We are between visitors again, and the apartment is quiet.
The only evidence of our houseguests is a pile of bedding, some towels spinning in the washer and a shopping list my friend left behind. My friend Jen is a superb list-maker, party planner and entertainer. She’s a lawyer by trade, but I always tell her she would make a great caterer or event planner.
She lives down the street from me in America and once lent me enough Thanksgiving decorations and serving platters to outfit my house and hers when we both had guests in town. She keeps cookware and dishes stocked in her basement and lets her friends browse her inventory. She’s the neighborhood guru for finding the best grocery prices for our annual progressive dinner. She researches everything and keeps meticulous spreadsheets and notes.
She knew what to shop for before she even got here. I’m saving her shopping list:
I’ve seen heart-shaped Christmas ornaments in Croatia’s souvenir shops, but I never really knew much about them. They are called “licitar hearts,” or “licitarsko srce,” and they traditionally were decorated honey biscuits people gave their sweethearts for weddings or Valentine’s Day. The hearts date back as far as the 16th century, and they used to be made from wooden or copper molds and decorated like gingerbread cookies. While there aren’t as many handmade biscuits anymore, romantics still give the hearts as a symbol of affection.
Local olive oil is a staple in our pantry. When we first arrived, our landlord gave us a bottle of hand-pressed oil. It was so good that it didn’t last long. Local farmers have told us about staking claim on the oldest olive trees in the world in Croatia. I don’t know how much of their lore is true. All I know is this olive oil is good stuff. We use it for cooking, dip our bread in it and would love to send it to family and friends, if the post office would let us.
I might thumb my nose at boxed wine in the States, but I don’t turn down wine kept in plastic bottles here. For every carport covered in grapevines in this country, there’s a stash of homemade wine kept in recycled bottles. Everyone I know makes their own. And it’s better than I expected. There’s plenty of high-end bottles, too. Post-Communist wineries these days are producing quality wines. Not only are people buying back old family vineyards, but they’re learning from other winemakers and making a name for themselves. When I go back to America, I’ll probably recognize some local vineyard names on fancy wine lists. But I’ll still think fondly of the wine served from plastic bottles.
Our favorite restaurant owner tells us the local Maraschino liqueur distillery in Zadar does not open its doors to the public. I’d love to get a glimpse inside to check out the operation. For five centuries, the Maraska company has been producing a cherry brandy first created by pharmacists of the Dominican monastery in Zadar from the region’s marasca cherries. The distillery’s website says the drink was a favorite of many European royal families, including Napoleon, French Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X, English Queen Victoria and King George IV. Alfred Hitchcock, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplain are all said to have been fans. The drink was on the cargo list found on the Titanic. There’s also some in our freezer.
Salt from Nin
I didn’t really think the local salt museum would be a hit with my pre-teen boys, so I haven’t make them tour the saltworks company with me. But we have tried the salts. What’s not to like about sea salt? I prefer the kind without the added rosemary or basil. Basic sea salt is my favorite, and they do package them up nicely for gifts here. The village of Nin is worth checking out, too. It has a sandy beach, kite surfing and cobblestones. The town is tiny but rich in history — and salt.
Lavender is still harvested by hand here, and old wives are still telling tales about it. When I first got here and was bothered by mosquitos, a woman in a grocery store led me to the lavender oil to keep them away. I can’t say it worked for me, but we’ve given it a shot. I drop lavender oil in the bath for good measure. The locals use it for bug bites, too, and for cuts and burns. They put it in sachets, dolls and soaps. They put drops of its oil on their pillows at night to help with sleep, and they say it calms sea sickness and sunburnt lips.
Every time I go to the farmers’ market in Old Town, I see cheese sellers at kiosks handing out tastes of their goods. I can’t even pronounce the varieties of cheeses available here, but I do know words like “paški sir,” a sheep’s milk delicacy from the island of Pag. And I know the prosciutto and cheese plates served at restaurants here are some of the best I’ve tried.
Pralines, Chocolates and Candied Bitter Orange Peels
I hadn’t even heard of Croatian pralines, but now they’re on my list to find. My kids like the Croatian chocolate (even if they miss Reese’s). The locals showed us how to enjoy candied fruit peels with our coffee. We’re all out of chocolate and orange peels. I better restock.
Scarves and Neckties
It’s not scarf season now, but when we got here in the spring, we heard about how grandmas here worry that a bare neck will make you catch a cold. They say here that drafts can be deadly. Maybe that’s why they sell so many scarves, even in the summer. And the neckties? Legend has it that Croatia invented the necktie. They say it dates back to the time of Croatian mercenaries who wore knotted neckerchiefs to arouse the interest of the Parisians. There’s even an International Necktie Day coming up in October.
I don’t think Jen crossed off everything on her shopping list. But now I know what to bring back.