The Secret To Cooking And Eating In Croatia
It might be hard to imagine that gutting sardines, anchovies and mackerel makes for a great holiday experience but I need to put it in perspective. First put yourself in the UNESCO world heritage island town of Trogir in Dalmatia, in the little 13th C palazzo of celebrity home cook, Tatjana Ciciliani. You have just returned from the local market where Tatjana has been prodding the freshest fish imaginable and selecting the best of the days catch for your lunch. These fish are just out of the water, still curved and taunt with rigor, eyes all a sparkle, so are actually not unpleasant to touch. Tatjana’s enthusiasm for great food is infectious, so learning to fillet fish is all part of the fun of cooking with her. And you are about to cook up a feast that made inquisitive tourists that wandered into the courtyard wanting a spot at the communal table green with envy.
To start we had to deal with those little sardines and we soon got the knack of it; detaching the heads and pulling out the guts in one swift action and then removing the backbone by running thumb and forefinger along the spine.
Soon the sardines were crumbed with breadcrumbs and sesame seeds and fried to golden crunchiness. The delicate anchovies were prepared slightly differently, split and opened up with the thumb and the head and guts just pulled away, before being soused in a heated mix of garlic, capers, vinegar and olive oil, which saw them split in two, free of any bones. Capers feature in a lot of fish dishes in Croatia as they grow wild here at random locations in the limestone walls, largely evading human attempts to direct their establishment, although Tatjana swears by a dried fig as a substrate for seedlings. While two of us were dealing with fish another of our party was making some seasoned salts by grinding salt with mixed herbs, parsley, capers and garlic for example, in a mortar and pestle. A pinch or two of these ready mixes were great flavouring for several of the dishes. Tatjana said that the salt desiccates these mixes allowing them to keep for days or weeks.
Two dishes down and we were soon onto cooking mussels with zucchini spaghetti, braising veal chops with caramelised onions, and stuffing peppers with sausage mince and barley and poaching them in a sauce made with tomatoes and a smoked pork bone for added flavour. Oh and did I mention there was a bean soup, olives, cheese, prosciutto, mackerel and bream, and lashings of wine – rose, white and red. We also managed to just squeeze in some ripe fresh figs with lavender-scented mascarpone cream.
This cooking glass in Trogir was part of my tour of Croatia with boutique tour company, Secret Dalmatia. I expected a formal class with us lined up behind stainless steel benches with ingredients lists, bowls and knives etc. instead what we got was the fun, chatter, music and a little of the chaos of home cooking with family but with an unobtrusive kitchen fairy by the name of Ivana who whisked away dirty dishes and proffered clean ones at just the right moment. Secret Dalmatia was the best way we could have experienced Croatia and the secret bits were the added little gems such as the cooking class with the wonderful Tatjana, the peka dinner in an abandoned village with Ana guiding us in with the light of a mobile phone to the only furnished dwelling, or a seafood lunch under the trees at an oyster farm without another tourist in sight.
We also heard local stories, legends and historical narratives that were never boring. We could not have done these things on our own with such ease and comfort. Managing on our own, perhaps our memories would have included long queues at ferry terminals, shuffling into the old city of Dubrovnik with the cruise ship crowds and, worse still, indifferent meals; but Secret Dalmatia not only made everything run seamlessly but ensured we dined, and drank, extremely well. A cooking class certainly opens a window into the culture and welcomes you at its table.