Sonja Srzich: A Croatian Christmas (+recipes)

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A traditional festive feast connects a family to their heritage, writes Sonja Srzich.

The Srzich family incorporate traditional Croatian dishes into their Christmas menu. Photo / Getty Images
The Srzich family incorporate traditional Croatian dishes into their Christmas menu. Photo / Getty Images

My Mum and Dad, Jaka and Josip Srzich, moved to New Zealand in the early 1960s from the region of Dalmatia, on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. They met and married in Auckland. Mum grew up in Žrnovo, a small village on the island of Korcula, at a time when water was drawn from a well, everyone made their own wine, flour and olive oil, kept goats for milk and on Sundays baked their weekly supply of bread.

She learnt to cook from her mum, who catered for local weddings and parties. Dad comes from the coastal town of Makarska, where food was scarce during his childhood. I think it's partly because of this, but mainly because his mum was a great cook, that he's always had a hearty appetite. Mum and Dad brought their strong traditions of family and food with them to New Zealand.

After getting married, Mum and Dad moved to Christchurch where they raised me and my three brothers. Back then meals were always a big deal and family Sunday lunch was a non-negotiable event.

It was usually a barbecue on charcoal - sun, rain or snow - and we had to be there. My parents kept a vege garden, fruit trees, beehives, a goose and chooks, made their own wine, as well as salted air-dried ham (pršut), which hung in the garage of our suburban home. Mum was always cooking for us or any of the many extras who would visit. She'd even make up packages of gnocchi, roast chicken and cake for my brothers while they were at uni in Dunedin, sending it on the train in the morning so they'd get it in time for dinner.

My brothers and I gradually moved north and, once grandkids were on the scene, our parents followed, settling in West Auckland. Our Sunday family meals were reintroduced.

We now alternate whose turn it is to cook each week but it is Mum's cooking, influenced by her homeland, that is our favourite. Mum's gnocchi with special meat sauce is one of her classics and the best there is, as far as we're concerned, although with a little guidance from Baba (grandma),10-year-old granddaughter Stella's is a close second.

And while our Christmas menu includes turkey, ham, trifle and pav, it also incorporates the dishes that link back to our Croatian heritage. Mum bakes lots of traditional sweet treats, including rich bread filled with walnut paste (orahnjace), fried pastries tied into bows (hrstule), almond shortbread (kiflice), and nut-and-rum-filled biscuits made to look like peaches (breskve).

Our Christmas family meals start on Christmas Eve with little sweet fritters (fritule) and an air-dried cod stew (bakalar). The smell of the fish cooking made us run in horror as children, but we now know that the end result is something quite delicate.

On Christmas Day, Mum says the main meal must start with pršut and olives. We have sauerkraut cooked with chorizo and Mum's famous paprika peas to go with the turkey, plus homemade pasta or gnocchi with a meat sauce recipe that my Dad's mum passed on to mine (pašticada). It might look like an unusual mix of dishes from the outside, but to us that's what makes it Christmas. One of my brothers was recently talking to his daughter Madeleine about how we never went to restaurants as kids. Her reply was "why would you need to go to a restaurant if baba was cooking for you?"

We agree.

Recipes

Bakalar
Pasticada
Orahnjace
Apple Fritule

- Herald on Sunday

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