Why go to Croatia? The unspoiled coastline, with its hundreds of islands and crystal clear waters. The gorgeous ancient walled cities, their beauty so unreal they find themselves starring in the Game of Thrones series and Star Wars movies. The food… wait, the food?
Perhaps that last reason is an afterthought, or maybe you’re concerned that this Balkan beauty isn’t much of a whizz in the kitchen. Croatia isn’t a destination that is known for its high quality cuisine after all – at least, not yet.
This is surely about to change, because this Adriatic superstar has a larder-full of fresh produce and a focus on traditional techniques and local sourcing. Here’s our pick of the very best foodie experiences Croatia has to offer. Tuck in, and find out why Balkan cuisine could well be the next big thing.
1. Pag cheese
Paški sir is a hard sheep's cheese from the island of Pag has the taste of fresh sage dusted with crystals of sea salt. It's as tangy as parmesan and as piquant as mature cheddar, and its flavour is the result of the sheep's diet of wild herbs that carpet much of the island.
The island is linked to the mainland by a bridge at its southern end and a Jadrolinija ferry service from Prizna towards its northern extremity. Most of the island’s cheese producers are found around the town of Kolan, where there are also a couple of simple cheese shops and the Gligora cheese factory, which has tours and tastings.
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2. Truffles (tartufi)
You don’t need much truffle in a dish to give it a substantial earthy kick, just a fine dusting of white truffle on top of your pasta or a shaving or two of black truffle with your morning scrambled eggs can turn an otherwise standard plate of food into a decadently pungent dish.
Istria in northern Croatia is one of the world’s best truffle hunting grounds, and both black and white truffles are found beneath the oak trees of the Motovun forest along the river Mirna – the black in winter and spring, the white in autumn. Head out hunting with Zigante Tartufi, who once found the world’s biggest truffle, a whopper at 1.31kg, then take a seat in the restaurant for lunch – every dish, from the steak right down to the ice cream, comes with truffle.
A new crop of truffles was found in late 2014 near Zadar (in a top secret location); slightly less pungent than their northern siblings, they’re served atop fresh local seafood (tuna tartare, Adriatic shrimp) at Kaštel restaurant.
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3. Grk wine
Bone dry, mouth-wateringly acidic and a taste so tart it just begs to be paired with the very freshest shellfish, Grk is the sort of wine it’s worth travelling for.
Good job really, since it’s only produced by a handful of vineyards around the town of Lumbarda on the island of Korčula (reached by Jadrolinija ferry from Split, Dubrovnik or Orebić on the mainland), the eponymous native grapes growing well in the sandy soil here.
Only a few hundred thousand bottles of Grk are made each year and the vast majority are snapped up by local hotels, which is a great excuse for dinner at Lešić Dimitri Palace, a seventeenth-century Bishop’s palace that is now home to a thoroughly modern hotel and restaurant. Start with a glass of Bire vineyard’s standard Grk, beautifully bone dry, before a bottle of their Grk Defora, aged sur lies (on the lees) for a deliciously yeasty flavour.
4. Beef stew
Beef stew should be so thick it doesn’t run across the plate, so dark it’s hard to discern meat from sauce and so hearty you need only one bowl for a complete meal.
Pašticada is all of these things, a meaty stew that takes hours, if not days, to prepare and is the pride and joy of every Croatian cook – if you spend Christmas Day in Croatia you will most likely be served this dish and no family will ever reveal their own special recipe. There will always be beef of course (generally silverside), as well as onions, wine and fruit, usually prunes.
Although pašticada can be found all over the country, it originates in Dalmatia and one of the best places to try it is Split, where waterfront konoba Fife is as popular with locals as it is with tourists. Order pašticada with gnocchi, and a glass of red wine.
Love oysters? Then you’re going to love Ston. Don’t like the idea of slurping straight from the shell? Give it another go here and we reckon the briny treasures of the Adriatic will have you converted – these are some of the sweetest, tastiest oysters you’ll find anywhere.
They’ve been cultivated in the waters of Ston since Roman times and today, as you drive onto the southern end of the Pelješac peninsula, you’ll see the oyster beds just offshore.
Most visitors stop in Mali Ston for lunch overlooking the waters, but far quieter is Blaževo, where local company Delmata Travel will hook you up with oyster farmer and pisciculturist Dido for a boat trip out to the beds to pick your own. Returning to dry land, you’ll be served oysters along with sparkling wine and butarga, a cured fish roe that really is an acquired taste.