A Culi­nary Jour­ney

Croa­tia’s cui­sine is as rich and di­verse as the coun­try’s re­mark­able his­tory. We travel from north to south, ex­plor­ing the dis­tinct flavours of its var­i­ous re­gions.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - JUNE - Words JANE FOS­TER

Ex­plore Croa­tia’s cui­sine, which is as di­verse as the coun­try’s re­mark­able his­tory.

COF­FEE DRINK­ING, a rit­ual right across the Balkans, was first brought to Croa­tia by Ot­toman Turks in the 17th cen­tury. Most lo­cals still pre­pare Turska kava (Turk­ish cof­fee) at home, but morn­ing cof­fee and a visit to the open-air mar­ket is the clas­sic way to start the day in Za­greb. Here, on the main square, Trg Bana Je­lačića, the old­est and best-known cof­fee shops oc­cupy the el­e­gant Vi­en­nese Se­ces­sion­ist build­ings, bear­ing wit­ness to the pe­riod when in­land Croa­tia was un­der Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian rule and cafe cul­ture flour­ished. One of the cafes to have re­tained its old-school at­mos­phere is Mala Ka­vana — take a seat at an out­door ta­ble on the ter­race, shaded by white awnings, and watch the city awaken over a Turk­ish cof­fee.

Im­me­di­ately be­hind the square, steps lead up to the ope­nair Do­lac Mar­ket, where the wooden stalls are laden with fresh sea­sonal pro­duce — in June, you’ll find cher­ries, peaches, toma­toes, cap­sicums and zuc­chi­nis, mostly hail­ing from the fer­tile Neretva Val­ley in Dal­ma­tia. Be­low the mar­ket­place, work­ing in cov­ered halls, butch­ers sell pork from Samo­bor, spicy sausages from Slavo­nia and lamb di­rect from the is­land of Pag, while farm­ers from the Za­greb hin­ter­land of­fer eggs and home­made smoked cheeses. In a sep­a­rate hall, on mounds of crushed ice, fish­mon­gers dis­play Adri­atic seafood, de­liv­ered each morn­ing from Is­tria and Dal­ma­tia. The coast, beloved by tourists for its peb­ble beaches and his­toric har­bour towns, has a his­tory quite dif­fer­ent from in­land Croa­tia, hav­ing been part of the Vene­tian Em­pire un­til 1797. The Vene­tians left their mark not only on the lo­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, but also on the cui­sine.

A three-hour drive head­ing west from Za­greb brings you to the Is­trian penin­sula with its lovely sea­side re­sorts and lush ru­ral in­te­rior, where un­du­lat­ing hills bear vine­yards, and olive groves are over­looked by me­dieval-walled hill-towns. Here, in the oak forests of the Mirna Val­ley, grows Croa­tia’s most highly prized del­i­cacy: tartufi (truf­fles). They fea­tured in The Guin­ness Book of Records — in 1999, Gian­carlo Zi­gante and his dog Diana un­earthed the world’s big­gest truf­fle, weigh­ing 1.31 kilo­grams (sur­passed by a 1.78 kilo­gram Ital­ian truf­fle in 2014). The per­fect place to taste these pun­gent fungi is Gian­carlo’s restau­rant, Zi­gante, in the sleepy ham­let of Li­vade, which uses truf­fles in ev­ery dish. “Truf­fles are very rare and spe­cific mush­rooms,” ex­plains Zi­gante’s chef, Damir Mo­drušan. “They com­bine best with dishes based on pasta, pota­toes or eggs.” Or­der the tagli­atelle with truf­fles, ac­com­pa­nied by a glass of lo­cal Teran wine, or try the de­gus­ta­tion menu. Zi­gante can also ar­range truf­fle-hunt­ing trips (black truf­fles all year; white truf­fles mid-Septem­ber through Jan­uary).

Nearby, in pretty Rov­inj, along the west coast of Is­tria, pas­tel-coloured Vene­tian-era fa­cades hug a shel­tered fish­ing har­bour. It abounds with eater­ies serv­ing seafood-based Ital­ianate dishes, with plenty of pasta and risotto. A favourite with both lo­cals and visi­tors is Pun­tulina, where ta­bles are set on a se­ries of stone ter­races built into the rocks above the bay. Try the house spe­cial­ity, pljukanci (hand-rolled Is­trian pasta) with prawns, fol­lowed by the Pun­tulina fish fil­let (grilled sea bass on a bed of rocket, cherry toma­toes and toasted hazel­nuts). The Ital­ian in­flu­ence shows in both the prepa­ra­tion and the creative pre­sen­ta­tion — Is­trian cui­sine is more re­fined than Dal­ma­tian cook­ing.

Pro­ceed­ing south to Dal­ma­tia you’ll find a land­scape that’s more dra­matic, wild and moun­tain­ous, where lo­cals have lived for cen­turies from fish­ing and cul­ti­vat­ing olives and grapes. The sea here is abun­dant — look around the peškar­ija (fish mar­ket) in the port city of Split to wit­ness the ex­tra­or­di­nary va­ri­ety of seafood on of­fer. Come early, as the best fish are bought quickly by restau­rant own­ers. Croa­t­ians di­vide fish into ‘white’ and ‘blue’, the for­mer be­ing del­i­cate and more ex­pen­sive, such as sea bass, sea bream, monk­fish and John Dory, while the lat­ter in­clude palamida (bonito), mack­erel and sar­dines, which are nor­mally bought by lo­cals and then bar­be­cued at home. If you eat at a

restau­rant, the waiter will show you a plat­ter of the day’s fresh catch. You choose the fish you want, which is sim­ply grilled, driz­zled with olive oil and served with a wedge of lemon. The tra­di­tional Dal­ma­tian side dish with fish is de­li­cious blitva sa krum­pirom (Swiss chard and potato, with gar­lic and olive oil).

A short ferry ride from Split, on the is­land of Hvar, is Croa­tia’s trendi­est is­land des­ti­na­tion, Hvar Town. Built around a shel­tered har­bour, with a pi­azza over­looked by a Baroque cathe­dral and a hill­top cas­tle, it at­tracts fa­mous faces such as Bey­oncé and Jay-Z, most of whom ar­rive by way of yacht. Be­yond the town, rugged slopes planted with vine­yards and laven­der fields tum­ble down to the turquoise sea.

One of Hvar Town’s best res­tau­rants is Ma­condo, with ta­bles in a nar­row stone al­ley be­tween the main square and the cas­tle. Run by the Bar­išić fam­ily since 1989, it spe­cialises in lo­cal seafood dishes. Start with the oc­to­pus salad (ten­der chunks of oc­to­pus in olive oil, lemon and pars­ley) fol­lowed by gre­gada (fish and pota­toes) or brodetto (fish stew). “Var­i­ous types of fresh fish are used [for brodetto], de­pend­ing on what lo­cal fish­er­men catch that day — nor­mally red scor­pi­onfish, monk­fish or den­tex. Or, in spe­cial cases, lob­ster,” ex­plains owner Nikša Bar­išić. “Fry onion in olive oil in a heavy-bot­tomed pan. Add tomato, white wine and vine­gar, cook for a while, then add the fish, pep­per and pars­ley.” The dish is pop­u­lar along the en­tire Croa­t­ian coast. In con­trast, gre­gada is unique to Hvar, though it’s also made from freshly caught fish and cooked in a heavy­bot­tomed pan. “Be­gin with a layer of onions, cut into half-moon slices, fol­lowed by a layer of pota­toes cut into thin slices; then the pieces of fish, cleaned and boned,” says Bar­išić. “Pour over fish stock and olive oil, sea­son and add fresh pars­ley.” It’s then sim­mered gen­tly, un­til the fish and pota­toes are soft. If you eat it here, be sure to ac­com­pany it with a bot­tle of Zla­tan Plavac red wine, from Hvar’s sun-drenched south coast.

Our jour­ney has al­most com­pleted as we reach the splendid for­ti­fied city of Dubrovnik, in south Dal­ma­tia. In re­cent years it’s be­come ex­tremely over­crowded dur­ing the day, when the big cruise ships are in port, so a de­tour over to nearby ru­ral Kon­avle, just a 40-minute drive away, is rec­om­mended at lunchtime. Set amid lush wood­land next to the River Ljuta, where small cas­cades drive an old-fash­ioned mill, you’ll find the charm­ing Kon­avoski Dvori. Renowned for de­li­cious lamb cooked un­der a peka (a cast-iron domed lid), this slow-cook­ing method is cen­turies-old — the lamb is placed in a roast­ing tin, along­side sea­sonal veg­eta­bles, olive oil and wine, put on a hearth, cov­ered with a peka, and buried be­neath glow­ing em­bers. The re­sult is sub­limely ten­der and full of flavour.

At dusk, Dubrovnik’s Old Town is mag­i­cal. Its stone-paved al­leys are lined with can­dlelit din­ing ta­bles, and ev­ery­one seems in­cred­i­bly glam­orous.

As Croa­tia’s top des­ti­na­tion, with 1.1 mil­lion visi­tors in 2017, it’s no sur­prise that this is where new trends in din­ing are be­ing born. Of spe­cial note is Azur, where the Pero­je­vić broth­ers, Darko and Ve­dran, serve ex­quis­ite Croa­t­ian-Asian fu­sion cui­sine. “We opened the first Azur restau­rant in Zhuhai, China,” says Darko. “When we de­cided to re­turn to our home­town, we wanted to bring back some­thing we love.” As they couldn’t find the in­gre­di­ents for proper Thai or In­done­sian dishes, they in­stead de­cided to im­pro­vise, us­ing fresh Dal­ma­tian pro­duce com­bined with Asian tech­niques and spices. “That’s how we got ‘CroAsian’,” he says.

Their monk­fish in black curry sauce with zuc­chini rice is sim­ply divine, as is their spicy tuna don­buri. Ve­dran de­vises the recipes for the restau­rant. “The in­spi­ra­tion comes from hav­ing great pro­duce and just us­ing my imag­i­na­tion,” he says. “I like to take a new in­gre­di­ent or spice and cre­ate some­thing amaz­ing — that is real cook­ing, a form of art where you trans­fer all your in­ner feel­ings, from rage to love to pas­sion, into a new dish.”

And so Croa­t­ian cui­sine, with its fresh lo­cal sea­sonal pro­duce, con­tin­ues de­vel­op­ing, us­ing in­spi­ra­tion from afar to reach be­yond its bor­ders.

GET­TING THERE VIR­GIN AUS­TRALIA OF­FERS FLIGHTS TO CROA­TIA WITH ITS CODE­SHARE PART­NER AIR SERBIA. TO BOOK, VISIT WWW. VIR­GIN­AUS­TRALIA.COM OR CALL 13 67 89 (IN AUS­TRALIA).

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