It wasn’t so very long ago that the dining experience in Croatia was something of a disappointment. Even 10 years ago, people returned home from holidays talking of overcooked vegetables and dull fare served in hotel restaurants. Fast forward and everything has changed as Julia Mora, who has a home in Croatia, reports.
As a new, more independent kind of tourist started to arrive in their country Croatians woke up to what their grandmothers had always done so well: using the wonderful fresh food on their doorsteps. Hotel restaurants made massive improvements and restaurants seriously upped their game. Chefs retrained, the best ingredients were sourced, people were taught to smile and the result is something quite remarkable. Today, from small waterfront beach shacks to fine dining restaurants, eating out in Croatia is usually a delight.
The essential ingredients were always there for excellent wines: good soil, sunshine and skill. Now, there are numerous small vineyards and top quality winemakers are winning international awards. The Istria region is particularly noted for some fabulous wines. Croatians were “doing organic” even before it became trendy and small fishing fleets have always been part of families’ heritage.
Incidentally if you are planning to travel around Croatia independently, open markets are the best places to find ingredients for that picnic and all local bakeries now sell everything from Croatian breads to the fashionable rustic ‘artisan’ stuff.
Zagreb is a good place to start
If we go on a gastronomic tour of the country focussing on where most visitors choose to explore, the capital Zagreb is a good place to start. Here there has probably been the biggest food revolution.
Today, a wide array of superb restaurants serve locals, tourists and Hollywood stars alike – the stars returning again and again when they are filming in Zagreb. Notable among these eateries are Gallo, Bistro Fotic, Dubravkin Put and Okrugljak. The first two are centrally located downtown, the latter two in leafy suburbs, an easy bus ride from the centre, or around £8 by taxi.
Struklji is a Zagreb speciality
Homemade pasta, superb meat platters, fish and seafood from the Adriatic and mouth watering desserts are all on offer. Struklji is a Zagreb speciality, a kind of baked, soft cottage cheese dish served in many places: the one at the Zinfandel Restaurant at Hotel Esplanade is especially good.
In recent years funky wine bars serving organic and healthy fare have sprung up alongside ice cream salons and Italian-style gelaterias. The ice cream at La Chocolate is worth shouting about.
The main Dolac open market, recognisable in travel guide photos by the endless red parasols, is where locals and top chefs go to buy produce. This is a proper fresh food market; honest and good with little frippery. There are separate meat and fish markets while the open market section offers fruit and veg mostly untouched by pesticides, a fabulous choice of cheeses, and wild mushrooms.
Newish to Zagreb are some gorgeous little wine and tapas-style bars where locals and visitors can enjoy a simple one-plate dish of the day and a glass of wine for a few pounds.
The Kvarner region
Moving westwards to the coast closest to Zagreb we arrive in the Kvarner region.
Here it’s important to tell the scampi story. Abandon any thought of the bread-crumbed variety served in the UK. Kvarner Bay scampi are like Dublin Bay prawns or langoustines. They are famous all over Croatia and you see them on menus everywhere. They are delicious. Served with shell on in the special “scampi bouzzara” dish (prepare to use your hands and get messy!), a dish cooked with olive oil, garlic, white wine, a little onion and a dash of tomato. Or, with shell off (‘cleaned’ as they say in Croatia), these scampi appear in risotto and pasta dishes. My favourite is these scampi in a simple wine sauce and served with green tagliatelle.
A rich, gamey experience
The proximity of Italy ensures that Croatians cook pasta and risotto to perfection.
The Kvarner region embraces both the hilly hinterland of Gorski Kotar where excellent mushrooms are found alongside dishes named ‘hunters stew’ – expect a rich gamey experience – and also a stunning coastline and islands.
Chestnuts, cherries and asparagus are particularly famous from Lovran (there are festivals to all three).
I defy anyone not to enjoy the homemade bread in Bellavista in Lovran, the laid-back beach shack, casual and great value, called Lustica in Icici for delicious fresh fish. Further up the scale, Johnson, Draga di Lovran, Plavi Podrum and Laurus are fabulous.
Out on the islands
Out on the islands, Rab has a special cake (“Rabska torta”) made from a secret recipe going back for centuries. I swear I’ve tasted lemon, ground almonds and cinnamon in it. But locals never tell!
The island of Krk creates its own pasta called “surlice” – little tubes served with octopus or meat goulash. And then there is the “sea champagne”.
Valomet winemakers tried an experiment some years back by laying crates of wine to ferment at the bottom of the sea. They believed that the darkness and the natural movement of the waves would help the process.
They were right. Every five years, bottles are raised amid a big celebration with fishermen helping to raise the new vintage, off the sea bed.
Back on the mainland, the local brandy is biska, made from mistletoe leaves (it is the berries that will kill you).
And so to chocolate
Let’s talk about chocolate! Last year, the first Museum of Chocolate opened in the Hotel Continental in Opatija. Occupying almost a whole floor, there are wonderful displays and a fun chocolate workshop which involves tasting and making pralines with a diploma at the end! Visit in early December for the chocolate festival and the chocolate concert of Festival Kvarner (you eat beautifully hand-crafted chocolates to different pieces of classical music!) Check the special gourmet guide on
The Istria region
The heart-shaped Istria region is situated just beyond Kvarner where many hilltop villages resemble those in Tuscany. Italians drive over for a night or a gourmet weekend. The drive from Venice to Porec is around three hours and Trieste is even closer, around 90 minutes away.
Oil, wine and truffles
In recent years both Istria’s wines and olive oils have been winning international awards. Chiavalon olive oil from Vodnjan (near Pula) recently came third best in the world. Olives are picked earlier in Istria than elsewhere resulting in a very distinct flavour – perfect for dipping and for dressings.
Top wines include the local Malvasia white and Teran red varieties.
A restaurant called Zigante in Livade entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2000, when Mr Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana found the then biggest white truffle ever recorded weighing in at 1.3 kgs. Istria is indeed truffle country. Oils, pastes, shavings on food and even in ice cream, you’ll find them everywhere.
There’s a superb self-guided driving trail of olive oil and wine roads in Istria taking visitors through exquisite villages.
Lim Fjord near Rovinj is famous for oysters, mussels and clams which thrive in the channel of mixed sea water and fresh water. Close to Pula, Batelina is possibly Croatia’s most talked about restaurant. Run by the Sokos family (dad goes out fishing and his son cooks), this is fish and seafood heaven. Simple carpaccios, wonderful fish stews and grills often using what they call the “poor fish”. Book three weeks in advance, no credit cards accepted.
Rovinj and Porec attract thousands of visitors and have wonderful places to eat from the glorious Blu in Rovinj (you can swim in the Adriatic between courses) and Kantinon like an Italian trattoria on the waterfront. In Porec, I like Kula, situated in a pentagonal tower built in 1447, for wonderful fish and great views. Top table in town is definitely Sveti Nikola on the seafront. While in Istria try the local manestra, as close to a bouillabaisse as you’ll find outside of Marseilles.
Dalmatia is the region further south and the one best known to Brits. Names like Split and Dubrovnik, the islands of Brac, Hvar and Korcula will be familiar. As ever, fish is big here but there is a tiny area called the Neretva Delta (you drive though if heading south towards Dubrovnik) which really is something of a secret.
Here there are wetlands where rice grows by the irrigated canals; water hens are raised and tangerine groves reach afar (sometimes visitors can help with the harvest). And there are eels and frogs. Stop at a restaurant here and you’ll find river eel and frogs on the menu. They’re both delicious and always fresh.
Continuing south towards Dubrovnik the fertile Peljesac peninsula stretches out on the right. The vast walls of Ston (said to be visible from space) stand out: they were built to protect the valuable salt pans and fruit crops from invaders. Take time to walk the ramparts. The robust Dingac red wine comes from Peljesac and more superb oysters come from the waters around Ston. There’s a day excursion from Dubrovnik that takes in all the food and drink delights.
Don’t miss Dubrovnik
And so to Dubrovnik, the most famous place in all of Croatia. A stunning walled city on the sea containing endless treasures in stone. It is so jaw-droppingly striking that food isn’t necessarily top of the agenda here. At times, the influx of cruise ship passengers can make you want to run for cover. But do stay and explore a while.
Enjoy lunch or dinner in a few places that still are not tourist traps. I always head for Kamenice at the bottom of the ‘Spanish steps’ in the old city, right by the little market with lots of outdoor tables. It is excellent value and serves platters of mussels and squid dishes and also has good vegetarian options too.
On the waterfront on the other side of Rector’s Palace is Lokanda Peskerija. Traditional dishes at good prices mean that there can be queues. Plates of fried whitebait and little cauldrons of black squid risotto are the delicious specialities.
Pancakes for dessert
Don’t leave Croatia without learning the word “palacinke”. Pancakes for dessert are served all over the country. Like French crepes, they are a “must try”, served with nuts, fruit compotes or chocolate sauce.
Definitely, for a mouth-watering holiday in one of Europe’s newest countries (Croatia joined the EU in 2013), where the sea is still clean, the scenery beautiful and it is still unspoilt, go Croatia – go soon!
Prestige Holidays is the Croatia specialist company offering hundreds of holiday ideas in their 148 page ‘Love Croatia’ brochure ranging from three nights to three weeks. For example, seven nights on the island of Brac in May costs from £419 including flights, transfers and BB hotel accommodation. The 14-night Wine Discovery tour takes in most of the country from £2,800 (minimum 10 people).
Prestige also offers tailor-made gourmet breaks and stays including the destinations mentioned above. Tel: 01425 480400. www.prestigeholidays.co.uk/croatia