Overcast. Wanted sand twixt our toes, sights for our eyes had to do. Game of Thrones places: Purple Wedding park, Walk of Shame staircase, Red Keep. Fair amount of stairs in the wind.
Back into the old town. Every single stone a few centuries old and the ones beneath us polished smooth by millions of footsteps. Wander the grid of little backstreets – alleyways with notions, really – that climb up beneath the city walls. Few drops. Canopy. Beer and a coffee. Man up, so: beer. Proprietor takes a seat next us for a smoke.
Our owner / chef / waiter / friend is the winner of the most interesting man in Croatia competition. At least according to us. What the fuck is an electronic cigarette?! Says he. Have a real one. Marlboro box full there and light on the table. So long, willpower.
The beer flows. Laško – Lashko.
Then those magic words from my girlfriend, in the midst of the chats: I’m a chef, too.
Our host nearly spews out his beer, his face morphed into ecstasy. He grabs her by the arm: To the kitchen, honey!
She goes toe to toe with him because she already knows the mysteries, the culinary catechism. Then those equally magic words to let us know we’re at home: Next round on me!
Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles, and round after round appear before us. Zeus and Dionysus are evidently in accord that we’ll all be getting pissed tonight, and we are not ones to gainsay the gods.
Jigsaw life puzzle on our host, as filling as the food and drink. Wine and weed and women, no particular order. Sweden. Wife. Kids. LA. Gothenburg. Learning the trade. Catering a swanky shindig in Malibu, California, late 80s, no idea what it is. Finds out on the job: IRA fundraiser. As you do.
In his travels he meets an Irishman who’ll become his best friend. This same friend calls our host’s mother Mama Gestapo whenever he visits Croatia. Seventeen phone calls a day to ascertain her son’s whereabouts – he’s over 50 years old, keep in mind – will tell you how close to the mark he is.
Early / mid 90s and the wars back home. Not pray to the same god as me, do you? Have a bullet, a mortar, a genocide. Shells dropping and he in California on the wire to his mammy in Dubrovnik.
Yugoslavia exists no longer now – but did it ever? Passport good only for toilet roll. Down to Guatemala to get an emergency one to get home, his mother to bury.
Alive after all?
Eleven years a restaurateur in Dubrovnik, a damn fucking good one and all. The food the wine the warmth – reader, never have I had a mix quite like it. Banter (in the finest Irish tradition), free rounds, snack; my lord, the snack. Cheese, marmalade, lavender honey, and almonds. Surprisingly tasty. And on goes the conversation.
They’re talking recipes to bate the band and here’s a fine thing – a mechanism – they stumble upon: do never write a fucking cook book. Do never read one. Get two chefs together, preferably from diverse culinary traditions, and have them talk it out. Film it and sell it. They will birth more recipes and combinations in twenty minutes than any one chef in any one book.
Food is a fluid thing; cuisine a kaleidoscope. Put your eye to it, your ear to it, your tongue to it, and waddle away the richer for it.
As you read this now so do I write it. This is round two – we hastily brought ourselves home for an hour’s intermission, that’s me scribbling above – and now midnight fast approaches in the single most hospitable restaurant we’ve ever had the luck of entering. Only we’re outside, the chats reaching a frenzy as we laugh in the storm’s face.
River. A little river – a rivulet gushing beneath my feet down the white old town stones. Into the harbour. That another flash overhead? Thunder, t’was. Sure it’s a river now, and do we care? Do we, fuck!
Restaurant heaving around us and our host, who has given us a most gorgeous wine to wash down our delicious dinners – yellowfish and sea food spaghetti – is bouncing around the place, shouting orders like a battlefield general and getting stuck in with the rank and file, pouring pints and waiting tables. A Caesar for the modern day.
The wine he gives us – a Dingač – is reportedly the finest Croatia has to offer. Now I’m no sommelier but it does appear to be an altogether delectable vintage, Tarquin.
The banter continues apace, the recipes bubbling away nicely. I can’t make fried eggs, our host confides. I can make scrambled, poached, omelette, everything, but I can’t make fried. I break twelve eggs, honey, I use all four arms and I still fuck it up.
Ah sure nobody’s perfect.
Hablas español? he says to me.
Pues claro que sí.
And he hands me a Cuban cigar, a proper Fidel Castro fuck-off cigar, for nothing at all. Esplendido. My lecturers always said languages would open doors for me. Said nothing about tobacco, though. I think of all the doors our excellent host must have open to him; he speaks fluent English, Spanish, Italian, and Swedish, as well as his native Croatian.
After every discussion of a dish, recipe, or culinary titbit, either he or my girlfriend will say to the other: Do you ever stop? To which the reply is: Do you?! A refrain that comes to pepper the night.
This is the kind of spontaneous, craic-filled encounter that makes life worth living; I’ve never had such a genuine smile riveted on my face for so long. The night stretches out before us like an old friend with open arms. We laugh and saunter into its embrace. Meanwhile, our wonderful host stands and takes out his buzzing phone.
I have to go a moment; Mama Gestapo is calling me – but will you have another beer?