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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Truffles and Truffles and Truffles

Truffles are a sort of ectomycorrhizal fungus. This means that it is a sort of mushroom that grows on plant roots, absorbing nutrients such as glucose and sucrose, whilst helping the plant absorb minerals. There is black summer truffle (tuber aestivum), black winter truffle (tuber melanosporum) and white winter truffle (tuber magnatum). Of these 3, it is the winter white truffle that is the most pricey.

White winter truffle (tuber magnatum).

Black winter truffle (tuber melanosporum).

People have been eating truffles since the 20th century BCE. This is 2000 years before Christ. Ancient peoples believed truffles to be good for longevity and also an aphrodisiac. It is somewhat interesting that Croatia has both oysters (aphrodisiac) and truffles (aphrodisiac) but has only 4 million people on 56,594 sq km, whilst Singapore has only 720 sq km for 5.5 million people.

Truffles thrive on the roots of trees that grow in rocky soils. This winter of 2016, in Croatia's Motovun region, the weather has alternated between dry, sunny days and wet, foggy days. This is perfect weather for truffles to grow.

In less than an hour of truffle hunting, we found 2 truffles.

Truffle hound - this is a Lagotto Romagnolo dog breed. It is a very popular breed of dog for truffle hunting. This crazy looking one is called Aaron and he is the WORST truffle hound in a pack of 4. From what I observed, this one was just dashing about the forest for the sheer joy of running and when the other dogs found truffle, he would come and paw all over us to get the treat meant for the other dog.

Buying Fresh White Truffles
One truffle shop along the main street of Motovun quoted us SGD 3,020 per kg of fresh white winter truffle. Karlick Tartufi (we found on TripAdvisor) quoted us SGD 2,265 per kg. We were quite blessed because I managed to locate a part-time truffle hunter (full-time carpenter) who had just spent his morning truffle hunting. He sold us his stash for SGD 1,888 per kg. Karlick Tartufi buys from these individual truffle hunters anyway and then sells to tourists and restaurants with a mark up. 

We simply just went straight to the hunter. If you are interested, Igor and Vojka Kotiga can be reached via whatsapp at +385 9881 4560. They live at Motovun Gradiziol 5. Right opposite Igor's house is the well-known restaurant, Mondo, which was featured by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of No Reservations - see HERE.

Update on 11 December 2016: Having bought fresh truffles, I advise that tourists refrain from buying fresh truffles. There is no way to preserve the extraordinary aroma of the truffle. With every minute that passes, the truffle aroma disappears into the air.

Igor's front door. Just ring the doorbell.

Igor will poke his head out of the top window to have a good look at you. Just tell him you want his fresh truffles. Make sure that the truffles are firm to the touch (not soft and spongy). Also, don't hesitate to smell the truffles. If there is no aroma, don't buy. We were blessed. The truffles we bought had been hunted that morning itself. The aroma hung thick in the air and formed a bubble of truffle gas around me as I walked around with it in my pocket.

Konoba Mondo

Preserving Fresh Truffles
There is no way to preserve fresh truffles. The fragrant oils are simply too volatile. After 3 days, the truffles are no good no matter how hard you try to keep them fresh. Think your button mushrooms. They go soft and black in the fridge after a week, no? Out of the fridge, they last barely a day or 2. The flesh of the truffle is bland and tasteless. The magic is in the smell.

I managed to figure out a way to transfer the essence of the truffle out of the truffle. I made truffle salt. The salt sucks all the aromas out of the truffle into itself. The next morning, the truffle will be soft, spongy and smells of nothing at all. The salt, however, lent magic to our scrambled eggs this morning.

Update 11 December 2016: the truffle salt was tasteless by the time we got home. So disappointed.

Truffle in salt.

Scrambled eggs with truffle. Once you have sprinkled truffle salt on the eggs, the truffle slices are just for show. You can do without the truffle slices and still have magic happen in your mouth.

The truffle shops sell preserved sliced truffles in olive oil (has added artificial aroma), cheese and truffle pâté (cheese locks in the small, so yes... worth buying), truffle olive oil (has added artificial aromas, whole truffle preserved in brine (tasteless and smell-less). Don't bother with those. They taste of nothing unless artificial truffle aroma has been added. Buy your truffles FRESH and buy high quality Adriatic sea salt. Wash your truffles under a running tap to brush away the soil. Dry thoroughly and put them in a jam jar buried entirely in sea salt. Make sure you pour some salt at the bottom of the jar (before you put in your truffle) so that the salt also covers the bottom of the truffle.

Truffle salt can last months in the fridge and you can enjoy the truffle smell at home too. In a sense, it is like transferring the soul of the truffle from its original corporeal body into another.

Update 11 December 2016: the truffle salt was tasteless by the time we got home. So disappointed.

Truffles are priced for size. Class 1 is biggest and Class 3 is smallest. However, the aroma is the same no matter the size. So, don't go for size. Make sure you sniff the mushroom and buy for the smell. At times, the big ones don't have as much smell as the small ones.

These are very expensive truffles. Each is bigger than my hand. The whole plate will be sold for about SGD 10,000.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Stone House Ana, Bartolici Village

Getting here was an adventure in itself. The problem with driving in winter is that roads can get fogged up and iced over. This makes driving dangerous for those who are not used to driving in winter conditions. It was bad enough that the roads were almost just dirt tracks wide enough for only one car, but these tracks twisted and turned up along the hillside. Then, for the first time, the GPS got us lost! We ended up in a different village, peering up at another stone house with its roof caved in and much vegetation in the living room.

For a moment, I thought that I had gotten schnooked by a dishonest proprietor of property.

Anyway, we managed to find the place eventually but after our initial ooohs and aaaahs, the evening lead into another adventure of a rather stressful kind.

Old houses are a nightmare to equip with modern amenities. Firstly, they are usually found in the middle of nowhere and so the houses generally have electrical systems that cannot take too much load. Secondly, the stone walls are about 1 ft and a half thick. Therefore, getting electricity and plumbing into the house is kinda difficult. So, we were warned that perhaps the fuse box might trip.

It did.

I was in bed with my Kindle. The Husband was in the shower. The Daughter grabbed my Kindle to light her way downstairs to search for the fusebox. The Husband hopped out of the bathroom in nothing but a tiny towel because you know... the man of the house needs to investigate such occurrences right? With the help of the iPhone torches (oh thank God for handphone torches!) they both found the fuse box. At that point, The Husband's towel dropped and the poor man was stark naked... which caused a bit of a hoo ha because he was trying to recover his dignity all whilst yelling at his daughter NOT to look.

Oh dear... and then they found that the fuse box was perfectly fine. Nothing had tripped BUT there was still no electricity. Thank goodness there is such a thing as a dataplan and handphone reception. They were able to get the landlord on whatsapp. Eventually, they located the master fuse box and turned the electricity back on.

Now, we have to be very careful because when the stove is on, the heaters must be off... when the hairdryer is on, everything else has to be off. Then I realised that there is a reason why local people live in new houses... and only tourists (who are history buffs) book these centuries old lodgings in the middle of nowhere. Old houses are not very comfortable.

Old style Croatian fireplace. Very charming, but not very efficient at heating the house. Most of the heat escapes up the chimney and one has to keep feeding the fire. This means that wood needs chopping and one has to stand near the fire to get warm. Worse still, we are out of matchsticks. 

Very charming living room. Fortunately, this room has a modern airconditioner.

Staircase to a huge bedroom, which has NO heater. We had to bring up the portable heater from the toilet.

Humongous bedroom with all the old world charm but very cold, if not for the portable heater.

No regrets lah... with the portable heater, we passed a comfortable night.

Ever so pretty!

Staying in this house is an experience in itself. I could sit here all day and imagine that I have travelled back in time.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

More Results 2016

I am proud of this one. When he came, he was so badly behaved that he made his Mother cry.

This one has always been a joy to teach. He grasps quickly and never makes the same mistake twice.

This child learnt enough and left me before PSLE.

This boy did not do well. He only achieved a B in English. In fact, he got a B for every subject at PSLE. However, I still want to celebrate him. In the last 6 months, his attitude improved tremendously and this is the attitude he will carry with him to secondary school. Unfortunately, the PSLE cannot be aced with only 6 months of hard work. I am still EXTRAORDINARILY proud of this boy who has definite cognitive weaknesses when it comes to language acquisition, that really needed time and therapy to fix. He was a good boy but we did not have time.

We have mixed ability classes. Necessarily, we will have a range of results depending on (1) the IQ of the child, (2) the degree of parental emotional and scaffolding support and (3) the strength of partnership with Dr. Pet.

We set high goals for the children and are demanding when it comes to quality of homework. We reward work ethic (not results) with specially sourced gifts from all over the world - see HERE. Children with poor work ethic or are deaf to feedback for improvement are firmly dealt with, and sometimes, asked to leave the centre. However, when the children have worked hard and put in their best, and still bring back results that are not ideal... it is time to hug the child and be proud of him. 

We do not expel children for poor results. We do not punish children for poor results. 

Now that PSLE is over, the children cannot do anything about their results anymore. Punishing them achieves nothing. It is time to focus on the features of the child that are not summarised in the PSLE t-score. This boy loves to cook. He won a cooking competition by making chicken cordon bleu...

... emmmm... even I have not tried making chicken cordon bleu...

Little M brought home to me a B in English and I am proud of him. I am proud to say that I taught him and he got a B for me. I am not ashamed of my Little M.

On the day we went to get The Son's PSLE results, friends texted me to ask for The Son's t-score. Indeed, people I hardly knew wanted to know his t-score. I guess, being a blogger gives complete strangers the license to pry into my son's privacy. I told close friends his t-score. Those who were not so close, I rebelliously said, "I think I will put him in Yishun North Secondary School because it is a good school and has Shooting as a CCA. If you love me as your friend, do not judge my son and me based on our PSLE t-score."

This allowed me to differentiate true friends from mere kaypohs. Those kaypohs who cared for us after hearing Yishun North Secondary, became friends and today, they are fully aware of exactly how well The Son is doing. 2 major organisations negotiated with each other so that both could have him as a 16 year old intern in Nov-Dec 2016. Each organisation agreed to forego one week of The Son's time so that both could have him.

He may not have scored in the top PSLE score in the nation but The Son comes in a total package that is desirable to potential employers.

20 years from now, Little M will be a Michelin starred chef and I will get to eat for free at any of his restaurants. I have a good eye for talent. It was my honour to have taught him.

A child is worth more than his grades.

See more results HERE.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Diocletian's Palace

The Diocletian Palace in Split has the distinction of being the only Roman Palace still inhabited by people. The locals say that it is an ancient space with modern uses. Till recently, people who lived inside the palace were those with little means to buy newer and bigger lodgings. Nowadays, wealthier landlords have taken over the lodgings and converted them into AirBnB apartments for let. If you are a self-driving tourist, it is best to stay outside the Diocletian Palace even though the allure of actually living within a real Roman palace is undeniable.

You see, the parking here is horrendous.

The Roman Emperor Diocletian was proclaimed Emperor in AD 284. He built this palace as his retirement home. Eventually, he died and was buried in the mausoleum in the middle of the Diocletian Palace. A few hundred years later, in the 7th century, nearby residents fled into the palace to escape from invaders. Since then, the palace has continually been occupied. This probably explains why much of the palace is still standing. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage monument.

When the palace was built, it had the perfect and elegant proportions of a royal dwelling. However, when people moved in, they began building their own stone houses hither and thither. The extensive gardens disappeared only to be replaced by a veritable warren of buildings with narrow streets. The grand vistas and walkways also disappeared. Large windows were bricked up. When one marble pillar collapsed, people dragged another marble pillar (of different colour and design) from nearby ruins in Salona and popped it in there to support the roof. It really is a very amusing construction.

See the row of pillars on the right? Originally, one could walk through into a wide space there.

In later years, after the Romans had abandoned the site, someone built a building right there behind the pillars. I am of 2 minds about this. It seems such a travesty to destroy the initial aspect of the dwelling but then again, these newer building additions are also the sole reason why those pillars still stand and are well-preserved today.

The Dalmatian Platters and Boards

Dalmatia is one of the 4 historical regions in Croatia. Today, Dalmatia is not a properly recognised region in Croatia, but its vague boundaries are marked down in the collective memory of the people who live along the Croatian coastline. It has its customs and food specialties. The grilled seafood platter needs patience. You can order it anywhere but it needs 30 minutes to prepare. It is well worth the wait, though. 3 people can eat off a single platter and feel full. Laden with shellfish of all sorts, lobster, shrimps and whole grilled fish, this platter is a firm family favourite at SGD$30 per person. The platter comes with vegetables and fries too so there is no need to order anything else.

Dalmatian eating habits are quite convivial. Platters and boards are for sharing, which suits the Singaporean just fine. What is good is also the squid ink risotto. 

Seafood platter in Ston.

Seafood platter in Mali Ston.

Seafood platter in Split.

Ham and cheese board in Split.

Filigree Jewelry

Butterfly in filigree silver.

Every year, I give away prizes to children who have accumulated the MOST SkipHWCoupons in 10 months. SkipHWCoupons are given to children who give me perfect work to mark every week. For every perfect worksheet, I give one coupon. 

The children are allowed to hand up these SkipHWCoupons in lieu of HW, or they can choose to accumulate their coupons for the grand prize at the end of the year. 

I will confiscate and destroy 2 coupons for every piece of sloppy HW done too. Sloppy HW is detrimental to learning. Do enough sloppy and mindless work and your brain learns exactly that. Then, when you go into the exam, your sloppy habits come through in carelessness. For this reason, I prefer that children skip homework if they are tired, ill or do not feel like doing work.

Children who accumulate enough SkipHWCoupons throughout 10 months, to get the grand prize, really deserve a good reward for having focused PROPERLY on each piece of work done for me over a period of weeks and months. For this reason, I put a lot of effort into shopping for these gifts. This year, I sourced them via friends travelling in Denmark and Japan. Finally, I found the gifts in a shop situated opposite the mausoleum (a HUGE tomb) of the Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus. I found butterflies in filigree silver.

If you stand at the door of the shop and look out, you see the view below...

Behind the pillars and the tower, there is an angular building, which was the Emperor Diocletian's mausoleum. This courtyard is the Peristyle. It was where the Emperor came to wave to the public. The Diocletian Palace is a very distinctive Roman ruin in that after the Emperor died, people came into his home and built their own smaller homes within the compound. Till today, there is a warren of streets, small apartments and large palatial houses, dating from the Middle Ages (16th and 17th century) where people actually STILL live.

In Roman times, the peristyle looked like this. The shop is in that small little arch in the middle right corner.

Filigree work originated in Egyptian times and the techniques were perfected by the Etruscans and the Greeks. Master filigree jeweler Viktor Civljak owns the shop. He came to Split in 1967, from Kosovo. Filigree techniques arrived in Kosovo in the 15th century. The region had historically come under the Byzantine empire. To this day, some of the designs in Viktor Civljak's shop are reminiscent of Byzantine Orthodox Christian art.

To see how Viktor Civljak makes his jewelry, click HERE.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Split: Anamarija's Apartment

Home for the next 3 days is in Split, in an apartment which wow-ed all 3 of us with its luxurious fittings. Seriously, this place is nicer than my own house. The bed is a super king with 2 quilts because no one quilt is big enough. From my side of the bed, I can't see The Husband on the other side, you know. He has disappeared in the distance and is camouflaged by a mass of soft sheets. Now, we know the type of luxury some Croatians live in. Waaaaaaaaaaah!

This place rents for SGD$159/night and sleeps 4 adults comfortably. Click HERE to book.

The bed was amazing. It was soft and offered excellent back support and I cannot even imagine the threadcount of the bedsheets because they felt so very soft and smooth. This must be what sleeping on a cloud feels like.

Bed so big, you could get lost in it.

Designer taps and sinks.

There is art in the toilet.

Bathtub with sculpted lines.

Chandelier! They have a chandelier! Sigh!

Stunning view of the Adriatic Sea.

Mali Ston, Bota Sare Oyster Farm Tour

The morning air was alive with the sounds of Croatian love ballads and it all emanated from a charming little boat with a table all dressed to entertain - bottle of dry white, dried figs, dried almonds, bottle of grappa (whisky infused with Mediterranean herbs). It felt like a mini Greek wedding on a boat, with just the 3 of us.

Despite this, Daniel Sepanovich didn't smile at all. In fact, his blue-grey eyes stared at us with the look of Daniel Craig's James Bond at his most lethal. He did not smile the whole way there and back, even as he cracked jokes and spoke drily about the aphrodisiac properties of oysters. At one point, I asked him if he was part of the Bota Sare restaurant at Mali Ston. Still dour-faced, he replied, "No, I work on the boats and with the oysters. I cannot work in the restaurant. There are too many people."

With nary a smile, he was an impeccable host. He was entertaining and educational. He was warm and helpful (still no smile)... I did not know it was possible to be warm and unsmiling. Better still, he fed us seafood fresh from the sea. It was literally pull stuff out of the clear briny sea and eat. We really had a great time with the food pairings, figs, almonds, whisky, fresh oysters and fresh mussels... with a squeeze of lemon. I think it is me. I am apt to think that someone is hospitable if they feed me yummy things.

When you squeeze lemon on the oysters, they cringe. Best oysters ever!

Daniel works for the Bota Sare oyster farms. There are Bota Sare restaurants everywhere in Croatia - Zaghreb, Split, Dubrovnik and at Mali Ston. The chain is owned by the famous Sare family who originated from Mali Ston and still owns a private island off the coast, where they entertain guests with oysters from their farms and restaurants. Waaaaaaaah!

Oysters, it appears are hermaphrodites. The same oyster can change from male to female as the months pass. They lay eggs and release sperm into the clear cold waters of Mali Ston. Once fertilised, the eggs stick onto any support they can find and grow. Daniel said, "All we have to do is to put something, anything into the water, and something will grow on it."

He showed us the nets with baby oysters. He showed us how he would take the baby oysters and anchor them to ropes, two by two in regular intervals all the way down the rope. He showed us how the ropes could be lowered into and raised from the water. I, normally curious about such things, was a poor student. It is hard to pay attention to words people say when someone keeps putting fresh succulent oysters in front of you. I was too busy listening to my tongue.

Mini Greek wedding.

Ropes with 3 year old oysters (ready to eat).

The oyster harvest.

Shucking the oysters.



Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Siege of Vukovar

The story of Vukovar is a heart-wrenching one full of immense courage and extraordinary resilience. It happened 25 years ago.

Serbian troops had just about overrun a third of Croatia. Only one city held out stubbornly despite great odds. The top Serbian General was sent to deal with Vukovar.

On 18th November 1991, Vukovar was surrounded by 36,000 Serbian troops along with 110 vehicles, tanks and a dozen planes. Somehow, by sheer force of the human spirit, the Croats within the city held. Despite being outnumbered and greatly outpowered, the Serbian troops had to fight for every inch of gain. 

They still could not take Vukovar.

President Tudjman of Croatia had ascertained that the town was as good as gone. He refused to commit more of Croatia's insufficient troops. At that time, except for Germany, Croatia was not recognised by the international community as a sovereign country. No one came to help.

Desperate to save his town, the Commander of the Croat troops in Vukovar (Mile Dedakovic) walked for THIRTEEN hours, right through enemy lines with a small band of soldiers to personally plead with President Tudjman to send heavy artillery. President Tudjman made a strategic decision NOT to send troops, but told Commander Mile Dedakovic that he would send some troops.

Commander Mile Dedakovic then walked back through enemy lines for THIRTEEN hours, to save his town. No help came. He had no choice but to surrender his town to save his people. This story of courage against all odds moved people internationally and Germany was able to influence the other European nations to recognise Croatia as a country unto its own.

This is the part where my jaw fell to the floor. This man walked through enemy lines TWICE. Once to get out. Once to get back IN. He must have known he risked death getting out and then he went back IN to die with his people.

At the Zaghreb airport (even before learning anything about Croatia), I looked around at the Croatian men and remarked to The Daughter, "They look badass scary." They're big men with grim faces that don't smile. And it is true. Men or women, the Croatians do not smile. They may speak kindly and gently. They show their hospitality in action, e.g., an old woman helped The Daughter get to Sarajevo after she was dropped by the bus in the middle of nowhere... Perica (our landlord in Dubrovnich) carried our heavy bags to the bus station for us... Alena (our landlady here in Mali Ston) offered to drive us out for groceries... and they do it with no extra monetary charges...

... but they do not smile much whilst they are rescuing you out of your quandary.

Commander Mile Dedakovic later went to the press to accuse his own President of willingly sacrificing Vukovar to achieve international recognition of Croatia's sovereignty. What pain of betrayal this man must have felt and yet, he must have understood that Vukovar had to fall so that the whole of Croatia could be saved.

To this day, on every 18th of November, posters go up all over the country proclaiming every other town's love for Vukovar. See below a poster proclaiming Ston's love for Vukovar. It was the death of Vukovar that saw Croatia rise from the ashes of war to soar upwards phoenix like.

I think it is quite quite unfair that the man Mile Dedakovic, who fought so bravely and well for his motherland is not more honoured. There should be statues to him and more historical references to him. I mean, who does that... walk through enemy lines TWICE... like taking a walk in the park? Unfortunately, his story is not politically correct and his name is threatened with oblivion.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Old House in Center of Mali Ston

Mali Ston is a 700 year old fortified village. I kid you not. It is encircled by walls so thick that you can drive a car along the top of the wall and still have space to walk. The walls of Ston encircle the town of Mali Ston and snakes south west towards another town called Ston. People here call it the 2nd Great Wall, with the first Great Wall being that of China.

The walls were built by the Ragusan Republic which had its seat of power in Dubrovnik from 1358 to 1808. Dubrovnik was an important port, competing with Venice (barely 800km away across the Adriatic Sea) for maritime trade. Dubrovnik actually meant "oak grove" and was named for the oak trees growing in that area. Reading up on its history, I begin to understand the need for these long and thick walls. Even with such walls, the area was variously the vassal state of Venice, Austria, Turkey and France. Everybody who was anybody wanted a piece of Dubrovnik and its surrounding areas!

The Walls of Ston were built to protect the salt pans. Salt was a product that generated great wealth for the Ragusan Republic. The centuries old salt pans are still being worked today at Solana Ston Salinas. Young people come in summer to harvest salt as part of their summer holidays. They work in return for free food, lodging and tours. If I were young enough, I would be tempted to because the free food is eat-your-fill of Mali Ston oysters.

The Mali Ston bay's pristine waters produce small firm oysters which taste like a sea breeze in your mouth. Now do you understand why everybody who was anybody wanted a piece of Dubrovnik, Ston and Mali Ston action? Between fresh oysters (food) and fresh sea salt (money), what is there not to like?

To get to our lodgings, we had to go through a segment of the stone walls.

This is home for 3 nights. It has 3 storeys and sleeps 4 people.

The living room.

The well-planned streets.

Houses are built up the slopes too.

The lady who owns this house washes the laundry at Kapetanova Kuca. This is the 1st ranked restaurant in Mali Ston on TripAdvisor. Her own house is right next to the one we are staying in. The restaurant she works in is literally 10 metres from her front door. Kapetanova Kuca (translates into Captain's House) and it serves a variety of seafood, including uber fresh oysters from Mali Ston Bay. Last night, we ate 1 oyster each. It was good. Tonight, I am getting 10... 10 oysters for SGD$20 (and that is only because this restaurant is one of the more expensive ones in this village). I am sure I can get cheaper oysters elsewhere. Yum! Yum!

If I am what I eat, I think that by the end of these 3 days, I may become a giant oyster.

You can book this house HERE. It sleeps 4 people for SGD$150. This is not a sponsored post. This blog details anything and everything I feel like writing and I am not influenced by anyone nor anything to write.