Fresh ideas: A guide to Croatian food

Easily one of my favourite holiday destinations I've ever been to, I've no doubt that Croatia will steal your heart too. But one of the biggest things about any holiday is all the new and exciting food you can look forward to trying. I'll be the first to admit that I didn't know much at all about Croatian food. Maybe you're the same? So, if you're considering a holiday to Croatia, I thought you might like to read this fascinating  guide to Croatian food, written for our inflight magazine, Thomas Cook Travel. Enjoy!

Words: Victoria Beardwood

With its emphasis on bold flavours and locally sourced produce, Croatian food was the Mediterranean’s best-kept secret. Now the news is out, we head to the Dalmatian coast for a taste of the next big food trend.

About a year ago, someone asked me, ‘Why do you only have Italian food in your restaurants?’ laughs our guide, Vjeran, looking at the spread laid out before us. I can certainly see why. Sat in Tragos, a traditional konoba in the small town of Trogir, I’m ready to sample some great local cuisine, but the plates are piled high with cheese and prosciutto, fresh bread and olive oil; food you’d more readily associate with Croatia’s western neighbour. And this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Last night I was served a dish that was suspiciously reminiscent of risotto nero.

So what’s the explanation for this pseudo-Italian food? Put simply, it’s a result of Croatia’s fascinating history, Vjeran explains. Over the years, the country has been occupied and ruled by everyone from the Romans to the Austrians; pulled apart and stuck back together again like a giant jigsaw puzzle. This has had a huge influence on the culture, dialects and food.

In the northwest, for example, you’ll come across dishes such as goulash, dumplings and strudel from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire; head further east and you’ll dine on sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves) and burek (thin filo pastry pies), Turkish treats brought by the Ottomans. I’ve come to the region of Dalmatia, which was ruled by Venice for four centuries, hence the Mediterranean-style diet and abundance of pasta, prosciutto and fish.

Over the past decade, Croatia has established itself as a popular tourist centre, thanks to its beautiful islands, scorching summers and general affordability, but now people are becoming curious about the cuisine. It’s this growing interest in the local food scene that has brought me to one of the country’s most exciting gastro destinations to find out what the fuss is all about.

Last year alone saw two pop-up Croatian restaurants arriving in London. Venturin appeared in Battersea in mid-October, with a kitchen headed by the eminent Croatian chef Maja Mackovic, who gained recognition for her work at Hvar-based restaurant Zlatna Skoljka. A few months before that, it was young British chef Adam Rawson who brought the capital its first taste of Croatia with a pop-up in Southwark (it’s coming back by popular demand in September). Influenced by his travels, he served up a menu of delicacies including black cuttlefish risotto. I met with Rawson just before my trip, to find out his take on where to go and what to try. ‘My inspiration came from going round the markets in Croatia, there’s a great one in Split, and seeing what was in season,’ he says. ‘I was just stunned by the quality of the produce over there.’

The importance of using fresh, local ingredients is made very clear to me during the course of my trip, and is characteristic of Croatian food. ‘If it’s not fresh, it won’t taste the same,’ I’m told on numerous occasions. Chefs and locals alike visit Split’s green (Pazar) and fish (Peskarija) markets to buy everything from squid to Swiss chard and homemade honey.

When I go to see for myself, it’s early morning, but the fish market, located in a covered square just off Marmontova Street, is overrun with people. It’s not just a photo opportunity for tourists, but the place where locals do their daily shop. Market veterans weave artfully between tables laden with piles of pink shrimp and rectangular crates of metallic mackerel, searching for the freshest catch for the lowest outlay.

Looking at the prices, I can see why so many people choose to come here. Incredible seafood hauled in from the harbour this very morning proves surprisingly inexpensive. For example, you can buy a whole monkfish for just 80 kuna (which is the equivalent of around £9), a fraction of what you’d pay for it in the UK.

It’s the same story at the green market, on the eastern side of Diocletian’s Palace. Prices here are generally low as well, and you can haggle for a bargain. Rows and rows of stone banks mixed in with makeshift tables are covered in a colourful mass of fruit, vegetables, nuts, cheese and herbs, all from nearby farms. Nothing is perfect: carrots are knobbly, lettuces have holes in them, tomatoes are all different sizes. But the traders are almost proud of this fact; it’s a way to show customers that their produce is fresh and organic.

During an evening meal at Kastil Slanica, a restaurant in Omis perched on the bank of the river Cetina, I’m told that even the wine is made locally. Wine-making was brought to Croatia by the ancient Greeks who settled on the islands, and many of the original grape varieties remain. While there is now a wine classification system in place, wine production still isn’t as formal as in France or Italy.

‘More than 70 per cent of the people here produce their own wine,’ says Philippe Rogosic, the owner’s son and our waiter for the evening. ‘Everybody has their own house wine and we all think ours is better than the others. Often restaurants will pick a good house wine from someone local to serve. My grandpa makes ours.’ He offers me a glass; it’s surprisingly good. Perhaps this everyone-can-have-a-go attitude is just what the wine world needs.

Olive oil production is a similarly small-scale affair. While large producers in countries like Italy have turned to mechanical harvesting methods in order to meet commercial demands, Croatian olive oil is still homemade by little family businesses. While this method can’t make a lot of oil, what it does yield is of extremely high quality, something that’s beginning to be recognised internationally. At the 2016 edition of the New York International Olive Oil Competition, for example, nine extra-virgin olive oils from Croatia won gold and silver awards. ‘Since trying it, I think Croatian olive oil is the best in the world,’ Adam Rawson told me. ‘It’s clearer in flavour than the ones you get from Italy.’

Despite the comparisons with Italian food, Dalmatia has many dishes of its own. Pasticada is a rich beef stew, while peka is a meat and potato dish slow-cooked under an iron bell. While traditional fare like this features heavily on menus here, there is also a growing contemporary food scene. With all eyes now on Croatian cuisine, local chefs are starting to add flair to their dishes.

Apetit, for example, is a smart-looking restaurant in central Split that adds a modern twist to tried-and-tested local recipes, not only in terms of taste but also presentation. Think edible flowers, vegetable purées and marbled disks of octopus carpaccio. Paradigma, also in Split, takes things to the next level. Its cutting-edge menu includes reinterpretations and deconstructions of well-known dishes, as well as culinary innovations such as prsut (prosciutto) powder and red wine ‘air’. Sit on the roof terrace, if you can, for gorgeous sea views to accompany your meal.

After eating my way around the Dalmatian coast, I’m hungry for more and determined to return again soon. With its superior produce, varied influences and exciting new developments it’s easy to see why Croatia is on its way to becoming the next foodie destination.

101 Dalmatian delicacies…

But these are the three dishes you need to try:

1) PEKA

Peka is an Illyrian peasant food that’s now considered Dalmatia’s signature dish. A mixture of vegetables, potatoes and meat (veal, chicken or octopus), it’s slow-cooked on an open hearth under a bell-like dome for several hours to create a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Because of this lengthy process, you have to order this speciality at least three hours in advance.

2) CRNI RIZOT

The Dalmatian equivalent of risotto nero, this black risotto does away with squid and replaces it with cuttlefish. Cuttlefish tends to taste stronger, giving the dish an intense seafood flavour. Platters of this striking inkyblack risotto are traditionally served at weddings. Try it at Konoba Varos, one of the oldest restaurants in Split.

3) PASTICADA

Pasticada is a beef stew served with gnocchi, but this complex Dalmatian delicacy is so much more than the sum of its parts. The beef is marinated in balsamic vinegar overnight, before being cooked with bacon, prunes and a dessert wine called Prosek for up to five hours. The result is a rich, velvety sauce that strikes the perfect balance between savoury and sweet.

Have you ever been to Croatia before? What was your favourite dish that you ate over there? Let me know in the comments below.