Europe's love affair with doughnuts is everywhere. Italy has zeppole; the Netherlands has oliebollen and Germany has the little lemon-vanilla puffs, called schmalzkuchen. In France, it's the fried pate à choux known as a beignet.
The deep-fried love affair continues in Sydney's south, where I grew up. When I was a kid, mum made a poor man's version of the Croatian fritule. They were sweet, sultana-laden fritters inspired by the Venetian fritole, which she liked to call bombitsas, or "little bombs".
Few childhood dishes elicit as much joy as those golden mini doughnuts. Crispy on the outside, soft and springy on the inside. Every mouthful was a slightly boozy explosion of sultanas, citrus and rakija (Croatian brandy).
They were a hot favourite whenever friends or family dropped in. The minute the doorbell rang, mum would be in the kitchen whipping up a batch. In no time at all, the first of the fritters would be golden fried, smothered in vanillin sugar and ready to eat.
As kids, we'd hover in the kitchen like seagulls, ready to swoop. Then, we'd juggle a piping hot doughnut between our hands, sneaking nibbles until it was cool enough to eat.
Those bombitsa are a sweet thread down memory lane that was tied into afternoons of playing Barbies with cousins, make-believe boyfriend games with friends and backyard cricket in summer.
"Crispy on the outside, soft and springy on the inside, every mouthful was a slightly boozy explosion of sultanas, citrus and rakija."
It's no surprise the Venetian fritole made its way to the Balkans. That scoop of Mediterranean coastline between Venice and the Croatian port city of Rijeka, four hours away, has been both Venetian and Italian at different times. First owned by Illyria pirates, the coastline turned Venetian in 1267, Austrian in 1797, French in 1809, Austrian again in 1815, Italian in 1920, Yugoslav after World War II, and finally, Croatian, in 1991.
This Martha or Arthur existence created a melting pot of culture and cuisine that today owes more than a little to Italy. In fairytale towns like Pula and Istria that seem to tumble toward the sea, the dialect is peppered with Italian and German. Further along in Rijeka, the official language is Fiuman, a throwback to 1920 when it was the independent Venetian state of Fiume. Close your eyes, and you could easily be transported to an Italy of old.
Each village and town in Dubrovnik and Istria has its own fritule recipe, which claims to be the original and the best. This one is made with potatoes and it works really well. Serve fritule with dried figs and rakja (grape brandy) at the start of a celebration, as they are more of a welcoming dish than a dessert.
Like its Venetian counterpart, the Dalmatian fritule is a festival treat popular at Easter or Christmas. It's a simple batter of flour, sugar, salt, milk and yeast, to which raisins, citrus zest and booze are added. There are variations, of course. Some regions add potato to the batter. Others replace the raisins with apple or chocolate. But to my mind, the original rum, raisin and citrus combo is best.
Mum's bombitsa was a work in progress. With three kids under five and no car, she had become an expert at tweaking recipes to suit what was on hand. Water replaced the milk. Yeast was ditched altogether. Sometimes currants stood in for raisins. In summer, when the citrus trees were bowed with fruit, she'd add the zest of orange, lemons and mandarin.
Thanks to my grandfather's illicit still, there was rakija aplenty, a lethal 40 per cent proof gifted to us in jam jars. When that ran out, mum would switch to rum or brandy. Today she makes it with Slivovica, a plum brandy available at most major liquor stores.
It's said alcohol in the batter stops the doughnuts from getting oily. One thing is certain — it definitely gives it a delicious oomph. If you want to get fancy, pre-soak the raisins in rum for five minutes. Or do as my mum does, and free pour an extra slurp or two. You won't be disappointed.
Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @belindaluksic. Photographs by Belinda Luksic.