Editor’s note: Occasionally, we take a trip far from the Iberian Peninsula to explore uncharted territory for Catavino. Croatia was one such country. Hence, though not directly related to Spain or Portugal, this 2 Part series hopes to provide you with a glimpse as to what lies outside the Iberian border.
When I say Croatia, what comes to mind? Anything? More than likely your mind conjures a blank slate when this word trips off your tongue, a desert of impressions that leave the most cultured among us crimson in embarrassment. But you’re not alone, at first, my mind conjured lush green forests blanketing undulating landscape, among waterfalls, small hilltop towns and narrow dirt paths. But after a few minutes, dramatic scenes of war and political unrest snuck into my perfect world of virgin nature to create cities laid to waste in total and complete destruction from WWII, Croatia War of Independence and Communism. Essentially my imagination was that of a geographic and cultural jigsaw based on the occasional New York Times article, recounts from the passing tourist and the random native I might met on a given press trip. In short, I knew absolutely nothing other than heresay and assumptions.
Having been invited to the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival to give a talk on social media, both Ryan and I were excited to broaden our cultural horizons. We had heard of Croatia’s amazing wines, the kindness of the people and the strength of the culture, but what we didn’t comprehend was that despite our capacity to comprehend a fair number of languages, it was one of the first times we were totally handicapped when walking through the luggage terminal. In non-latin based countries, such as Norway and the Czech Republic, our friends and family were our steadfast translators; but in Zagreb, we were inundated with characters, sounds and intonations of a language we couldn’t even begin to sort through such as: ča, kaj and što, three different ways of saying “what”. Granted, due to its proximity and history with Italy and Austria, many Croats are fluent in Italian and/or German, but neither languages were used on restaurant menus or street signs. So eventually, I adopted the Russian Roulette principal when choosing my dinner menu. Closing my eyes, I made circles with my index finger above the various entrees, hoping to land on something both delicious and traditional. This theory occasionally worked, but it also led me almost ordering ketchup as a main course.
Language issues aside, we did stumble across some incredible Croatian foods that we hope you’ll have an opportunity to try one day. So let’s begin with the wide range of cured meats and cheeses gracing Croatia’s menus. Coming from Spain, we’re rather particular about what cured meats should grace our lips, but Croatia didn’t fail to satisfy, especially when it came to their smoked meat! In Iberia, the idea of smoked meat is rare, if not odd. Only Idiazabal, a smoked cheese from the Basque country, shows up with any regularly. But as Americans, smoked meats and fish are part and parcel of who we are, We also discovered their homemade salamies; a slightly sweet boiled ham called Kuhana šunka; a spicy pork sausage from Turopolje called Češnjovka, infused with garlic and paprika; a thick and flavorful pancetta called, Špek; and let’s not forget Pršut.
Mind you, there are several different variations of pršut, which include: Dalmatinski pršut, Istrian pršut and Istarski pršut. Istarski pršut is left to dry with the help of the Bura winds, while Istrian pršut is first rubbed with salt, pepper, laurel, rosemary and sometimes garlic, to preserve it, and then dried by the Bura winds. Finally, there is the Dalmatinksi pršut which varies from being smoked, semi-smoked or air-dried. As to which one we savored, I’m going to have to go with the Dalmatinski pršut as the sweet smoked aroma wafted from the fork as we savored our first bite.
Of all the cured/aired/smoked meats I enjoyed, my favorite was Češnjovka, in part because our access to spiced meats is extraordinarily limited in Iberia, and having enjoyed Chorizos from Mexico when living in the States, spice is a craving I’ve never been able to shake.
As for cheeses, Paški sir is a famous sheep’s milk cheese from island of Pag that resembles a cross between Manchego and Pecorino. A touch more moist than the former, and slighter sharper than the latter. Though incredible, Paški sir was not nearly as prevalent as the 1,001 different variations on curd cheese, the most typical being škripavac. I don’t think we’ve tasted so many types of curd cheese, integrated in just about every meal we savored. But none piqued my interest like Juha od štrukli did!
Štrukli is a Croatian appetizer that generally consists of curd cheese wrapped in pastry. As far as I’m aware, there are several different ways of enjoying it, most common being kuhani štrukli (boiled štrukli) and pečeni štrukli (baked štrukli) or simply štrukli. We, however, tasted Juha od štrukli, which is essentially a cottage cheese strudel soup. Despite sounding like a heart attack in the making, the soup is surprisingly light and creamy with only a touch of richness offered by the strudel.
Beyond meat and cheeses, we’ve heard whisperings of Croatia’s extensive fish culture that can be found along the Dalmatian coast. As we were in Zagreb, we unfortunately weren’t privy to such dishes, but the vast amount of perch, red and gray mullet, sea-bream, grouper and eel (to name a few) have been said to be phenomenal. Dependent on grilling techniques, and woods chosen, tastes can vary dramatically, but none are spoken more fondly of than the gradelavanje technique, which uses Dalmation olive oil in the grilling and roasting process. And personally, I can’t think of a better reason to visit Croatia if not for this technique alone!
Like Pedro Ximenez vinegar in Spain, or Piri piri in Portugal, Croatia is known to produce its own “must have condiment” called bučino ulje! We originally fell in love with pumpkin oil during our several trips to Austria last year, and was happily surprised to savor its nutty sweet flavor yet again in Zagreb served over radicchio and grilled cow’s milk cheese. Made by pressing roasted, hulled pumpkin seeds from a local variety of pumpkin, this dark viscous oil was also used in one of the best desserts I’ve ever experienced in my life! Grofičin sladoled (Countess’ ice cream) consists of homemade vanilla ice cream layered in a mountain of roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds and smothered in pumpkin seed oil. Orgasmic wouldn’t even begin to describe this dessert. It was unreal!
However, it’s important to note that Croatian cuisine is a bit of a hodge podge when it comes to culinary influences; hence why it is known as “the cuisine of regions”. When asking locals what was deemed authentic to Croatia, I received conflicting accounts as to originated in Croatia and what trickled over from Venice, Austria, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. You will encounter obvious adoptions such as homemade pasta, schnitzel and blood sausage, as well as not so obvious dishes such as Đuveč, a roasted vegetable dish similar to Ratatouille.
So there you have it, an incredibly brief up! However, being that we aren’t the Croatian wine and food experts, allow us to guide you to those who truly are. These include: Morana Zibar, author of Gurwoman, and Marinela Prodan of Enogastromama who were kind enough to give us many pearls of wisdom while in Croatia. These knowledgable food bloggers are not only on Facebook, but also speak fabulous English if you have a culinary question.
Finally, if you’re in need a of tour in Zagreb, make sure to contact Jelena Bulat at Eudemon – we’re still reeling after the comprehensive 3+ hour city tour she provided for us.
Continue with Part 2 HERE
(all flights, accommodation and most meals were paid for by the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival)