Discovering Croatia, a Culinary Adventure

June 5, 2013 by

Europe, Food, Drink & Travel, Things to Do

Sandwiched between some of Europe’s most seductive culinary cultures, Croatia has fascinated epicurean travelers with surprisingly great food and wine since gaining independence in 1996. Some areas of Croatia were part of Italy until the end of WWII, and you’ll find gnocchi, pastas, and olive oil-based dishes on one hand and, on the other, paprika, yoghurt, spicy grilled meats, and other icons of the Near East. This melting pot of delicious foods has induced everyone from backpackers to Anthony Bourdain to enjoy fresh mussels and local wine on Croatia’s pebble beaches.

Olive Oil

As one chef told me, “food has passed through Zagreb for centuries, from the Middle East and Europe.” Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, and it is located inland near the eastern region of Slavonia. In these areas, Croatian food uses butter, a continental or Western cooking technique, whereas, on the coast and Croatia’s 1,200-plus islands, olive oil is used.

Croatia produces some of the best olive oil in the world. Don’t just take my word for it: Flos Olei, a leading guide to olive oil edited by Roman food critic, Marco Oreggia, ranked Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula the second best olive-oil-producing region in the world in 2013.

Olive oils from Istria tend to taste grassy with lots of herbal flavors, such as thyme and sage. This is because Istria is one of the northern-most areas to grow olive trees, and low temperatures keep the flavors inside of the olives in tact. You can taste olive oils at a number of producers simply by driving up to their doors. The best producers, such as Chiavalon, Olea B.B., and Giancarlo Zigante, press the olives the same day that they are harvested—that way the oil in the bottle is the almost the same as the oil in the olives.

Additionally, a lesser-known but equally fascinating oil, pumpkin seed oil, is rapidly gaining accolades for its distinct flavor and health benefits. It has been produced in the eastern parts of Croatian for hundreds of years.

Croatian Prosciutto

prsut

Prsut. Photo credit: MILACHICH via Flickr.

Known as prsut, Croatian prosciutto is similar to the prosciutto that you might taste in Parma, Italy, but it has its own unique flavors, too. The two primary types of prsut in Croatia are Istrian prsut and Dalmatian prsut. As the name suggestions, Dalmatian prsut comes from the Dalmatian coast—the southern half of the Croatian coast—where you find such cities as Dubrovnik, Split, and Zadar. In these areas, prsut is smoked.

To taste Istrian prsut, head to the Istrian peninsula. I visited the Istarski Gušti – Stancija Bursic prsut producer, where I found a rustic farm with an old carriage in front of it and hundreds of legs of prsut hanging inside of a state of the art facility. The windows were open to let in the famous bura wind; the bura is a strong wind that helps the prsut to cure evenly and develop flavors. The scent of the meat and spices was overwhelming.

The owner of the farm, Mr. Milan Bursic, explained that Istrian prosciutto is some of the only prosciutto in the world that is cured with the skin removed. To protect it from spoiling, the ham is covered with a thick layer of ground pepper, salt, and herbs.

Two more iconic cured meats of Croatia are budola, which is similar to bresola, and kulen, a type of smoked salami with paprika and garlic that can be found in Slavonia.

Wines

Croatia wine

Enjoying wine in Croatia. Photo credit: ristok via Flickr.

Croatia is a land overflowing with wine. The high prices surprised me on my first visit, but I soon discovered that the wines, especially teran and plavac mali wines, are up there with the best of the best. Further, the country offers a good selection of sub-10€ wines, too, for the budget traveler.

Croatia’s wine regions are everywhere, and the wineries on the Istrian peninsula are easy enough to visit on your own. Istria’s Wine Roads are peppered with signs with arrows pointing to tasting rooms. These tasting rooms usually serve a flight of tastes for between 5 and 10€, and fees are generally waived with purchase. Most of the producers are small and fiercely independent, and you won’t find most of these wines anywhere else. Istria’s most famous wines are the bold reds, refosk and teran, and the whites, muskat and malvasija. You’ll also find cabernet sauvignon, merlot, barbera, sauvignon blanc, trebbiano, hrvatica, and others.

Further south, Croatia provides the ideal combination of island hopping and wine tasting. Home to some of the most distinguished wines in the country, the Dalmatian coast offers such white wines as posip, marastina, debit, and grasevina. In particular, the Dingac region near Dubrovnik is well known for its plavac mali wines, which are made using the plavac mali grape—a very distant cousin of zinfandel. Unlike zins, most of these wines are designed to age, and they are very elegant. Milicic Winery’s “Stagnum” is possibly the most famous of the bunch, and it pairs excellently with oysters.

An interesting aside for wine enthusiasts, the Slavonia region is home to a portion of the Slavonian oak territory, where some of the most distinguished wine barrels in the world are made.

Take a wine tour in Croatia

Seafood

Croatia seafood

Grilled fish in Croatia. Photo credit: Paulo Ordoveza via Flickr.

Among the highlights of any culinary trip to Croatia is the seafood. The Adriatic Sea is home to squid, octopus, mackerel, sardines, tuna, sea bass, and gilthead bream, and the country’s shellfish is also top-notch, particularly in the bay of Sibenik, where salt water from the sea mingles with the fresh water from the Krka River. Perhaps the purest seafood experience involves grilled white fish, such as sea bass. Sitting in an open-air dining room, you can smell olive tree branches or pruned grapevines burning along with aromatic herbs in the grill; combined, they infuse the fish with local flavor. When the simple dish is served, try adding a drizzle of local extra-virgin olive oil. For me, this is one of the best bites in the Mediterranean.

Croatia’s other iconic seafood dishes include octopus salad, squid-ink risotto, brodet (fish soup), and seafood with buzara sauce, a sauce whose recipe changes from kitchen to kitchen but centers on garlic white wine, tomato, and breadcrumbs. The trick to the sauce must lie in the preparation, because it tastes much richer than its ingredients.

White Truffles

Croatia white truffles

Fresh white truffles in Croatia. Photo credit: Chung Ho Leung via Flickr.

Croatia is one of only three countries in the world known to have the highest form of the white truffle, tuber magnatum. White truffle is a mushroom and a member of the porcini family. It is exceptionally aromatic, and many consider it the most prized cooking ingredient on the planet. With elusive scents of mushrooms, garlic, honey, and something completely beyond description, white truffles can be expensive, but you can buy them at a great bargain when visiting Croatia between the months of October and January. Just note that the truffles cannot be stored for longer than ten days, and make sure to have your truffles analyzed by a professional before purchasing. English-speaking professionals are usually widely available wherever white truffles are sold.

There are many types of white truffle in the world, but tuber magnatum is by far the most celebrated among chefs. It grows, most famously, in Piedmont, Italy. I have sampled truffles from both regions, and I can confirm that Croatia’s are equally delicious. One of the best places to purchase white truffles is at the Zigante Truffle Festival, which is held near the town of Buje, Istria. The Zigante fair dominates the white truffle scene in Croatia, and the founder, Giancarlo Zigante, unearthed the most expensive truffle in history. To find your own truffles, book a truffle hunting tour, on which you can tromp through the Croatian countryside with trained dogs in search of a seriously delicious prize.

Spirits

Rakija

Bottles of rakija. Photo credit: BLDUMMY via Flickr.

The most famous spirit in Croatia is rakija, a grappa-like liquor and the national drink of almost every country on the Balkan Peninsula. I tried my first sip early in the morning with a chef in Zagreb. We were sitting at Zagreb’s famous vegetable market, and he told me that he begins each morning with a rakija, a newspaper, and a chat with a few friends. Afterward, he walks among the fresh fruits and vegetables and plans his menu.

Maraska Distillery’s Maraschino liqueur is another of Croatia’s most important spirits. Once enjoyed ubiquitously by European royalty, it is distilled from maraska cherries. The maraska cherry tree has a 600-year history in the coastal city of Zadar, and the city, which also touts Roman ruins, rose to prominence in great part due to Maraschino in the early 1800s. Sadly, during the Croatian War for Independence in the 1990s, all of Zadar’s cherry trees were destroyed and replaced with mines. After years of careful replanting, Maraska Distillery is just now returning to its former production rates, and the company’s non-alcoholic cherry juice is also worth a try.

Lastly, for those looking to put hair on their chests, check out travarica, an herb brandy popular on the Dalmatian coast. This bitter is a combination of a grape-based rakija and numerous herbs, such as chamomile, juniper, rosemary, and lavender.

Cheeses

Croatia cheese

Croatian cheeses and meats. Photo credit: Paulo Ordoveza via Flickr.

Among Croatia’s most celebrated cheeses are sir i vrhnje, a mix of cheese and cream from the northeast region of Hrvatsko Zagorje; krcki sir, a sheep’s milk cheese from the island of Krk; crni bodul, a sheep’s milk cheese aged in walnut leaves; and kozlar, a hard goats’ milk cheese; however, Croatia’s supreme cheese is paski sir, a sheep’s milk cheese from the island of Pag, just off the northern Dalmatian coast. Pag is a barren rock of an island, and it is home to 35,000 short and sturdy sheep. Vegetation is minimal on Pag, and the sheep eat a diet of salt-kissed grass that results in a very, very rich cheese. This is all thanks to the environment and those tough sheep, which average as little as ¾ of a liter of milk a day.

Paski sir is a hard cheese, and it is very high in fat, which makes it very creamy. It can taste quite good after six months, but, after two years, it develops tyrosine crystals that really make it beyond belief. The Sirana Gligora cheese factory has really excelled at producing paski sir, receiving three Super Gold awards and the Best New Cheese Trophy at the 2010 World Cheese Awards.

Salt

Piran salt

Piran salt. Photo credit: dearbarbie via Flickr.

Sure, sure… it’s just salt, right? The locals in Piran wouldn’t agree. Piran is technically in Slovenia, but it is just over the Croatian border on the Istrian Peninsula. The border has changed so often that many locals feel a close kinship with one another and describe the area as “The Republic of Istria.” That said, Piran’s salt is some of the best in the world, and it has the unique characteristic of tasting at first salty and then sweet. It is cultivated in the National Park of Piran Salt Pans, where a special type of bio-sediment called petola is praised for creating this unique flavor and other properties; for example, many say that the salt is rich in healthy minerals, and it fuels many wellness spas in the area.

The city of Piran grew up on salt and olive oil, and, just down the coast from Venice, Italy, it has a strong Italian heritage. In local tradition, the best way to test the quality of a salt is by eating it with local, often foraged, dandelion greens.

Famous Dishes

Cevapcici

Cevapcici. Photo credit: damir.me via Flickr.

With all of these great ingredients, Croatian chefs have invented or adapted countless recipes that exhibit their history and love of their land. Here are a few of my favorites:

Pasticada is a complex meat dish served over pasta, often gnocchi. The meat is extensively marinated and then cooked in a complex fruit and vegetable sauce that can include everything from peaches to figs. Pasticada is easily one of Croatia’s most delicious and distinct dishes.

Cevapcici are minced-meat sausages that are sometimes seasoned with cumin and commonly served as an appetizer. Make sure to try them with ajvar, a condiment made from roasted red peppers, eggplant, and olive oil.

The peka cooking method is highly unique and common on the Dalmatian coast. Typically, a mix of potatoes, vegetables, and meat is cooked under the peka, which is a bell-shaped lid.

Strukli, or strudel, is a great way to start the day.

Though this list is short on vegetable dishes, Croatians have a deep appreciation for high quality produce. Vegetable dishes tend to be very simple to show off their intrinsic flavors.

Portions of this trip were paid for by the Croatian Tourism Board.

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 - Mattie Bamman

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One Response to “Discovering Croatia, a Culinary Adventure”

  1. Hotels in Zagreb Says:

    Food in Croatia is delicious. From meat specialties to sea food and wines. When visiting, enjoy the offer :)

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