There is always a story behind food. Whether it be from the memories a flavor conjures up, or a tale of cultural significance, there is invariably something important behind what we eat and what we cook. And these stories affect the way in which we respond to food, and our openness to it.
While thinking about how I wanted to approach this entry about a mackerel pulled out of the Adriatic Sea, I couldn’t ignore all the things that brought me there in the first place. So this story touches on my own personal history, and a particular person that influenced my decision to go to Croatia, and catch a fish at sea.
As I looked back on my distant past, I asked myself what is it that defines a mentor? Are mentors a result of long-term intellectual relationship bonded by trust? Do mentors always teach us life-lessons? Are they generally remarkable people or can they also be categorized as simply ordinary? How does one know when they have found a mentor? Without a doubt the answer is subjective, but I was able to qualify at least three people that I would consider mentors; extraordinary people that made a great impact at different stages of my life by influencing me in positive and meaningful ways.
The first is my sifu (老師), the late Frank Tam, my Chinese calligraphy, philosophy and painting teacher. He is extremely important, but has little relation to this story, so I’ll skip his tale for now.
The second is my father, Cesar, a true gentleman and a scholar. He is by far the smartest and bravest person in my life. Once a university professor and more recently, a high school teacher. He was also an industrial spy, a brick and mortar architect and a Fortune 100 senior executive before the ruthless Shining Path gave our family (and many others like us) reasons to leave behind our beloved homeland of Peru.
Cesar probably had a tough time trying to teach me Calculus during my teenage years in Canada — I just wasn’t into numbers nor studying; part of me wishes I could give back the infinite hours he spent with me going over my homework. But still, he persevered. My father helped me see the world through travel and in the process passed on to me his wealth of intellectual tools. Following my parent’s divorce when I was about 15, Bert walked into my life, and thus bestowing different set of values, rather, sheer necessities upon me.
Bert (or Bartol) was a simple man with impenetrable eyes and street smarts to boot. He became my mother’s life-partner and helped her keep us boys in line. He was also a man of many talents and in the mid 1970’s, he built a well-structured raft with two of his friends to escape Tito’s tyrannical reign of modern-day Croatia. Their arduous journey across the Adriatic Sea brought him to Eastern Italy where he settled in as a baker, then a brick layer, a race car driver and eventually a commercial skipper. He embarked on many exotic journeys across seas and oceans, from time to time using the constellations as his means for navigation, and with each new continent he visited, he became an ever-wiser man.
His first lesson to my brother Hugo and I was how to properly hold a hammer. “Work smarter, not harder,” he repeatedly exclaimed throughout our years together. He also taught us how to see the game of chess and how to bake bread. Over the years there were countless sessions on wine-making, lessons on how to play proper bar pool, and maneuvering a knife in close quarters — a dying art in the sailor community. Sometimes at night, beneath the long stretch of Vancouver’s iconic Lion’s Gate Bridge, he would teach me how to skillfully switch gears (race car style) while under the cover of darkness. He had a son in the old country, but he never spoke of him.
Bert promised to take me fishing on the Adriatic one day, the same sea he traversed with his companions en route to Italy.
I’m not a very superstitious person, yet a vehement premonition told me to go back home to British Columbia in the spring of 2004. One month later without any warning, Bert left us for the stars. In front of a room full of people I made a promise during his eulogy that I would fulfill the last wish he left me with: I would take him back to his cherished Croatia one day and give him back to the Adriatic Sea.
Late summer 2012 presented Zara and I with the opportunity to travel into the Mediterranean. Skillfully avoiding the hoards of European and American tourists during the peak summer months, we hauled our backpacks through ancient, yet modernized Istanbul, followed by the mystical Cappadocia in the Central Anatolian region of Turkey.
We climbed the Parthenon in Athens for the second time in my life, spent days sun-bathing in Western Crete, ate Risotto and Cotellete alla Milanese in Milan for lunch and hunted down Trieste’s best source for aged ham that same evening.
Trieste marked our entrance into Croatia (via Slovenia) and from there we began our journey through the enchanting region of Istria and down along the Dalmatian Coastline towards our final destination, and my stepfather’s home, Dubrovnik.
Prior to embarking on our journey, my younger brother Hugo asked me to place some of Bert’s ashes at the base of a fig tree, this is because our home in North Vancouver is sheltered by two bountiful Verte (green ischia) fig trees both planted by our stepfather just shy of two decades ago. I quickly learned that you can’t throw a stone in Croatia without hitting a fig tree (rosemary shrub or olive branch for that matter), so it couldn’t be just any old fig tree, I knew that I had to find the right one.
In Istria, we stayed in the medieval hamlet of Motovun and it is simply one of the most stunning locations I’ve ever stepped foot in. Geographically speaking it is quite reminiscent of Tuscany’s famous rolling hills, but culturally it couldn’t be a more different place.
We had the good fortune to find a charming medieval stone house to rent in the middle of town that boasted the most amazing terrace overlooking a green valley of vineyards and olive groves. On this terrace is where I found that perfect fig tree; young with many years to thrive yet under the Istrian sunshine over this historic valley.
Enthralled by the moment and this incredible place, Zara and I decided this terrace would be where we would exchange vows come next September. This decision surprised us, but we embraced it and opened a bottle of Turkish white wine while watching the sun sink behind the mountain range.
After leaving Istria, we drove through the tunnel-laden Kvarner Gulf prior to arriving in Dalmatia. There are over a thousand islands dotting the coastline, but there was one in particular that we found seductively intriguing. We hopped on a ferry from the city of Zadar to Dugi Otok, which literally translates to “long island,” the largest in the North Dalmatian archipelago.
Dugi Otok is serene and exhibits a simplistic yet rich island lifestyle steeped in tradition. It must be the stress-free approach to daily life, and the pride of living peacefully with the land and the sea.
Tucked in between the bay of the Telašćica Nature Park and the Adriatic is Salt Lake Mir, containing leftover sea water from when the island moved upwards after the last Ice Age creating towering (stene) cliffs which line the southwest rim of the island.
We hiked this area and found a large herd of Dalmatian Donkeys and as we approached the sea we unknowingly came across what looked like a massive cairn memorial; stacked rock mounds created by hundreds, if not thousands of people over an extended period of time. With the crashing of the waves below, this would be the first time I would release some of Bert’s ashes into the Adriatic before doing it once more in Dubrovnik.
There was one more thing I had to do before departing Dugi Otok, and that was to go fishing out at sea. In the small village of Verunic, we were hosted by the most gracious proprietors, Gianni and his wife Miriam, of Gorgonia Apartments. The area is well-known for sailing and the abundance of first grade yellowfin tuna and mackerel that live in the sea. Gianni is an experienced navigator and offered to take us on a fishing excursion. It was a wonderful experience, certainly one I won’t soon forget. We first caught our bait close to the shores; a delicious and very beautiful teal and silver fish that resembled tiny swordfish, commonly known as the ballyhoo.
After the bait was caught, we went further into the sea where the larger fish thrive and waters become slightly more tumultuous. The big fish certainly weren’t catching as quickly as the little guys, and the impending storm closing in possibly had something to do with it, but we waited patiently, exchanging stories with Gianni and watching sailboats disappear onto the horizon.
Either by luck or chance, the line tugged and I pulled in a great catch. My 5lb mackerel was a gorgeous fish, and well worth the wait. It was a proud moment for us and while Bert may not have been there in that boat, he was certainly there in spirit. And of course, I couldn’t wait to get it back to the apartment and prepare it over an open flame in Gianni’s outdoor oven, situated just next to the same sea water the fish came out of.
It being Gianni’s kitchen, he fired up the coals, and I helped him prepare the fish with only salt, pepper and continually brushing it with an olive oil-soaked rosemary sprig. With the mastery of someone with years of experience of doing just this, he created a low-heat source with a thin bed of hot-burning embers and situated the fish just above them to get a nice and even slow roast.
I prepared a raw bolete mushroom, watercress and arugula salad finished off with a simple lemon vinaigrette and a fistful of thinly sliced paški sir, the well-known sheep cheese from the Croatian island of Pag.
During Venetian rule, the island of Pag was stripped of most of its timber. Due to the lack of cover, the local sheep feeding pastures would pick up the salinity swept in by the sea breeze, thus creating a very distinctive type of cheese given the sheep’s diet.
Miriam prepared an array of traditional side dishes and poured a crisp and delicious bottle of Malvazija white wine. We sat with their family and shared our anecdotes and we listened to theirs.
The topic of food came up time and time again as we each told stories about memorable meals, regional cooking styles we’ve been exposed to and our knowledge of food culture, ingredients and techniques. Gianni taught us about the fish we were enjoying immensely and the intensified salinity in the waters it was born out of that helps make the flavors so unique. We feel grateful to have shared this meal in their family home by the sea and will always look back on this day fondly.
In retrospect, I had always pictured the act of scattering my stepfather’s ashes out at sea as a more ceremonious instance in time, but in reality it was all about the journey leading up to that moment. It was there surrounding me all along; embracing each adventure and mishap, eating and drinking with new friends and strangers, never taking for granted Zara’s unquestionable support, and most importantly getting to know Bert’s native home while bringing him along for the ride.
For my stepfather, my mentor, whom ultimately became my friend and the kindest man I’ve known.