20 ways Croatia has changed me in 20 years: 6. Moving vegetables
July 14, 2022 – Twenty years a foreigner in Croatia. Part 5 of 20 ways Croatia has changed me in 20 years – the fabulous growing of vegetables in motion.
About 15 years ago, I was crossing Republika Srpska from Hvar to Belgrade to visit friends in my father-in-law’s utility vehicle. It had his name on the side and Split license plates. As I tried to cross the border, the guard looked at my passport and me suspiciously. What was a Brit doing driving a car he didn’t own with Split plates in this less traveled part of the Balkans, and do I have anything to declare?
Nothing at all, I replied. He wasn’t convinced so I had to show him what I had, which wasn’t much. Just my bag and 20 kilos of lemons and 20 kilos of potatoes, gifts for the family in Belgrade from my father-in-law’s family field in Hvar.
“Do you bring potatoes to Serbia? Do you think yours are better than ours? Now he was really suspicious. We spoke in Serbian and Croatian, and I explained that it was a gift from my father-in-law to his family. The guard asked if he could get some to try, and I told him to help himself. I was free to go. Almost.
“Just one last thing, Nije punac, taste of nego.” Punac is the Croatian word for father-in-law, to taste is Serbian.
A week later I returned to Hvar via the same border, this time with about 20 kilos of paprika, a gift in reverse. He just smiled.
It was one of many examples of one of my favorite cultural practices in Croatia and the wider region – moving vegetables.
(My late father-in-law, whose tireless efforts in his family estate, combined with his wife’s excellent cooking, produced the best home cooking of my life)
I must confess that I had never thought of vegetables in my life until I came to Croatia (apart from, perhaps, when I was a humanitarian worker in post-genocide Rwanda in 1994, when my project received 1.5 million packets of vegetable seeds without a packing list – it took 3 weeks to account for our gift), but vegetables (and fruits) are an important part of my daily life in Croatia, and my 20 years in Croatia made me completely rethink and appreciate local, quality food, and the cultural importance of carrying it to friends and extended family when driving from point A to point B.
Much of the credit for my increased passion for vegetables goes to my wife and her parents, whose family field was the source of much of the goodness I consumed during my 13 years in Hvar. The field was my late father-in-law’s passion, and my wife and mother-in-law translated the fruits of the field into delicious and healthy local Dalmatian dishes. Seeing my children have an affinity for blitva (swiss chard) at an early age was in direct contact with my fight every Sunday lunchtime in Manchester to avoid the two Brussels sprouts on my plate.
Shortly after moving here in 2003, I was at the grocery store in Jelsa in November. There was a Brit, also living on the island, in front of me asking to buy tomatoes – where were they?
“It’s November,” was the reply. “It’s not the season. No tomatoes.”
It hadn’t occurred to him that tomatoes even had a season. Or to me. And if they did, when was it? Back in Manchester supermarkets, tomatoes – very bland tomatoes – were growing 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Thus began one of the great transformations of my stay in Croatia. I went from being a spoiled city boy who could get any fruit or vegetable he wanted from a major supermarket chain to only being able to get fruits and vegetables when they were in season. But what I lost in availability, I more than made up for in quality. Wild asparagus may only be available for a few weeks in the spring, but WHAT it tastes like. (If you’re an asparagus fan, you really haven’t tasted asparagus until you tried the wild Dalmatian variety). Cucumber and tomato salads in the summer are simple, yet refreshing and full of goodness. And I will never forget seeing my two children return to Hvar after we moved. Seeing them breathing in the scents of this aromatic island was a joy to watch in November, but watching them head straight for the tangerine trees to pick a few tangerines to eat right away was a wonderful sight. You don’t get that experience when your tangerines grow in supermarkets in Manchester.
After several years I visited Manchester once again and visited a supermarket. I was shocked when I looked at the tomatoes. Where was the life, the color. I bought some to try, but they mostly tasted like water. Dalmatia spoils you as well. Once you get used to healthy, home-grown Dalmatian vegetables, it’s hard to find quality anywhere else.
But growing vegetables in motion was everywhere. I have to admit I was a bit confused on a trip to Zagreb when I got in my car to find 30 cabbages and 10 liters of wine in the back to give to my brother-in-law in Zagreb. There was nothing wrong with that, but a few months later I found myself carrying a similar number of a different type of cabbage in a different direction. Trips to Albania would always include a mandatory stop in the Neretva Valley to stock up on watermelons, peaches and other treasures, and the roads of northern Croatia are always plentiful for wholesale purchases of pumpkins and paprika.
I love it.
And if no one is driving from A to B, does that mean the transport of vegetables stops? Absolutely not! Having left the island, we would be regular and grateful recipients of large packages sent by post. Olive oil, tangerines, tomatoes, blitva, grapes and a host of other goodness. Heaven. And we were certainly not alone. In addition to the post office, other parents use the ‘Balkan DHL’ service: fast, cheap, reliable and unbeatable, one of the best institutions in south-eastern Europe.
The majesty of vegetables and the way of life surrounding it is one of the many untapped treasures of Croatian tourism, as very few people there understood its appeal to city dwellers like me. A man from Hvar who did it was a friend of mine who runs a luxury tourism business. He told me about the moment when he finally understood the secret of successful tourism.
“I was with wealthy New York clients at an olive grove for lunch and an olive oil tasting,” he explained. “One of them pointed to a lemon tree and asked me if he could pick a lemon. I told him to pick six and forgot right away. At the end of the week , he came to thank me for an amazing week, but he also wanted to tell me about the highlight. Picking those lemons. He lived in New York, had never seen a lemon tree and had only seen lemons in stores, bars and restaurants. It was a highlight, and I realized that authentic experiences like this that are free and surround us here can be sold at full price.”
And I can certainly confirm the magic of freshly picked lemon. Could there be a better case for the Dalmatian lifestyle than sending one of the children to pick a lemon from the family tree in the garden for the evening gin and tonic on the terrace?
You can follow the 20 ways Croatia has changed me in 20 years on the dedicated TCN section.