Global Kitchen: Bota Šare, Mali Ston (Croatia)

The parking lot is empty – an indication in itself of the soaring temperature. I wait it out under the shadow of an old stone arch. To my right, a set of uneven stone stairs rise to meet the ancient walls, and the scorching sun. To my left is the waterfront, blue and cooler in comparison; that’s the route we choose.

The water is full of sea urchins, inky black splotches staining the water, and fishing boats, on a break from their morning run. The boat closest to me – named Bota Šare – is small and clean, its benches are wooden and gleam in the afternoon light. Two fishermen play a game of cards. The old one is stocky and bald, the younger one is lanky and dangling a cigarette between his lips. The boat doesn’t smell fishy. It’s a good sign, this.

We walk past them, hollering a greeting, and towards the restaurant a few paces away. Like the boat it owns, the restaurant is called Bota Šare.

I’ve eaten at Bota Šare before in Zagreb, but this is the original one, set up in a medieval manor on the waterfront on tiny Mali Ston. The taverna has been in the family for generations and is known for staying true to the ways of Dalmatian cuisine culture – locally sourced produce make up the menu: fresh soups, soft breads, homemade wines, delicately prepared seafood and strong, fiery rakija.

We sit outside, under an antique-type ceiling fan; it doesn’t make any noise but it doesn’t help with the heat either. We can see the water, and the fishing boats. Inside, in the cellar-manor, it’s dark and cool, and kind of kitschy, but not over done. The day’s catch sits on ice, on display. A stocked bar is all the keeps them company. The tables here are unoccupied, but perfectly prepared; maybe in bad weather these tables get full. From the kitchen, somewhere behind the heavy doors, chopping and frying sounds and the occasional clang waft out.

It’s a formality, but we flip through the menu, recognizing the house specialties: soups, oysters and other shells, grilled fish, black risotto and homemade bread. For weeks we’ve been looking forward to this meal. We order it once, twice and then for good measure a third time: a serving of Ston Oysters, with a splash of lemon and a twirl of the pepper mill.

We also add a fish carpaccio, grilled vegetables and a small serving of grilled oysters to the table, and then there’s bread, but these are all just distractions (delicious, though). The oysters are fresh, the lemon and pepper give it a fantastic punch, and we chomp them down faster than our waitress (much to her amusement) can serve.

Eventually, we call for the cheque. The empty shells are cleared away and replaced by fresh brewed coffee. As we walk away from Bota Šare, though, I can’t help but feel, maybe there was room for one more helping. Just one more.

*

An Extra Serving: If travelling with a party of vegetarians, be sure to ask your waitress if they can whip up something more substantial, in addition to the basic pasta and grilled vegetables on offer. The staff is very helpful and may even offer options.

Leftovers: As it happens, the house wine (white) can be pretty strong; don’t drink it up straight, especially if you like your wines but mix it with sparkling water and you’re good to go.

Address: The Waterfront, Mali Ston (for the sake of practicality, Mali Ston is about an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik)

Telephone: 020/754 482

Website: www.bota-sare.hr

A Little Bit of Viś, A Little Bit of That

When the alarm crackles at 4:30, I don’t hit snooze or grumble. It’s the Easter weekend and we are heading to Viś. Not that we need an excuse to make our way there, but the island manages to make a long weekend seem longer.

It’s a full house at the marina. Modest fishing boats share the water with fancier ones. When a strong wave rolls around, they each gently nudge one another, like an early morning school assembly.

For a long time this is the only vessel drawing white lines on the blue. It moves quickly, tearing at the water, inching closer to the pinkish horizon.

The beach is limestone. The stone is smooth, rounded and very white. It frames the water beautifully; the white sets off the shimmering blue-green.

Rain water has collected in the boats in the parking lot. It’s brown and stagnant, but the yellow flowers manage to hide the water stains and rust for the time being.

Some have the right gear, others grab some string and a bit of bait and settle down. It’s as uncomplicated as it gets.

A little boy followed these three into the water. He dived in without fear. When he hit the cold water, he howled. His mates, though amused, didn’t follow his lead.

Our time on Viś is usually divided between food and wine, and everything else. There’s never a shortage of food or wine. It’s time that always seems to run out.

Here’s the thing: nothing I write can match up to this image, so I’m leaving it at that.

Notes on Watching the Cricket World Cup Final in Zagreb

I wake up on Saturday morning to the thought – Oh Man, Finals!

Before I can put paste to brush, the blood pressure is up. There’s that knot sitting at the base of my throat. I feel it going larger with every hour on the clock. It’s a beautiful day in Zagreb – spring is here, and a cool breeze greats the new leaves outside. I switch on the TV.

The pundits say we have to bat first. We lose the toss, they will bat first. The knot is larger. Someone says Sri Lanka have a better bowling unit, Nick Knight says he has an image of Sachin Tendulkar, with the Indian flag, on a lap of honour around his home ground tonight. I like Nick Knight; I wish I remembered how he was with the bat.

We make a quick run to the store – cola, beer and chips. The streets are empty. No flags, no drums, no war-paint, no posters, no billboards, no street corner analysis, no one cares. I wonder if the few people out and about can sense our tension, our anticipation.

We’re having a few friends over for the game – all from the local cricket club. Only one of them is Indian. The rest enjoy the game in a calm only the neutral fan is allowed. I hear a car drive past, a horn, and chirping birds. On TV, Mumbai is inaudible.

It’s not like 2003. Zaheer is a new man. The fielders are young men. Everything is stopped, nothing is loose. Hope.

In the end they play fantastic cricket, they get a few too many.  The knot is so large it feels like it’s cutting off circulation. That much controlled BP is threatening to bubble up. India makes a bad start. I switch my glass of water for something harder. There’s little hope, surely. The pressure is gone. We watch for the cricket now. In the back of my mind, I weep for Sachin.

We order pizzas. Things are kind of going well. This new kid, he can bat. It’s still too far for a win, but yeah, there’s a fight. Who knows … maybe? The new kid is gone. The captain comes in. A surprise. He isn’t in the best of form with the bat. He middles it, and then almost doesn’t. He has still eyes.

He keeps things on course. We don’t say it out loud though; don’t want to jinx it, just in case. We laugh and talk like nothing has changed, from the corners of our eyes, we keep track of the TO WIN column. The number, it grows smaller and smaller and smaller.

Suddenly it’s under 100. Possibilities. Friends and commentators say India has it in the bag – we get even more nervous. I pace, he sits still. We scream – cheering the runs, begging the guys in the middle to stay calm. “What’s aaramse?” she asks. “Like, polako,” I answer back.

It’s going to happen.

We match the noise in the stadium, well almost; we  have good landlords, there are no knocks on the door or phone calls. We scream louder.

Oh my God, this is really happening.

I want to be home, in Mumbai, in the middle of this. But I’m in Zagreb, so I continue jumping in my livingroom.

India wins. I call my Dad, it’s his birthday. Happy doesn’t cover it.

The others congratulate us. It was a good final, after ages! Wankhede is going wild. Our smiles are just as wild. Too young for 1983, we finally have our own World Cup story in place. After the others leave, we rewind the last twenty minutes of the match and relive it.

As we head out, Zagreb is quiet. I want to whooo into the Croatian night, instead I smile all the way to the Pub. And all the way back too.

The highlights are on. One more time before we call it a night; like Knight said – Sachin, being hoisted on shoulders, lapping the ground, with the tri-colour – but better, much better, much much better.

I wake up on Sunday morning to the thought – Yeah, we won! We did! The reports, clips and articles can’t be updated fast enough.

On Monday order will return, as will perspective, but everything will have changed. The World Cup has finally come home.

The Headless Statue in the Alley

The door and the step are plain. They open right onto the lane. Unlike the other addresses on this street, this one is off-limits to the public. Even the windows are latched in, the curtains drawn; it’s a warm day and I wonder if the room has air-conditioning.

The door is a dark brown wood except for the fixtures. Despite a few scratches, it  wears a shine that comes from weekly detergent scrub downs. Beside the cement step stands a leafy potted plant and a couple of shrubs. It lends a hint of softness to the otherwise rigid front. And between the plant and the step stands a seemingly content headless statue.

He is bare-chested and sticks out his pot belly without apology – in his defence it is very well sculpted. The cloth around his waist is held together in a tight knot; the pleats hold together in a stiff, disciplined flow. He has a portly and lively disposition, and I think if he had his head about him, it would be cheerful.

I wonder where it is and what happened. Maybe it was an accident – an exuberant bicycle, the training wheels tearing away the cherubic face; or a bag of groceries, cartons of milk and bottles of cola, smashing into the little man; or a tipsy party bumping into him, his head smashing on impact or ripping off in one clean break. Or maybe this is an artist´s vision, leaving him incomplete and forever fascinating.

Photo – Nilay Puntambekar