Sunday 19 October 2014

5 foods from my childhood I’m rediscovering

Blitva (Swiss Chard) growing in my neighbour's garden

Since I’ve been living in Istria, I’ve been rediscovering some of the foods I knew as a child. Here are a few:

1. Blitva (Swiss chard). This leafy green vegetable is a staple in Croatian cuisine. Everyone grows it in their vegetable gardens and you can find it on all restaurant menus as a side dish. It’s served just plain, drizzled with a bit of olive oil, or mashed together with potatoes. This was a dish my mother would make very often and it’s a comfort food for me. I hadn’t eaten blitva for years but now I get huge bunches of fresh blitva from my neighbours. Nothing like yummy, home-grown, naturally organic blitva. Blitva I missed you!

2. Gris (Cream of Wheat). A bowl of hot cream of wheat cereal brings back memories of cold winter mornings in Canada when I would have this for breakfast. At home we would use the Croatian word for it, gris (pronounced like ‘grease’), so that’s what we called it. This is another winter morning comfort food I hadn’t eaten in years before moving to Istria. My Indian friends will know this as rava.

3. Vegeta. Vegeta is Croatia’s ‘garam masala’. Every Croatian recipe calls for a dash of Vegeta, a powdered mix of dried spices and vegetables. At home in Toronto we had a steady supply which my mother would pick up at a European-style deli. Here, Vegeta takes up much aisle space at the supermarket because it now comes in many different flavours. There’s even a non-MSG version. But in the olden days there was just one type of Vegeta.

4. Napolitanke. Produced by the Croatian confectionary company Kraš, this is a type of wafer biscuit made with chocolate and hazelnuts. The European deli in Toronto also sold Napolitanke and when I was living in London I would find them at a local Turkish shop. We would always get the hazelnut ones, but today they’re available in other flavours: chocolate, nougat, lemon, chocolate-covered, mocha, rum. Oh and guess what? They’re vegan!

5. Ki-Ki. Ki-Ki is a type of soft candy I knew from the summers I spent here as a child. When I see packages of Ki-Ki at stores here it brings back memories of my grandfather who would always bring his grandchildren a bag of Ki-Ki when he would go ‘to town’. Today Ki-Ki comes in a whole bunch of different flavours but I remember that back then there was only one generic flavour and kids loved them.

That’s my round-up of childhood foods I’m rediscovering here in Istria. You’ll be forgiven for thinking so, but no, this is not a sponsored post!

Monday 6 October 2014

Crumbling elegance: Gračišće’s Salamon Palace

Many of the houses and buildings here in Gračišće are unfortunately abandoned and in a derelict state. This is the fate of many villages in Istria because many owners of these neglected properties live abroad, or a property is divided among several heirs, or simply because people do not see the value of an old property and do not want to spend money maintaining it.

Many visitors to Gračišće are intrigued by a derelict building on its main square, just opposite the 15th century church of St Mary and Konoba Marino. Despite its dilapidated state, the Salamon Palace (also often spelled 'Salomon' Palace) is still one of the village’s most striking buildings.

Buildings often have interesting stories behind them. I’ve done a bit of searching through guidebooks and have spoken to the older villagers living here to learn more about the history of this intriguing building and try to understand why it’s been left to slowly decay.

The Salamon Palace is part of the external fortifications of the village, a row of imposing three-storied buildings with thick walls and entrances on both the exterior and interior of the village. With its grey stone façade and Venetian-Gothic features, this building looks like it would belong in Venice. Its architectural features reveal a mix of styles. On the 1st floor, the windows are Gothic in style: they have pointed arches and a biforium – a double-arched window with a column separating them. The windows on the second floor are Romanesque in style with rounded arches and the cornice of the building was in Baroque style but this is not visible today.

A small guidebook I have on Gračišće published by the municipality reveals that the construction of the Salamon Palace was completed 444 years ago, in 1570. Up to the first half of the 19th century, it belonged to the Italian noble family Montecúccoli, who had bought the county of Pazin (of which Gračišće was a part) from the Habsburgs in 1766. There’s no information on who its previous owners were. The palace takes its name however, from its most recent residents, the Salamon family who moved here in 1848 when Lieutenant Francesco Salamon became a national guard commander stationed at Gračišće. Its new owners renovated the palace in 1853 – the date which is seen above the imposing doors on the exterior side of the village.

My father remembers the last generation of the Salamon family to live here. He had been inside their grand home (which must have contrasted sharply with the village’s other modest dwellings) as a young electrician to install an electricity meter. He had also learned French from Mrs Salamon, who taught at the village school. Tragically Mr Salamon had died during the Second World War at Dachau concentration camp, where he had been a prisoner of war (along with my grandfather, who luckily survived). Their son became a doctor and moved away to Pula, while Mrs Salamon remained in the family home. There was a grocery stone on the ground floor of the building, while the family lived on the upper floors.

Today this lovely building, one of the most noteworthy in Gračišće, is a sight for sore eyes. It has stood empty for decades and is slowly crumbling. A patch of the beautifully painting ceiling is visible through the open windows of the first floor, but most of it has collapsed. Under the ledge of the biforium were three sculpted lions which I had captured with my camera in 2004 – 10 years ago – but only one remains today. I was told two of the stone sculptures were shattered when a delivery truck was backing up and accidentally hit them!

Only one lion left today!

The three lions are visible in this photo from 2004.

The sorry state of the Salamon Palace brings up questions. The village of Gračišće has ‘protected status’ as a place of important national heritage, so how can it be that its buildings are left to crumble away? Wouldn’t the restoration work on such an important historical building located in a village under ‘monumental protection’ be the responsibility of the state, or the regional or local government? It’s difficult to find answers. 

When the roof collapsed a few years ago, people started to take notice. The Conservation Committee had ordered the owner to take action and repair the roof and cornice because of safety concerns. The owner at the time was the proprietor of a real estate agency who had put it back up for sale. (The ad is still visible at this link with a few photos of the interior.) Some people say that he had defaulted on a bank loan and that the palace has been repossessed by a bank, but this is hearsay. In any case, the roof was repaired about five years ago (it's not clear at whose cost) but it seems that until this decaying palace once again presents a risk to public safety, there are no on-going efforts to preserve it and restore it to its former glory.

The Salamon Palace featured on an old postcard

In the meantime, the Salamon Palace continues to slowly crumble away under the eyes of the patrons of Konoba Marino who sit at the wooden tables with a glass of Malvazija and admire its fading elegance.

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