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Cabbage rolls from long ago

Once upon a time I sat in this very spot and gazed upon the Mostar bridge. Well I am 90% certain it was in this spot - although, when I think about it, it may have been inside, although why would it have been - it was summer after all. I think there may now be a few different restaurants here too - but let's say it was in this very spot. It certainly had the same view.

I was there with my new husband of a year and a half, one of our university friends and his lady of the moment.

It was at the end of our second Yugoslav camping holiday, this time a little further south along the Croatian coast at the edge of a tiny village called Podgora. In August 1968 to be precise. David took this photo of our camping spot, near the edge of the campsite I believe. As you can see we have a large patch to ourselves, the tent in the foreground belonged to David and I, whilst James and I are sitting in our makeshift kitchen/ lounge area. And there must have been room for our car as well.

It looks like a lot of stuff - indeed I still have one of those pots that are sitting on the camp stove, and we kept the tent for years. But we were travelling in our newly acquired Wartburg Knight and here is one of life's little coincidences. For David found all the stuff, brochures, price list, etc. associated with this car, just the other day and I was wondering how on earth I could fit it into a blog. You see it was such an unusual thing. It was an East German two-stroke car - about which I now shudder - but it was cheap - £695 18s 4d (what a very precise price), and roomy. It caused a sensation in Yugoslavia where many of the tourists came from communist parts of Eastern Europe - well Yugoslavia itself was communist at the time - a united country under Tito. These Eastern Europeans did not have the same access to this flashy looking car it seems. Hence their interest.

But that wasn't the only thing about the Eastern Europeans. The reason I know the precise date for our holiday was that whilst we were there the Prague Spring, and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred. I often quote this as an example of hearing really important news without a radio or newspapers, for we could tell that there was something going on because of all the anxious clusters of Czechoslovakians who now found themselves unable to go home. So we asked and we found an English newspaper and learnt what was going on.

The times they were changing. Under Tito the country had opened up to the west and the tourist income that attracted. Next to the campsite there was a hotel which I suspect had a lot of package tour visitors - every evening I remember there was a singer whose songs blasted out over the campsite. Last two facts about Podgora. Above the village in this communist country was this very modern church. And - quite differently - Yugoslavia was very cheap for we British and so we had grown used to dining out very cheaply. One night we decided to have the lobster that was on the menu. There was no price, but we assumed cheap - this was Yugoslavia. Imagine our horror when the bill came and we found we had insufficient funds. And you know, I still have no memory of how this problem was overcome. I vaguely remember a watch being left as surety whilst we somehow acquired extra money - from home I guess.

But back to Mostar. And food. Rather than retracing our route up the coast to go home, we decided to travel south to Mostar, where we would turn inward via Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade. Mostar is north of Dubrovnik, and so we have never been there - which I always regret. Mostar, however, is also beautiful as you can see and we stayed overnight there in a B&B - one of those wonderful Yugoslav houses that look nothing from the outside but are built around a beautiful vine-covered courtyard. At night we decided to eat out. Well I don't think our hosts were offering dinner - just breakfast. So we drifted to the old bridge - the main attraction of the town - built in the 16th century - and the little restaurant which stood on the banks of the river.

I'm pretty sure that this is it - or a later iteration of it anyway, for, of course, as we all know, during the terrible wars that engulfed the Balkans in the 90s, that bridge was destroyed. And probably the restaurant too. Mostar is now in the tiny country of Bosnia. Without the iron hand of Tito the Balkans disintegrated into small tribal states and Bosnia was the site of some of the worst atrocities. Eventually, however, the bridge was rebuilt - they dived in the river for the stones that had made it and it was restored exactly as it was. Well I do wonder about that because I vaguely remember that when we left the next day on our journey we crossed over it whilst today it is just a footbridge. The town is now UNESCO listed, and I would say there are far more tourists than in our time. At the time we were a rarity and feted as such.

I will return to Mostar and its food, but a very quick comment on our journey inland. It was along an unmade road over the hills. We were unfamiliar with unmade roads at the time and I was very nervous, so James gave me a tranquilliser. Which was excellent - although I now wonder why he had one. We passed through very poor and muddy looking villages which seemed to be inhabited by people who almost looked inbred - but definitely poor and looking as if they had never seen such a car, or such people before. All mildly worrying. And all very tribal, because these people were very different to the tall, blonde and beautiful people of the coastlands.

Mostar, however was a highlight, and this is what we - well at least I - ate - stuffed cabbage leaves in a tomatoey sauce - I believe it is called sarma in the Balkan countries.

More coincidences. I featured cabbage yesterday in soup. When browsing through Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking, just the other day there is a section in her chapter on Luncheon, Supper and Family Dishes which is headed Stuffed Cabbage Dishes.

It even gets its own header drawing and the section contains six different recipes which for a relatively small book - there are under 200 pages of recipes in total - is a large number. They are not the same as my Yugoslav ones, but nevertheless it demonstrates how common a concept that stuffing a cabbage is. So I was amused to find this statement in a Guardian article:

"Cabbage rolls are popular all over continental Europe, so god knows why the UK hasn’t taken to them in the same way – after all, we love a bit of mince and boiled cabbage." Alex Jackson

So true. I don't ever remember my mother stuffing a cabbage, or cabbage leaves.

This is one of Elizabeth David's versions from that section of the book, as adapted by Emma Knowles for Gourmet Traveller. No tomatoes to be seen here, but Elizabeth David's six versions give a really good cross-section of choices as to what to put in the stuffing, how to stuff, and how to cook. Mostly long and slow it has to be said - for this, like yesterday's soup is true peasant food. And not always as beautiful as these, or indeed my Mostar version. Which Rachel Roddy excuses, thus:

"Another thing about braising stuffed cabbage with wine and olive oil is not only is there no deeply coloured sauce to hide in, the cabbage leaves take on a slightly grey aspect. This increases as they sit, slowly absorbing the richly flavoured juices and relaxing into a sort of grubby khaki – the enemy of aesthetics, but a friend of flavour. Who needs red?" Rachel Roddy

Which almost brings me to my two starting points for this post - as I bring it to a close. The first was a decision to make my Yugoslav pepper and sausage stew for dinner. A dish I have talked about before, and which is so nostalgic for me. Hence the Yugoslav memories, which were actually linked to a recipe I found in the June edition of the Coles Magazine for Cabbage rolls, and which I have been thinking of using somehow for some time.

Because these have been given the full stylist and professional photographer treatment and look wonderful. They looked even more wonderful in the magazine, but alas I have thrown that away. I am trying to be more ruthless with my hoarding these days.

I am not about to inundate you with a whole host of recipes for stuffed cabbage rolls however, because (a) there are zillions on the net to discover. All of Europe and the Middle East has one. And (b) it's one of those meals which is best made up with whatever you have to hand at the time.

It's a very nostalgic dish for me. I don't often remember what I actually ate in restaurants, large and small, cheap and expensive. I tend to remember the ambience and the occasion more than the food. However, I do remember the taste of those long ago, cabbage rolls in fairytale Mostar. I don't think I had ever come across them before which is perhaps why they live on. So one day soon I shall try to reproduce them. Tonight it's sausage and pepper stew. More nostalgia. Food does that to you.

As well as reminding you of the tragedies of war, and tribalism. That bridge has become a symbol apparently of tolerance and cultural diversity - a mosque on one side and a church on the other. Let's hope those differences do not appear again.

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