Croatian Food and Wine Guide

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Croatian Food and Wine Guide

Does a Croatian Food and Wine Guide seem a bit of a random subject for this blog? Well, maybe it’s not so random. I’ll give you one guess why. Yep. I’m going to Croatia. I’ve been there before (in 2006) and I promised myself that I’d definitely, positively, absolutely go back.

But you know how those kinds of promises go. It’s a big world. It’s taken me quite some time to stay true to my word.

Ken and I (plus 4 other friends) have chartered a 27-meter sailboat to cruise around the Southern Dalmatian islands off the coast of Croatia. Which means we’ll be off-the-beaten-track discovering the villages, beaches, and everything else most tourists never get to see. It also means we’ll be eating in small family-owned tavernas (known as konoba) where traditional Croatian food and wine may be the only offering. So it’s best to know what to look for once I’m faced with those menus.

Sippity Sup Croatian Food and Wine

Croatian Food and Wine

Croatia has a rich diversity of culinary choices. It’s situated at the crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe and is influenced by both regions. In the north of Croatia, Istrian cuisine has graceful Northern Italian roots, but as you move inland you’ll find more robust menus, with Hungarian, Viennese and Turkish influences. Along the coast, where we’ll be, Croatia is known to have some of the finest seafood in the world.

Our itinerary follows a path through Southern Dalmatia from Dubrovnik up to Split so I will be concentrating here on the Croatian food and wine of this area.

Food…

Ken Eskenazi dining in Croatia for Sippity Sup
Sippity Sup (Greg Henry) eating oysters in Croatia

A lot has changed since I was last on the Dalmatian coast. As you may know, Game of Thrones has transformed the area into an incredibly popular destination. In the process, Dalmatia has garnered a well-deserved reputation for seafood. Adriatic specialties like squid, turbot, John Dory (called Saint Pierre in Croatia), zubatac (snapper) and škarpina (scorpionfish) are the fish to look for. However, Croatia also prides itself on the quality of its sardines and anchovies (I’ve read that Croatia has some of the best grilled sardines you will ever try).

However, shellfish lovers must pay a visit to the villages of Ston and Mali Ston on the Pelješac Peninsula which has been renowned for its oysters since Roman times. In fact, some of these oyster beds have been in constant harvest since then, resulting in a uniquely meaty oyster unlike any I’ve had.

The seafood dishes I’m looking forward to this trip include: squid ink risotto, steamed mussels (na buzara), and a bouillabaisse-style fish stew (brudet). The island of Hvar serves its own version of brudet called gregada. With a name like that, how can I not try it? Since we’re stopping on the island of Vis I hope we’ll enjoy the peaceful silence of this remote island while indulging in the traditional smoked fish soup. But first on my list is peka, an iconic dish of octopus cooked in a ceramic dish with a bell-like lid.

Aside from the seafood you’ll also find simply prepared vegetables. Swiss chard is especially popular I’ve read, and every restaurant seems to have some version of blitva – a homey side dish made from potatoes, Swiss chard, garlic, and local olive oil.

There’s plenty more to eat. Meals often start with a platter of paški sir (sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag) and thinly sliced pršut (cured ham). This platter might be accompanied by a strong spirit for sipping known as rakija. A term which covers all the local herb and/or fruit-derived liqueurs including plum brandy (šljivovica), pear brandy (vilijamovka), juniper-flavored spirit (pelinkovac), and a blueberry liqueur (borovnica). In the wine country where we’ll be sailing, we’ll probably be served travarica, the grape-based spirit infused with wild herbs.

The food list goes on. Soparnik – is a peasant’s pie made with Swiss chard and borek is a hand-pie that can be filled with almost anything. Dalmatia is also famous for a traditional beef stew called pašticada. The preparation sounds complicated but delicious. The meat is stuffed with garlic, cloves, carrot, and bacon, then roasted with onions, prunes, and handfuls of herbs and spices. It’s traditionally served with gnocchi.

The island of Brač, (one of our stops) is known throughout the country for lamb. It’s usually roasted and is often served whole to large groups at special events. While on Brač I also hope to try vitalac – a hard-to-find dish made of lamb offal wrapped in caul and roasted on a spit set over an open fire. However, I’m worried that my fellow sailors won’t let me back on the boat if I subject them to lamb guts!

Stonska torta at an outdoor cafe in Mali Ston

There’s dessert too. Rožata, inspired by the Spanish crema Catalana, is probably the most popular sweet on the Adriatic. Or if you’re looking for something elegant how about the Austrian-inspired paradižet – fluffy white clouds of meringue floating in a custardy sea? I particularly remember enjoying a rustic cake called Stonska torta at an outdoor cafe in Mali Ston in 2006. It’s an unusual combination of pasta, sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts bound together with beaten eggs then wrapped in pastry. Some say it’s too strange a combination of savory and sweet, but Ken and I ate every bite and marveled at its structure. GREG

… and Wine

As is often the case, Croatian wines perfectly complement Croatian cuisine. Seafood is abundant, fresh and irresistible, so you might suppose that Croatian wines are mostly of the white variety. Well, you’re right! I’d like to fill you in on four whites and a not-to-be-missed red that will surely be filling us up while we’re island hopping.

First a few words about the history of wine in Croatia. It’s a long one. Viticulture was well established when the Ancient Greeks settled Dalmatia over 2,500 years ago. Several of the original indigenous varietals are still widely produced and wildly popular. We’ll be visiting, Vis, Hvar and Korčula and sampling (maybe too mild a word) Vugava, Bogdanuša, and Grk respectively.

Vugava is similar in taste to Viognier, the delicious Rhône varietal. In fact, it might even be one of Viognier’s offspring from about 2,000 years back. This lush, savory white is best with savory dishes like fish in a cream sauce or chicken.

Bogdanuša, on the other hand, is green-yellow in color and more acidic. This refreshing 12% alcohol wine would (will) pair nicely with oysters, grilled fish or octopus. Interestingly, its name means “godsend” and it is served in Croatia’s religious festivals. Looking forward to this religious experience!

Grk, pronounced “grk”, is a somewhat bitter, high-acid, aromatic white wine. While melon and herbal flavors predominate, you might even get a pine note on the palate. Not sure what food goes with pine, but pršut (prosciutto) sure works with melon!

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Croatia’s most famous wines, Pošip, and Plavac Mali. Both varietals have been popularized by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, the Croatian-born winemaker that produced the wine that won the Judgement of Paris in 1976. Pošip can now be found throughout Dalmatia and the Pelješac peninsula. Crisp and dry, Pošip presents a balance of acid (citrus) and round mouthfeel (apple) with a hint of almond on the finish. Pairing? Just about anything. Plavac Mali is the most popular red wine in Croatia. Its rich, high alcohol, high tannin flavor profile delivers berries, cherries, spice, and chocolate shavings to complement your lamb dish when you need a break from seafood. KEN

Croatian wine tasting

As we have not left on the trip yet the Croatian Food and Wine photos are from our 2006 trip and the Croatian squid shot at the top comes via Shutterstock.