Christmas Eve on Hvar: Cod, Santa and Sun, Sun, Sun

Total Croatia News

A traditional cod celebration on Europe’s sunniest island of Hvar on December 24, 2016.

Christmas traditions vary the world over, and Dalmatia is no exception. Christmas Eve is traditionally a day of abstinence, and for years now local authorities have treated their residents to a free meal of ‘bakalar’ on the main squares of the region’s towns and villages. Bakalar is a dish comprising dried cod, soaked in water for 24 hours, then prepared with potatoes and garlic.

TCN was in Jelsa on the island of Hvar, where the trademark sunshine was out to welcome the event.  

With Santa making a guest appearance and offering free horse carriage rides along the waterfront, and Adventure Park Jelsa allowing the little ones to ride its buggies through the normally pedestrian main square, there was plenty to entertain the little ones, as the adults got on with the serious business of bakalar and coffee in the packed cafes of the ‘pjaca’.

With the Adriatic and its bountiful seafood within touching distance, it may seem strange that the traditional fish for Christmas is imported from Norway, but there is method in the seeming madness. 

Old chronicles report that cod was brought to the Mediterranean by Venetian nobleman and merchant Pietro Querini in the first half of 15th century. As described in The Northern Light Route, a project conducted on University of Tromsø, Norway, Querini set sail in early summer 1431 set from Cretan Iraklion to Bruges, in Flanders, with three ships loaded with wine and spices. Caught in a terrible storm, vessels with 68 men sank and the crew had to move to their lifeboats. Many drowned or died of starvation and fatigue while the boats drifted across the North Sea. The same source claims that just after the new year 1432 survivors stranded on an island near Røst, in Lofoten. They were found by local fishermen, and after three months of recovery sailed on small cargo boats loaded with stockfish to Trondheim. The result? Signor Querini became the first exporter of Nordic stockfish, especially cod dried on sun and wind, to southern Europe. 

Still, the connection between cod and Christmas was yet to be established. It happened in 1561, when The Council of Trent sharply condemned greed, vanity, blasphemy and any kind of body pleasures. Fasting was reevaluated as a mean to purity, loyalty and gratitude to God. On the other hand, rich Europeans just didn’t want to get rid of their culinary habits, enriched with food from newly discovered lands. Chefs of the time got a new assignment: how to cook by strict religious norms, and still enjoy. About six thousand scholars participating in Council tasted top dishes of “adjusted” cuisine, and the almost unanimous verdict discovered something Scandinavians already knew for centuries; cod is the perfect fasting meal. Hundreds of recipes were published in cookbooks of the time, and the biggest popularity was gained on the Mediterranean, an area so filled with fresh, tasty fish.

Today’s bakalar was well received by the local community, the perfect addition to another stunning day, and the perfect introduction to the Christmas festivities.  

And there was live music, traditional Dalmatian fare, which did not take long for locals to join in. 

And let’s not forget, Hvar is officially the sunniest island in Europe, with a reproted average of 2,718 hours of sunshine, with several of those counted today during another Dalmatian scorcher. As they say here, “Ko to more platit?” – a tough one to translate, but roughly ‘No money can pay for this’.?

Merry Christmas from European sunshine heaven! 


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