Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On Islands and Going Back: Pasta e Fagioli






The dream would come every once in a while, perhaps every six months or so. I would dream about Hvar, both the island and the town, but mainly the town, and would then wake up longing, feeling incomplete... It was never the same dream, but in a way it was the same. I dreamt about planning a summer vacation, and recruiting friends to go to Hvar with me, but no one was available, or tickets were sold out, or weather did not comply, and eventually I had to settle for a different place. Occasionally, I made it to the island and embarked on a walk through the pine forest towards the town, towards the cathedral, but the town evaded me; sometimes the crowds stood in between like an impenetrable human wall, sometimes the maze of tiny streets in the Old Town got entwined and entangled, turning into a labyrinth, and then into a knot, and the knot took me places; it took me to Venice, Split and Kotor, it took me to Dubrovnik, Seville, and Belgrade, but never to Hvar... And sometimes, as I was about to finally get within the medieval walls, the beautifully ornamented Gothic palaces grew bigger, and bigger, until they grew fifty stories tall and I found myself in Manhattan again.

In my dreams time passes much faster than in my waking hours; every night I live through at least a decade or two, yet in all those centuries of dreaming I never made it to Hvar.

Mom and Dad discovered Hvar, an island in the Adriatic sea off the Dalmatian coast, in the sixties, about a year or two after they got married. On their first visit they booked a room in the center of the town, a small room on top of an ancient stone house in the immense shadow of the cathedral, about ten marble steps uphill, and about a minute walk from the market. The house had a massive wooden door painted in green, which led to a courtyard covered in vines, surrounded by the living quarters. Theirs was a tiny room in the attic, humble just like my parents' humble student beginnings, a room not born for renting, but Mom and Dad did not mind, and besides, it was probably the only place they could afford.

The house belonged to a family of fisherman and was always full of people and bursting with action: first came their host, Barba Pupe, a short and roundish old fisherman with spiky white hair, callused hands and reserved smile; accustomed to rising before dawn, together with the nets, fishing boats and catch of the day, Pupe took naps at noontime and afterwards joined his fisherman friends at the riva for a glass of bevanda (red wine mixed with water) and a plate of grilled octopus. His wife, Nonna Maria, always wore black and made a killer brodetto (fish stew) and pasta e fagioli. Then, there were the children and their respective families, the grandchildren, and an occasional close and not so close relative. In a household that big it does not take much to create a torrent of activity, hence, kids were always running around looking for things to eat, floors were perpetually covered with nets in need of a repair, the tools of the trade mingled with toys and clothes in need of washing... There would be an occasional plate of tomatoes someone picked from the garden in the back and forgot on the way to the kitchen, a bowl with grapes and figs, a pot of beans left to soak (Nonna made pasta e fagioli at least once a week), a flip-flop or two, a small pile of beach towels, and seashells left to dry.



 



It was astounding how that narrow stone house managed to accommodate all the action, but somehow it did, and at the end there was even a tiny bit of space left -- a small room in the attic -- it brought a promise of a steady stream of extra dinars, to support the repair of the boat, help fix the house, or buy a new winter coat for the kids... And it became my parents' summer home. It was a humble room, but my parents did not mind -- it came with a big heart and with a second family, and Mom and Dad kept on coming back, year after year.

Even when they could finally afford something less humble, they kept on coming back. Even when, many years later, I came to this world and the room became way too tight for a family of three, they kept on coming back.

I was eighteen months old when Pupe taught me how to eat whole fish; he waited patiently as I took the bones out with clumsy fingers of a toddler, and then he would point out the ones I missed, while Mom trembled quietly, and held her breath, grasping the tablecloth until her knuckles turned white, yet she did not stop him, feeling proud of my little achievement. I was three when they allowed me to join local kids on their thereabouts around the town; we roamed the maze of marble streets and climbed the steps to the Citadel until late in the night, when we came back covered in scratches and dirt, and joined the family for a dinner at a big communal table in the courtyard. I was four when "the council" --- Pupe, his sons and our friend Vučko -- decided that "the time has come"; they threw me from the concrete waterfront of the Hvar town beach into the sea and left to struggle. And what a struggle it was, for about a minute or two I kicked and screamed and splashed the water around calling for help, for someone to dive in and save me, until suddenly, I did not need saving any more. "I am swimming, I am swimming, Mom, look at me I am swimming," I yelled back at my parents. Mom began to cry, Dad extended our vacation for another week so that I can fully embrace my newly acquired skill, while back at the house Nonna Maria made brodetto for dinner to celebrate.

And then things got tense in our ill-fated country, and we stopped going to the coast... And then the war came, and country fell apart. The coast I so dearly loved did not belong to me any more. We lost the island to the divide. We lost friends to the divide. And then we moved on. Because life moves on and you have to go with it. I graduated and crossed the ocean forever. I got married, had a family, and vacationed on different islands.






"You should go back," told me my cousin Alex last fall in Vienna, when I visited for a week. "Let's go to Hvar together next summer," he said. Alex is my favorite cousin of all, no, wait a second, first and foremost he is my friend, because friends we choose and cousins we inherit. Alex is my friend and my window into the world, he keeps me current with world events, places to go to and things to do, he reminds me to read New York Times, New Yorker and Economist when I fall out of touch, and when in need he arranges a Croatian vacation in a split of a second.

"We will be staying in Hvar town, right," I asked. That was kind of assumed.
"No one stays in Hvar anymore, me dear," Alex replied, "unless you are 21."

And that is how we found ourselves in a tiny bay of Rosohotnica, in a beautiful house on the rocks, just a couple of steps away from dangerously turquoise waters. It takes some serious driving courage to get to Rosohotnica. I kind of closed my eyes and said a little prayer every time we entered a curve on a narrow road that barely fits one car, let alone two vehicles coming from opposite directions, and I kept the prayer going because the curves kept on coming. But we were in luck, Rosohotnica is far away from the crowds and thrill seekers, far away from deliveries, visitors -- even wireless signal does not attempt to go there -- and the road was empty. It was just us, the crickets and the residual hot air infused with immortelle and lavender. Needles to say, the empty road leads to an empty beach and we had the turquoise waters entirely to ourselves.

It took two days until I finally made it to the town, because no one felt like leaving the beach.

I held Miss Pain's hand when we stepped on the main square and walked by the cathedral. I held it tightly. I wanted to say, "this is where Mama kind of grew up," but there was a funny sensation in my throat, and a cloud of butterflies in my stomach, and the words refused to follow, drowned in an over consuming feeling of nostalgia and excitement. "This is where I grew up," I finally managed to say to a lady in a pizza joint on St. Stephen's square, an obligatory stop when Miss Pain is concerned, but I don't think the lady cared, too busy serving a line of hipsters, famished from a long day at the beach. "This was my favorite place growing up, I was your most devoted customer," I told the server in the Albanian pastry shop next to the Arsenal, as Miss Pain munched on a baklava, just like her mom once did. But I don't think he cared either. I do not think anyone cared; it was a speckle in time from four decades ago, I was just another tourist among the thousands who visit Hvar every day, and it was business as usual.

No matter how hard I tried, just like in my dream, the island of my youth refused to let me in. It took quite a bit of effort to locate the 16-th century well on St. Stephen's square. Back then, it was my favorite spot and I could spend hours sitting on top of its intricate iron griddle lurking into the dark hole, wondering what lies beneath. Once upon a time the well stood proudly at the center of the square, like its crown jewel, but is now buried among restaurant tables, which overtook the magnificent piazza. A few dozen steps away, on the riva, I discovered that unpretentious cafes from the socialist era, where Pupe met his fellow fisherman, and Vučko, my uncle Mića and Dad indulged in vinjak (widely popular local brandy), grilled sardines and chit-chat with ever bored waiters were gone, replaced with a line-up of stylish joints featuring burgers, Italian pasta, fancy cocktails, Turkish divans and the first class view of lavish yachts in the port. Hvar is a major sailing destination, and lurking inside fancy sailboats has always been a popular evening pastime, yet over the years the boats grew seriously big, and seriously expensive, taking up every inch of the space in the small port. The houses got bigger too, marble shinier than I remembered, almost blinding in its whiteness.

It took me a while to find the house. A seemingly straightforward task, because there is only one street next to the market that leads uphill, but the street, once empty, was lined in cafes and souvenir shops. The old wooden door was re-painted white, and it seemed smaller than I recalled, and I almost missed it, but the paint began to peel off, uncovering a small patch of that familiar moss green, and the name on the door was still the same. The house looked newer, and there was a fancy stainless steel railing around it, and something else maybe, I cannot quite pinpoint it, and I lost the courage to ring the bell.

We walked around for a long time. I showed Miss Pain an old grey door halfway to the Citadel -- it was the starting point for our evening game of hide and seek. I showed her the Arsenal, where we went to see movies, oftentimes without our parents' permission. I showed her the inside of the cathedral, where I attended my first mass ever. Miss Pain dutifully took photos with her Fuji instant camera, every step of the way. Benedictine Monastery. Snap. The piazza. Snap. Little boats we took to the beaches of Milna and Palmizana. Snap.

And then we drove away...








I returned to the town a couple of times, for a coffee and ice cream in the pastry shop, and to watch the boats. And then I stopped going back. Instead, I spent my days driving on the dirt roads of Hvar's countryside, through olive groves and vineyards, looking for the tastiest local olive oil (disclosure, they are all excellent), sweetest tomatoes and the most fragrant vials of lavender oil. I took my girlfriends Dana (12), Mia (9) and Miss Pain (9) on a stone-collecting expedition. We searched for the funny-shaped stones, the kind of stones that tell stories, and back at the house we painted them with colorful nail polishes, making the stories alive. Fish, elephant, orca, peacock feather, circus... Late in the afternoon we climbed the rocks and cliffs of our little bay, collecting minerals and seashells, picking immortelle, and made a cabinet of curiosities. We picked almonds at the roadside, cracked them open and ate them on the spot. Took some more polaroids... Painted some more stones... Played hide and seek in the quiet streets of Stari Grad. In the evening, instead of reading emails and surfing the web, I sat on the balcony with a glass of bevanda, and inhaled cool pine-scented air that replaced day's heat. And I wondered about the little room in the attic of the stone house, with a wooden door now painted white. I wondered if the imprints of my fingers still adorn the walls. I wondered if they ever found the beads I had forgotten on my last visit. I wondered if the room still smells the same -- like age, like wetness, like lavender.

On our last day in Croatia, as I was packing our bags, Miss Pain gathered her collection of goodies and began to organize it: stones, corals, seashells, crystals, dried flowers. She arranged the polaroids on the table, in a huge matrix, as if in a card memory game, and marked her favorites. I stopped packing and looked at the ghostly, blurred images of the Fujifilm, its fading pastels and washed away contours, and all of a sudden, there it was, the island of my youth. I looked at if for a minute, holding it, savoring it, taking it all in.

And then I let it go.







Pasta e Fagioli


to cook the beans  

* 1 1/2 cup dried cranberry beans
* 1 small yellow onion, cut in half
* 1 small carrot, peeled and cut in three or four chunks 

* 1 stalk of celery, cut into three or four chanks
* 1 small garlic clove, halved
* 1 bay leaf


for the dish

* 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
* 1/3 cup finely chopped onion (1/4-inch dice or smaller)
* 1/4 cup finely chopped carrot
(1/4-inch dice or smaller)
* 1/4 cup finely chopped celery
(1/4-inch dice or smaller)
* 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
* 1/3 cup pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
* 1 cup tomato pure
* 1 cup diced fresh tomato (the tomato should be peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice, if not available use canned diced tomato)
* one small sprig of fresh rosemary
* one bay leaf 

* 1/2 tsp sugar
* salt and freshly ground black pepper
* 8 oz small, tubular macaroni such as elbows, ditalini, or my favorite -- pipette


to serve

* grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano or a sharp cheese of your choice (optional)


One day before making the dish, put the beans in a large bowl and add enough water to cover by at least three inches. Leave to soak overnight. When the beans have finished soaking, drain them, rinse in fresh cold water, and put them in a pot that will accommodate the beans and enough water to cover them by at least three inches. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and bay leaf. Cover the pot with a lid and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When the water comes to a boil, adjust the heat to maintain steady simmer. Cook the beans until they are tender, but not mushy about 45 minutes to an hour. Keep the beans in the cooking liquid until you are ready to proceed with a next step.

In a large pot combine the olive oil with the onions over medium heat (alternatively you can heat the oil first, but starting the onions in cold oil will help release their flavor gradually and will give a mellow taste to the dish). Cook the onions stirring occasionally, until they soften and become pale yellow, for about 5 minutes after the oil begins to sizzle. Add the garlic and cook for another minute until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the carrot and celery, and cook for another three minutes. Add the pancetta and cook for another five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomato pure, diced tomatoes, sugar, bay leaf and rosemary. Season with salt. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for another twenty minutes, or until tomatoes have cooked down and the mixture is smooth, thick and fragrant.

Drain the beans and add them to the pot. Add eight cups of water, and increase the heat to bring the water to a boil. When the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain simmer, and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, this will help the beans absorb the flavors. Check the water level, the soup should be liquid enough to cook the pasta in it. If not, add more water. Add the pasta and cook for about ten minutes, or until al dente (the pasta should be tender, but still firm to the bite). Taste the dish, adjust salt if needed, and season generously with freshly ground pepper. Allow the soup to settle at least 30 minutes to an hour before serving (it tastes better once it has taken a short "nap" and the beans will keep on absorbing the liquid, so that at the end the soup will be very thick). Serve warm (not hot), and pass the bowl with grated cheese around the table.


Serves 6-8 

17 comments :

  1. Aleksandra, that seriously made me tear up. What incredible memories, both from your childhood and the new ones with Miss Pain. (And the soup looks terrific, too!)

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  2. Your memories are so vivid and beautiful. What a magical place and how lucky you are to have experienced it again and with your family. The photo's are amazing as are the recollections. Pasta e fagiole is one of my favorites, my Mom made it all the time. I love it!!

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    1. I am glad that I was able to go back, despite the island being such a different place today. And I am still trying to recreate Nonna's pasta e fagioli, but it is evading me too :) How did your mom make it? I remember we did not eat it with Parmesan, because it was rare and expensive back then.

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    2. 'm afraid I am late in my response. My Mom penned her own recipe which is quite different from the traditional pasta e fagiole. She used tomato and equal part water, navy beans, salt pork, she made homemade pasta for it also, she used garlic no basil, it was delicious and I have tried to emulate for years and still to this day can't get it exactly like her's although I have come close.

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    3. I can so relate to what you wrote. All those childhood recipes, it seems like I am an inch away but I can never get them quite right. I practiced hard for this dish, but it is still someone else's pasta e fagioli.

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  3. Such an endearing piece of writing... Loved it

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    Replies
    1. Gamze, thank you for stopping by and letting me know.

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  4. A gorgeous piece of writing. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Marisa, thank you for taking the time to let me know. It means a lot to hear that...

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  5. What a wonderful, touching story... You know, changed as the place may be (they all change, all the time), you have created new memories with your daughter, so a place that was so special for you, will be special for her as well, in different ways. I find that to be wonderful, as I myself prepare for a trip to Serbia with my daughter (her first time). I am sure it will be very emotion-full. Greetings from down south, Jelena.

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  6. What a wonderful, touching story... You know, changed as the place may be (they all change, all the time), you have created new memories with your daughter, so a place that was so special for you, will be special for her as well, in different ways. I find that to be wonderful, as I myself prepare for a trip to Serbia with my daughter (her first time). I am sure it will be very emotion-full. Greetings from down south, Jelena.

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    Replies
    1. Jelena, have a great trip! I am sure your daughter will have the most wonderful time.

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  7. Your pasta e fagioli recipe sounds amazing!

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