When we travel the city pulls us in and it’s often where we navigate for food fixes. It’s usually for eating, there’s often an abundance of new tastes, and somewhere there’s a tourist treat to try. Street vendors of countries in South America and Asia, restaurants, the fish markets, sidewalk cafe culture, the pastry shops, the bread bakers, food trucks, curry houses, cooking courses… But traveling out of town brings me new and authentic food experiences, the kind I look for. Sometimes it’s simply being back on the land, seeing the vegetable gardens, talking to the farmers about what’s growing, what’s in season, the rice paddies, or the onion fields.
Croatia never disappoints me and this time its food treats came to me in a different form, wholesome school lunches and meals for children in a country village.
A quiet word with a farming couple over their modest market stall. A few carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and greens with grey soil splashes scattered in front of them. Cardboard signs with hand written prices. People of the land, part vegetable, part earth-human, fingernails with the requisite amount of soil lining them. Hands of hardened Springs, themselves ridges and furrows of skin. Threadbare overalls and grey hair, now a sign it is, at last, getting harder.
Yes, later in the week they would deliver the produce for next week’s lunches, the order scratched on the back of a piece of card in pencil. The vegetables would be local fresh seasonal and organic by default, but none of this needs stating or questioning, it is the way it is. We move on through the market and I wondered what other stories the stall holders kept, aside from secret deliveries.
Most town squares in Croatia have daily vegetable markets and for a lot of the folks, it is a social occasion, a chance to get out of the house and have an interaction with people, while getting fresh tasty food.
I spent the morning in a kitchen that was prepping and setting for the impeding arrival of 60 visiting school kids, who would be well fed before their afternoon activities. I take no credit at all for any of the cooking and I did little more than watch, stack plates and do my share of the dishes. But what I loved about this was the wooden stove cooker, set in to the wall surrounded by green tiles, the big old industrial pots and most importantly the ingredients, that were going in to a simple lunch that was unquestioned.
Of course we give the children lunch. The lunch is a part of them. What is school without a school lunch? A school will have toilets and lockers and a lunchroom and a library. It’s where school happens. I can’t even imagine going to school without the lunch, the old cooks, the locals who help… My friend explained. We don’t have lunches at school, I replied, hoping it might in part explain why this event was so unique for me. She frowned, like I was from another planet and dismissed me as if it wasn’t true. New Zealand is always heralded as this far away magical place where everything works well. For many things that may be true but we missed a few key ideas landing and taking hold, and making our kids lunches at school is one bus we should’ve jumped on, but didn’t.
On the back burner sat a large red pot. When I later cleaned it I found “Made in Yugoslavia” stamped on the bottom. Carrots, potatoes, capsicum, a couple of chicken carcasses and a few herbs made the broth for the soup, with noodles added. Then for mains they had some rice with carrots, peas and other vegetables cooked through it, some crumbed meat, and some salad. Bread was an option on the side and a home made jam pastry.
It’s quite simple. And of course not the first time I’ve heard of school meals, but the way the village worked together to pull it off stems from the underlying concept: that good hearty food cooked by people who know how to make things the right way can get into the stomachs and minds of our children. That not questioning this as a right- the right to full bellies and afternoons of play- but instead going ahead and providing a hot meal for children is one of the simplest and best things you can do. I found a place somewhere in the north of Croatia near the Hungarian border, where things are still done properly. Good food is grown, growers are supported, children are fed, and cooks are employed, because that is just the way it is.