The closer you are to the land, the more you appreciate the food it produces, whether that food is plant or animal. Obvious, no? But though I had given lip service to this notion for a long time, I only came to fully understand it in Istria, the western part of Croatia, after I had been writing about food for 30 years.
No doubt I was disoriented. I’d been traveling all over western Europe, moving every couple of days, researching and eating and writing about places and things that were already familiar to me. So to cross the border from Trieste, Italy, and travel through Slovenia, felt. . . abrupt. To me, eastern and central European countries seem more foreign than even remote Asian villages. This might seem odd, given that I’m a third-generation American with roots all over eastern and central Europe. The people look familiar, they sound familiar, and the way they eat is familiar. Yet somehow, this makes their differences all the more striking.
From my first meal, eating was transformative. As much as anywhere I’d ever been, the restaurants were serving local food. They weren’t bragging about it, either. It was a given. As one waiter said, “We also have pork, but the pity is it’s from Europe.” Nearly everything else was from town. “Europe” could mean nearby Italy or Austria, or faraway England.
Surprises are the norm in countries with truly regional food, where the “regions” change every 10 miles and pay little heed to shifting national boundaries.
Not that Istrians are xenophobic. How could they be? For hundreds of years, the land was Italian and/or Austro-Hungarian, and then it was part of Yugoslavia. The borders have changed, as have the nationalities. There are older Istrians who have held four passports without moving an inch. Bi- and trilingualism are normal. Everyone is a foreigner, or has been.
The cuisine, however, is unifying, largely old-fashioned, and not terribly corrupted. It’s often described as a variety of Italian, because it’s simple, fresh, and seasonal, and because pasta, garlic, olive oil, and Mediterranean herbs are key ingredients. Istrians eat lamb, chicken, and goat, and some hyperlocal fish you rarely see elsewhere. There are also a few surprises—wurstlike sausages, sauerkraut—that remind you that this is not the Mediterranean but middle Europe.
Surprises, of course, are the norm in countries with truly regional food, where the “regions” change every 10 miles and pay little heed to shifting national boundaries. Saying something like “Italy is a country where the food is remarkably regional” doesn’t convey the fact that the food of Sicily has almost nothing to do with the food of Venice, which in turn has a great deal to do with the food of Istria, the rest of Croatia, Trieste, Slovenia, Serbia, and Austria. When it comes to cuisine, the name Italy is almost meaningless.
What matters is what you might call the locavore thing, new only in the sense that in the United States we have strayed so far from our food sources that we’ve forgotten that in general, food is best when it’s grown within walking or at most easy driving distance. This is such an obvious concept that it would scarcely be worth mentioning in any culture in which seasonality and tradition remain the norm.
There are no locavores in Istria, nor is there any discussion of local or regional food. There is only the stuff from the European Union and beyond—and everything else. The “everything else” is what’s grown or raised or foraged here, and it is simply a part of daily, almost hourly, life.
Everyone with a yard (which is almost everyone) has a vegetable garden. Many people have chickens, goats, rabbits, sheep. Everyone, rich and poor, forages for asparagus in early spring, strawberries later on, mushrooms half the year. Fishing is not a sport but a component of eating. The fall’s detritus is burned in the fields each winter, next to the still-productive cabbage and turnip plants. Neighbors talk to each other.
And they eat together. What do they eat? As often as possible, what they raise, harvest, or find. Among the grandest meals of my spoiled adult life was one served in a hut in a backyard, eaten with a family I barely knew. (The other such memorable meals, in places from Vietnam to Liguria, were similar: not in restaurants but with the families of former strangers.)
When we lose contact with our food, we eat it carelessly—and it degrades us.
Everyone contributed, even me. (I tried, at least: I had foraged for asparagus that morning. Though I came up short, I was forgiven.) The scene: a fire in the corner, a stove, a not-big-enough table, and a dozen people of varying ages, some standing. Everyone except me was a cousin. There were political arguments I didn’t understand (it appeared that the men were fascists and the women liberals, but I’m sure there were subtleties I missed) and spontaneous singing. Plenty of homemade malvasia wine. Bread baked that day. Asparagus from the hills (other foragers had been more successful), turnips, cabbage, and greens from the garden.
There were two kinds of pasta, one with a sauce from a just-killed rabbit, the other served with a stew made from a big rooster who had pecked the hens half to death. “We didn’t even have to pluck them,” someone said, and everyone had a good laugh remembering the rooster who was so aggressive he had to go into the pot. “He was too big to eat in one meal, so part of him went into the freezer,” his former keeper told me. “I wonder when we’ll eat him.”
And I got a chill. Not the chill a vegetarian might have felt but a “what a swell guy that nutty rooster was” chill. Even though I’d never met him.
I had, however, met the rabbit we’d just finished and the goat our host was roasting. The goat was a little guy, just enough to cap the meal. I had petted him earlier in the day and felt sorry for him. Yet he was by far the most delicious goat I’ve ever tasted, seasoned with nothing more than laurel and rosemary.
I had more ambivalence about eating those animals than I have had about eating any other. And I realized that ambivalence was appropriate. When we lose contact with our food, we eat it carelessly, thoughtlessly; we eat the wrong things, we take life without thinking—and it degrades us. The reverence for the animals who had given their lives to grace this table was palpable, unavoidable, and unlike any I’d ever experienced. And it changed me.