Croatia's challenge to the Big Mac
August 24 2004
By Kolumbina Bencevic
Kali, Croatia - Croatia's Adriatic coast may be hard to beat for natural beauty but tourists often complain it lacks a proper culinary identity, offering little other than expensive fish or cheap grilled meat.
The Srdela (Sardine) Snack project hopes to change this.
You have to like fish but for those who do, a group of local enthusiasts has put together menus for a simple, healthy meal plus a glass of home-made wine, for just two euros, hoping it will become a trademark of true Croatian food.
'Oily fish not only tastes good, it is very healthy'
If the way both locals and visitors have taken to the new menu is anything to go by, the idea to expand it into a franchise with hundreds of outlets could take off.
There is nothing fishy about the Snack, launched last month in a former pizzeria in a fishing village on the central Dalmatian island of Ugljan.
Everything served here - sardines, pilchards, anchovies, mackerel and tuna steak - is freshly caught locally and either grilled, broiled, fried or served in a light marinade. Red or white wine comes from vineyards on the nearby mainland.
"Clients are absolutely thrilled. Business has boomed fourfold in this past month," said Djenko Perin, keeper of the Trita which had languished as a pizzeria.
The picturesque village of Kali, with its long fishing tradition, seemed a logical choice to test the market.
The idea was the brain child of Ante Kolega, a Kali native who is an agriculture professor in the capital Zagreb. Confident of sardines' nutritive value, he asked his friend Perin in Kali to test the new menu.
As part of a state-backed project, Kolega aims to introduce the Srdela Snack as an authentic Mediterranean meal not only in seaside areas but in a chain N with up to 1,000 outlets, he says N throughout the country over the next five years.
Some have already dubbed the Srdela Snack a Croatian response to the Big Mac, the epitome of fast-food success worldwide. Others might wonder what is so special about a Mediterranean country pushing fish as its own typical meal.
The truth is that Croatia's diet is very much meat-based.
Establishments ranging from roadside inns to fancy city restaurants serve a rich variety of meats, including popular grilled minced meat fingers "cevapcici", or young suckling pigs and lamb roast on a spit over open fire.
Non-meat eaters may find it hard to get a decent selection of fish or vegetables at reasonable prices. And most fish restaurants are expensive.
Kolega says sardines and oily fish have long been neglected in the Croatian diet except on the coast.
"Oily fish not only tastes good, it is very healthy, the richest source of Omega 3 and Omega 6 acids," he said. "It is an antioxidant."
Served on paper plates with toothpicks instead of cutlery and wine poured into paper cups, the new fish dishes may not exactly be a holiday highlight.
Yet patrons lunching at the Trita say they are a perfect for an affordable sit-down or takeaway meal on a hot day.
"The fish is very good, tasty. And we did not have to cook it ourselves," said 19-year-old holidaymaker Vlatka Buzjak from Zagreb.
The planned Srdela Snack franchise system will also include fishermen in a bid to help them find regular buyers for their catch without middlemen.
"There is plenty of fish to ensure a steady supply. And fishermen will be able to earn twice as much as they do now," Kolega said.
The only thing left to resolve is reconciling the offer with Croatia's new traffic law which introduced a zero tolerance for alcohol last week.
"What does one do, if you cannot have a glass of wine with your fish?" said a customer.