I have to hold my hands up to being surprised by the food in Croatia. Thanks to an inspirational presentation by Joe Wadsack at the World Travel Market in London I knew exactly what to expect from the wine scene but the food was an enigma.
I mean what exactly is Croatian cuisine?
When I asked for recommendations on facebook about about where to eat, the first reply suggested a pizza restaurant.
A pizza restaurant!
Give me a break, I thought. I like pizzas, no I love pizzas but when I head to pastures new I want to try the local nosh. Pizzas are what people with unadventurous palates eat when they go anywhere.
As it turns out I had to eat my thoughts… as well as the occasional pizza. Pizzas are the local nosh in Dalmatia and they make pretty damn good ones at that.
The thing about the gastronomy in Croatia is that it has multiple personalities. This is drawn from the fact that Croatia lies where southern and central Europe meet. So whilst you get full-on hearty fare (stews, roasted meats, chunky sausages, cheeses etc.) from northern parts you also get a huge serving of lighter Mediterranean influences (fish and seafood, pastas and salads) from southern ones.
These contrasting influences became apparent the first time we opened a menu and were faced with a motley crew of dishes including fish and shellfish, pastas and pizzas, roasted cuts of meat, frogs legs and snails.
It was, in many ways, a typical Croatian menu.
We spent most of our time in the Dalmatia area with brief periods in Kvarner and Karlovac. It would be fair to say Mediterranean influenced food dominated, which suited us right down to the ground.
As fans of fish and seafood we were in marine cuisine heaven. Our first introduction to a Croatian risotto saw us faced with a plate populated by mussels, shellfish and oversized langoustines (scampi on Croatian menus). We sipped and slurped a few bowls of fish soup that were all different but were also all light and delicately flavoured with the essence of the sea.
The first taste of Croatian pasta, a four cheese gnocchi in Zadar, was as good a pasta dish as I’ve tasted, savoury and lying snugly on the right side of rich, until it was ousted by a ‘bloody hell that’s fab’ goats’ cheese spaghetti in Mljet.
Similarly, an everyday margherita pizza on Krk made me realise too many pizzas I’ve munched have been substandard.
Slabs of meat wouldn’t normally be my first choice from a menu but a rich and beefy pasticada (beef marinated in lemon and herbs before being cooked in a sauce) at the Hotel Podstine on Hvar reminded that when done well they pack a flavour-filled punch. This one came with a polenta mash that was so good it had me seriously thinking of dumping the tatties in future and beginning an affair with polenta instead.
As a Scot, I like anything enclosed in pastry so sampling the Croatian version of sausage rolls and eating breakfasts of curd cheese or apple strudels was no hardship.
Talking about snacking, in my ‘stupid but saveable’ period (i.e. the first couple of days in Croatia) I kept trying to find out what a particularly enticing ‘eat me now’ snack was. It looked like stuffed pitta but was bigger and filled with all sorts of ingredients from rows of sausages to ham and cheese. Every question was met with blank stares until the kunar dropped that they were simply Croatia’s version of sandwiches.
I had basically kept asking what a sandwich was called. Err.. a sandwich.
Often I find that some countries are lacking in the veg accompaniment department. Not Croatia.
Blitva is an eye-widening combination of Swiss chard, potatoes, garlic and olive oil that has you exclaiming ‘right, we’re definitely trying that at home’ after the first bite. I’ve checked out recipes online and it’s easy peasy but I reckon they’re all missing a vital ingredient that I’m pretty sure was in the first, and best, blitva we tried in Zadar’s oldest konoba. There will be experimentation to see if I’m right.
On an idyllic afternoon we were introduced to artichokes and broad beans; a spring speciality. It’s not the most sophisticated looking of dishes but for the first time it made me think that artichokes were actually worth the effort.
That idyllic afternoon exposed our taste-buds to some of the best food we ate in Croatia; home grown olives on slivers of smoked tuna and swordfish; egg, bean, caper and olive salad and the artichokes – all washed down with home produced wine and grappa. It was so good it deserves a blog all to itself, which is why I’m not saying too much about it at this point.
I could go on and on and on about the cuisine in Croatia. Hopefully you’ll have figured by now that we thought it was pretty top notch (apart from in Dubrovnik but that’s a story for another day and blog post).
The Croatians may humbly say their cuisine has its foundations in many other countries. But it is they who have built a culinary kingdom on those foundations.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+