It is easy to be carried away by memories, especially when they are connected to food. So bear with me. I know this recipe is simple, but this little side dish, blede con patate, chard and potatoes, is a symbol of what I want to carry with me.
I probably tasted it the very first day I moved out. I was going to live on my own, finally, something I’ve always wanted so badly. And now that was happening, me armed with a big, heavy suitcase, on a train heading east. The phone beeped, a message. The guy I’d met at the hostel the other time, he came from Milan like me, the mathematician with funny glasses. Would I meet him for lunch? Well, why not. It sounded good. A great start for making new friends in my new town, actually.
We met on a rainy night. It was not the first night for me in Trieste. I had already been there a few years before, and I remembered the landscape, the city gleaming over the water from the pier right below the hostel at Miramare. The pier, a great place where to sit and think, where I took all of the hardest decisions in my life. But that was yet to come: that night, it rained, and I was yet so much of a child. I came with a friend to take a test for a job. We were both nervous and depressed by the heavy rain. It was dinner time and we needed food, so we just crossed the piazza from the station and headed to the first bar. I have never returned to that bar for some reason, but it did surprise me. The food was good, fresh, something you don’t expect from the anonymous place right in front of the station. Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and fresh sardine. Fresh and good as they can be, and this can happen only at sea. We caught the bus to the hostel, the last one. It had stopped raining, and we walked in the scented air, a scent of rain and sea. And then we sat on the main room at the hostel , and it was full of young people like us, and we started chatting. Somehow the topic turned to food and I launched into one of my monologues that would eventually evolve into this blog – on gubana, a typical pastry filled with dried fruit and made with a brioche like dough (at least the version I was more familiar with from Friuli, but things change wildly here in a few kilometers) and how you should eat it with some slivovitz (prune spirit) to keep it moist. I noticed the guy with the funny glasses looking at me, his eyes gleaming with interest. I did not know it, but I had already conquered an ally for my culinary obsessions.
The job interview went well, I was to start in two weeks. I would be coming back in a few days, and I still remember the sunny afternoon when the results came out. The sun was golden and pouring all over. It was warm. I took the train back to Milan, and I was happy with myself for the first time. Was I sure I wanted to go there? Away from my family, friends and boyfriend? I had no doubts, actually, but if I ever did, Trieste was very quick to dissipate them completely.
When I came back after two weeks, looking for a place where to stay and a fresh start in my life, my new found friend with the funny glasses was there to wait for me with his little white panda. We loaded the suitcase, went to pick up another girl and we headed out of town. It was the first time I saw the Carso. We had lunch on a big, beautiful farm surrounded by vineyards where you could sit outside and bake in the sun the whole year. The food arrived – the glorious food that comes from the land. I don’t remember the details of that first meal, overlapped with hundreds of others, but all the dishes they make at that place, they sunk right through my stomach into some place deep. This side was quite likely among the spread. And then we took a walk in the beautiful wilderness of Carso, its bareness, the unmistakable feeling of a border place. They say the bush that grows there, out of the dry land, the red tinged sommaco, takes its red hue from the blood of the innumerable young soldiers that died there, during the last two World Wars. History is a heavy burden here: you can breathe it in the air, and you are not allowed to forget, ever. Trieste is not a place looking forward: a fact that makes it repulsive for some people and irresistible to others, like me. When my friend drove me back to town, and this time he took the scenic route, la Strada del Friuli, the sun was going down, and I looked at Trieste from above, high above the hill, its lights gleaming against the approaching night, the sky still light and pink and blue, the sea lighter than the sky. I knew the place had already won my heart, and has not let it go so far. I remember thinking that, in that moment, from the very beginning. It does not happen often to be seduced by a place.
And when I miss the food, among the millions of delicious things I could be missing, it is this humble dish that I crave. That I go in the kitchen and prepare. It does not taste like it did there, the ingredients I get elsewhere are just too different: chards here are usually big, in Trieste it is grown barely bigger than lambs lettuce. Sometimes I am able to find smaller bunches at the Turkish shop. It is the ubiquitous side dish, served all along the Adriatic coast down to Dubrovnik. I actually think it has connections to the German Eintopf – runny sides or soups prepared with some green vegetables, from green beans to kale, and little potato cubes, stewed together. However, Trieste may well have a German heritage, but it surely has a Southern soul, and that is obvious not only from the chaotic traffic: here the seasoning is not smoked pork, but fruity olive oil and raw garlic. Olives grow in Trieste, although scarce, they make it because, unlike lemons and oranges, they just need a climate which is warm on average, and they will survive the wild, icy cold days when the bora blows and the world is a frozen picture.
This is so much of a family favourite I cannot even think of cooking without it. A humble contribution to Claire’s Vegan house Favorites.
Blede con patate – Chard and potatoes
Barely a recipe. Take a bunch of swiss chard, possibly small and with small stalks. Chop it. Peel a couple of potatoes, chop them in cubes. Put them together in a pot with a little water or stock. Let it simmer, covered, until the vegetables are very tender and slightly on the overcooked side (I usually like my vegetables al dente, but this dish is an exception). Take off a bit of liquid if there is too much of it. Dress with a generous amount of salt, black pepper, olive oil and chopped or sliced raw garlic.