This week begins and ends with sea bass, first in Montengro and then from Newlyn in Cornwall. The week continues just outside Kotor, staying with three friends in a modern rental house overlooking the fjord. As I begin, it seems impossible that we are already halfway through our week. The Blondes, as we refer to our little gang, has settled into a pattern of buying food locally from an eccentric supermarket a ten-minute water-side stroll away, cooking and eating at home. We expected to be out more but all the nearby cafes and bars are closed – there is a strong end of the season vibe – and we don’t have a car. The saving grace, as far as I’m concerned, is the ‘riba riba..’ man who arrives most days with boxes of fish. It is, we assume, caught by rod and net by him.
Spent a lazy morning chatting, reading and swimming then heading into the kitchen to see what can be conjured with ease into lunch. We were given eggs as part of our welcome pack and we bought some too, so we are egg-rich. I decide on frittata for lunch. We’ve been buying the most delicious very soft, salty, creamy cheese. They call it feta and the flavour is similar but the texture is voluptuous, more like set yoghurt or very creamy ricotta. I drop dollops of it into 8 beaten eggs with masses of chopped flat leaf parsley and mint and grated hard cheese. I’m happy to say that the kitchen is well stocked with decent quality, new equipment, including a large, non-stick sauté pan, perfect for making frittata. Lunch is on the table in minutes, the eggs taking a couple of minutes over direct heat and then about five under a pre-heated grill, until the eggs soufflé and just set, the top lightly burnished. The four wedges lift without breaking and are wolfed down with a mixed leaf salad tossed at the table with some of our tomato vinaigrette and toast smeared with ajvar (rough puree of roasted aubergine and red peppers) which we use at every opportunity (it’s great on crackers with beer or a glass of white wine).
‘Riba riba…’, our friendly fisherman called again and I persuaded the others that squid would be a good choice. I asked him to pick out smaller sacs and again he climbed down into the water and did a very good job of cleaning, showing us how to do it; pulling out the guts and spine, cutting off and removing the hard bit in the tentacles. All I had to do was rub off the swirly brown film over the white sacs. Later, getting ahead with supper was a pleasure, slicing the sacs into rings, halving the tentacles into two little fringes, peeling and dicing tomatoes, cooking frozen peas and softening diced onion and garlic in a little olive oil. All these get ahead jobs mean that the actual cooking took minutes, the colourful dish finished with masses of flat leaf parsley and a crumble of salt.
Today we are booked onto Mikki, one of a small fleet of entirely open little ferries with a fringed canopy lid that, surprisingly, can take 45 bums on seats. This, we’ve ascertained, is the boat for us. We like it’s distinctive maroon and cream colour scheme and will set off from the jetty at Kotor. The plan is to do a bit of sight seeing as we splutter up the fjord, waving as we pass our house, then take a brief look at Our Lady of Remedy Church perched on a tiny island that is actually a slope of St John Mountain opposite Perast, then jump off at Perast, wander for an hour of so, have a quick lunch, then back, leaving the Bay of Kotor behind us.
We arrived in Kotor ravenously hungry, our appetites shaken awake on the perilous Blu-line bus journey and probably whetted by the aroma of roasted peppers destined for our supper. The bus overran the stop we actually wanted but we were in plenty of time, so take time out to explore another supermarket. This one was smaller and better stocked than our local but still very eccentric. We bought two big bread rolls shaped in a coil topped with sesame-seeds, a packet of Gouda-like cheese slices, a packet of mi-cuit figs and another of chunky apple-stuffed shortbread biscuit sandwiches. We were almost the first on board, so nabbed the prize seats at the back and set to with our pic-nic. By the time we’d finished our little feast, the boat was full and off we went.
It was terrific to be on the water and were any of us to come back to Montenegro, Perast would definitely be top of the list for a visit. It’s a charming place with several attractive water-side hotels with bars and restaurants. We had a brief wander as the sun pounds down and took a pit-stop, enjoying a bottle of our favourite fresh and light white wine at the little quay-side bar of a hotel. A trail of very different folk traipse by, from a glamorous tranny to super-big, well-cushioned couples from one of the cruise ships and honeymooners (we decided). On our second wander, we pass Venetian-style palazzos at the water’s edge and cobbled back street houses with lovely gardens and tree-shaded cafes. It all adds up to a charming place. Suddenly it’s time to think about lunch and getting back to the boat. We all order Salade Calprese – delicious sliced tomatoes interspersed with odd, rubbery mozzarella and sprinkling of dried basil, self-dressed from an oily cruet of vinegar and olive oil with fresh bread and an airline-like bottle of white wine each. Fuel food but perfect in its way. We hop back onto a different Mikki with different passengers to wonder about.
Back at Kotor we fail to get a bus, so start walking, loading up with wine and water at yet another supermarket, flagging down a taxi to take us home. Two of us have a lovely late afternoon swim in the sea then I’m back on supper duty with a long Spanish-style GnT with orange zest and masses of ice to help things along. Tonight we are having pasta with aubergine and roasted red peppers. You will find the recipe in Recipes on my website.
As I write, I am listening to Arminka Helic on Desert Island Discs. She is talking about holding her breath when she goes home to Bosnia, reminded of her parents and the lead up to fleeing the war-torn country she was born in. Staying here, looking across the fjord to the mountains, and every day walking along the water’s edge and seeing evidence of war, I feel her pain. The conflict is still palpable.
Today two of us are about to dip into the water below the house, when our fisherman ‘riba, riba…’ and his beaten up estate car rumbled into view. We were busy watching the man we called (Inspector) Montalbano painting his boat but ran back to flag down riba, riba, to buy fish for supper. A drama unfolded as his car engine failed to fire and Montalbano and others were soon trying to bounce it into life, giving it a jump-start without jump leads. Eventually, we got our fish – four huge, plump bass and half a dozen enormous prawns – and our swim, picking figs for breakfast on our way back.
Today is our penultimate full day in this lovely land, so lunch is a fridge and store cupboard tidy. We still have lots of eggs and we have so loved our frittatas, so another is on the cards, this time with a can of Mexican Mix sweetcorn left behind by a previous guest, with big blobs of the soft, creamy, slightly sour so-called feta cheese we have become addicted to. This combo of textures and flavours turns out extremely well, so I might lay in a tin or two of that mix for store-cupboard meals like this one.
The only decent green veg at our quaint supermarket was chard and it meant digging deep, extracting from the bottom of the pile. I prepared it River Café-style; the big white stalks cut out of the leaf, then cut into chunks and boiled in salted water 2 minutes before the leaf, cut in chunky strips. For a treat we’d bought potatoes – our first this holiday – which were boiled, skinned, cut into chunks and fried slowly, turning every 4-5 minutes, until golden, crusty and shrunken. At the last minute, just before serving, I added finely chopped garlic and a handful of chopped mint. My, those potatoes were good (I’d make it now if I had some potatoes but will make it another time with soft-poached eggs and a rustic fresh tomato sauce). Everything was time-matched with our barbecue, fired up from kindling with a few cheating firelighters. The prawns turned pink in moments, sweet, juicy and wonderfully fresh, the perfect amuse gueule. The fish, oiled and stuffed with lemon and rosemary from one of many flourishing bushes behind our patio, took about 8 minutes a side until the skin was scorch-etched and ready for lift off. This was one of our best meals.
There was shopping to be done in Kotor, so we were up early and down the 100 steps ready to hail the bus in plenty of time before the food market closed. I went mad and bought several jars of nuts in honey but resisted the mi-cuit figs, flat pack dried porcini, vibrantly coloured vacuum-packed cheeses and various cured sausage and cured meats. We found a table in one of the many squares and ordered salads for lunch; three Greek-style with masses of black olives and a Caesar salad with chicken for me. Tonight is our last supper and we’d already been shopping at our local supermarket, hoping to find a chicken to roast. Instead, we all agreed that local eggs were notably delicious with dark yolks, so another frittata was planned with more chard and more soft feta. This frittata started with gently softened onion and garlic, the remains of our frozen peas and the last of our hard cheese finely grated into the eggs with the peas and chopped chard both blanched and blobs of soft feta. The piece de resistance was more of those fried potatoes. It was a gentle feast to finish our week of lazy suppers.
We are up very early, our bags packed, the last breakfast fruit salad finished then off we go in a taxi on a different route back to the airport. I’d been muttering about fish farms ever since I first saw those perfect little sea bass in ‘riba, riba’s..’ box, wondering about their catch so far down the fjord away from the sea. Guess what, we drove past a fish farm; I recognised it immediately, as seen in the sea in Greece.
We’re travelling by Easy Jet and starving by the time the plane trolley stopped at our seats. My choice, of a mezze box with a small phial of hummus, another of a sticky, thick red pepper goo with little chips to scoop it up and a few green olives in a separate bag, was surprisingly satisfying and much the best choice, with a little baklava for pud.
Lucky me, I arrive home by late morning so I have time to collect dog Red, who is very pleased to see me and wolfed down her special dog treat. The Barrister too had done good; he arrives home with a bottle of champagne with supper plans for trimmed Romney Marsh lamb cutlets and French tinned peas, with gooey, smelly cheeses to follow. How lucky I am.
We had planned to be going to St Leonards for the weekend, leaving at lunchtime, taking a pic-nic with bags packed with all necessary food and booze for Friday night and Saturday morning. So, I rushed around, shopped and packed/organised the fridge for food to take. By mid-morning, I’d made watercress and fennel soup and cooked a rose veal spezzatino, a favourite Italian stew flavoured with fresh fennel and rosemary. By now I was beginning to feel like a spinning top and quite exhausted after so much running around and knew that I wasn’t the only one imposing an unnecessarily tight schedule. So, a new plan was hatched to leave early on Saturday morning and have a lazy supper out tonight. And that’s what happened.
We are on the road in very good time and arrived in St Leonards surprisingly early. We dumped our bags at my friend’s flat and by 10.30, we are out in the beautiful bright day, the sun bouncing off the sea as we walk briskly along the front to Hastings to buy fish for supper. I love this walk, starting on the wide promenade above the pebbly beach just below the eccentric giant plaice sculpture on the roof of Goat Ledge, the colourful and very good fish café, or hut, as they prefer to call it, with adjoining ice cream parlour. It takes about 40 minutes to walk into Hastings to the tall dark clapperboard fish huts past the boating lake and clutch of mini funfairs and kiddies playgrounds. The other landmark, on the far side of the busy wide road, is the funicular railway that chases up the cliffs to the meadows above. The miniature railway chuffs past as we reconnoitre, checking out what’s on offer at the fishermen’s black huts lined up hunker-munker on the sea side of the road. We buy a beautiful sea bass which is gutted and cleaned, the scales scrubbed away, the work completed with a lot of banter. The price is a snip and we retrace our steps, whipped along by a stiff breeze and strong sun, shedding jerseys and jackets as the wind blows away the London cobwebs.
In the streets behind Warrior Square we find an old-fashioned fruit and veg shop, its window and shelves piled with gnarled, irregular, allotment-style local produce. We buy long leeks with dark green flags to have with our bass and a tight head of crisp lettuce, cucumber and few tomatoes to turn into salad for lunch with Scotch eggs I’d brought from London. Lunch kicks off with soup, a dark green bowlful, watercress sweetened by peas, thickened by potato and given an aniseedy tang with fennel leftover from the veal stew that awaits our return (supper on Sunday night).
After lunch the day turns very cold. I’d thought to bake the sea bass stuffed with rosemary filched from the garden next door but disaster struck when I couldn’t work out how to fire the oven. There was only one thing for it, to fillet the handsome fish and poach it over thick pennies of leek with white wine and a splash of olive oil. With a parsley garnish, the combination was superb and it’s one I’ll be returning to.