There where there are no markets. Serbs breaking bread in Croatia.
It is said that my paternal family left Serbian Montenegro some 500 years ago, fleeing the Ottoman Turks and settled in a small mountainous village called Dabar, Lika in what is today Croatia.
For a long time, it was a hardscrabble life, where at one stage, some 14 persons shared the small family cottage. My father, like his siblings were born in this house.
The mountains which have served as a natural shield between the Adriatic and Central Croatia, has meant that during history, it served as a frontier area, with the Ottomans eventually taking control in the mid 1500’s, and later the village formed part of the Krajina area, where Serbs fought for separation during the 1990’s. This geographical and natural division has also hampered any true development in the region.
But it wasn’t always a place of hardship. As a child, I first visited the area in the late 70’s and my cousins and I would take walks in the village which was made up of some 30 or so homes, where villagers would either tempt us in for what they had just picked or baked, (or alternatively they would shoo us off). The family until this time had subsided solely of the land, until my father’s generation, the first of which was gainfully employed, were able to contribute to the running of the cottage and small farm.
One of my fondest memories was of a family reunion, where a long wooden table was put under the vines, and was then laden with freshly baked bread, butter churned that morning, home-smoked hams and prosciutto, roast vegetables and salads accompanied a roasted suckling pig which had come directly from their own pen. Asides from some beer bought in from the nearest town, a 35 minutes drive through a winding mountain pass (or an hour by horse and carriage), even the alcohol was their own; people from the Balkans are known for their Rakia, a potent and distilled alcohol, similar to vodka, which they infuse with pear, plum, various flowers.
Yet today, some 30 years later, there are few cottages left standing, as during the Croatian-Serbian war, most were bombed, and the majority of the villagers have left and moved to larger towns or to other countries. I walked up and down the old village with a distant uncle who told me the stories of what had happened to the inhabitants, both Serb and Croat. He showed me where the armies had come down from the mountains and first invaded, I had a cool drink at the house where villagers stayed for weeks on end, unaware of their plight, and then walked by the cellar where my aunt and three other women had hidden, until fright had almost paralysed them, so they crawled out, and gently told to calm down by the waiting enemy army, who had then led them to safety.
Growing up, I first thought that it was only me that carried these background tales of war and hardship, yet looking around the classroom and then the friends I made later as an adult, I realised almost every second person I met, from the Polish neighbor who in WW2 was separated from and never again found his first daughter and wife, from Linh, the first Vietnamese girl at school, who had a short fuse and an angry stare. Then there’s my new Lebanese friend with who I had dinner with last night and had grown up in a bomb shelter, the Tutsi boss I once had who told me about the time he had crossed the Ugandan border by foot and returning home to Rwanda had found the river which once ran through town, full of dead bodies. I can’t forget the many Jewish friends – these witty and warm hearted people who I am able to forge quick relationships with, yet all of whose faces can cloud over quickly when asked ‘what happened there?’ All of these people from some place else, as most of us, somewhere, sometime, having run from that place called home.
Today, back in the village, it’s time to harvest the hay, yet this is not the village it was 20 years ago. The mostly abled men have gone, others are injured, so now, both Serbian and Croatian, mostly older folk, work alongside each other, sharing time, sharing equipment, sharing seed, dividing up the harvest.
Back at the cottage, where most of what we eat still comes from the land, we now eat Serb and Croatian together, toasting Rakia together. To me, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and it is where I have some of my fondest memories. We now speak Serbian, Croatian, English and French. And it’s these moments that brings me back to the most important thing I have learnt in all these years of war, of displacement, and then becoming a humanitarian, is that separation, any type – whether its because of religion, language, caste, race, doesn’t work. We are not fanatical by nature, nor do we wish to be led by fanatics. In the end, we don’t want to be apart, we want to be unified, as one, we want to be friends, and forge peace, to break bread with our neighbours.
For as long as she can remember, my Aunt (or Strina) who now remains in the cottage alone after having lost her husband in the war, has baked her own bread. There is no local bakery, no boulangerie, and no farmer’s market where she can go pick up a freshly baked loaf. It’s handmade and it’s goodness in a slice. Here is her recipe.
Strina Ana’s Bread
About a kilo of unbleached white flour or a mix of white and whole grain
About a liter of water. The amount you use will depend on the quality of the flour, the temperature of the day, even where you live (go by the feel of the dough).
Two packets of dried active yeast.
A little bit of olive oil.
1-2 teaspoons of salt.
1 teaspoon of sugar.
Sift flour and salt together to introduce air to the dough.
Prepare your yeast following pack instructions, but generally dissolve the yeast in some tepid water (follow pack instructions as these differ according to the brand), stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar, and wait about 10 minutes until it becomes frothy.
In a bowl, or on a floured surface, add your flour, make a hole in the middle of the flour, and add then add active yeast. Mix through until combined.
Knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic to touch.
Cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place (on top of the oven which is being warmed is good) for an hour.
Remove the dough from the bowl and knead again on a lightly floured surface.
Leave to rest for about 10-15 minutes.
Divide into two loaves and place in a slightly oiled baking tray.
With a baking brush, brush a little milk over the dough.
Bake for about 45 minutes at 350 C.
Bring over a neighbour or friend from a faraway place and eat together. Enjoy!