Dagmar, Croatia


Born: 1943, Ruma, Serbia
Mother Tongue: Croatian
Grandchildren: Giorgio, Pave, Toni, Matteo, Alma, Stella, Elia, Luče
What they call her: Baka

I’m now an old lady but I first made this dish in 1965. When I first came here, to the island of Palmizana, my husband thought he’d also found himself a cook. I really wasn’t well at all. From the very beginning, I had an awful time on the island. There was no electricity and no running water when I first arrived to live with him here. I always said the best language I could speak at the time was dog language, because the only people I had to talk to weren’t actually people, they were dogs.

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I’d lived in Zagreb, was the daughter of the county Mayor and a successful journalist but I’d fallen in love. On Palmizana then, we had no taxi boats to ferry us back and forth to Hvar or Split but I couldn’t live without him. I ran away from the island five times but I realised life without him wasn’t bearable.

He was a very attractive man my husband, when you saw him, your mouth would drop open and you’d catch yourself salivating. He was a very big fisherman. He would dive for 30 metres deep with no breathing equipment and was known, after the second world war, as a champion free diver. In 1954, there was a book written about sports fishermen, and they came here and featured my husband. He caught grouper.

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We started with a small generator for electricity and we built everything from scratch.  Even all the cacti that populates the island, my father and I introduced because he was a botanist and brought it all back from Latin America with him. We always had fresh food on the island, because it was all that was available to us. We had to fish for fresh fish because we had no way of preserving it or keeping things for days.

 So I started making Gregada because of all the fish he would bring back. Fresh fish needs as little cooking as possible. When I came here, my husband was the best cook and I learned from him, actually. We would cook it together with fishermen friends of his.

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 For Gregada, you must have all the ingredients fresh on the day. You can’t cook it with fish from an icebox. If you’re cooking this, ensure that your clams, your fish – everything is sourced on the day. There are not a lot of complex spices or herbs, the fresh fish and the shell of the prawns and the clams gives it a lovely taste of the sea. It’s a famous dish here for us on Palmizana. Amra, the artist staying here with me right now has even painted a beautiful painting of the Gregada for us.

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I’ve had my artists friends to stay from the very start of my time here. In the winter, we sometimes would have 3 or 4 months not seeing anyone and I would get so lonely, so I began to invite my friends to stay for a month or so at a time. The island would become a sanctuary to them and they would paint. That’s why the place is filled with art. I’ve become one of Croatia’s biggest collectors, because of it. I love the way that artists have come from all over and really painted a feeling of Palmizana, most of the time leaving their work behind here on the island.

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 These paintings are not only paintings. People are coming here, and they’re taking soul from this place. When we all die, these works of art will remain, and that is a very nice and comforting thought. I have a similar feeling with special recipes, like my Gregada. Every dish you cook and make is like a painting, you start with some raw ingredients but you can end with something truly beautiful and expressive. It stirs emotion.

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