Virgin Australia Voyeur

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.

- 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.

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 ??  ?? 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).
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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