"food memories. They aren’t just based on the facts, or our need for survival, but are shaped by the context ― the company, the situation and the emotions involved." Julie R. Thompson - Huff Post
Every now and then I make this for dinner. It's never the same and it was never the same when I/we first made it, but I consciously make it every now and then in memory of my first holiday with David and our long-time friends Mike and Sue. Although, no, it's not just in memory of that particular holiday it's also because I like it. And, of course, as always, what I cook for dinner depends to a large extent on what I have in the fridge that needs using up.
In this case it was one red capsicum which was getting close to being unusable and considering their price at the moment it would have been sacrilegious not to have used it. And the original dish too was contrived from what was available in Split, Croatia in the summer of 1965.
When we left university in 1965 - in the first year of our relationship - the height of the 'in love' stage of our relationship I suppose, when everything was new and beyond wonderful, we returned to our London homes, but continued to meet at weekends and also to meet with our London university friends. Alas the northern ones, almost disappeared from our lives. Anyway at one of the parties we attended at this time, we agreed with Mike and Sue to go on a camping holiday to Yugoslavia. It was cheap, a bit exotic because it was technically behind the Iron Curtain, and Mike could borrow his sister's VW beetle to transport us and all our camping stuff.
There are, of course, so many stories associated with this holiday - including crashing the car which David and Mike are seen here loading up at the end of one of our stops en route home I think. It's actually possible that this is a subsequent camping holiday in France, but anyway - same car, and almost the same gear. But the thing about this particular dish is that it brings back all of those memories as well as those of the creation of that specific dish.
We camped in a small place, whose name has disappeared from my memory just south of Split - a beautiful old town on the Croatian coast, with many Roman buildings. Behind the maybe nineteenth century facade of the beachfront lies an old Roman town. Below are photographs from the net - one in the 1960s and one from today. Tito was in charge, and the country was open to tourists from the rest of Europe on package holidays. And campers like us.
Even for campers our equipment was basic. We had one borrowed igloo tent and one which was not really a tent at all, but a piece of tarpaulin slung over a rope tied between two trees and pegged into the ground. We took it in turns to occupy the 'real' tent. Our cooking equipment was similarly basic. One camping gas burner, one large aluminium pot and perhaps a frying pan. We had to buy knives. In fact just writing this has brought back another memory. I bought a small kitchen knife which was truly wonderful and which I used for years and years, but which disappeared in one of our Australian moves. I was devastated.
We shopped for food in the local market. I think these photos are from there. You can just see David in the one on the left. You can also see that the pickings were meagre.
For meat you went to the butcher and he would carve you off a chunk from wherever he was at on the carcass hanging in his shop. Or there were sausages - similar to Polish sausage and kabanas - little bit spicy and utterly delicious. We ate a lot of them. As to vegetables, it was almost exclusively tomatoes and peppers and onions, with perhaps a few potatoes. I found this photograph of the market in Split today - much more prosperous, with a much wider range of goods on show.
And so the sausage stew was born. Devised by Sue and myself. The tomatoes and peppers were wonderful of course, as were the sausages. We probably poured in some of the local wine but the liquid was more likely just water. It would have been eaten with the local bread at the rickety table at our campsite. We had been lucky enough to find a spot with a table.
Here we are eating lunch at that table - it's a terrible photograph but I guess it is evocative of 'the company, the situation and the emotions involved.' And also of how terribly makeshift it all was.
For sure there was a lot of emotion swirling around. We were young and in love - all of us. The sun shone, the locals were charming and we spent hours just sitting around on the beach at our campsite, reading books, talking and loving, with occasional excursions into Split. Mike and Sue, are also still together and we have enjoyed many happy holidays with them in the years since.
The last one was in the Languedoc in 2017 in France, and here we are in much more salubrious circumstances - a restaurant in our local village helmed by a one-time Michelin star chef. Very different food.
But I ramble in an uninteresting way to those not involved.
My sausage stew exercise yesterday was also an interesting exercise in another way. When I went to buy some Polish sausage or sausages of that ilk, I found that the supermarket no longer stocks anything called Polish sausage - once a commonplace. Yes there were still kabanas but they were not as obvious as they once were. I remember when we first arrived in Australia kabanas were all the go to nibble before dinner. Not so now. Now it's all chorizo and sopresso and kransky. So I bought some knackwurst in Aldi but it's not the same as Polish sausage. And yes, I succumbed to chorizo as well. I couldn't even find any bratwurst or rookwurst. Now I know I can get these things at the Queen Victoria Market but we can't go there yet. Tastes have changed.
I had a look to see if there is a traditional sausage stew from Croatia but all I could find was something called Grah which is a sausage and bean stew. No capsicum or tomatoes. The closest kinds of dish that I did find were italian but even these were not really what I was looking for.
But then in the end I actually subverted the original anyway by adding British parsley dumplings to the mix. Well I love dumplings and they thicken the juices up a bit. And anyway, as I said the dish is never the same - and it never was back then either, however often we ate it. It all depended on what sausages were available, how many peppers, onions, tomatoes ... And did we forage for or buy any herbs to add extra flavour. I cannot remember.
The taste of last night's dinner though was reminiscent of what we ate in those long ago years when I was very young and very thin. My memories are as misty as this photograph which must have been taken by a fellow camper. It's an embarrassing photo really - dreadful bikini, but yes, oh so thin.
I have to say there is no dish in my repertoire that has quite the same weight of memory associated with it. There are others with memories attached, but they tend to be just one moment in time. This is a dish that memorises a whole month of my life. We were there for a whole month, having not yet ventured into the world of work. A last fling with our meagre pennies before life perhaps really began.
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”