Zagreb Restaurants, Croatian Wine Given Favorable Reviews
The following story appeared in the Financial Times. John Kraljic
Capital place for meat and truffles
By Justin Marozzi
Published: May 7 2004 17:55 | Last Updated: May 7 2004 17:55
The gourmet traveler is unlikely to give Zagreb much of a thought when planning the
next binge overseas. If the city evokes any reaction at all, it is likely to be
unfavorable, a lingering memory of the Balkan conflicts of a decade ago, rather than
a slavering at the prospect of all those truffles and home-cured ham.
Croatia may have returned to the fold, with property-hunting Italians, Germans and
Britons snapping up villas along the 2,000km coastline and raving about Istria - "the
new Tuscany, darling" - but its capital has remained wistfully aloof from the
excitement, a wallflower at the ball.
Which is a shame and an injustice, for Zagreb has much to offer the dedicated foodie.
The first revelation is pršut (pronounced prushoot), so ubiquitous you would think it
was everyday fare rather than the extravagant treat it would be anywhere else.
It is made from a pig's hind leg, scrubbed, salted, drained of blood, hung outside to
dry, smoked inside and matured for a year. The result is Croatia's answer to the far
more famous prosciutto of Italy. The best stuff comes from Dalmatia in the south,
though Istrian producers are not far behind.
I sit down to my inaugural tasting in Stari Fijaker, a consciously old-fashioned
restaurant just off the main shopping drag of Ilica. PrsĘut is generally served as a
starter, though what Croatians consider an hors d'oeuvre might come as a shock. They
take meat very seriously here.
This is no place for vegetarians. Should you doubt their passion for flesh, walk up
the steps that lead north from the main square of Trg bana JelacĘica, and plunge into
Dolac market, a temple to red meat, together with all sorts of cheeses and traditional
foods - would madam care for some salted horse intestines? - which would give Brussels
food inspectors a heart attack. (If and when Croatia joins the European Union, one
wonders what will happen to them.)
After my debut at Stari Fijaker, I make a resolution to eat pršut every day. The
heavenly ham, which must be cut very finely, is just too good to miss. In a word,
addictive. Once you and your stomach get used to the sheer quantity of meat, you can
follow it with a mixed grill, which usually includes a fabulous spicy sausage or
Pudding can wait, but don't pass up on the chance of some Paški, sheep's cheese from
the island of Pag. If it tastes unlike anything you have ever tried, that's because it
is. Hard and piquant, it owes its distinctive flavour to the saltiness of the soil and
to the abundant sage on which the sheep graze. The cheeses with which it is most often
compared are mature cheddar and parmesan.
One of the beauties of Zagreb is its diminutive size, more market town than
metropolis, which makes it easy to get around on foot. Sampling some of the city's
best restaurants is therefore a pleasure, an experience made more uplifting by the
monumental architecture, a panoply of Austro-Hungarian façades that bespeak long-gone
The city also offers the epicurean visitor the opportunity to walk off the mountains
of meat and carafes of wine (of which more later). For the ultimate meat experience,
Baltazar, past Zagreb Cathedral, is highly recommended, as is the formal and elegant
Pavilion across from Palace Hotel, seriously good gušca jetra (goose liver), but my
favourite for a complete blow-out is Kod Zaca, a real hole-in-the-wall eating house
where there are no menus, no receipts and cash is king.
By way of encouragement I tell Zaca the last time I had truffles in Croatia was a
disappointment, the lightest sprinkling of the fungi over a bland pasta in the heart
of Istria. Can he respond to the challenge? The answer is obvious even before I taste
my steak. As the waiter approaches our table, he is lost in clouds of divine
truffle-scented steam. The chef has not held back.
Inspired by this act of hedonism, we cut loose on the wine list, beginning with a
vibrant, berry-laden Plovac Ploški from Hvar, before moving on to a rousing finale
with a succession of bottles of Kozlovic Muskat dessert wine and cigars. Even horse
tastes superb, if a little stringy, when it is drowned in the richest truffle sauce.
No wonder Croatians get irked by Italians who buy Istrian truffles, return home and
sell them as Italian with a big mark-up.
After a few days in Zagreb, your body will moan for mercy. Enough is enough. Time for
fish. Tucked away in the centre of town is KorcĘu La. There is no better place to
escape the deluge of meat. The fish soup is a delight, the grilled Adriatic squid a
masterpiece, served with blitva or Swiss chard.
If Zagreb's cuisine comes as a revelation, Croatia's wines have come a long way too.
Bronstein is a chic wine cellar owned by Vlado BorosĘic, a curly-haired bohemian who
has been doing a roaring trade with the diplomatic community and the growing ranks of
the new rich. Mind you, his wines are not cheap. Some of them cost what a modest
claret or burgundy will set you back in London, but this observation does not impress.
"I've drunk so many terrible burgundies," he says, wincing at the memory. "Nobody
produces such low quality wines in Croatia. In 10 years, we'll be able to export some
top quality wines, but not before. We lost a decade with the war."
There are worse places for a final port of call. Apart from the wines, Borošic stocks
a range of truffle preparations and one or two home-made pršuts. It's tempting, but
I've already done my shopping. I'm travelling home 6kg heavier, thanks to the finest
Dalmatian pršut I've tasted.
Justin Marozzi's 'Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World' is published in
Stari Fijaker, Mesnica 6 Dolac market
Baltazar, Nova Ves 4 Pavilion, Trg kralja Tomislava 22
Kod Zaca, Grskoviceva 2
Korcula, Teslina 17
Bronstein, Kaptol 19