The story of SOPARNIK a centuries-old Poljica dish from Dalmatia
The well-known principle of “less is more” by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is applicable to all aspects of life, including gastronomy. Personally, I am not prone to fancy complicated dishes, nor trends that are often insane. But there is another saying that says that tastes are not discussed, so be it. Dalmatian cuisine is very simple and proven to be very healthy. In case you didn’t know, along with Italian, Greek, Moroccan, Spanish, Portuguese and Cypriot cuisine it falls under the Mediterranean diet which is on the UNESCO list of protected intangible heritage.
The dish that I will present to you today is not on the UNESCO list, but it is on the list of the EU register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications.
Born in the northeast of Croatia, I grew up with Slavonian cuisine, which is different from Dalmatian. One of the first foods I had to get used to when I started living in Dalmatia was OLIVE OIL with which Dalmatians season almost everything. Everything else was more or less similar. Both use fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products, fish, meat and meat products. With the difference that one eats river fish and the other sea fish and other creatures from the sea.
Of all the delicacies I could ‘fall for’, such as healthy and delicious fish, I fell for one simple dish prepared in Poljica, a geographical-historical area located between Omis and Split.
I have to admit that I am more inclined to a vegetarian diet, so the reason for my enthusiasm for soparnik is all the more understandable.
In terms of ingredients, this dish could not be simpler because it contains only dough, chard, onion, garlic and olive oil. Due to the way it is prepared, soparnik has a specific taste, but also a centuries-old story.
In order to better understand and experience the story of the soparnik, one should first find out something about the area from which it originated.
POLJICA – THE CRADLE OF SOPARNIK
As I have already written, soparnik is a traditional dish from Poljica, a historical-geographical region located between Split and Omis.
This area used to belong to the Poljica principality, which covered about 250 km2. It was bounded by natural borders, the river Cetina in the east, from its mouth to upstream to Gardun near Trilj, then northwest over the mountain Mosor and down the river Žrnovnica all the way to its mouth and the Adriatic coast back to Omis and the river Cetina.
Poljica was once a principality, an administrative and the self-government area of the people that preserved its independence from the 13th until the beginning of the 19th century.
On the Internet, one can often come across the fact that soparnik is a dish from the time of the Turks (Ottomans), but I would say that this is not the case because Poljica existed long before their arrival in this area.
Poljica consisted of 12 katuns, ie villages. It was a land of hard workers who worked every piece of fertile soil, small fields, or fields scattered among the rocks of stingy and raw stone. The people of Poljica firstly grew cereals, then legumes, vegetables and cattle, most often sheep. And it is not surprising that in Poljica’s traditional cuisine the emphasis was on dishes made from flour, most often dough combined with foods such as cheese, eggs, onions, garlic, chard, lard, butter, dried figs, raisins…
Poljica is divided into Lower, Upper and Middle Poljica, so soparnik, depending on the part of Poljica where it is coming from also is called, zeljanik or uljenjak. In some Poljica villages, raisins are added to the soparnik, and in some places, it is sprinkled with walnuts. I tried soparnik with them, but my favourite option is prepared without them.
Poljica dishes are very simple, and what makes them special is the taste they can thank to the preparation on an open-hearth fireplace.
WHAT IS KOMIN?
Once upon a time, in Inland Dalmatia, people lived in potleushice, one-piece stone houses in which the main room was the kitchen. The central place of the kitchen was an open fireplace, that is, a komin, the heart of every house, a place where the family gathered, ate, socialized, and get warmed during winter time.
The komin was made away from the wall, raised from the ground and was made of clay or brick with a firing surface. A beam with a chain and a hook was placed above the komin, to which cooking pots would be attached.
HOW TO PREPARE SOPARNIK?
On several occasions so far, I have had the opportunity and honour to attend the preparation of soparnik. As a Slavonian woman, and Slavonian women are accustomed to preparing cakes and rolling dough, every time I am amazed at the skill of the soparnik masters in handling this large area of rolled dough, between 90 and 110 cm in diameter.
The whole preparation begins the day before making it when the chard is harvested, cleaned and cut into strips and left to dry until the next day. On the day of preparation, simple dough made of flour, salt and water is kneaded. After the dough ‘rests’, it is divided into two halves and rolled thinly, each on its own sinija.
It is necessary to prepare komin of a specific temperature. Local wood, made of vine, oak, beech or walnut, is used for the komin. After the dough is rolled out, the chard, previously seasoned with onion, salt and olive oil, is spread on one part of the dough. Then everything is carefully covered with the other piece of dough.
In order for the chard not to fall out, the edge needs to be crimped with fingers. Soparnik prepared in this way is applied to the open-hearth fireplace and carefully placed on a heated bottom, covered and baked directly under embers.
Baking needs to be controlled so that soparnik does not burn, and it is baked for about 15 minutes. When done, it has to be brushed off and coated with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped garlic.
It is cut only into diamond shapes and one piece is the size of about one palm. My favourite is the crimped edge ?
Over time, it has become custom to take out a few pieces from the middle and place a bukara, traditional wooden jug in Dalmatia for wine.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT SINIJA AND SPARA ARE?
In the description of the preparation of soparnik, I mentioned sinija. It is a large round board on which the dough is rolled with lazanjur. Sinija can also mean a low round table. Lazanjur is a special type of stick, which must be thin and long enough so that the dough can be rolled on it.
Spara is a pillow-shaped headrest with a hole in the middle. It is knitted from wool and filled with cloths. Spara was placed on the head to make it easier to carry soparnik on the sinija, but also other loads that women used to carry on their heads.
A RECIPE ?!
Instead of a recipe, I would rather offer the necessary ingredients because the internet is flooded with recipes for soparnik so I don’t get tempted to copy any of them at all, nor to choose the best ones. All the masters in the preparation of soparnik have their own ‘thing’ and their own recipe, which they believe is the best. And I don’t want to get involved. What I want is to motivate you to come to Poljica, to experience the preparation of soparnik in the traditional way and enjoy its original taste. Eventually, you may be able to ‘enjoy’ the recipe from the hostess ?
The basic ingredients are flour, water, salt, chard, onion, olive oil, garlic.
WHERE TO BUY SOPARNIK?
You can order it directly from ‘soparnik chef’. For a complete experience, you can also learn how to make it at a culinary workshop or a presentation of preparation.
Soparnik can also be bought from hard-working women from Poljica at fresh-food markets in Omiš and Split. I’ve seen a variety of products being sold as soparnik at bakeries and fast foods, but it’s not the original soparnik. Well, just so you know.
WHY SHOULD YOU EXPERIENCE THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF SOPARNIK?
You can download the recipe from the internet a hundred times and save it at home in the stove, but no matter how good you are at cooking, the oven soparnik will never be original soparnik, before some version of chard pie. And please don’t misunderstand me, I have nothing against pie, but in some things, I stubbornly insist on highlighting the details that make the difference.
In this text, I must also mention my dear friend Nikolina Radmilo Pivčević. Nikolina is my encyclopedia and tourist guide specialized in Poljica, and her mother Ivanka Radmilo is one of the ‘soparnik chefs’. Thanks to them, this dish will never be just a dish to me.
P.S. The credit for almost all the photos in this post goes to photographer Samir Kurtagić. You can see more of his photos here.