Delicious, Flaky Pastries Not Quite Like Grandma Used to Make
Burek in Dubrovnik
When we were children, my grandmother, Mariette Setton, would take the Voyageur bus from Montreal to stay with us. These trips happened about once a month, and I loved them.
Grandma would take us all to the fast food joint of our choice, stuff us with grease, and then spend the weekend telling us how wonderful we were compared to our father when he was our age, back in Egypt, the old country they had fled in the 50s as very unwelcome Jews.
When not stroking our egos, grandma would spend most of the weekend making “cheese bits” and “spinach bits.” There was a routine to this.
First, she complained that she had to work all weekend like the Hebrews of old.
Second, she complained about the quality of the filo, the paper-thin pastry used to wrap the cheese and spinach with. Is this really the best filo they had? To which my father replied, would you really like to drive to the Arab market across town and try them all out for yourself?
Third, she would complain about their taste once they were finished and baked, for which she only blamed herself. They were wonderful, of course: a taste of the old country my grandmother would not talk about. I also appreciated it when she told my Dad that 13 was perfectly old enough for me to drink beer with them.
It turns out cheese and spinach bits are called burek. You can also get them with meat. It also turns out they’re a Balkan specialty, not just from Egypt. The Croatians shape them like Danishes, whereas my grandmother used to fold them over each other into squares or triangles. But the food is the same.
They’re also hella good for breakfast. At our home they were appetizers, but my God, what did we miss by not eating them in the morning. The most miserable 15-year-old could be persuaded to eat breakfast before school if it was salted cheese or spinach with lemon, wrapped in pastry.
Of course, when you get them at the bakery down the road (and outside the Old City) and eat them on a park bench, you save on the extortionate prices they charge for restaurant breakfasts, which aren’t as tasty anyway.
And the flakes make for great bird feed. My wife, Jo, has taken to imitating Snow White, and crumbling flakes into her hand so sparrows will land on her and pick them off. That the flying beasts are filthy with disease is apparently not an issue.
Mariette Setton died in 2007, at the age of 95. It wasn’t the kind of death where you cry, “Why God why?” to the skies. But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss grandma anyway. So, if I take nothing else away from Croatia, at least I’ll take away morning memories of my grandmother, who has never been here.