Croatia isn't widely known for its food, but thanks to its Mediterranean climate, spectacular seafood and unique mix of Eastern European and Italian influences, it really should be, as Jill Worrall explains.
Someone had opened the oven door in Dubrovnik. It was 38˚C in the city and the summer thunderstorm that had performed a sound and light show – boiling clouds, forked lightning, thunder that made the windows vibrate and a deluge of water – had cleared away overnight.
The Adriatic was glasslike, blinding in the sun; the water temperature was approaching 30˚C.
“It’s no good for swimming,” said Zlatko, my Croatian friend. His mate Milan agreed. “Like swimming in bathwater.”
I stared at them incredulously. Sea water too warm to swim in was not a concept I had needed to grapple with at home in Timaru!
We were driving north from Dubrovnik along the Adriatic coast. Villas with terracotta-tiled roofs clung to steep hillsides, palm trees fringed bays of clear water, and out to sea the islands of Lopud and Sipan shimmered in the heat.
We turned inland towards the mouth of Bistrina bay. Zlatko parked beside an unprepossessing block shed, took a chilly bin and bags from the boot and led the way through the scrub to the water’s edge. Moored to the shore was a raft furnished with simple picnic benches and – thankfully – a roof for shade.
He opened a bottle of Grk, white wine from the Croatian island of Korcula, and laid out halved tomatoes from his garden, sliced bread still warm from the bakery and slices of local blue cheese. Entrées, he said. “What’s the main course?” I asked. Wait and see, was the reply.
While the water slapped languidly against the raft we drank the wine and made inroads on fat local olives. Croatians, especially during the heat of summer, often dilute their white wine with still or sparking water. I cringed at the idea at first, but was soon converted: long lunches in the heat lend themselves to a lighter drink.
And then the oysters arrived. Three dozens, straight from the sea beside us. “The best oysters in the world,” said Zlatko. “They've been farming oysters here for two thousand years – the Roman emperors loved them.” He squeezed homegrown lemons over the platter.
Oyster after oyster, salty and tangy, slipped down. Another bottle of wine was opened. We finished the olives. More oysters arrived – ostrea edulis, European flat oysters. “Shall I compare thee to a Bluff oyster?” I wondered, slightly befuddled by heat, wine and a surfeit of oysters. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Eating the oysters of the emperors while bobbing in the Adriatic cannot be compared with anything else.
We did swim later. I loved it; the men complained. Harmony was restored later as we ate bowls of black risotto, the rather off-putting colour coming from cuttlefish or squid ink, the flavour full of the sea.
Another day, another winding road, this time inland from Dubrovnik. Up into the limestone mountains through the olive groves. We were having dinner on a family farm, and started with the family’s own prosciutto.
“Everyone thinks of the best prosciutto coming from Italy but we believe ours is even better,” said Zlatko. It was hard to argue, especially when it was served with soft cheese made in the dairy just beside the dining room.
This was followed by another Croatian specialty: lamb cooked under the bell, or peka. The lamb is placed, often along with potatoes and other vegetables, in a large shallow dish and seasoned with local rosemary, which grows everywhere in the hills. The dish is anointed with a little olive oil, covered with a domed clay or metal “bell”, and placed on hot coals; more glowing embers are shovelled over the lid. The meat is left to cook slowly in its own juices for about two hours.
There was only one wine to drink with the lamb: Plavac, red wine from the Pekljesac peninsula which juts into the Adriatic at Ston, near Bistrina. The most famous of its wines is Dingac, an almost-purple wine that's big-hearted and full of character, the way I think of my Croatian friends.
While the Dalmatian coast, especially Dubrovnik and Split, tend to steal the show for visitors, the Istrian peninsula in the north on the Slovenian border is less well known, but a great place to visit, especially for foodies. Work up an appetite touring the well-preserved Roman amphitheatre at Pula or wandering the charming fishing port of Rovinj, then search out one of the local dishes.
The best places to eat here are family estates known as stancias. In a cool stone-walled room deep within a centuries-old farmhouse, Zlatko and I were welcomed with a glass of the family’s own fruit brandy, made from walnuts and known as orahovac. It’s strong, nutty and a perfect aperitif poured over ice.
Taste buds suitably prepared, we were served bowls of one of Istria’s most famous delicacies: shaved black truffles, scattered over the Istrian pasta known as fuzi. I vowed to be disciplined and not eat the enormous serving, but after a few mouthfuls of earthy, pungent truffle, that resolve slipped away.
“The best in the world,” said Zlatko, inevitably.