An Englishman Eating Abroad; Croatia
Join Jesse as he potters around Croatia eating food and drinking beer.
Yes another travelogue cum food diary entry this time, coming to you from Slavonia and Dalmatia in Croatia with foods spanning from river fish stew, to paprika on toast and big mugs of beer. I'm still working on the book from this summer's adventure, so consider this an early preview.
We start our foodie foray in the north east of the country, in a region known as Slavonia. This region boasts a different cuisine to the other regions of the country leaning more heavily on an eastern european twist, with more heavy stews and meats on the menu than in the south and coastal regions. And on our first night in the east, Producer Ian (what I call my Dad, long story cut short, he's been the 'producer' of my student radio shows for 7 years now) and Mum headed to Restoran Citadela on the outskirts of Bilje for dinner. After a long day of travelling we were hungry and boy did Citadela hit the spot. Dad had a Zagreba Schnitzel, which is a veal escalope stuffed with ham and cheese and would make for a great comfort food, especially if you like cheese. While Producer Ian's schnitzel choice was fairly local, Mum and I wanted to be more adventurous so plumped for Riblji Paprikaš, a local fish stew, rather like bouillabaisse.
Made from several kinds of fish, namely; carp, catfish, sturgeon, pike and perch cooked in a rich peppery soup, featuring oodles of paprika giving it a wealth of flavour. However, all that paprika means that this soup has a deep red colour, which puts clothing at a risk, so all occupants at the table were given some handy bibs.
Apologies for the low light, blurry photo. And Producer Ian not having his eyes open. He's not good with selfies.
The stew was fantastic, perfectly spiced and immensely filling. The different fish bits in it all had different textures and I'll be damned if I knew which was which. It was served with chunky white bread from a fresh loaf and I washed it down with a large stein of Osječko. If I can find time in the coming months I'll try and whip up some of this fantastic stew, gonna need to find a good fishmonger though.
The next evening saw us dining out at Kod Varge, another restaurant in the small town of Bilje. Here I dined on a platter of local meats and sausages. Once again, all seasoned with paprika as is common in this part of the country. The sausage was most impressive as it had been so heavily paprika'd that it was now orange on the insides. In the background you can see that Producer Ian is enjoying an entire plate of them, with potatoes from under the bell. I'll talk more about that food prep method later on. The weird orange sauce in the ramekin is a ajvar, a red pepper and aubergine relish and it was as good a colouring agent as any paint I've seen. Get that on a white shirt and it'll be white no more. The sauce is served cold, and at breakfast too, we put it down to being not too dissimilar in use to tomato ketchup in the UK. And once more, the entire meal was washed down with a glass of Osječko.
Meat sweats for one? In retrospect, consuming such quantities of meat in such heat was a less than clever idea...
A quick note on ajvar. Don't eat too much of it, it'll turn your poop orange. Genuinely. Ask Producer Ian if you don't trust me. I don't think slathering it onto cheese toasties in the morning helped our colourful bowels. Speaking of breakfast, here's a photo of the spread that was laid on for us each morning in Bilje.
Breakfast l-r; cottage cheese, cheese toasties, fried eggs dusted with paprika, meat and cheese selection, ajvar, homegrown honey, home-made jam, fresh peppers and cucumbers from her garden, a selection of yoghurts, elderflower cordial, fresh peaches
The next day saw us on roam far and wide in the search of many things; otters, the border with Serbia, bears, water, and a concert. For some ungodly reason we decided to borrow some bicycles from the lady who's house we were staying at and cycle into the country to visit the nearby national park of Kopački Rit, because we'd never been before and I wanted to go bird watching and maybe see some otters. After a fine morning exploring the national park we cycled on into the countryside looking for lunch and a restaurant called Restoran Kormoran. It had come highly recommended, and we were eager to find out what it was like. So we pedalled on through the 40°C heat and eventually happened on the restaurant. Set back from the road in a clearing in the trees, it is a large wooden building that serves local, traditional food, as do many of the restaurants in this area. There's no pandering to your western palate, you eat Croatian or you go hungry. Which wasn't a problem for us, so we sat and ordered.
I tucked into a plate of venison and dumplings, and my word. I have never had such good venison. It was soft, and so rich with flavour! The sauce it was in was fantastic and I was careful to mop every last drop of it up with the dumplings. Which were a rather rustic recipe of old bread mashed together, and as simple as that may seem, it is a brilliant call back to Croatia's chaotic, fascinating, and at times sad history. (Ed; Keep it light Jesse!). Anyhow, as per usual this was all washed down with a bottle or two of cold beer, and water (stay hydrated kids). Dessert was a rather more elaborate dish. I'm partial to a good panna cotta, but this was once again out of this world. I was served a large brandy glass full of the good cheese topped with a wonderfully tart berry compote. Normally if you order panna cotta you are given a large tablespoon worth of it and that's your lot, but no! Here I was shoveling away at it for a while, and that's not a complaint. Usually panna cotta as a dessert leaves me wanting more, but finally I'd found a place that serves me a REAL portion of the stuff. 10/10 will be returning for that alone.
We cycled on into the heat of the afternoon, failed to find any bears, but did get within 2km of the Serbian border before the road turned into forest and we could go no further. Plus we were out of water and my seat was slipping. Thankfully, here in a derelict and war torn town there was a small activity centre where they gave us water and lent me tools to fix my bike. Very nice people indeed. Water levels replenished we set back off and back to the B'n'B we were staying. After eating a big meal at midday we forwent dinner and elected to get something to eat at a concert that was happening out of town.
The festival in question is the Tarda festival. A local heritage based festival that looks back at the history of the area and celebrates its diversity with music and performances. It was rather interesting and unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and scattered around were a variety of food stalls selling traditional foods and wares, and one of the things I tried was a local variety of flat bread, the lepinje. Essentially a pitta bread, these were salted and lightly fried and were a perfect evening snack to enjoy while listening to the music.
Our holiday moved on with our trio traveling south from Bilje to Sisak for an overnight stop before moving on again. Our next interesting culinary caper involves little more than a roadside bar. Given mine and my Dad's penchant for adventure when we drove past this truckstop on the cheese road (actual name of the road, 100%) we had to stop, it had a tank outside it! An actual tank, just sitting there on a plinth!
See! A tank, and Producer Ian using the UN recognised tank verification method of knocking on it with your knuckles.
We didn't stop for anything to eat, but instead sat and had cold drinks and watched the world go by on the cheese highway (the road name, as translated into english on the satnav in our hire car was Cheese Road).
We motored on to our next stop, a few nights by the Plitvice Lakes, in the national park there. We ate at midday not knowing what we'd find at the town we were staying at, so pulled in at a hotel and had soup and a cold platter for lunch. Croatian soup is rather unlike that of Heinz Cream of Tomato as it is usually clear, much more of a broth than anything, but wholly filling, and wonderful tasty. Soup is a major part of Croatian cuisine, and few important meals, especially on Sundays after church, are complete without a soup course. Typically these soups are added too with pasta or semolina dumplings. I definitely prefer the latter, makes it rather more different to any other soup.
Our next interesting food encounter was once more the breakfasts at the B'n'B we stopped at. Another huge array of foods were laid out for us including more ajvar and kulen. Kulen is a Croatian sort of salami in that is a cured and spiced meat sausage. The minced pork is spiced and flavoured with hot red paprika and garlic. Traditionally made kulen is created when a family slaughters a pig at the end of autumn, the sausages are formed and left to cure over the winter. It is this long cure in the cold that brings out the flavour of kulen and equally gives it its long shelf life of 2 years. This kulen is still soft, and moist, but if you want a tougher, longer lasting meat you can bury your sausage in ash. The ash will act as a dessicant and will dry the sausage out allowing it to last even longer. Smoked for further flavour, high end kulen will come with a thin layer of white mould on the skin (pig's intestine) which brings a richer aroma and is perfectly fine to eat. The use of the pig's intestine adds a further layer of intricacy to kulen. Use the large intestine and you get regular kulen, use the small intestine and you not only get a narrower sausage that matures quicker, and this is called kulenova seka, or kulen's sister. So a smoked paprika filled sausage, ideal for breakfast? Don't worry if it turns your poop orange.
The enormous platter of food for breakfast at the lakes. Yes, I eat chocolatey cereal. Yes, I am basically 8 years old.
Our trip moved on to the south and to what might as well be our second home of Petrčane. As a family we have been fortunate enough to holiday in Petrčane about every year for over a decade now, so much so that we are practically locals in the area, and know where to dine and not to dine. And one of our favourite places to dine is Konoba Sidro. The title image of this article was taken there, of probably the best dish you can order there. A meat platter. Ideally this is to be shared amongst several people, Producer Ian and I sat down to this and another hellacious bout of the meat sweats.
Composed of a vast array of meats in various formats, all served with a salad, chips, a risoto, fresh onions, and ajvar. The weird dog poo looking things are a local style of beef sausage called ćevapi. Very palatable with a rich meaty flavour, they'd be ace with chips and a splash of curry sauce after a night out, which is rather apt as they originate from Turkey, when the Ottoman empire spanned into Croatia and brought with it its food fetishes. The name ćevapi means kebab, and is often followed by the slavic diminutive ending čici, so "small kebab", which makes my drunken takeaway prophesying make sense. And as per, that entire meaty mammoth was washed down with hearty helpings of Karlovačko.
Earlier on in this meandering article I mentioned potatoes cooked under a bell. Pod pekom is a Croat cooking method where in the meat or fish is placed with its accompanying vegetables in a stone oven and covering it with a metal domed lid, like a bell, hence the name. The bell is then covered with hot coals and the dish within slowly cooks away in its own juices giving a rich and unbelievably tender dish. On the menu it comes with a note of its longer cooking time, but it is worth the wait. Another quirky Croatian cooking method is the roadside rotisserie. Along the highways and byways of Croatia you'll see restaurants on the roadside. "So what?" I hear you retort. Well, these restaurants have a brilliant way of luring you in as they have roadside rotisseries. Giant spinning roasters with various meats on spits turning slowly over coal fires, and if you're anything like the lamb lover I am then the sight of these when "Hank Marvin" will leave you drooling and reaching for the indicator stalk. And as regulars in the area we do have our favourite. I can't remember what it's called but it has a bank of rotisseries and the meat you get from it is absolutely amazing every time. Served with a simple side of potatoes and a small salad the generous portions make for a perfect meal, and you quickly forget that you're dining on Zadar's equivalent of the North Circular, the bustle and chatter from the other tables maintains a friendly and vibrant atmosphere.
Pork off of the spit, or svinjetina s ražnja, juicy and succulent, yet oh so simple.
Seafood is another one of Croatia's fortes. Where we stay on the coast of Dalmatia it is a huge part of their diet and for me one of the best dishes going, and a favourite I share with Rick Stein is squid. Supposedly while filming Venice to Istanbul, Rick stopped off in Petrčane and dined at Konoba Toka, which sadly is no more. But when it used to trade we would always try to dine there while we stayed in the town, as I adore the stuffed squids they had on the menu.
Three whole squids were stuffed with a seafood paste of sorts, made from whatever fish had been caught and sold in the harbour that morning, along with oodles of garlic, the resulting bloated cephalopods are grilled and served on a plate, separated by piles of mangle, which is a large leaf similar to spinach, typically boiled up with cubed potato and garlic. A very simple dish in that regard, but so fantastically rich and keen flavours and a world of textures from the meaty chew of the squid, the softness of the filling, to the stringy tenderness of the mangle. By far and away an all time favourite dish. I love seafood, and for me that one dish is the pinnacle of it. I've had squid cooked a multitude of ways, but nothing has come close to the stuffed squids at Toka. And sadly nothing will, as the restaurant closed down and on my last visit appears to be being turned into a villa. A shame.
I supposed I ought to talk a little about the drink I've mentioned a lot of throughout this discourse. Beer. Croatia is not typically a country that springs to mind when you think of beer, you think of the Netherlands for Heineken, Belgium for it's strong wheat beers, Newcastle for Brown, Ireland for Guinness and America for the fizzy urine in a bottle that is Budweiser. Italy is home to Peroni, and perhaps you are a fancier of Staropramen from the Czech Republic or if you wear vests and drive a Dodge Charger you might like a Corona. The fact is that on the world stage there are a lot of beers, but everyone I know who's been to Croatia has always come back singing the praises of one beer or another, be it Karlovačko, Ožujsko or Osječko all of these big lagers have their individual tastes and feels, and all are absolutely fantastic.
What is it about Croatian beers that gets people so energised? I don't know. I think part of it comes down to the fact that the majority of Croatia's tourism from the UK comes in the summer when it can get very hot indeed out there, and if the beer is cold it seems like a blessed relief. Plus it is typically good value, away from the city centres a litre of Karlovačko can be had for around 13 kuna, or £1.48 at the time of writing. To convert that to pints, that's about £0.84 per pint. Which is cracking value for money. But don't think that all this beer is going to tourists, according to the internet Croatia ranks 15th in the world for the litres of beer consumed per capita with 78.7 litres per person per year. And 90% of all beer sold in Croatia is native beer, an industry which in 2007 generated €320 million.
"One litre of the icy cold stuff please and thank you."
But what do I think of Croatian beer. I think it's ace. It is light, and not so gassy that it makes you feel full, its smooth and almost creamy on the tongue, so soothes the throat after a hot day of reading action adventure novels on the beach. Karlovačko is my beer of choice, but each region has its own preference. In the north Osječko was more popular, but on the coast Karlovačko and Ožujsko are more dominant, either way for your £0.90 you're getting a good pint.
Heaven in an image? I think so!
Oh and dessert? Ice cream. Always go for the ice cream. Called sladoled in Croatia, it is fantastic and frankly when it's that hot you'd be stupid to have anything else for desert. Most towns have one or two gelateries and a whole host of flavours. You can't go wrong, apart from rum and raisin which Producer Ian still thinks is a decent choice.
What do you think? Have I convinced you to go to Croatia for the cuisine? Have you already been? What do you think to the food? Let me know in the comments section. And if you want more writings of me eating things in different places around the world check out another of my articles featuring piranhas and a cheeky nip slip.