Some of my most vivid early memories involve a hearty kiss on both cheeks, being ushered into the retro kitchen and forced to drink a glass of milk, the smell of mothballs and peeking under the tea towels carefully draped over vanilla-sugared cakes on the table. It was the taste of walnuts, the savoury combination of green peppers, tomatoes, beef and gravy simmering on the stove. The little bites of kiflice, oozing cherry cakes, the wobble of impossibly pink jelly over the tart apple squares.
It was in Baba’s kitchen that I learned that food meant love. Excessive, more than you can contain, eat until you can barely leave the table love. “If you don’t eat, it’s going in the rubbish!” Somehow that message (along with the idea that the height of catastrophe would be to not have enough to feed your guests) became encoded into my genes and now I too inevitably over-estimate quantities ‘just to be safe’.
We ‘travelled’ to Croatia and Serbia recently. A trip highly fraught with conflict on the surface, but combined in passably harmonious terms in the marriage of my grandparents. I tried asking Deda about his favourite dishes when he was young as I researched the menu plan for Croatian week, but he promptly handed the phone over to Baba because ‘she knows about that’.
It started with Bombice, little bursts of dark chocolate, orange and fig. The explosion of flavour took me instantly back to Baba’s table – a memory instantly resurfacing from the combination. The savoury elements of the cuisine championed the mediterranean flavours of eggplant and red capsicum, a surprising hit being the Carrot, Capsicum and Eggplant Soup. We revelled in the richness of Peka (a pork, potato and vegetable dish that is slow cooked for hours, in our case in the oven as we don’t have the traditional upside down coal fired equipment that is common to Croatia). There were Pork & Charred Vegetable Skewers and an unusually creamy Bean and Barley Soup to finish off.
Then we went to Serbia. I re-created the dishes from Baba’s table – chicken rissoles with fried potatoes, Chicken and Paprika Stew, Burek and beef patties. It felt like home. We made Apple Cake (not quite the same as I remember) and Hudson and Ivy relished the hands on process of making Kiflice which we filled with the sugared walnut centre of my childhood.
I marvel at the power of food to transport, to cement memories and create moments that can be recalled and relived. It boggles my mind that simple ingredients – tomatoes, chicken, paprika, vegeta, onions – can produce a concoction that envelops the senses, forces us to pause and savour the sensation that is good home cooking. I’m so thankful for the rich heritage that has been passed down to us and the ability to be able to teach my own children about my food memories and the culture that dwells within us.
What food memories are the most vivid for you? Have you been able to recreate them for your own friends and family?