final minute of my run all the way to the house.
Church time! The Lončar triplets and I leave before the rest of the family and walk the 1 km up the hill to the Church of St. Ante of Padua so that they can arrive in time to fulfill their duties as altar boys. Throughout mass the L Trio are well mannered and careful in every move. Leon, who is usually bouncing off the walls with energy, is sitting up there quietly paying attention to the priest. I start to feel antsy as I sit in a mass in which I cannot understand a word. I catch Leon's gaze and give him a wink and smile. He contorts his body trying to use every muscle to prevent himself from cracking up. What can I say? I couldn't help it!
After Mass, we stand in the entrance of the church as Marija and Ante say hello to family and friends. I see a woman sneak up behind the L Trio, she holds her pointer finger up in front of her smile, signaling for me to be quiet as she grabs the triplets from behind, tickling and kissing them. I look at her more closely, feeling as though I have seen her before, when I suddenly make the connection and realize that she is the woman from the lovely little house on my run. After giving the woman a big hug, Marija turns to me and introduces the woman, Maritza, as her best friend. Marija tells Maritza about our travels and our search for traditional food Made with Love. Maritza’s eyes light up. She immediately invites Leila and I over on Tuesday to document her making her traditional Peka bread.
The method of cooking Peka is as follows: You begin with a fire. You remove the fire from the heated surface, most commonly a fireplace of clay stones, and replace the fire with the food. You then cover the food with a cast iron dome (the peka or sač). You then place the hot embers from the fire on top of the cast iron dome, which are kept in by a a metal band that fits perfectly at the base of the dome. The metal band keeps the embers from falling off of the Peka. In essence, the Peka becomes a self-contained oven, sealing in the heat and flavors.
Tuesday morning rolls around and I head to the farmer’s market with Ante while Leila spends the morning making Ajvar with Marija’s sister-in-law Ana. After leaving the avjar on the stove with Ana, we head to Maritza's to encounter that same open, gigantic smile and energy. She begins mixing the ingredients for the Peka Bread and tells us that whenever she makes the bread she is brought her back to the days when her children were younger and still at home. Since her boys are in University now, she “only makes the bread when her children visit."
“The wood fired stove in the outdoor kitchen makes my hair and clothing smoky, so I have to wake up extra early to have time to take a shower after making the bread so that I don’t carry that smoky smell with me to work. For my children I will make it without questions, but for my husband, not so much.”
We laugh. As we wait for the dough to rise, she serves us homemade cookies and coffee and we take a stroll to see their pigs and gardens. We return to the house and light up the wood fired oven in her private kitchen. Many people in the Croatian countryside have a separate cooking house. These kitchen houses contain wood fired ovens and clay stone stoves with an upper level to hang and smoke meats, and a little chimney to let the smoke out.
She places the dough on a pan on the stove, covers it with the Peka, and places embers on top of the Peka. This is the third time we are witnessing this type of cooking and it is really interesting yet again. With 35 minutes to wait, we have just enough time to to run over to Ana's to jar the ajvar.
After the jarring, we rush back to Maritza’s with 2 minutes to spare. The 35 minutes of baking had been the perfect amount of time for Maritza to shower and wash up her kitchen. She had this down to a science. “The trick with Peka is that you must trust it, you cannot open the Peka until the cooking time is over because you run the risk of letting the heat escape and ruining the bread. My favorite part of making the bread is being patient enough to wait 35 minutes so that when I open the Peka, I open it to the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread matched with the sight of the golden brown crispiness of the crust,” exclaims Maritza. She slowly removes the Peka from the pan and sinks her face into the steam leaving the bread. Watching her is like watching a child open a present. She begins to jump for joy, and has us come over to smell the hot bread. She wraps the bread up in a cloth and hands it over to us with two apples. She smiles and gives us a huge hug telling us to always remember her and her Peka Bread, Made with Love.
That night we ate almost the entire round of crispy delicious bread and we dipped it in the homemade ajvar. What an incredible day we had. St. Ante did as he does best by helping us find one of the most good-spirited, highly energetic people we have ever met! Maritza is a small town lady with a big heart who most certainly Bakes with Love!