It is early morning, Monday, winter. In every ordinary town I would be surrounded by hundreds of people, cars and sounds. Or I’d be hearing the trams sawing off the last moments of sleep. And I would probably frown and wish to head for a deserted island.
And so, it’s Monday, at dawn , in winter, the island is Pag, I rise from a warm bed, I dress before the Blessed Virgin and saints looking down on me benignly from the tourquise blue walls of my room, identical to the room of my granny and of all other grannys living on islands which I know, I am walking down the squeaking stairs to the cold kitchen, another moment and I’m outside, lost in a labyrinth of straight and narrow streets. I try to walk slowly, soundlessly, without disturbing the damp peace permeating the island air, certain that I will be flooded by noises the moment I reach the square or seafront. But the picture seems to reflect some unreal world: I become aware that I am the only living being in the square, on this Monday at seven in the morning, the only passenger along the straight white riva, like Palle who owing to some mistake was lost in a deserted town.
The magic is soon broken as I stumble upon the ‘Zec’ bar (which used to be a cult spot) and find Damir and his friends who will take us to the place where we will taste the famous Pag roast lamb. Ante Pernar, the present manager and co-owner of the Pag cheese dairy, has asked Uncle Joško to take us in his wooden boat to the small island Škrda on which about 250 sheep are out grazing on their own.
We hike uphill to the top of the island labouring over sharp stony ground hoping to see one of the larger flocks. Some groups are scattered around us, but as we try to get close to them, they disappear in the macchia. We choose one flock and try to push them towards the sea in the hope that we will get them onto a rocky promontory. If they knew we only want to take a few pictures of them perhaps they’d be less jumpy, I say. And see Uncle Joško smiling furtively. We struggle through the macchia along paths the sheep have traced on their daily rounds of feeding.. We reach the promontory an hour later, unnerved and tired, without the sheep. We’ve only managed a few photographs. But we realize that in two short hours on this island this was as much as we could hope for.
Uncle Joško takes us back in his boat to Pag which now seems a continent. We put away our cameras in the hood of the car and drive to the town of Pag. There a dozen individuals knowledgeable about good food wait for us in a spacious cava reserved for the happy few.To welcome us they serve fennel brandy tasting like anisette, with someone remarking that in central Dalmatia we would get a better one. I didn’t expect such frank admissions from islanders. But even islanders differ, don’t they. Especially in such a vital matter as eating and drinking.
The master of the kitchen is Rocco. This time he has cooked several dishes with baby lamb traditionally made by the people of Pag. As on so many previous occasions, we find that the recipes born out of poverty reach the highest purity of taste, provided of course the material is of the highest quality.
I am surprised to notice a leg of pork in the pot of boiled lamb. Rocco explains that a pork shoulder-joint was the best for this dish, but he hadn’t been able to get one. The meat used is from young suckling lambs up to 25 days old which does not have enough fat – so you need a fatter piece of meat for the broth. All my doubts were scattered after tasting the first spoonful of the broth to which rice had been added – an original innovation for this dish.
We are also served a kind of stew made of innards, tasting like something between the dolcegardo and the goulash, spiced to quote the chef ‘the male way’. And to go with it, another surprise: polenta cooked in innards’ broth! Another ancient recipe has blood mixed with salt, cooked with hashed onions – unfortunately not on the menu this time. To compensate we are served intestines boiled with large chunks of vegetables – this time mixed with smoked pork This dish also goes very well with polenta.
Serving half of a suckling lamb roasted with potatoes in the oven, Rocco tells us about a relative from Australia visiting the old country and wanting to celebrate the occasion by inviting friends and relatives to a meal of several roasted lambs.
He came to Rocco’s kitchen with a bag full of vegetables and spices. Why, says Rocco, do you want them boiled instead of roasted, but the Ozzie says no, it’s to put on top the roast. I just shoved the bags back into his hands, take them back to Australia, ‘cause as long as I live, in my kitchen the only thing you can put on roast lamb is salt!
I try to think which kind of vegetable or spice could improve the taste of the roast on my plate, but very soon I know I was a fool to even think of possible improvements. I’m aware, while looking at Rocco and his friends enjoying their meal, that our simple food is a truly rare treat which may soon become impossible to find and become just a memory from the past.
In the relaxed atmosphere we enjoy the local stories about the island and its people, each guest chiming in with a funny incident in his life. When people are made fun of they join in the laughter. Anger would be a sign of maladjustment. Sitting around the crowded table in front of the large fireplace, surrounded by a lot of food and smoke, completely immersed in the present moment, we listen to testimonials of the past by which the narratives are saved from oblivion.
Late in the night, after our tasty Platonian feast, we start the motor of our space shuttle, take leave of our hosts and, promising this was not the last time, race back to Zagreb. We are silent. There are not many things one can say about simple things. Perhaps one should feel somewhat ashamed of seeking them so rarely. We stop at the gas station and order coffee. My gaze wanders and stops at a refrigerator displaying some attractively wrapped sandwiches.
Am I hungry?