A Taste of Croatia
I’ve been touring Croatia and apart from Roman and medieval towns and the beautiful Adriatic, the food of Croatia was a big part of the adventure. Croatia, specifically the Dalmatian coast, plays host to an enormous number of tourists that spill out of large cruise ships on a daily basis throughout the warmer months. While tourism is essential to the local economies it does have an impact on local life and catering for these hordes inevitably changes and narrows the food choices at eateries. Despite all the bad pizza and indifferent pastas you can find really amazing food in Croatia if you start probing and give yourself time to wander away from the tourist strips. At its best, the food is market fresh and rustic, being simply prepared with local wine and herbs. Bread is always part of the meal and places in the countryside or smaller coastal hamlets will bake their own, sometimes with cornmeal or pumpkin seeds, which is a real treat.
My food journey started in the capital, Zagreb. Zagreb is meat-eater’s territory, so expect beef, veal, pork and lamb and dishes influenced by Austrian and Hungarian cooking. Zagreb is also home to the regional dish called štrukli. Štrukli is basically a savoury cottage cheese strudel which can be either poached and then tossed in breadcrumbs lightly toasted in butter, or poached, covered in cream and baked until golden brown. I have to agree with my driver who enthusiastically said, I really don’t know which way I like it better, boiled or baked, so when I can I order both. It’s simple, a bit like a very light lasagna in texture and is nice for lunch with a green salad. I’m a fan (and I don’t know which way I like it better either) but as with any dish you can encounter not so nice versions such as those smothered in grated cheese, so be prepared to try a few.
Croatia does fire cooking extremely well and by fire cooking I mean the use of wire grills over charcoal or wood ash, or casseroles slow cooked in the embers of a wood fire. Look for restaurants that have a large kitchen hearth for cooking and a fire from which hot coals can be drawn aside to grill or bake the food. Apart from beef and lamb carefully grilled over coals to smokey tenderness, including the ubiquitous ćevapčići (minced meat in sausage shape), slow cooked dishes such as peka and pašticada really stood out. A peka is the domed metal dish or ‘bell’ placed over a dish in which meats such as veal and lamb are cooked, piled over with the coals of a cooking fire. The meat cooks simply in its own juices for 2-3 hours with potatoes and a few vegetables and wine added towards the end. Such dishes need to be ordered in advance, so plan ahead by ringing and booking your peka.
Pašticada (pash – ti – tsada) is beef cooked in red wine; but the whole piece of beef is first marinated for 1 or 2 days in red wine, vinegar and bay leaves before being slow cooked with more red wine, tomato paste, dried prunes or figs and sweet spices. When meltingly soft the beef is served as a thick slice with the sauce and gnocchi or a hand-rolled pasta. Wild boar are occasionally hunted by farmers and end up in a pašticada which is sometimes shared by the whole village. I was lucky to eat this version at a winery on the Pelješac (Pel-ye-shuts) peninsula noted for plavac mali wine. A relative of zinfandel, plavac mali (Croation for “small blue”) is grown on the steep limestone slopes on the coast. There is a special appellation of Dingač where the grapes grown in a small area of exceptionally steep and stony slopes above the Adriatic are said to be ripened by the “3 suns”: the sun above, the heat and light reflected by the rocks, and the reflection from the sea. The results of this extraordinarily difficult terrain are called heroic wines for good reason. Plavac mali produces a tannic wine with high alcohol levels and fruity plum, fig and berry flavours and strong savoury notes. It’s a great food wine and a must with pašticada.
The Dalmatian coast and the adjacent islands are seafood territory and fish can’t get much fresher and tastier than what is plucked out of the Adriatic (and its numerous fish-farms) on a daily basis, simply grilled and dressed with extra virgin olive oil. The Croatians are masters of the grill, using just enough of the coals to get an even and gentle heat for getting whole fish nice and crispy on the outside and succulent within. The most common fish available in restaurants is sea bass and tuna but there are also mackerel, turbot, John Dory, bream, dentex, hake, mullet, flounder, sardines and anchovies just to name a few. Sharing a whole grilled fish is the way to go and waiters at good establishments (not necessarily expensive ones) will happily fillet the cooked fish at your table.
Oysters (a lovely local variety) and mussels are farmed near Ston where the gulf formed by the Pelješac peninsula concentrates the salt in the crystal clear waters, and are frequently on menus. If you are an oyster lover book a trip to the farm and enjoy oysters on site for their just opened freshness. Another highlight from the Adriatic are the cephalopods; cuttlefish, calamari and octopus. Black risotto (crni rižot) made with sepia (cuttlefish ink) is a specialty of the region as are octopus grilled or baked in a peka. Octopus salad is also on many menus but you can’t beat the smoky tenderness of a whole grilled one.
Seafood certainly dominates the Dalmatian table but the hinterland produces wonderful lamb and the region, particularly the Istrian peninsula, is famous for its version of prosciutto (pršut). While Italian prosciutto is sweet or mildly salty, soft in texture and delicately flavoured and the Spanish jamon is slightly drier and with a stronger nutty flavour, pršut is leaner with a still firmer texture and a salty, smokey flavour. Often paired with olives and a hard cheese it makes a great starter or wine bar nibble.
We are lucky to have a little outpost of Istria right here in Victoria. Istra Smallgoods have kept their Croatian pork curing tradition, making a wonderful prosciutto near Daylesford and over the decades have established a thriving wholesale business using local organic pork. If you can’t make it to Croatia then visit their little retail outlet in Musk and have a picnic with pršut, bread from Trentham’s Red Beard Bakery and some local wine.
Vegetables don’t really star in Croatian cooking but are served alongside fish and meat dishes. Vegetables of the Mediterranean kind are frequently grilled and doused in extra virgin olive oil and Swiss chard is cooked mixed with chucks of potatoes and minced garlic. Simple salads are always on the menu. So what was the highlight of my Croatian food journey? Eating local, market fresh, traditional food, simply cooked. I loved it.