Saturday 31 May 2014

Markets in Istria

Who doesn’t love a market?

There's a proliferation of supermarket chains everywhere, but markets play an important role in any city or neighbourhood.

Markets are a great way to soak up local colour and feel the pulse of a place.

This is where you can pick up locally-grown produce in the open-air, usually directly from the people who have cultivated it.

Markets are also a meeting place, bringing people together.

Most cities and towns in Istria have a permanent market (tržnica in Croatian) which is usually open daily, or 6 days a week.

But there are also several monthly markets which take place on a determined day in several towns across Istria. At these markets there are not only local farmers selling the fruits of their land but also itinerant traders who sell things like clothes, footwear and household items. I had written about Pazin’s monthly market in a previous post.

Here’s a list of the monthly markets in towns across Istria:

Bale – 2nd Saturday

Barban – 2nd Saturday

Buje  1st Wednesday

Buzet – 1st Friday, 3rd Thursday

Labin – 3rd Wednesday

Motovun – 3rd Monday

Pazin – 1st Tuesday

Rovinj – last Friday

Svetivinčenat – 3rd Saturday

Sveta Nedelja – 1st Thursday

Višnjan – last Thursday

Vodnjan – 1st Saturday

Žminj – every 2nd Wednesday

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Thursday 29 May 2014

The brick oven – part 1

My husband’s bread obsession started while we were living in India. Being the North European that he is, he cannot live without three things: bread, butter and coffee. These seem like pretty basic needs, but if one of these things is not available, it’s a crisis situation.

We were living in South India, where coffee is cultivated, so good coffee was readily available. The butter he found ‘acceptable’. But good bread was a real challenge. Of course there are many delicious types of Indian ‘flat’ breads, but finding a good baguette or decent loaf of ‘leavened’ bread was not easy.

Since he couldn’t find good bread, he took matters in his own hands (literally) and decided to make his own. We bought an electric oven (a rarity in Indian kitchens) and months of experimentation followed. He must have tried every brand of flour available in Bangalore, looking for one with enough gluten content. In the end he was buying bags of gluten which he mixed with flour to give the dough enough ‘rising power’. Finding fresh yeast was another challenge – dry yeast did not do the trick – but he eventually found a bakery where he could buy it.

After many many months of experimentation, he was baking some pretty good bread. Pretty amazing bread. As well as pizza, baguettes, bagels, brioche and croissants!

So it’s not too surprising that part of our house renovation project here in Istria would include a brick oven in the courtyard. Which he would of course build himself from scratch. What followed was extensive research on thermal conductivity and refractory building materials and even a computer-generated model of the oven modelled in 3D. For months I’ve been hearing about the pros and cons of Pompeii versus barrel vault ovens, refractory bricks, thermal insulation, perlite, calcium silicate boards, infrared thermometers, stone-cutting machines and diamond blades...

The 3D model of the brick oven

The 3D model of the dome

Very recently the first stage of the brick oven building project started to take shape. The foundation of the oven has been built with some help from our majstor for the stone-cutting and brick-laying, followed by the laying of a layer of perlcrete insulation. The next step will be the careful building of the oven’s dome out of refractory bricks.

Here are a few pictures of the brick oven building process so far:

Stay tuned for part 2!

Saturday 17 May 2014

Recipe for elderflower syrup

It’s that time of the year when the sweet smell of elderflowers is in the air as the elder trees bloom. Called bazga in Croatian, this tree is more like a large, tall bush, and the flowers appear in large clusters of delicate white flowers.

The flowers are used to make a syrup, and so are the small dark berries which appear at the end of summer. But I prefer making it with the flowers – diluted with water this is one of my favourite drinks. The delicate and subtle smell and taste of the elderflower is hard to describe, but there’s nothing else like it.

So this week I made 9 litres of elderflower syrup, hoping this will be enough to last for the months to come. It’s especially refreshing mixed with fizzy water. Sometimes if I feel like I’m coming down with a cold, I like to pour the syrup in a cup of hot water and drink it hot!

The syrup is super easy to make! I used the recipe my grandmother had given me and I had saved in a notebook. Here it is:

30 heads of elderflower
3 kg of sugar
3 litres of water
50 g of citric acid

Pick large heads of elderflower where all the buds have opened. Some can be infested with small insects so avoid those. Shake off any flies or insects and place the flowers in a large bowl or pot. Pour in 3 litres of water, cover and let stand for 24 hours.

The next day, remove the flowers and strain the liquid into a large pot with a five-litre capacity. Use a fine sieve to filter the water, or a dishcloth.

Heat the liquid until it is hot but not boiling. Add the sugar and citric acid and stir until these completely dissolve.

Pour the liquid into glass bottles and seal.

Yields about 4.5 litres.

Friday 9 May 2014

5 things I enjoy most about living in Istria

People here often ask me if I like living in Istria. I’ve been here for nine months so far and I am enjoying life here. I reflected on what it is I like about living here and this is what I’ve come up with:

1. Quality of life. Locals often talk about how life is difficult here. It’s true that the economy is not in good shape, many young people are unemployed, there are few jobs available, pensions are impossible to live on, and those who are lucky to have a job sometimes don’t get paid on time – or for months at a stretch. But compared to other places I’ve lived in (always big cities), the quality of life is high here. What I mean by quality of life is the clean air, the clean water, wide open green spaces, and the availability of good quality food. Those who are able to make a decent living have a good quality of life which would not be possible in a big city (even with a big salary).

2. Nature. This is the first time I’m living in a rural setting and what I love most is being close to nature. I go on the most amazing walks and bicycle rides in the most beautiful landscapes. I can see (a sliver of) the sea from the village, and the Alps at a distance. The earth gives us delicacies like mushrooms, truffles and asparagus. We can grow our own food. On my walks I’ve seen deer, rabbits – and snakes! Oh, and I’ve found scorpions in the house – that’s a bit too close (to nature) for comfort!

3. The people. Istrians are generally friendly, down-to-earth and hospitable. They like to joke and laugh, eat and drink, and don’t take life too seriously. There’s a sense of community here; neighbours and family members are always coming by with something from their vegetable garden: lettuce, Swiss chard, potatoes, asparagus they’ve picked in the woods, or a bottle of homemade wine. People help each other out: the neighbour with a tractor will plough his neighbours’ fields, everyone pitches in during harvest season, and I see how company and support is offered to the people in the village who live alone. I also feel very safe here in a small community where everyone knows each other.

4. The architecture and landscape. I’ve visited almost 40 countries (39 to date) and Istria is for me one of the most beautiful regions I’ve seen. I love the landscape of rolling hills and beautiful medieval villages perched on hilltops dominated by a church spire. Then there are the scenic seaside towns jutting into the Adriatic sea with narrow, cobblestone streets and old stone houses framed with Venetian-style window shutters. There are so many places to explore in Istria, and though I’ve visited many, I feel like there’s still so much more to discover.

5. Number five. OK since I have four points, I may as well make it five. But I’m having trouble nailing the fifth… should I mention the light here which seems to have a golden tinge to it? Or the spectacular sunsets we see from the village even though we’re not on the coast (could it be because we’re at an altitude of 457 metres)? Or should I mention Istria's location at the crossroads of Europe, perched on the edge of east and west, making it easy to travel to Italy, just a hop, skip and jump away via Slovenia, another beautiful country on our doorstep. Or should I mention the laid-back Istrian lifestyle, where pomalo is a way of life?

There are many reasons why life is sweet in Istria! 

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