This winter I escaped chilly New Zealand for a land far away and many degrees warmer - Croatia! This has been my fourth venture to the country, with this trip longer than usual (six weeks) to make the most of the blazing European summer, spend time with my squillions of relatives who reside here, and eat my body weight in fresh figs - all before venturing to London to pursue further education at the start of September.
The food or hrana, as always, was incredible - and below is an attempt to collectively summarise favourite foodie moments, famed meals and dishes, traditions and culinary techniques, and what exactly the Croatia cuisine is - which, as I've found, is a cuisine that cannot be confined to a single blurb, let alone one identity. Which leads to the perfect entry into the question...
What defines the Croatia cuisine?
In a word: diversity. For a country on the smaller side, the cuisine here is highly varied and regional specific - meaning, depending where you are in Croatia, will influence the dishes you can expect to see, order and enjoy, in abundance.
This isn't all too unexpected though. Culinary methods have been heavily influenced by the various empires and republics who have had a part in Croatia's history, stemming back thousands of years - and the flavours and traditions of nearby countries, in which there are many.
While there are, of course, similarities across cooking techniques throughout Croatia, as well as famed foods (ahem, olive oil), there are nine distinct regions within the country which are considered to have their own regional cuisine - that being, Istria, Dalmatia, Dubrovnik, Lil, Gorski Kotar, Zagorje, Međimurje, Podravina and Slavonija.
For the sake of simplicity...
You'll find culinary differences most notable between the coast and mainland of Croatia.
Mainland cuisine tends to favour heartier style dishes, stemming from Slavic palate influences, as well neighbouring/nearby Hungarian, Austrian and Turkish cuisines (e.g meat-based meals, breaded goods, rich stews, sarma or cabbage rolls, plenty of garlic and onion, and spices like black pepper and paprika). In contrast, the coastal regions have intertwined strong Mediterranean flavours into their food, with Greek and Italian (Roman and Venetian) influences - we're talking olive oil all-day-every-day (or as I like to call it - 'liquid gold'), pasta, fresh seafood, and spices, like rosemary, bay leaf and citrus rind.
So, to sum up that mini essay (phew) - consider the Croatian Cuisine the 'cuisine of the regions'.
My travels to Croatia were situated across parts of the coast and islands, where both my mother and fathers extended family reside. This is the region of cuisine I'm most familiar with - here you'll encounter fresh natural ingredients with simple preparations, that really maximise flavour. The food is utterly delicious!
Being near the ocean, there's plenty of seafood on the menu - think grilled fillets of whole fish (riba) smothered in garlic, flat-leaf parlsey and olive oil; chopped octopus (hobotnica) tossed with red onion and herbs; grilled squid (lignje na žaru); and tender-cooked scampi (škampi) served in shell - the latter a little messy to eat, but delicious.
One of the classic dishes of the Dalmatia coastal region is the peka, which is a style of cooking where a selection of veggies and meat (drizzled with herbs and a good glug of oil) are baked to perfection under a bell-like cast iron dome known as an ispod čripnje, in the embers of a fire place. Definitely a must-try!
Let's not forget the veggies...on the menu you'll typically find a good selection of vegetables on offer, most commonly green, cabbage or tomato salad (which often come in cute little portions for one or two mouths); grilled courgette and capsicum; or the signature blitva - a simple, but totally moreish dish, containing chard and potatoes. Make sure to load up!
The daily meal
At home, after work, I'm primed for a bigger dinner. In Croatia, however, the main meal of the day is lunch (in which I can totally see how an afternoon siesta then comes to fruition - especially when lunch is a three or four course meal!).
Lunch often begins with a bowl of soup (juha), or prosciutto (pršut) and cheese (sir), followed by a main (typically meat, potato and salad), finishing with dessert, which may be a slice of homemade cake served with black coffee. Dinner is then, naturally, light - trust me you're not hungry come the end of the day!
Croatian markets aka pazar
Markets are a common sight in Croatia - each city has one, or more.
Visiting a pazar is a must for a tourist! It's a sensory experience, delivering a fabulous bombardment of colours, noises and smells; and a glimpse into typical of day-to-life for some locals.
Not only will you find a vast array of fresh fruit and veggies at the markets, but local products such as honey, aromatic olive oil, branches of herbs (like bayleaf and rosemary), bagged dried legumes, colourful flower displays, fruit preserves (you must try the fig or smokva jam!), bottled olives, bags of dried fruit and nuts, grappa (a type of alcohol) in all the flavours of the rainbow, pungent cheeses, meats and fish, and home goods, like dainty bags dried lavender, woven baskets, and tablecloths.
My market-dwelling tips: don't be afraid to barter, and go early to beat the heat and view the stalls in all their glory.
Tourism dominates the service sector of Croatia (accounting for up to 20% of the countries GDP), with bulk of tourism situated across the Adriatic coast. As a reflection, the dining-out options are absolutely prolific, especially in touristy hot spots and cities. Look out for signs for a restoran (restaurant) or a konoba (tavern) when hungry - the latter having a little more of a folksy vibe.
I've found restaurants typically offer good value for money, with many spots run by locals passionate about good food - this is where you get those seriously delicious mouth-watering meals that offer a really authentic taste experience. True to the countries nickname of 'the cuisnie of the regions', many restaurants will specialise in a cuisine distinct to its/a region. Basically, travelling across Croatia promises endless variety for your tastebuds!
Croatian cooking lessons
The last two weeks of my trip I stayed with my 85 year old great aunt (my Dida or grandfather's sister), a Croatian local who has to be the most active and vivacious 85 year old you'd ever met - she's fabulous with a capital F. She also happens to be the most incredible home cook!
I asked her to pretty please teach me Croatian cooking and help improve my language skills, in which she totally delivered (equally the best and most challenging way to learn a language = a complete immersion environment. Get ready to sink or swim).
Most days we'd venture down to the local markets to select fresh produce, meats and pantry items for the day's fare, before heading home to spend a few hours cooking in preparation for lunch.
We cooked everything from traditional fish and meat soups; various kinds of gnocci (potato, wheat and semolina); šalša od pomidora (tomato salsa); blitva s krumpirom (chard and potato mash); šporki makaruli (a traditional pasta with a cinnamon-meat based sauce); and traditional Croatian desserts like Kroštule and Fritule.
Below L-R: potato gnocci with a beef sauce, kroštule in the making, fish soup (juha od riba), and blitva (mashed potato and chard).
Croatian sweet treats
My favourite part of any menu? The dessert section! Croatia didn't disappoint. Here are some classics:
Kroštule - a traditional Croatian pastry, consisting of thin ribbons of pastry that are deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar - yes, drool. Kroštule is commonly whipped up during the festive season.
Strudel - a filled pastry made from dough with a tissue-thin like consistency. Try the apple filling (strudel od jakuba) which is often a mix of chopped apples, juicy sultana, chopped nuts and lemon zest. 10/10 good.
Palačinke - pronounced pa-la-cheen-ka, these are essentially thin pancakes, and are very similar to crepes. They're are widely available in restaurants, are quick to whip up, and can be served savoury or sweet, with the latter commonly smeared with jam.
Fritule - many cultures have their own equivalent of the fried donuts, with fritule being the Croatian version. Each family seems to have their recipe, with slight variations on ingredients, whether that being the addition of grated apple, yoghurt, lemon rind, a splash of alcohol, or a handful of sultanas. You sometimes see stands selling fritule at food markets, towns or fairs.
Gelato - while an italian dessert, I've included gelato as you'll find a gelato or sladoled (ice cream) store everywhere and anywhere here in Summer! A scoop is the best way to cool down on a hot day.
That concludes what has turned out to be a very long blog post - but it has been fun to write. Thanks for reading if you've got this far!
I highly recommend a trip to Croatia if you haven't ventured yet, for many reasons outside of the food - the beautiful ocean, endless sunshine, glorious historical architecture and warm, friendly locals. One for the travel bucket list for sure!