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Croatia - The New Foodie Frontier
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  01/30/2007 | Culture And Arts , Croatian Cuisine , Tourism | Unrated
Croatia's New Culinary Frontier
Croatia - The New Foodie Frontier

By Ann Kramer Borcic, My Croatia Ltd

Croatia has been my second home for nearly three decades. I learned to cook from my mother-in-law, in the tiny kitchen of her third-floor flat, two blocks from Zagreb's bustling, colorful open market. As important as the recipes themselves, she taught me that the key to any successful dish began with selecting the freshest ingredients, preferrably local. Herbs and spices were also important. Only the sweet red paprika sold on the market from a certain Hungarian lady would do. Stuffed veal kolhrabi, simmered in a delicate cream bechamel, required fresh green sprigs of tender garden dill. If the dill wasn't available, we cooked something else.

Under Anna's tutelage, I slowly learned the secrets of her kitchen. Cuisine was not a word she was familiar with. The food she prepared and set on the table for her family was hearty and nutritious, based on the culture of her Hungarian-born mother and Central European heritage. Suppers were the focal point of each day, a noisy gathering together of grown-ups and children, where the art of talking with a full mouth was perfected. At the end of the meal, a bottle of table wine, usually red, was poured into small thick juice glasses. Even the children got a taste - just enough to color the water pink. Real desserts happened mainly on Sundays. During the week, a bowl of apples or fresh fruit - watermelon, strawberries, winter pears - was the norm. For many years I thought this was it. Of course, there was sarma and cevapcici and other dishes of Turkish origin that had long been assimilated into the national food larder. But for the most part I figured that this was what Croatian food and wine was all about. Only many years later, during our long summers in Istria, did I begin to discover the flavours of another culture closer to the sea.

Istria lies in the northwest corner of Croatia, a heart-shaped peninsula bordered by green hills and valleys, dipped in the temperate waters of the blue Adriatic. Throughout the ages, it has been a crossroads of culture and commerce, ruled in turn by Romans, Venetians, Hapsburgs, Italians, and more recently Yugoslavia. The legacy of its rich, turbulent history lives on today in the walled hilltop villages of central Istria, in the layout of vineyards and olive groves along the coast, and in the tiered, arched symmetry of a once-mighty Roman amphiteatre. Istrian cuisine, like that of Zagreb, is an eclectic mix of historical and cultural influences. The interior, with its fertile fields and valleys, features hearty meat-based dishes - pork, game and Istrian beef, proscuitto, cheese and olives, wild asparagas, truffles and homemade pasta. On the coast, the flavours are Mediterranean with fish and seafood predominating - skampi, squid and baby clams, lobster, oysters, gilthead bream and sole. Like the seasons, food and drink play a central role in the daily activities and customs of the region. In spring, the advent of wild asparagas turns a simple omlette of eggs and proscuitto into a festive fritaja. In summer, jars of homemade grape brandy are infused with cherries, figs and walnuts, mistletoe and honey. It is the season for making jam and ripening grapes, for listening to crickets in the heat of the night and enjoying a glass of chilled vintage wine. In autumn, truffle fever takes over, inspiring a panoply of gastronomic delights in country kitchens and humble konobas, and the best five-star restaurants. It is also the season for harvesting grapes and making wine.

The loamy grey soil and specific microclimate of the region produce excellent varieties of the peninsula's indigenous grape sortes - malvazjia, muscat and teran. A network of wine roads crosscrosses the rural landscape, meandering through acres of lush, green vineyards and cultivated hillside terraces. Hamlets and villages punctuate the way with signposts pointing to the more well-known estates, and to small local farmers selling their unbottled house wine direct from a wooden barrel in the family konoba. Last summer my husband and I had the chance to explore a bit further afield.

Our travels took us to Croatia's remote island of Vis. The island of Vis, famous for its natural beauty, pristine coastline and preserved traditional lifestyle. is a 2-hour journey by ferry boat from Split. Upon disembarking at Vis Town, we looked for the signs to Komiza and began climbing westward over a rugged landscape of rock, pine and carob. A series of white-knuckle hairpin turns soon revealed heart-pumping glimpses of blue coves and rocky beaches and terraces cascading to the sea.

Komiza town sits at the foot of Mount Hum, curled along the rim of a pebbly turquiose bay. Once home to a breed of legendary fishermen - many of whom departed a century ago to resettle in California - Komiza is an enigmatic timewarp. Rows of honeycoloured limestone houses, shuttered against the sun, line the streets and passageways that lead uphill from the harbour. Cafes and restaurants crowd the waterfront in summer. Sailboats ply the bay. A Renaissance citadel and belltower keep watch.

The WWF has declared Vis one of the Mediterranean's last remaining untouched natural habitats. The interior of the island is much akin to a vast, wild rock garden with rosemary, sage and garlic carpeting the hillsides and softening the terraces of vineyards and olive groves. The people of Vis are hardworking, independent and self-sufficient. They produce their own olive oil, wine and cheese, and supplement the fruit and vegetables from their gardens with herbs, capers and other organic leaves. One of our first 'slow food' experiences upon arriving in Komiza took us to a small country kitchen in the hamlet of Zena Glava. Seated outdoors in the shade of a mulberry tree, we were welcomed by our hosts with a selection of homemade grape brandies variously infused with lemon and rose petals. Next followed a plate of fresh goat cheese and olives and a basket of crusty white bread, still warm from the oven. While the outdoor grill was
stoked with kindling, we were invited for a look at the family's olive press and a kitchen garden of tomato vines and lavender. Serving only what they produce locally, our hosts on Vis never ceased to delight us with their culinary skills and respect for nature, with their stories and anecdotes and quirky island 'wisdoms'. By the time we returned from our impromtu walk, our meal was served - a sumptuous platter of grilled lamb and scorpion fish, garnished with herbs and chunks of zucchini and red peppers, and served with a carafe of red Plavac Mali.

Plavac Mali (genetically linked to America's Zinfandel) and Vugava are the two classic wine grapes cultivated on Vis. While many families grow their own grapes and make their own wine, serious winemaking is gaining momentum. The first stop on our 'Vis style' wine tour took us to the vineyards of Nikola Roki in the village of Plisko Polje. There we were greeted by Nikola himself, the island's best-known vintner, who offers traditional Vis cuisine and winetasting at his homestead. Seated at a table on a bright sunny terrace, our attention was drawn to a large stone hearth where a cast iron dome, filled with monkfish and gurnard, glowed red in the coals.

As Nikola joined us, the conversation turned to grapes and barrels and fermentation and vintage. In short, all things wine. One by one he uncorked the bottles lined up on the table and poured out glasses of his best vintage wines - a crisp, dry, white Vugava, a robust, peppery, red Plavac Mali... No white gloves or frills at Roki's. Nor at any of the winemakers we visited that day. Relaxed, authentic, delicious and unaffected. Like Vis. I imagine my mother-in-law, if she was with us today, would smile at my 'discovery' of these simple, quirky gastronomic pleasures. Food and drink played a pivotal role in her life and family. They were part of the traditions and values she grew up with. And she took them for granted. Tourism in her lifetime was not about getting to know a people or country, its traditions, history and culture. Holidays were about hotels and beaches and numbers. Luckily, things are changing.


Formated for CROWN by Marko Pulji
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