Ever heard of Senigallia? Me neither. Until last summer that is. As it turns out, it’s one of the most popular sea-side resort towns on the Italian side of Adriatic coast in the region of Le Marche. It’s where masses of Italian families spend their beach holiday. I was shocked by the sheer size, i.e. length of it.
When we decided to visit Southern Dalmatia a couple of weekends ago we expected it to mean a prolonged summer break. As it turned out, the weather wasn’t quite as fabulous as we’d hoped for. It was a good thing we didn’t need it to be A+ for what we were after: some good fish-based meals, the lovely plavac (a.k.a. zinfandel’s child) and a leisurely rediscovering of the area. A simple break from the norm.
(Almost) Everything was just as we remembered from our last stay some five or so years ago. The scenery is mostly unchanged which is great, the sea is very much blue and the beaches almost deserted. Low season indeed.
Despite its misleading shape and form Peljesac is in fact a peninsula, which means it’s accessible by road. This is a helpful bit of information if one plans a short break as it means no waiting in lines for dull, somewhat expensive and long(ish) ferry rides. Its landscape is also beautifully rough, very much karst and Dalmatian and it’s dotted with cosy little villages and towns. No resorts here.
A definite must-visit on the peninsula are the lovely little coastal towns of Mali Ston and Ston each located on the opposite shores of the peninsula and connected with ancient fortified walls running up and down along the slopes that divide the two towns. For the fit and ready there’s the annual wall marathon where the walls are actually a running field. The experience (not to mention incredible views) must be unforgettable.
Turn left at the crossing were Peljesac meets the mainland and you’re headed in the direction of Bosnia (its coast is only about 20 kilometres long) and further up to the northern part of Croatian coast. Turn right and you’re less than an hour drive to Dubrovnik, the gem town of ancient age and glorious history. So, there’s plenty of day-trip options in all directions.
The views from the road on the way to Dubrovnik reminded me a bit of Amalfi coast. This also is a land where lemons grow (and pomegranates and quinces and the lot). Along the way one can stop by the road and enjoy the views over the sea to the near-by islands like Mljet or Lopud. The traveller should by all means make a stop at Trsteno, a village perched on both sides of the main road. There are several reasons for that. The locals are proud of their 16th century plane trees that are possibly the largest in Europe. What’s not to miss is the arboretum. It’s the only Mediterranean garden of its kind along the Croatian coast, which is quite surprising considering its length.
Its villa (regretfully in a poor shape) and the pavilion have the most fantastic location: amidst the lush greenery and with unbeatable views over the Adriatic. There are many pleasant alcoves in the garden where you can rest and enjoy the peace and quiet or the songbird or the sounds of the wind caught high up in slender palm trees. Or you can meander around its cultivated terraces. There’s also a gorgeous baroque Neptune fountain with its own private aqueduct built to supply it with water.
When we were there there was a stall, well, it was more a folding table, outside the entrance where a grey-haired man was selling homemade delicacies: jams, liqueurs, dried fruit and herbs. During our brief encounter we learned about his strict wife forbidding him to offer the customers tastings but he nevertheless insisted we try the refreshing arancini (so good!), the tenderest dried figs I’ve ever eaten and the various kinds of liqueurs. We left with a bag full of good stuff, the most medicinal being the sage liqueur. Quite exquisite.
Which reminds me: it’s the fig season! Or rather, it is still the fig season. The fantastic smell winding magically around the fig trees and from behind stonewalls in the coastal regions of Mediterranean has compressed into sensual fruit. Grab it while you still can.
I think fondly of those happy moments, lacing our summer trips, when we notice we pass a fig tree only after its head-swirling perfume fills our noses. For me, it represents hot syrupy days under scorching sun, quasi fresh early mornings of bright yellow, smells of macchia and distant sea, stains of red soil on the white rocks, and all the nuances of a clear, never-ending sky.
When you have a bunch of figs, small or not so small, violet or green, that are sadly not as sweet and tasty as you’d want them to be, despair not. Make the best of them by roasting them.
It’s a simple and delicious dessert (or a sweetspoon if you happen to eat it directly out of the roasting dish). This is how I make it:
– Preheat the oven to 200°C
– Cut the figs in half from top to bottom
– Place on a roasting dish cut side up
– Add 1-2 dcl of red wine depending on the size of the dish
– Add some freshly grated ginger
– Add lemon zest strips
– Add ground coriander or cardamom
– Add a little bit of brown sugar or (even better) a drizzle of honey (make sure all of the spices reach the wine as well not only the fruit)
– Squeeze half a lemon over everything
– Roast for 30 minutes.
I like to eat them when they’re still warm but they are very good when cool as well. Summer in the bowl.
Did we make it to Dubrovnik? Certainly, for the umpteenth time. How was it? If you haven’t been go. If you’d seen it before, keep the happy memories and go some place else. I believe there are other beautiful places to discover. This one’s gotten too polished and superficial. It’s cat friendly though.
Kinookus – very interesting film festival in Ston on food production accompanied by Cinelokus, an organic food open-air market
Grgić winery, Trstenik, Pelješac The Napa Valley wine-maker’s estate in Croatia
Restaurant Orsan, Dubrovnik A proper Dalmatian restaurant, real food, good service, away from the crowds
Not so long ago I was asked what my favourite food was and I surprised myself by replying swiftly it was tomatoes. I never considered food as rating material: I either like it or I don’t. True, there are things I prefer but I don’t think I could make a list of, say, Top Ten Foods without obvious bias towards the current season. The palate is in my case a matter of season: asparagus = spring, cherries = early summer, sauerkraut = winter to just name a few typical examples.
Tomatoes on the other hand I consume throughout the year in various forms and textures. Guilty as charged. They’re beautiful, red and curvy; they certainly look good, don’t they? I like them raw, cooked or roasted, on their own or in combination. They’re versatile and they taste and smell like summer. Arguably, tomatoes have changed a great deal in the past two or three decades due to intensive cultivation and high demand. I believe they mostly taste like nothing and consider myself lucky being of generation that grew up on seasonable only tomatoes. I can clearly recall the taste of my childhood tomatoes and none of them now are quite the same. Still, when carefully and timely selected one can enjoy them nearly as much.
I love tomatoes just sliced and salted with a drizzle of olive oil. As a child I was used to eating tomato salad dressed with pumpkin seed oil, as it is a customary dressing choice in the East where my mother comes from. Now, I choose a good olive oil any time of the day for my tomatoes. I love a simple tomato sauce for pasta dishes. Actually, if I look closely I can’t imagine my life without tomatoes. Ergo, it’s quite stressful to read about this.
I admit to indulge in the first spring variety known by the pretty name of Marinda and soon other kinds, summery, follow.
I like canned tomatoes as well, they serve us well through winter. I use them to dress pasta (peeled San Marzano is best) or to enhance a legume vegetable stew (passata or polpa brighten the dull fagioli immediately). They’re indispensable in autumn Indian curry or when I crave a plain, good old tomato soup. I add a squeeze of lemon and plenty of chilli to it.
Now, what I look forward to as the summer comes to a close is roasting them (cherry tomatoes or any other variety) in the oven. Roasting deepens their flavour, it somehow intensifies their taste and concentrates them. To make them I roughly follow David Lebovitz’s recipe, which is simple and delightful, but after they’re roasted and still very hot from the oven I spoon them carefully into a meticulously clean glass jar to preserve them. I add some additional olive oil on top and close it up immediately. When it cools, I store it in the refrigerator – it keeps well for several weeks. If you do it sporadically as the tomatoes occur even later in the season (sometimes I get my hands on good tomatoes as late as October), the jars prepared this way may last till Christmas. I find this way of preserving tomatoes to be a smart move this time of year when the prices are more reasonable and one is somehow fed up with eating yet another tomato salad albeit 1001st version of it.
They can be added by spoonfuls to bought canned tomatoes or passata to give a dish an extra homey feel or to any other dish calling for tomatoes. Meatballs for instance. They enhance the flavour of any dish. Plus, you can brag about them being homemade.
Whenever I flip through the photographs I took, a warm feeling comes over me. Mostly, I remember the mood not only of the place but the one I was in at that moment.
Different occasions provoke different responses: these days it is a regretful sense that the holiday season is over. I know, I know, the whole world is back to work again (myself included) so stop moaning and groaning, right? Right. Let me take you on a trip to Lecce then, as promised. This way please.
There was this store we were passing every day for it was just around the corner of the garage where we parked. Its shelves were full of wine and champagne bottles and other liquor from all over the world. The loaded pallets were stacked outside on the pavement in front of the store waiting for lorries and vans to collect them. On our second evening in Lecce we decided to stop by and ask if one or two bottles can be bought since it gave the impression more of a wholesale. Well, we could’ve bought the entire pallet had we known how good the wine was going to be and spent the holiday happily surrounded by emptying bottles. We’d end up lying under the table soon enough though because the Apulian reds are intoxicatingly strong. So, instead of doing that we healthily opted for two bottles to drink on our terraces (yes, we had four at our disposal) before going out or after we’d return or for no reason at all – just to enjoy them. Not only did the signore serving us suggest two lovely wines, Primitivo di Manduria and Negroamaro, when asked he would happily recommend a place for dinner.
“Fish?” he asked. Upon our confirmation he stepped outside and we obligingly followed because, well, of course, you have to be outdoors to give directions properly, and murmuring to himself and counting using his fingers directed us, verbally and manually alla italiana: “Seconda left, porta grande, prima right, corner e li ristorante Blu notte.”
To be honest, the restaurant didn’t look very convincing upon our inspection (it resembled a regular tourist trap). But we were shown the day’s fish and decided to dine. The restaurant filled up completely by nine (mostly locals; lady from the kitchen came out to greet them that’s how we knew) and was bursting with muted voices of diners’ satisfaction. It was soooo good. I’d like to say that it was then and there I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto of my life but I’d be lying. I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto a few days later when we chose Blu Notte to be the venue of our last Apulian dinner. There may be better ones but haven’t been discovered yet.
No surprise then that the next evening when we were passing the wine store I asked: “Another place?” Signore was genuinely happy and gleamed with pride when he heard we liked his previous recommendation. This time the directions were in higher numbers but nevertheless quite straightforward: “Quattro left, sette, no, otto right, venti metri, right: Degli spiriti.”
There, we entered the oasis of calm and elegance that this restaurant is. It was exactly what we needed after the hustle and bustle of the whole day around town. The food was to die for. The antipasto of melanzane was too good to be true as were the orecchiette with clams and chickpeas – what a wonderful combination. Mind you, the dish was filled with full halves of the clams only – where else do you get that?
The wine we had was superb as was the passito that rounded off the meal nicely. We returned to the apartment hypnotised by the deliciousness of it all.
By all means, there’s more to Lecce than food and wine. There had been the Messapians, the Greek, the Romans, the Normans, and the Ottomans. The rich mixture of cultures and their clashes caused the town to have developed a distinctive charm. There are countless impressive churches, terrific villas, monuments of astounding proportions, colourful roof tiling, extravagant baroque facades that blow your mind, not one but two Roman theatres, infinite number of ornate balconies with bearded plants hanging over them, huge pedestrian area for passeggiata and numerous picturesque streets of the golden centro storico. Proximity to the coast adds appeal and the climate is fantastic. I’ve said it before, Lecce is overwhelming. Breathtaking. Astonishing.
We were very lucky to have had selected a fantastic accommodation and I highly recommend a rooftop place to stay: the views over town’s landmarks, terraces, flat roofs, aerials and church bells are unforgettable. Plus, the gentle movements of the evening air are priceless in the summer heat because the only place to feel the gentle breeze is on top.
Last but not least, beginning another new day with a delicious breakfast under the shade surrounded by blue skies and lush Med greenery is a rare luxury several floors above the dried up stone pavements.
As for the signore from the wine store, we never met him again although we passed the store almost every evening, carrying our helmets at the near ending of yet another joyful day. I regret we couldn’t fire the sparks in his eyes with praise of his recommendations again.
As I was unlocking the city bike, hands filled with, as it so often happens to a woman, a handbag and this and that, and trying at the same time not to get all dirty on the bike stand, an unfamiliar elderly woman approached me, her hands laden with heavy grocery bags.
“I’m sure you have a mobile phone, young lady,” she said to me, undoubtedly to me. I looked around in awe, confused and wary, but it seemed only the usual daily routine was going on around me. No signs of a possible ambush by bothersome beggars or loiterers or whatever unpleasant characters there might be cohabiting within your average midsized town.
So, I replied nervously: “I do.” No point in lying.
“Can I ask you, then, to lend it to me for a quick call? It’s really urgent I make that call.”
Red light started flashing in my mind. “I’m certainly not going to give my phone into your hands …” Her eyes grew big with disappointment and her face suddenly turned sad and exhausted. Nevertheless, she kept explaining: “You see, I’m to visit Cecilia but I’m running late and she mentioned she had some errands to do later today and I’m afraid I might miss her and then this ride on the bus will be in vain and then yet another ride on the bus to get back home, all in vain, and I’d really like to see her today.”
“You can tell me her number and I’ll ring her for you,” I suggested after a milisecond or so.
She brightened up, smiled, relieved. She gave me the number of that Cecilia woman I was to call and introduced herself as Fanny.
Me: “Is this Cecilia?”
Cecilia: “Yes, speaking.”
“I have a friend of yours, Fanny, standing next to me.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Well, yes, she’s asked me to tell you she’s been running late but she was on her way to you now. She wants you to wait for her.”
“Why, this is wonderful! Of course I’ll wait for her.”
“She’s taking the bus now.”
“Thank you very much, God bless you, thank you.”
Fanny thanked me as well and while I was putting my phone away she shifted from one foot to the other as if there was something else. And there was. Her head tilted as she said: “You didn’t actually think I was going to steal your phone, did you?” Now, I was surprised again. She continued: “Look at me, I’m old and rusty, you’d catch me in no time.”
“There’s all sorts around these days, one never knows …” I replied. “The crooks are just everywhere.”
“Well, you’re right there, you’re right.”
Off we went, each of us in her own direction, both probably submersed in own thoughts about this experience. I know I was. At least we conversed.
Doubt and caution are the building stones of our everyday.
It’s been another Monday, people.