In the hilly outskirts of Samobor, a ten-minute-drive away from the main square, at the very end of a creek called Rude, surrounded by heavily forested peaks in the north and lush meadows in the south, lies the home of the Nikl family, along with a pastry shop and a bakery. There, the Nikl family has been producing pastry since 1978. Truth be told, it was Nikl senior, who upon his return from Germany, having gained a vast knowledge from some of the best German Bäckermeisters, took up the bakery business, and at first baked only bread and buns, which were sold to local supermarkets and schools in the area.
However, soon the business took up, and the Nikls were baking many special pastries according to ancient recipes, following one simple principle: using as little yeast as possible with a mixture of sourdough made according to a family recipe. Today, the bakery is run by Andrejas Nikl (junior), and the Nikls are proud owners of two more stores located in the town of Samobor, as well as in several healthy food shops in Croatia´s capital – Zagreb.
The family have been producing the finest pastries in the area for over three decades now, and I am a bit nervous, since I have never heard of the family prior, though I´ve visited the area on many occasions. I´ve been told to pay special attention to a thing called Rudarska greblica (“Miner’s peel”), a simple, yet very tasty pastry, which is the highlight in the Nikls´ production line.
The salty cake has been mentioned only once in writing – in a book printed in 1915, by Milan Lang, an organist and writer, who spent his entire life in Samobor. There, it is described as a “thin doe filled with cheese and walnuts”. Rudarska greblica dates back to the sixteenth century, when the busy housewives of Rude had little time to prepare lunch for their miner husbands, who were slaving away at the local ore mine, Sv. Trojstvo (Saint Trinity).
Today, Rudarska greblica is made with many fillings: walnuts, hazelnuts, carrots, nettle, spinach, peppermint, chard or scallion. However, there are some fundamental rules to what a true greblica should look like, and how it is made. The dough cannot be too thick, nor too thin, and the filling must consist of cottage cheese and some other ingredients. It must be salty and the curbs must be pressed up, so that the filling doesn´t leak.
It is a sunny morning when I arrive at the Nikl home, after a half-hour bus drive from Zagreb, along with my photographer, Jordie. A tiny dog greets us in front of the pastry shop. I think it is a Yorkshire Terrier, but Jordie disagrees. We are welcomed by an employee, who was cutting a marble gugelhupf, as we were walking in, but we´re soon delegated to the owner´s mother, who excused her son, since he had a delivery to run in the capital.
The smiling lady immediately takes some marble cake and serves it along with orange juice, offering us a tour of the estate later on. For the next fifteen minutes we are sitting on a wooden bench in front of the store, gazing at the green peaks across the street, enjoying our marble gugelhupf and orange juice.
Fifteen minutes and a marble cake later, a delivery van stops in front of us. A young man jumps out, carrying a smartphone and some writing utensils with him. I think it´s a delivery boy, and in a way I was right. The well-groomed, smiling man reaches out with his right arm to welcome us, and I am stunned to learn that the guy is the owner – Andrejas Nikl. I still gaze at his tattooed forearm, and the tight black shirt and bleached jeans, thinking that the guy is a frontman to a rock band, but after he leaves us for a second, walking out the store with an apron, which he professionally tights around his waist, I know I am standing in front of a professional pastry chef.
My photographer is given free hand to take pictures of everything she likes. We walk into the production area, and there, at least five women wearing baker´s attire, are neck deep in dough. I am surprised. Mister Nikl, or Andrejas, since he is very informal, takes charge and pulls out two blobs of dough, and then the magic begins. In a matter of seconds the dough is spread in a thin, square shaped layer, pulled onto a sheet pan. Then he takes a bowl and fills it with the cooled cottage cheese mixture, and adds some grinded walnuts and salt to it, stirring it together with a spoon. He then covers one half of the doe with the mixture, and then overlaps the whole with the other half.
I ask him about the right dough mixture. Andrejas explains, that a good doe is made with flour, water, milk, eggs, sour cream, sunflower oil, salt, sugar and some yeast, while the filling mainly consists of cottage cheese, eggs, salt, sugar and sunflower oil. In a matter of seconds the square shaped cake disappears in the big oven, and half an hour later should be done. However, we are lucky to get a baked greblica, still hot, for tasting, and are shocked how delicious it is. I am told that the cake has been celebrated since 1985 every year during the “Days of Rudarska greblica”, and that since 2007 it is registered in Croatia´s Protected cultural heritage index (number 44).
After my second round of this tasty delight, I sense that the whole bakery is now running at full speed, and we don´t wish to keep our busy hosts from their running errands. Andrejas tells us about the old local water mill which is about a hundred meters away, which we are to visit before we jump the bus back to Samobor. My photographer, of course, can´t wait to snap a couple more pictures of the green surrounding. We shake hands one final time and are sent off with a plastic bag containing one whole greblica and a gugelhupf marble cake wrapped up in tin foil. If this is how they welcome reporters in the Samobor area – I don´t wish to ever leave!