BEST PLACE TO LIVE

I was at a dinner recently and somebody asked me: “Sasha, you traveled the world, if you could choose, where would you choose to live?”

I did not have a ready answer and after a brief thinking I said something in the like of south France, Provence, or north Spain, Catalonia, remembering it as a place of some of the most vivid and beautiful memories I had. But then again, I added, I was twenty something at the time…

I did not feel good about the answer but I haven’t given it much thought…until I was driving my food delivery truck today through some small rural towns around South Hadley, MA,  and I realised something: there is no place in the world nicer and more livable than New England in fall.  And I realised at that moment that there is no one single best place to live and that I should have given a different answer for each season, so here I am, answering it right:

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The fall I want to live it in New England. There is no picture in nature more beautiful then a New England forest in fall colors, from red to green, reflecting in a calm water of some lake. And not just the leaves: all the harvest festivals, fairs, pumpkins everywhere, on every porch,  houses decorated for halloween, apple picking, apple cider… That is when the food here tastes best, when the air smells best, when life feels best.

Fall in New England. 

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Winter in the Caribbean. I am not a big fan of snow, I lived for thirty years without having to shovel snow not once and I can live the rest of my life without even seeing snow. I was born on the shoreline and I can not imagine my life far from the sea and there is no sea nicer then the coral reefs of the caribbean (as far as I know, I have never been to Australia or Thailand).

Eating fresh seafood, snorkeling in a clear water, waking up in the morning by diving in the sea  and going to sleep by the fire on the sand beach. Living life without putting on shoes – or even a shirt, watching the sunset and the seagulls, covering yourself in the warmth, the song  and the smells of the tropical sun and people of the eternal summer  in the Caribbean.

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Spring in south France, in the Provence. Or  northern Spain. Anywhere between Tuscany to Barcelona, actually. I lived near Barcelona for 4 months once and returned there later many times, for work or for vacations. And loved it every time.

The way fresh cheese tastes on the market in  Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the first asparagus of spring, the black truffle, strawberries and cherry, scents of rosemary, wild thyme and Mediterranean pine, all the wildflowers like centranthus, yellow broom and red poppies, irises, almonds and soft fruit trees in full bloom…

You can enjoy the full beauty of this most popular tourist destinations on earth, minus all the insane crowds of summer. Spring in Provence.

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Istria Round Trip, which places to visit in Istria

Summer in my Croatia. On the coast.  

I’m biased here, I know. I was born in Croatia and lived there for 30 years. This is where I spent my school summer vacations. This is where I lived the best times of my young life, friendship, love…

I am aware of how all this might be affecting my choice, but I still think this to be the best place to spend the summer, the joyous time of the year. You see, there is no huge difference between the regions I described before, Tuscany, Provence and Catalonia – and Istria, Croatia on the other side. One big difference is that there are no big cities here, it is way less crowded and less… touristy. But it is still EU, with all its amenities and culture and vibrant foodie scene, all things that Caribbean can not offer.

Other big difference are the people. People in istria love tourists. We loved them ever since the Roman times, when the wealthiest Roman aristocrats decided to build theirs vacation houses here. We loved everybody who came after them, Venetians, the French, Austrians, Germans…. In some other country they would call them invaders, but not us, to us they were always tourists. We were a poor country and the money they brought with them was always welcomed.

People in France are not that crazy about tourists, especially in late summer when other (also not too friendly) domestic tourists show up.

I was once at a business dinner in Croatia, on a beach in Rovinj, with a french journalist and writer that was writing an expose on Croatia for some french magazine. She told me this:

“You know we have a saying in France: God lives in France. I still think it is true, if God would choose a place to live, he would choose France. But I am ready to change that saying slightly now: God lives in France, but takes his vacation in Croatia.”

I don’t know if she ever wrote this in her article or if she ever used it at all. If she did not, I claim it as mine. I checked and can confirm that they do have a saying about God living in France. And not only french – even english: “living like God in France” and german and dutch too!

But Croatia is the place you take a vacation. This is a place to live the best summer holiday ever. To enjoy the music, the festivals, the amazing food, the beaches, the concerts, this is where you’ll find the best friends and prettiest woman (or man).

I’ll update this list as I travel more… But I do not think It will change much. Let me know your choices. Let me know what I should visit next. And when.

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All cooks are criminals

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All cooks are criminals
Yes, all cooks are criminals. And not because we are tough, tattooed, gang of hard drinkers, drug abusers… Not all of us are like that. But we are, all of us, criminals.
Because that is our job. We take perfectly good, healthy products of nature and then invent new ways how to make them less healthy and nutritious as possible; how to cover, fill or wrap them with as much of the most unhealthy food or edible chemicals we can – with butter, salt, sugar, fat, cheese, flour, alcohol, smoke; then pass them through hellfire, deep fry, dehydrate them, ferment them, fill them with bacteria or gas.
And all of that just to make the food taste good.
Yes, there are some restaurants that prepare mostly raw, bland – but healthy food. But there are no cooks working there. There is no cooking worth mentioning going on there. Cooking food is the criminal act of making the food unhealthy but delicious.

Just an example. I do wedding food. Not much room there for creativity, innovation, audacity. I have to make food that everybody, not just foodies, but everybody, grandma and grandpa and kids and teens will recognize and equally love or at least accept it. When I do changes in the recipes, those are subtle and hidden, designed to bust the original flavors, like dry forest mushrooms cooked in the marsala sauce, wine&soy marinated sirloin, sugar in the water for cooking vegetables etc.
I used to have steamed seasonal vegetables as one of the side dishes, mostly broccoli, green beans, some baby carrots or peppers for color. (Side note: I was amazed to discover the other day that every single person working in my kitchen believed that baby carrots were some kind of different carrots, or normal carrots picked up young. Side side note: they aren’t, WTF, they are just normal carrots that were too ugly or oddly shaped for the market, heavily peeled and pencil sharpened into uniform little baby carrot shapes).

Anyway, I used to serve this steamed vegetables lightly drizzled with butter. Nobody complained, but I noticed more and more people ordering grilled summer vegetables, and those are way more work and trouble to make. So, what I did was starting to serve the steamed vegetables with a new sauce I concocted, made with equal amount of butter and creme fraiche and some other unhealthy spices to give it yellowish color and strong, salty flavour. Crowds went nuts. I had to double the portions on those.
What I am trying to say is, even if we wanted to cook healthy, we can not do it for the masses. The masses want salty, sweet, caramelized, burnt, fat food. The food that, for some weird evolutionary unexplainable reason, to us tastes good, and then harms us.
And that is why we, cooks, are criminals.

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Major renovation in progress in the Old Country Banquet Facility

We are almost done with renovations on the wedding venues and building. By request of all our future brides (and brides are the ones who choose the wedding hall, right) we have:

Changed all the curtains to a beautiful shiny gold color

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We are  adding a garden with a pergola, flowers and a fountain for ceremonies and pictures

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On our balcony we are adding a bridal suite, a room and a restroom for changing, make up, etc.

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We are adding a monumental stairway for the bridas to walk in the room in all their glory (approved but not started yet..)

And for the guys, one little thing, we just changed the tiles and lightning on the existing bar…

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Funny and tasty side of China

Recently I visited China. Got a good deal on Groupon, 9 days in 4 and 5* hotels with 4 flights between cities and some of the food for $1.300 person. Not bad. On a request of some friends I am using this medium to give a short recapitulation of the funnier side of the trip. And also, to stay in the blog topic, the tasty, culinary side.

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First of all I had the great misfortune to have had the Air China mess up our tickets, so I ended up sitting on a different row from my beloved wife. She got the seat behind me. I guess that is a custom of all backward countries – that wife should always go behind the husband (except Afghanistan because of all the land mines). This gave me the chance to contemplate my misery and to sulk in silence for the duration of the flight (14 hours).
I saw 5 movies. 5 movies in a row. I knew that all my years of training – since I was a kid – will pay off – decades of forcing myself to fanatically watch television for hours and hours, always a bit longer, always pushing myself over the he limit of human endurance (All the LOTR movies in one night, anybody). And here I am, squeezed in a middle seat of economy class, with my enormous butt that will probably never gonna be dislodged, knees pressing the seat in front of me, neck too feeble to hold my fat bold head without the neck cushion, here I am, 6 movies and still enjoying myself completely.
Another thing, the flight to China goes over northern Canada and northern tip of Alaska. To you who are bad at geography and Google Earth, thats the freaking North Pole.

IMG_20140120_111239It was the first night we realized that nobody here in China speaks English. We are not American and we do not expect all the world to speak perfectly the language of the British colonialists. But we did speak some English long before we came to America, all young people we knew did. It s the language Beatles and the Stones sung, it is the language of all the good movies and all the good shows. At least some basic words…

Not here. They do not know what “OK” means. No waiter knows what you are saying when you ask “spicy?”. Not even in a McDonald – you can not order a bottle of water without finding a picture of it somewhere. We tried in all 7 languages my wife and me speak (using also Latin), but apparently nothing sounds close to it in Chinese.

We did not eat at the McDonald’s, we just bought water there. We ate only local cuisine like all the tourists should. You do not go to China to see the Louvre like you do not go to Texas barbecue joint and order foie grass on a toast.

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I went even further and ate fried scorpions (really good), fried silk worms (juicy but with a strange aftertaste), sea horses, fried snakes (chewy), roasted pigeon on a stick (bony), salad made of marinated fish skins (wow), and many other amazing things – and also street foods that I had no idea what they were. But there was no dog. I know that for sure. You are much more likely to be served dog (or cat) in a restaurant in US then in china because in China it is a delicacy, an expensive and rare specialty. And in US it is free meat found on the road.

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None of the people who spoke English that we met approved of dog eating, but there are still some old time people who indulge in it, just like in the states you can find illegal restaurants that serve only protected almost extinct animals to extremely rich and spoiled. Dog is a pet and should not be eaten just because to some people and children it is a friend. Also, if it is true they kill them in gruesome ways the same treatment should be applied to them. No other reason not to eat dog, really. A pig or an octopus are more intelligent than a dog, cow makes the elixir of life and is holly to one billion people…
We ate the best duck ever in a restaurant in Beijing, like it should be. Perfectly crispy and moist, not too fat and done on open fire just right. This was in one of the most expensive and awarded establishments in the town, so I am not sure if the hilariously displayed sea cucumber dish next to the name of the restaurant on the entrance was someone’s joke or not.

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When we are on the theme of language mistakes with sexual connotations, here is a very wrong child t-shirt sold on the street.
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Most of the other restaurants we visited where not so high class as Da Dong. Almost none of them had the menu in English and when they did – it was also hilarious.
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On the beginning we tried to communicate with the waitresses but no avail.

Once we were greeted  in English and seated on the table, happy as children in Disneyland. Unfortunately the waitress that came after did not speak any English (we just wanted to know what is spicy). My wife told here “but you just spoke English when we entered before!”. She shrugged and called a friend. The friend of course, did look exactly the same.
“Wait, you were the one who speaks English” said my wife, unaware of what she was doing, pointing at here. And then another. Soon there were five of them around our table and my wife kept on trying “you were the one, right?” making me more and more uncomfortable. But the girls just laughed at us, also unaware of anything. In the end the waitress just pointed at some stuff on the menu saying probably “here, this is what crazy Americans eat”, we ordered most of it (bowl of soup size half gallon filled with many things was $1) and had a great meal.
Just a note – there is no Chinese food in China. Not the food we eat in Chinese restaurants here. It is all completely different and much much better with much better and fresher ingredients – and less frying. They just tricked us into thinking that that is Chinese food. And no fortune cookies too. Those are American invention started by American Japanese who converted their restaurants from Japanese to Chinese soon after Pearl harbor.
They use a lot of soup. One of the most popular restaurants are called hot pots, places where you cook your food in boiling broth on the middle of the table and you add to it pieces of meat, vegetable, mushrooms (many delicious different mushrooms), tofu, sea animals… and later you fish them out with chopsticks. The fishing out with chopsticks was the part we were really bad at, so they had a girl (that spoke some English) do that for us during the whole meal and practically feed us like toddlers.
Other employees kept on coming over to see the silly westerners and laugh like crazy. Did not help that the restaurant had 600 places all full and we waited for 30 minutes to get a table (during the wait they offer you snacks, games, manicure, massage…)
In the end in the tasty broth remaining in the pot they cook some of their fresh hand made noodles (do not forget – they invented pasta) which they prepare at the table, swinging them in the air (we called that kung fun noodles).
They brought us complimentary fruits with a funny caramel writing on the plate.
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Here are some more funny mistakes.

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We visited Beijing, Xian, Suzhou and Shanghai. Two of those cities have over 22 million inhabitants and the other two are small picturesque towns of 6,7 million. All of them are growing rapidly, with Shanghai (due to a lack of land) growing magnificently into the sky. All of them look more and more like something from the future, with highways being build over other highways, with bullet trains and light shows over the skyscrapers in “Blade Runner” style.

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We did not see any small villages, any rice field, any of the factory towns… Time was short and we went for the most important landmarks. Next time.

People that we met were mostly nice. Happy. Singing in parks, dancing on town squares, doing tai chi in the morning. I had no nerves for the bargaining, though. They claimed that they enjoy it and we should have fun with it, but I hated it. Fighting over a price of every item, where the real price could be somewhere around 10% of the first price asked… That was the annoying part. heres some shopping items.

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And crossing the street. That was the real adventure.

Otherwise, I do recommend it.

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not only cooking

We just finished repainting our banquet hall. And did a new floor. And like two hundred other things. 35 gallons of paint. Check the pictures.

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Two Fat Ninjas

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We are the Two Fat Ninjas

Yes, we are considering to change our company name to “Two Fat Ninjas Catering”.

Sounds funny. Looks funny. It definitely is kind of funny. But we might look and sound funny, but trust me, we are also serious – very, very serious about food.

Let me explain.

First of all: would you trust a pilot who is afraid of heights? Would you trust a surgeon who is squeamish, disgusted by blood?

Then why would you ever trust a skinny cook?

We at Old Country love food. We love good food. And we cook some of the best food around. I know, I tried most of it…

We make food that is bold. With a taste that is daring and forward. We are not scared of Butter, Bacon, Suet, Bone Marrow or Pork Fat.

We roast Veal bones to make our own Demi Glace. We fire burn the chili peppers for our own sauce. There is 6 other different vegetables pureed in our tomato sauce. We do not compromise.

We do not serve bland, factory made food. We make our food from scratch.

Our Meatballs are made with real Meat. And Balls.

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We make food that is strong, that is not fat free, sugar free, cholesterol free, taste free. Food that you should not eat every day. But we run a banquet facility. For Banquets. For Parties. It is the food you eat when you celebrate. It is the food that you praise yourself. It is a treat. That is the food you choose to rejoice, jubilate, feast. Hearty comfort food to honor life.

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No, we, are not going to live to be hundred…. with the life we live, even fifty is going be a jackpot, but we will try it all and live it all and feel it all.

Do we want to be fat? No we don’t. Do we like to be fat. No we don’t. Do we have to be fat? Oh, hell, yes, yes we do. If food is the job, the life we have chosen, than we will do the food we love, and we will live the life we love and we will live it, eat it, explore it fully and carelessly.

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“To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. “ Anthony Bourdain

I know Antony Bourdain also said that work in the kitchen is too demanding, too busy to get fat; that you need to be skinny to move through the kitchen and all the running staff. Well, I love the guy but he is wrong. I worked in kitchens of many great chefs, and I will tell you, when the chef comes, everybody moves out of his way. I was skinny when I was a busboy in Spain. That was 18 years ago.

A time is coming when 20 billion people will have to live from food that will only remind us of the foods we can eat today. Food printed in 3D printers, meat that was grown in labs from stem cells, genetically modified tasteless vegetables… If we want to survive, as humanity, this is how it will have to be.

I just had a vacation and ate (and prepared in a special charcoal oven) some of the last Adriatic octopus; and the tuna and cod we are eating right now will disappear in our lifetime.

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But while I am here, I will cook and eat things some people already just remember from their youth.

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Where?

People ask me where do I come from. Often.

It must be my terrible accent that you can not hear while reading the blog. Well, I guess you can. Here on the blog, it is manifested as a not so good sentence building skill, a poor or insane choice of words in a wrong place – a result of the speedy use of the spelling corrector. I do apologize for this – and I invite you to freely lough at those mistakes that create misunderstandings and hilarious and illogical new meanings.

I still have the letter I sent to the Health Department when I was renewing the license 4 years ago in which I guarantee that I will fix the licking faucet in next seven days…

Anyway, I do not feel bad about missing some words. I have lived here for less then 5 years and I speak fluently 5 more languages. I was told by a customer the other day that I speak a perfect “American” but with a thick “British” accent… I will not comment on that.

Anyway, where do I come from: Croatia, a former part of something called Yugoslavia. Nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Ukraina (some people here tend to mix this two) or with Russia (because I have a Russian name).

Croatia is a small country settled on the Adriatic sea, between Austria and Italy, just across from Venice and north from Greece and Albania. It has only 4 million inhabitants (less than Manhattan and Bronx together for example) but has a coast so broken in thousand of peninsulas, bays and over 1200 islands that it has more beaches than the entire east coast of US. On this beaches (and hotels) we can accommodate over 10 million of tourists each year. N Nowadays that is pretty much everything we do.

Istria Round Trip, which places to visit in Istria
But we did have a glorious history. In the past we were responsible for stopping the Muslim invasion (one of) on Europe (200 years of Croatian Ottoman War), inventing the necktie – yes, the tie, double entry bookkeeping, the parachute, forensic medicine, the Crab Cioppino,  the zeppelin, aluminum,  Zinfandel wine, a pencil, torpedo and alternate electricity (Tesla was Croatian). Interestingly enough, the only invention of those listed above that entered the list of 100 most important inventions of all time is – the necktie.
We had champions and record keepers in almost every sport and tournament – from Wimbledon to soccer but I would not know any of them. We had famous writers, actors, musicians… But people will remember us for a gruesome war we participated and won two decades  ago. And I will not write about that.

Before defining myself as a Croatian (I do not even do that, where you are born does not define you), I would first be an Istrian – Istria is a small part of Croatia on the Adriatic sea that used to be part of Italy before Italy lost the war… Istrian people are different than the rest of Croatia. For example – I am not aware of any famous Istrian people ever, of any inventions originated from Istria, any world famous writer or musician or athlete… We never won any wars. We were actually invaded by almost everybody in the European history, from Greece, Napoleon to Hitler and Mussolini – and we never put up any fight.

12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Istria | PlanetWare

25,884 Istria Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

Istria itinerary: 15 unforgettable things to do in Istria (Croatia) -  Adventurous Miriam

What we always were – and what we still are, what defines us and describes us is – hospitality. We lived there, in our small picturesque towns, in a country nicer than Toscany, nicer than the French Riviera, for thousand of years doing nothing but welcoming tourists. The nobles of the ancient Rome build the first summer houses there – and those just got bigger and more modern over the centuries – turning into 5star hotels now. Hotels, restaurants, services for the rich and powerful of the Europe, this is where I came from, this is my background, my genes.

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