I made a mistake. Before traveling to Croatia, I mentally lumped its cuisine in the same category of other Eastern European countries I have visited. Never mind the fact it’s not an Eastern European nation (it’s classified as Southern European) and I obviously failed to do proper research on the various cultural influences Croatia has enjoyed over the centuries. So imagine my shock when I arrived and found not the bland, boiled cuisine I expected, but one that is diverse, delicious and fun to try, including these highlights.
1. Italian Influence – This aspect of Croatian cuisine surprised me perhaps the most and yet it was the most pervasive food I saw throughout my time in the country. Croatia and Italy are separated only by the Adriatic Sea, and it’s this proximity that has brought them into close contact many times over their histories. What had perhaps the most influence was the control of the Dalmatian region of Croatia for almost 400 years by the Republic of Venice. This, along with the proximity to Italy has created a robust tradition of Italian cuisine in Croatia. Throughout my stay it was almost impossible to find a restaurant that didn’t feature at least a few dishes of Italian origin on their menus, at times feeling more like Northern Italy than Croatia. Croatians don’t just enjoy Italian food, they enjoy good Italian food and some of the meals I had rivaled those found in Milan, Venice and even Bologna. (Please don’t tell the Italians) The one Italian transplant that didn’t translate well was gelato. While you can find it everywhere, most cases it isn’t ‘real’ gelato and instead was just a fancy ice cream that lacked the creaminess of true gelato. My favorite Italian inspired meal was a delicious risotto made with Croatian Pag cheese at a restaurant in Zagreb. After enjoying that, I can’t imagine a better risotto anywhere in the world.
2. Coastal Condiments – The attitude along coastal Croatian is what I call Mediterranean, and by that I may not be correct in the geographical term but it’s the best analogy I can find for the spirit of the regions. Not only are beaches and warm smiles everywhere to be found, but so are traditional favorites – especially olive oil and salt. Driving across many of the islands that comprise Croatia, it’s hard not to notice the huge farms of olive trees, clinging to the land as they have for thousands of years. The resulting olive oil is some of the best I’ve ever had. Flavorful without the astringent notes I’ve tasted in some other parts of Europe. It’s a treat on its own, but when paired with the proper food it explodes in flavor. Just as olive oil has been produced seemingly forever, so has salt. There are several locations around the country that in some cases have been producing salt since the Greek and Roman times, making those towns incredibly wealthy throughout most of their history. While salt may not be the precious commodity it used to be, the tradition continues and the unique flavors that each variety imbues is remarkable to experience with the perfectly selected Croatian meal.
3. Seafood – Before you say anything, I admit it’s odd I put seafood on this list given my INTENSE hatred of anything that was ever in the water. BUT, I have to recognize the fact that fish and seafood is indeed an important part of the Croatian culinary world, particularly along the coast. Although there were plenty of non-fishy options, fresh seafood was everywhere, along with what appeared to be many happy diners. Of particular note is the small town of Mali Ston near Dubrovnik that is famous, very famous it turns out, for its oysters. The hamlet is home to Malostonski Zaljev – the renowned Croatian oyster bay that produces the most sought after oysters in the country. Oysters aren’t the only briny delight here though, mussels and other shellfish appeared to be popular as well. I of course say appeared because as I’ve said, they are definitely NOT my thing.
4. Pag Cheese – This delicacy makes me smile every time I think of it. Before every meal, in very Mediterranean fashion, there is usually served some bread, ham and of course cheese. Amongst all the Croatian cheeses the most desired is Pag cheese, from the small island of Pag near Zadar. The clinical definition of this delicacy is that it is a hard, sheep’s milk cheese made on Pag; but that definition doesn’t come close to capturing the essence of the delicacy. The cheese is uniquely flavored thanks to the island’s aforementioned renown as a salt production center. Intense winds spread the island’s salt dust onto everything, including vegetation. This means that only the most hearty, and coincidentally aromatic, plants can survive and it’s upon this salty, nice-smelling flora that the sheep feed. That’s why the only true Pag cheese can come from sheep raised on the island and it’s also why the cheese is so very, very good.
5. Meat and Traditional Cuisine – Never fear, I did find regional classics and happily of me they included a lot of meat. Chicken and veal were the two most popular offerings I saw, usually paired with a gnocchi and hearty sauce. One item that is authentically Croatian and of course undeniably delicious is the nearly unpronounceable dish: Zagorski Štrukli. This is a cheese based dish made with thin pastry and layered with the local cheese, which is soft and almost like cottage cheese in texture. It’s then cooked and some additional cream and butter is added for a delicious, if not somewhat unhealthy, dish.
6. Wine – I sort of knew that Croatia had a robust wine industry, but I was dubious about the quality. My traveling companion, Rachelle Lucas of The Travel Bite though couldn’t stop raving about the wines, each one tried better than the one before. Reds seem to the specialty, but there’s certainly no shortage of crisp whites either. The national wine is a dessert wine that sometimes (and unfairly) gets confused with an Italian varietal. Croatian Prošek is a red fortified wine more like a port than a true dessert wine. It’s a popular and traditional drink but that’s not the end of the story. With Croatia’s recent admittance into the EU, Italy has raised concerns that the name is too similar to Prosecco, the bubbly sparkling wine that visitors to Italy have loved for generations. It’s a silly debate though because believe me, there are absolutely no similarities between the two. To experience great Croatian wines, stop by the wine bar D’Vino in Dubrovnik to sample some of the best.
7. Desserts – I love desserts, especially chocolate and unlike some other countries I’ve visited, Croatia never failed to disappoint. Whether it was drunken plums with a fresh and light ice cream or a traditional cake in Split, the options were varied throughout the country and almost always delicious. A favorite was the Croatian version of fried dough – fritule. Not unlike a zeppole, this small fried dough ball is made fresh and topped with your favorite add-on; I chose the Nutella of course. Enjoying these treats while walking along the seaside promenade in Split was a highlight of my trip.
8. Cafe Culture – Ok, this doesn’t count as a bite but it’s my site and I can do what I want. Croatia enjoys my favorite aspect of European life, cafe culture. There is absolutely nothing better than enjoying a coffee, meal or glass of wine outside, under a big umbrella while talking with friends. Like their Italian neighbors, Croatians aren’t in any hurry when they sit down to chat and a simple espresso can easily turn into an hour long conversation. My best evening under the stars was at small restaurant in Zadar where I enjoyed some ham, cheese and wine with friends as we laughed the night away. There truly is nothing better.