One of my favourite pastimes in Croatia is to eat food. The beaches are good. The waterfalls are spectacular. The wine sates the thirst but the food is exceptional and full of regional variety.
If socialising in Croatia revolves around coffee then life itself revolves around food. Not just eating food but cooking food and sharing food. I remember the first time that I visited Croatia with my partner and although we did some amazing things my abiding memory is of one meal.
We were staying with my partner’s twin sister Mija and her husband Jiri in their flat on the outskirts of Zagreb and on our last night before heading home Jiri wanted to cook some wild boar stew. As dinner time drew closer I was a bit concerned by the lack of stew being made in the kitchen. I mean the clue is sort of in the title; it is a meal that needs time to become a whole lot better than the sum of its parts.
It turns out that the kitchen was outside on the small patch of grass at the main entrance to the flats. A fire was dancing below a large pot of stew being stoked by Jiri who in turn was fuelled by some beer. It is a universal truth that food always tastes better when cooked outside and nowhere is this taken as a mantra more than Croatia.
After a few hours of the ingredients getting to know each other better it was time to eat and man alive the food was good matched only by the company. Cooking outdoors is like advertising and so it was no surprise that neighbours would come by for a bite to eat also.
That one meal told me more about Croatia than any of the day trips that preceded it and ignited my love affair with its food ever since. So much so that I start to salivate in the days before our regular flights back to Croatia.
If there was one food that binds Croatians then it is lamb. Whole weddings are judged by the quality (and quantity) of the lamb on offer. When I say lamb, I mean a lamb and to do it justice it needs to be cooked on a spit.
I would say that my favourite meal of all time and not just in Croatia was peka at Jiri’s family’s farm in Biograd. Let me set the scene; they didn’t know me except to know that I didn’t speak Croatian but I was welcomed to lunch like a friend and felt privileged to sit and talk to family and friends that had come to get a good feed.
On top of that my best friend and his wife were on holiday with us at the time and were also invited. All the best people in my life were there and the beer was flowing. As the lamb turned and cooked we chatted and got to know everyone, played some bowls and helped pick some watermelons which involved a sort of rugby attack production line as the heavy melons were picked and tossed to the tractor at the edge of the field. It certainly worked up an appropriate appetite for the main event.
We don’t really know how to do communal eating in Britain. On those rare days when the sun comes out we might make a half-hearted effort to copy our Mediterranean cousins, fire up a cheap barbeque and overcook some fairly average cuts of meat. We don’t know how to properly linger over food and let it act as a social lubricant. The same cannot be said of Croatians who think nothing of cooking for thirty people and not asking for anything in return except that you taste their home-made wine.
Many turns later and the lamb was ready to eat. It was a simple meal, lamb served with potatoes and salad, but immense. The lamb was moist and flaky with the humble spud transformed into something extraordinary thanks to the drippings of lamb fat. Honestly, many years later I still think about that afternoon and the food that was shared in the Dalmatian sunshine, memories still vivid despite the fog of the grappa and the homemade wine.
Dalmatia is renowned for the freshest of seafood on offer and anyone who has watched as much Rick Stein as I have will know two things. Firstly, he comes across as a real life Alan Partridge when presenting on his travels and second, the best place to get fish is at the morning market near the harbour. Taking this advice, we bought a big bag of mussels fresh off the boat and that night cooked them in a simple white wine broth. It was messy and it was glorious.
Croatians understand food and have a connection with food that has sadly been lost for the most part in Britain. I consider myself a better than average cook but my partner has such an instinctive feel for food that she barely uses a recipe to create a tasty meal.
To illustrate the point even more, it is not unusual for Croatians to cure their own meat or make their own, often potent wine. It is my great privilege that I have an excellent local guide to show me all this wonderful food.
Basically grilled minced meat shaped into sausage heaven. Served with sweet red pepper ajvar.
The best Borek in Croatia cannot be bought so you will have to befriend Tomica. His peppery potato filled version is always a hit. Plus he is a cool guy to boot.
Croatian prosciutto is up there with the best I have ever tasted and you should not miss the platters of ham and cheese on offer.