Iće i piće

NO 46, April 2016


Discreet delicacy

Jelena Ivanišević

Photos: Damir Fabijanić

Few Croatian savoury delicacies are as mysterious and decently retiring as Ninski šokol. We know almost nothing of its history – as distinct from the ancient royal city of Nin. Dictionaries and lexicons keep mum about it, and there is none of the usual etymological assistance to determine the origin and age of the dish or its ingredients. True enough, the old dictionaries seldom anyway waste their time with trivia of the kitchen, leaving us from the tables of yesteryear only crumbs. And so the tastes of past times can be recuperated only slowly, always understanding that every dish and recipe breathes through the days of the past, ineluctably changing with each new generation. Šokol belongs to oral history, the history of memory, stories and legends that ethnologists commonly untangle, hesitantly and uncertainly. And thus recording the unwritten, they pay heed to the life told by those who still remember well. The oldest, that still remember their grandparents, can sum up the experience and perception of the times that stretch back a couple of hundred years.

Šokol has always been made in the area of Nin; only, as the oldest say, by some luck, good or bad, it stayed outside the currents of commercial production. While pršut and kulen are having to prove themselves and fight with the re-industrialisation of production, with their labels of authenticity and geographical origins, šokol is living a comfortable private life. After all, pršut was usually sold to pay for school or doctor, while šokol was there for family and friends. No one made šokol for sale, and so it did not get much involved with tourism. If you don’t have relatives or good friends to send it to you, then you are not going to chance upon šokol in local restaurants either. While they press pršut upon you, they keep the šokol wisely for themselves. They snicker the while, and are completely right. Some things you make for yourself. Unlike the ubiquitous buđola, its closest relative, šokol is still made in the family. The recipe is secret, of course, and is handed down in whispers from generation to generation.

The secret recipe

Unlike most of our cured meats, šokol is lavishly seasoned. Šokols ripen while drying in the essential north wind, aromatic from the closeness of Velebit and the sea. Usually they would see the light of day again on the Feast of the Apparition of Our Lady of Zečevo, May 5. The feast of Our Lady, from the early 16th century, naturally overlaps with the ripening of this sensual and not at all humble cured meat. Its luxurious aroma of meat, precious spices, smoke and wind could easily be part of feastday boards at the time when the kitchens of the rich were lavishly scented with exotic spices. The expensive, choice foods mirrored the richness of the house in which they were made. Court and monastic kitchens kept the spice routes open, and the fact that Nin had a Benedictine monastery in the 10th century is not unimportant in the history of the cooking of the time. A recipe for šokol could not, for sure, have come into being in an impoverished setting, for it is actually built up on brilliant simplicity.

Salt and wind, which nature provides so lavishly in the area of Nin, have had added to them the refined note of wealth and power, although the true strength of Nin lay actually in salt. It is assumed that the Nin salt pans existed in antiquity, and certainly worked in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Nine commune and the Angevin and Venetian rulers. The saltworks were in operation until 1500, when the business was destroyed for the sake of the Venetian salt monopoly. Even a century and a half after the saltworks went out of business, the Venetians abandoned and destroyed Nin, burning it and bombarding it from six galleys. The city never recovered the fame and glory that once belonged to it. A whisper of the famous and delicious history of Nin is conveyed in stories and recipes, woven into celebrations and feasts, which are repeated self-intelligibly since time out of mind. Nin pilgrims to the islet of Zečevo, site of the appearance of the Madonna, had their lunch and breakfast of šokol. It was also eaten during major agricultural exploits, reaping or vintage. The cut string that binds tight the šokol is the thread that links the crammed boards and the tablecloths spread upon the ground. Linked royal and noble history with the often prosaic everyday life, past experience that using everything that nature offers has always created perfection. I hope that šokols are still going to hang in the sharp northerly, savoury and scented with the spices that today, luckily, do not have to be paid for in gold.

Šokol comes home

Although in some families it has never even left. So we were told by Slavko Dejanović, who transmitted the family knowledge of making šokol (and other kinds of cured meat) to his son Marin. The way of making šokol has been the same in Nin for centuries. Every family jealously guards its secret, but on the whole it all comes down to high quality pork and the ratio of spices.

I have been making šokol on my own for 43 years, and before that I made it with my late grandfather and my father. I do just what the oldsters did. I have a piece of paper with a recipe on it from 1925. I have changed nothing. I don’t add any spices to those in the traditional recipe. Some people add garlic (which oxidises and turns green) and fennel. The young like experimenting. Most important is the meat – the neck cut, which should have about 30% of fat for the šokol to be good. We reared pigs in sties (36 big large white and landrace crosses) up to the mid-nineties, when there came a ban and we weren’t allowed to rear pigs in Nin any more. We now buy meat from someone we known in the interior who feeds his pigs with swill and corn. A true šokol has to have a white vein running down the middle.

The secret of good preparation

Preparation starts in the beginning of December, if the winter is cold. Since the weather has changed, we now sometimes start in January, for there is no north wind. The neck that is taken off the pig (about 8 kg) should be placed in coarse Nin salt in one piece (the best salt for šokol), from which two šokols are later made, when it comes out of the salt. It can stay in coarse salt some seven days. Take as much salt as you need. When we buy pig halves (already cut), the meat of the neck shouldn’t be more than three days in the salt. Then you boil the water, and wash off the salt. Leave it to drain for 10 minutes. In the meantime you heat up red wine. The meat is put in the wine and stabbed with a fork to get the wine into the meat. The wine gives aroma and keeps the colour. Take it out and leave it to drain in the air for 5 minutes. Stud the cloves in deep. The following all go into real home-made Nin šokol: cloves, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Every household has its own ratios, and that’s the family secret. First pepper it, and then rub the mixture of the other spices into the flesh. Then shape it to put it into the pig’s caul or the beef or veal gut. You knead it well till the air comes out, roll it every three or four centimetres with jute string and wedges, and put it in the smoke, where it will stay for ten days. Whenever there is a good north east wind you take it outside and then put it back into the smoke, or just keep it by the open window. When the string it’s bound with starts to feel loose, its cured, after which it is kept in the cellar. Important for it to be dark and moist, that way the šokol stays juicy.

Nin šokolfests and šokols today

Slavko has inducted ten youngsters into the secrets of the craft. He is well pleased with them, and, logically, most of all with his son Marin, who can do everything by himself by now.

The Nin Šokolfest was started in 2003. The first year, there were no more than ten people taking part. The Nin Tourist Board encouraged those families who were traditionally into šokol making. None of them expected that the event would become so popular, and now almost every family in Nin makes šokols. It is a bit of a problem to get the raw material, but on the whole they get it from Slavonia or around Karlovac. The best šokols are given to friends or doctors. When you say Nin šokol, you’re thinking of all the places in the surrounds of Nin, for these places have made šokol since time out of mind. Thanks to marriages in the wider area of Zadar, šokol also got to the island of Pag (Vlašići), Privlaka, Žerava, Poljica, Ninski Stanovi, Vir, Vrsi, Petrčani... When the girls got married, they took the recipe with them as part of their dowry. But in Nin they say there is only one true šokol – Nin šokol. (D.Fabijanić)

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