My very first memory is of my mother yelling at my Nono – at about seven o’clock on a sunny morning. I was two years old. I remember sitting in the dining room on our farm in Pretoria, at a small burgundy-coloured table, across from my Nono - my father’s Croatian father - while he drank a small cup of strong black coffee to which he had added a tot of Rakija, a Croatian brandy. And then he allowed me to dunk my rusk in his coffee. At which point my mother walked in. My Mom – who was understandably anti the dispensing of alcohol to a two-year old at sunrise – lost it with the old man, who I recall first protested and then tried to placate her, but even at that age I got that he really didn’t understand what the problem was. Because my Nono was a son of the former Yugoslavia, where coffee was an important cultural practice – and so was a stiff drink. The coffee culture in the area he grew up has a long history which dates back to the Ottoman period, and ‘Turkish Coffee’ was a staple.
Every morning my Nono would grind the coffee beans in a wooden grinder, and then brew his coffee in a džezva - an old copper Turkish coffee pot with a long wooden handle - on the top of our old Aga stove. Then he would pour the syrupy liquid into a cup and add a tot of alcohol. This amounted to a great kick-start to his day.
Coming from a strict Protestant family with Scottish origins, my poor mother can be forgiven for taking her time getting used to my father’s Croatian-cultured family with its ‘live life to the fullest’ attitude, which encompassed an abundance of food, wine, beer, Rakija, music and fervent prayer. Croatia has one of the most alcohol-oriented cultures in the world. I can attest to this after a visit to the island of Brac a few years ago, where I personally witnessed some road workers taking their ten o’clock ‘tea’ break with a couple of beers! The wine in Croatia is good, reasonably priced and always available, and the winemaking traditions of the region stretch way back before the Roman Empire, of which Croatia was once a part. So, it’s understandable that Croatian wines have inherited some of the Italian craft. Throughout his life, my Nono used to make his own wine. We had an underground cellar in our house on the farm where his old vintage was stored in wicker covered green wine bottles, long after he died. I have exciting childhood memories of traipsing around the flooded dark underground cellar in ‘galoshes’, trying to ‘rescue’ the floating wine bottles while my Dad frantically pumped water out, every time it rained. By the time those bottles were uncorked, the wicker around the bottles had rotted and my mother had herself a whole cellar full of grape vinegar!
Apart from their wine, Croatia is notorious for their infamous national drink, Rakija. It is the Croatian equivalent of the Windex used by Toula’s dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cured ills ‘from psoriasis to poison ivy’. Rakija is the amazing personal-care cure-all that Croatians use to deal with any number of problems in life – from medicinal uses like destroying bacteria, relieving stomach cramps and disinfecting wounds, to sealing a business deal or a friendship, or celebrating a marriage or baptism. And no one can be expected to pass over peacefully unless put to rest with a shot of Rakija at their funeral! Growing up, I learned very quickly not to disclose a sore throat or sinus congestion to my Otac, for fear he would insist on a shot of Rakija or Šljivovica - an equally vile plum brandy! - to add to my woes.
At this time of my earliest memory, my Nono was ill. My second earliest memory was of standing at the bedroom window one night next to my brother, watching him being loaded into an ambulance with flashing lights. And then he was gone. And then there are no more memories of this beautiful presence in our life. I was two-and-a half years old. When I was thirteen, my Teta Katija told me that Nono used to tell her I was his angel, because when he was coughing up phlegm that choked him in the middle of the night and he couldn’t sleep, I would come to him, and I would sit and talk to him. And it made these long nights bearable for him. And then I got it. I got why it was okay to share rusks at dawn over a cup of coffee...even it was laced with a little tot of Rakija.
Look out for a couple of free recipes out of Mom's Recipe Book - for Wine Cake and Coffee Biscuits - in my next post. Happy baking!