ODD BANQUET IN CROATIA

 

Rebecca West made three journeys in Yugoslavia in the years 1936, 1937 and 1938. She wrote a book subsequently which ran all her experiences into one travel/ history/conversational/intimate diary volume Black Lamb And Grey Falcon. No conclusions can be drawn from this description of a meal in Croatia. "There was a river of plum brandy somewhere near, it seemed. Then, to begin with, there was a platter of cold meat such as I never expected to eat in my life again. There was sucking pig so delicious that it could be spread on bread like butter, and veal and ham and sausage and tongue, all as superb in their austerer way, and slabs of butter and fat cheese. Then there were pancakes, stuffed with chopped steak and mushrooms and chickens' livers, and then spring chicken served with a border of moist and flavour some rice on a bed of young vegetables, and it appeared there was a river of white wine nearby. And then there was a compote of quinces, cherries and peaches, served with a stack of little biscuits ... we ate and drank enormously. Valetta (a lecturer in mathematics at Zagreb University, a Croat) said in my ear, "You really must eat, you know. They will think you dislike their food if you do not. It is our Slav custom to give our guests too much to eat, as a kind of boastfulness, and of course, out of goodwill, and the guests show how strong they are by eating it. We are really a very primitive people, I am afraid." I did not complain, she writes.

There was an interruption when a nun came to the table and two doctors (for it was in a sanatorium) went off to settle an argument between two patients who had been talking polities. The superintendent told the guests "All our food is raised on the land belonging to the sanatorium or round it, and prepared by our good nuns. And, mind you, the patients have the same good food as you are having.

This is a feast for distinguished visitors, of course, but at all times we give them plenty, for it is cheap and we have no need to skimp it." And another doctor said waving his glass at the writer "Yes, we send our patients home five and ten and fifteen kilos heavier." The first volume was published to great acclaim in 1941. Now a Canongate paperback of over eleven hundred pages.