THE HOLY HRAPOCUSA
Sometimes life can surprise you with unexpected turns and bends in the road, but if you are positive and persistent, all will eventually turn out for the best...
We race our bikes along the curvy coastline of the Croatian island of Brač towards the small village of Dol. We glide down the rolling hills and hear the seagulls pass over us in the blue, grey sky above. It is 5:30 AM and the golden sun is beginning to rise ahead of us. This morning we will be documenting the Island’s famous “Dol Cake,” known to locals as “Torta Hrapoćuša,” at 7:00 AM and, after recording this recipe, we are invited to record a home cooked peka meal at a local Konoba.
Throughout our stay on the island of Brac we have been recommended to try Torta Hrapoćuša. Pronounced huh-rap-choose-sa; the word refers to a typical stone found in Dol, but the term is also used in reference to a cake that resembles the stone. The cake is sold at bakeries and restaurants across the island; however, the owners will openly say, even emphasize, that the best place to eat Torta Hrapoćuša is in the village of Dol, a small village of 100 inhabitants.
So on Sunday we venture into the village of Dol to recipe hunt for the real cake. The narrow road leading to Dol is lined with wine groves, mandarin trees, pomegranate trees, and even kiwi vineyards. Arriving in Dol, we are met by layers of stone houses that seem to sit on top of one another along the mountainside.
Walking along the paths between houses, we hear the chatter of ladies and see a woman hanging clothes over a balcony above us. Locking eyes and smiles, the woman motions for us to come up. We enter the covered terrace and see figs drying in the sun, a huge barrel full of oregano, and the most breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. After two shots of homemade walnut brandy and a few hazelnut cream wafers, we ask the ladies in broken Croatian if they know where we can get some torta hrapoćuša. One of the woman disappears and returns with an article from the local newspaper. From what we can gather, a Hrapoćuša festival was held on on August 16th in Dol with over 1,000 visitors. Using the little Croatian that I know, I say “You cook, we pay.” They all laugh and she simply says “konoba” and points somewhere in the distance. Konoba translates to cellar but is used here to represent a local, family owned restaurant. Before we leave the women introduce us to their neighbor's children, who offer to give us a tour of the neighborhood chicken coop. On our way out, one of the women gives us her homemade salt bath scrub and a jar of fresh oregano.
We continue to explore the village for an hour before traveling back down the side of the mountain. We wander through crooked stone paths and pass by old stone houses reminiscent of folk lore. We descend the hill past a cemetery and happen upon a konoba, Konoba Gušti škoja. We walk inside the towering doors and meet Petra, the owner, and her mother, Marija. Although they are are closed until lunchtime, they invite us to join them for breakfast of fresh Brač sheep cheese and freshly squeezed orange juice on their outdoor patio. We tell them about Made with Love and Petra insists on us coming back to document Marija's peka and a few traditional recipes close to Marija’s heart. We agree to come back on Tuesday at 11:00 am and say our goodbyes.
We head down the road until we are welcomed into another Konoba, Konoba Toni, by one of the owners, Pavao. We sit down at a table next to a shelf of travel books and Leila begins to thumb through a book about Brač as I browse the menu. Leila starts reading aloud an article about the torrta hrapoćuša and suddenly gasps. She jabs her finger at a picture of an older woman holding the cake and exclaims: “Anthony, I swear to god, I just saw this woman walk up the stairs behind me…we had a moment, I smiled at her and she smiled back. The same woman…and she is famous for making the hrapoćuša cake!!” Pavao, who came to take our order, points at the woman and says “my aunt, Barbara” and then points up the stairs. We immediately add a slice of the hrapcusa cake to the order. After one bite of the sweet almond bed cake topped with caramelized crunchy walnuts, our jaws drop. We cannot leave Brač without this recipe, we have to meet Barbara.
Faith steps in and his name is Joško, Pavao’s nephew, who replaces his uncle as our waiter. Joško speaks English fluently and has an immediate interest in helping us out. We tell him about our quest to find the famous hrapocusa cake and ask him if we can meet his Aunt. He walks up the stairs adjacent to the restaurant and comes back down holding the old woman's hand. Barbara remembers Leila and embraces us both with a hug and kiss. After our introduction, Joško asks us, “Can you make it back to Dol on Tuesday at 7:00 am?” Before he can finish his sentence we say “Yes!!!” and thank Barbara. We leave Dol estatic and decide to reward ourselves with a few hours on the beach.
Fast forward to Tuesday:
We arrive at Barbara’s, walk up the stairs, knock on her door, and are greeted by Barbara’s husband, Juve. The only word we understand is “hospital” and our hearts sink.
Juve invites us inside and escorts us to his kitchen where he opens one of the cupboards and pulls down three bottles of homemade liquor; walnut, cherry and myrtle. He pours a hefty shot of each and places them in front of us, saying “Proba, proba!” In between sips of liquor we try to find out what has happened to Barbara and are happy to find out that she is in Split for a routine arthritis exam. Phew! Juve tells us to come back in the afternoon, so we bike back to Postira for caffe lattes, an apple strudel and a chocolate croissant.
On our bike ride back to Dol, we hear sirens and are passed by two police men, which seems very odd in such a small village. We arrive at Konoba Gušti škoja and are greeted by a very nervous Petra, who tells us that something has happened and they can no longer host us for lunch. It begins to rain both literally and figuratively. We find a nice shelter with benches under grapevines. We lay down, listen to the Omnivores Dilemma, and snack on some figs and grapes. Leila is weary about the potential horror story we are taking part in so she decides to record a video of her thoughts...
The church bells ring at noon waking us from our nightmare and we head to Barbara's house. Barbara greets us with a big smile and apologizes for being late. Phew! No Serial Killers in this one. Inviting us into her kitchen, the ingredients are lined up and measured on the kitchen table and Juve is juicing the lemons and oranges. Using google translate, we all laugh when I tell Barbara that Juve got us drunk in the morning. The laughter continues throughout the preparation. Barbara explains the importance of every step as she carefully cracks the eggs into three separate containers and grinds up the almonds for the cake base. She mixes the walnuts with sugar and egg whites on a high flame, flipping the mixture from the bottom to the top so that it does not burn. Leila tries a few flips but soon after Barbara scoots Leila out of the way saying, “this step needs a lot of practice." Barbara explains that the cake has 400 years of history but that each and every household adds their own special flair. Her flair seems to be the most successful. She has sent her cake to family members in California, Australia, and New Zealand. Her advice on bringing it home, “Just freeze the cake, wrap it in your clothes, and put it in your luggage. The cake can last a long time if you freeze it,” she said. One person came to Dol, fell in love with the cake immediately, brought a whole one back to California, froze it for three months, and served it at her sons’ wedding. I wasn’t kidding when I said we weren’t leaving Brač, without the recipe…its really that unbelievably good! Barbara’s goal is not to make money but to see people smile each and every time they take a bite. “Only God knows how many times I have made this cake,” she says as she take out her notepad and counts the orders from this past year. Knowing that the family business might end with her generation, Barbara hopes that by sharing her recipe, the cake will be kept alive.
As the cake comes out of the oven and needs time to dry, Barbara pulls out her wedding photos and takes us on a tour of the house. She scurries around unlocking door after door, excitedly showing us the bedrooms of each child, and their photographs. She then walks us into another room, hurries over to the closet and pulls out a beautiful white embroidered wedding dress. She holds it close to her heart and looks up at us smiling. She made this wedding dress for herself and tailored it for the wedding of her niece and her daughter. She poses with the dress and laughs as Leila snaps a few photographs. She gestures for me to come pose in the picture with her but her excitement supersedes my imagination because the next thing I know, she is pulling the dress over my head. I look at Leila who is hiccuping with laughter and ask her for help. I try saying to Barbara that I am too big, but she is too busy trying to fit the dress over my shoulders. Half way on one arm she realizes that much more tailoring has to be done for a 6 foot 200 pound, broad-shouldered male and helps me take the dress off.
After my cross-dressing experience, we return to the kitchen to witness Barbara flip the heavy cake out of the pan and place it on the table. She wraps it up in plastic wrap and places it in the freezer for the next morning. As the cake dries, she invites us for some more of homemade walnut brandy and cuts three big slices of the cake from her own personal storage in the freezer. Barbara remembers to tell us that the cake should be frozen overnight before served. We sit on Barbara’s porch and chat about how many people have experienced this cake and how much the cake means to the village of Dol. We are so happy to that we persisted and kept positive to find and document the recipe we had been searching for. Before we leave, we thank Barbara for sharing her day and for sharing with everyone her Torta Hrapćuša Recipe, Made with Love.