With the picturesque view of the Adriatic on our right and the morning sun beating upon us, we climb the rolling hills and cycle onwards through olive orchards, fig trees, and grape vineyards. We descend the winding hill towards Sutivan and enter the seaport, which is shaped like a horseshoe. The seaport is lined with white-washed stone buildings of all shapes and sizes and the harbor is teaming with small wooden fishing boats. We pass old men gathered together on fold out chairs upon the cobblestone sidewalks sipping their morning coffees as they watch the town wake up. The fresh sea air and warm summer sun make us smile. We slow our bikes down as we reach Konoba Bokuncin, located on the Northern tip of the horseshoe, where Matea is waiting to make us her Walnut Meringue Cake.
Bokuncin is a charming café-by-morning turned cozy restaurant/hang out spot-by-night. Entering Bokuncin is like bringing modern-age design into Ancient Rome. The Roman stone walls and old wooden support beams act as a rustic backdrop to new-age posters, antiques, and bookshelves scattered with trendy cookbooks. Above the bar is a chalkboard wall with the writing: “Cooking with Love Provides Food for the Soul.” Following the signs…
Matea greets us at the entrance with a big smile. She immediately whisks up “due cappuccini” and places them upon the bar with a wink. Matea is genuine, extremely friendly and kind. Her presence welcomes anyone into the room, making a stranger feel like an old friend. Throughout the morning of cake baking, Matea balances between orders from the waitress in Croatian, our plethora of questions in English, and tactfully brightening up her upset 8 year old cousin in Italian. Talking in a delightful manner with careful emphasis on her words, never once does she lose her patience. She can do it in Portuguese and Spanish too!
The Sutivan Sisters (Matea and her older sister, Ela) both studied languages at university but have always had their eyes, ears, and hearts on food. Ever since they could remember, they would peruse cookbooks, pick recipes, and experiment. Prior to opening Bokuncin, the Sutivan Sisters were warned by their father about the hard work needed to run a restaurant…something that they both fully realize now. They decided that before opening the restaurant, they would create buzz about their food to see if there was a market for their cuisine. The techie in me immediately thinks of the Lean Startup and the importance of validating a hypothesis prior to launching. During the summer of 2013 they experimented with various cake and food recipes.
They lined the main street of Sutivan with their bright presence and white linen tables overflowing with their delectable dishes and sweets while their friends played the traditional Croatian accordion. Everyone was invited! At first they asked for donations, but since their cake were vacuumed up by the guests, they had to start charging to cover their costs! (Initial hypothesis validated: the girls could cook!) The sisters nostalgically describe these Wednesdays. “From one night of cooking a week, to everyday of the summer, we took a serious jump right into things,” says Matea. Summer in a tourist town is 24/7 with little time to rest. The sisters swap morning shifts and both work at night, alongside a hired waiter and chef. They embrace the hard work by making each and every day a new adventure.
Matea takes the cake out the oven and it’s photo time. Throughout the entire morning of jokes and laughter, Matea cannot relax for her photo with the cake! This is the first time we saw Matea feel nervous.
Although Matea tells us her Walnut Meringue Cake is best after a few hours of letting it sit, she insists that we try it now. She cuts us a piece and boom! The crunchiness of the sugar-roasted walnuts floating in the cloud of meringue are a perfect contrast to the soft dense bed of almond cake...incredible! Conversation stops as the bites continue until our plate is crumbless.
Just as we get on our bikes to leave, we see a cheerful blond girl walk into Bokuncin...this must be Ela! Not having to be introduced by Matea, we walk over to Ela and introduce ourselves. We say our goodbyes and agree to meet Ela on Saturday to record her famous Healthy Cake Recipe.
Saturday arrives and we are greeted at the bus station by Matea and her white designer European bike. She was bubbly and excited to spend the day sharing her other half with us. Upon entering Ela’s house and greeting Petar, her 9 year old son, who was playing with the new ninja turtle collectable items, we immediately feel at home. Her home is just like Bokuncin, newly designed with an amazing use of small spaces. Her bookshelves are lined with an enormous collection of cookbooks and under her coffee table are even more. Among these, Leila finds Ela’s (huge) special recipe book: a compilation of magazine cut-outs and online print-outs of all of the recipes Ela has tried. We head to the kitchen where Ela starts processing the almonds and cashews.
Her fridge is covered in magnet souvenirs from all over the world. I see a magnet from the United States and ask if she has ever visited? She laughs and explains to us her experience working at a summer camp in upstate New York. This experience was advertised to her as “a chance in a lifetime, international experience in New York.” She wound up gaining 10 pounds and becoming sick after eating wild berries in the forest. Having chatted with countless friends at Emory about these camps, I immediately start to laugh. I quickly bring Ela up to speed as I describe the idiosyncrasies of her experience; I try to patch up some of her conceptions explaining that the USA is not only about sloppy joes, Pillsbury Dough Boy Cookies, and high fructose corn syrup drinks and I urge her to give it another chance!
As the cake hardens in the freezer, we go out to the garden and pick tomatoes and parsley for the Restaurant. We return to the house, where we talk about Ela’s travels as we munch on Istrian Prosciutto and fresh fruit. Ela says that she loves to travel and taste international cuisines. She has recently been reading about healthy cooking, which focuses on nutrition. That is why she learned how to make the Raw Cake Recipe: the cake she makes and freezes (rather than bakes) to perfection from non-traditional baking ingredients.
Ela offers to accompany us back to the restaurant where the staff is preparing for dinner reservations. Upon arriving, Ela cuts us a slice of her Raw Healthy Cake and serves it to us with a fig. Ela’s recipe re-defines “baking.” Comprised of oils and power foods with Omega fatty acid rather than flour, egg, and cream fats, we are happy to be eating a healthy cake that tastes better than most unhealthy ones! The cake is cold and because of the ground nuts, the texture is hard and crumbly. The coconut pulls together the flavors of almond and cashews and the result is rich and pure. I know Leila is in heaven because of the coconut flavor, so I leave her the last bite.
Matea cuts us a whopping slice of fresh ricotta drizzled with honey and walnuts, placing both in front of us. Aside from the delicious sweets, we are charmed by Matea and Ela through their hospitality, their kind words, and their sisterly synergies! We are sad to leave Sutivan and if it weren’t for the last bus leaving town, we would have spent a few more hours, days, and years chatting away while sharing countless more spoonfuls of cake Made with Love.
Join The Recipe Hunters on their next adventure with Ante learning how to make traditional cuttlefish the Croatian way and White Scampi Risotto!