Dinner fit for a prince
On a small island off the Dalmatian coast, a gourmet feast includes tales of royal guests.
"One of the prince's friends – a big, fat man – bet the prince and princess that he could squeeze through the toilet window – the little one, there, that looks out into the courtyard.
"Well, you can see, it's a small window and he really was a big man. But he tried and he made it in the end. I can't remember what the bet was – I think it was just for sport. That was a fun night."
Tatiana is talking ten to the dozen, even as she whirls around the kitchen of her 300-year-old home in the heart of Trogir's historic city center, orchestrating an incredible four-course gourmet feast.
We are Tatiana's only guests tonight: My wife, my mother, my 18-month-old daughter, and I have the large, solid oak table in her expansive living room all to ourselves. But, over the years, the select crowds who have come to taste our host's legendary cooking have not always been so modest.
Like the time she is telling us about now, when the Prince and Princess of Monaco showed up unannounced to Tatiana's daughter's birthday party, bringing with them a chest full of designer gifts and a posse of high-spirited friends and hangers-on.
Tatiana had met the royal couple on Trogir's beautiful wharf where they had docked their yacht and, in an off-the-cuff remark, had invited them to her daughter's party. She never expected them to take her seriously.
Like the royal couple, we have also come to be in this beautiful living room, on a stifling evening in late July, purely by chance.
Frustrated by the poor offerings of the host of cookie-cutter restaurants in this beautiful tourist city on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, I happened to ask the owner of our small guesthouse where I might find the best local culinary offerings.
"Come on, Willie," I asked him. "I don't want that overpriced tourist rubbish. I want the real deal. Where do the locals eat? Where can I get a taste of the real Croatia?"
Willie had looked me up and down. His stern Slavic features, creased in their usual hangdog expression, had seemed to brighten for a moment and, after fishing out his cellphone and holding a brief conversation, he had asked me gruffly: "You want meat or fish?"
"Fish," I replied.
And so, a few hours later, we had ended up here, in this stone house with its jasmine-scented courtyard and its vivacious, spunky matron.
After introducing herself, and assuring us that we were, indeed, in the right place (for Willie had simply given us an address and no further information about our dinner location), Tatiana told us her story:
When Tatiana was 15, her family fled the Yugoslav wars and took her to Australia, where she had barely had time to assimilate into the local community of Croatian expats before her parents returned home to aid the war effort. They left her there – a teenage castaway on the other side of the world.
So Tatiana learned to cook. She escaped into the flavors of her new home, stirring the traditions and ingredients of her birthplace into recipes that reminded her of the smooth stone alleyways of Trogir and the impossible turquoise of the Aegean.
She returned to the Dalmatian Coast and took up residence in her family's ancient home. A few years after settling back in Croatia, she met Marco, a local fisherman. They married, had two children, and now he works the fishing fleet while she, occasionally, serves up feasts to the few travelers invited past her threshold.
And what food!
Talking all the while and aided in the kitchen by an old friend who was visiting from Melbourne, Australia, Tatiana first brought us bowls of piping hot fish soup. The heavenly broth was like a pure distillation of the hundreds of miles of clear blue ocean we had traveled to be on that island; with the sweet crunch of chives and zing of lemon as an undertow of flavor and texture that turned my mouth to joy and my knees to jelly.
Next she served us plates of musky bacalao, salted codfish, that Portuguese fisherman's favorite that can so easily be turned to inedible mush by an unskilled hand. The silky smoothness of the flesh was in perfect contrast to the crispy toasts on which we spread the delightful stuff and scraped up every last dollop.
But the crowning jewel in Tatiana's repertoire was her whole roast monkfish. Prepared simply, with juicy diced home-grown tomatoes, fresh capers, olives, and parsley and drizzled with local olive oil, the grotesque gargoyle of a fish was revealed for its juicy, lobsterlike tenderness. With a flourish, my mother, who spent years in Portugal as a 20-something and was already in heaven from the bacalao, whisked out the fish's eyeball, which she popped in her mouth and chewed, whispering "The fishermen in Caiscais used to fight over who got the eyes."
After a simple but exquisitely elegant dessert of strawberries and cream with homemade almond and pistachio biscuits, we slumped around the table, joined by our hosts, savoring the buzz of sensations.
Outside, the local children played soccer in the stone alleyways, and every so often tourists would peek through the half-open door, asking each other in amazement, "Is it a restaurant?" "Do they sell food here?"
They had, doubtless, smelled Tatiana's cooking from across the red-tiled roofs of Trogir. But tonight they could only pass by and have a glimpse of the sensory feast that we had stumbled upon. This night was for us, not for the Prince and Princess of Monaco, or the hordes of cruise ship tourists a few streets away, but for me, my wife, my mother, and my daughter.