Despite its growing popularity among tourists, Croatia is still a fairly unspoiled destination as far as European getaways go. Unless you decide to come in July or August when waves of tourists cause populations of many coastal towns to swell to more than twice their normal size.
When we decided to make Croatia our ‘home base’ in Europe for a few months, we knew what most people knew about it: picturesque coastlines, yacht parties and beautiful beaches. What we didn’t know, was what an undiscovered food and wine destination it was.
Although Split can be just as much of a ‘hot spot’ as Dubrovnik in peak season, it’s a much larger city, so the ‘touristy’ parts aren’t so concentrated. It’s been a great opportunity for us to get a feel for ‘real’ Croatian culture. Especially since we’re here in the off-season.
After being in Split for a month, the city has unveiled a mysterious side of Croatia to us. One of the biggest mysteries: Why doesn’t anyone eat? It may be overpriced by local standards, but comparatively speaking, we think it’s a total bargain.
Either way, despite the fantastic cuisine and quality wine that’s available here, you’ll rarely find locals eating out or imbibing in anything other than coffee.
Pat and I aren’t exactly known for our abilities to ‘blend in’ as it is, but we stick out more than usual here as we work our way around around wine lists and gorge on as many local delicacies as we can get our hands on. Typical Americans, right?
But hey, we don’t care. We’ve had nothing but great experiences at every restaurant we’ve been to. They all seem to love us (I’m sure it has nothing to do with all the money we spend) and they’re quick to open up as soon as we start asking them about their food.
These people are PROUD of their food, and rightly so. It’s incredible.
We didn’t know what to expect from Croatia’s food and wine scene when we got here, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Given its proximity to Italy, you’d probably expect it to have an Italian flare. Or maybe given its history, you’d expect more eastern-European influence.
Well, there’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of love that goes into Croatian cooking.
Let’s start with the basics
There are three main regions to know about for Croatian cuisine: Slavonia, Dalmatia and Istria. Istria and Dalmatia are fairly similar, as both are situated along the coast, but Slavonia is located further inland, bordering Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina.
Being that it’s the region closest to Italy, you’ll find a heavy Italian influence in Istria. Famous for amazing pasta dishes, award-winning wines, olive oils, sea salts and even Guinness World Record-sized truffles, Istria’s nickname is ‘The Tuscany of Croatia’. (We’ll be in Istria for the next month-ish, and CAN.NOT.WAIT.)
Heading inland toward Slavonia, you’ll find more eastern-European cuisine. Not for the faint of heart, these dishes feature heavy stews of fish, roasted lamb and beef.
As we go down south toward the Dalmatian coast, you’ll find some of the most sought-after oysters and mussels in Croatia, and in our opinion, the world. The Adriatic Sea is extra salty, which gives the shellfish a natural brine that you can’t get anywhere else. Many cities along the Dalmatian coast have daily fish markets, but make sure you get there early. We went to the Split fish market three times without getting anything because by the time we got there everything was already gone. Most of these markets start around 6 a.m., so set that alarm!
Cooking styles and dishes to know
It has been made abundantly clear that when it comes to Croatian cooking, there is a defined way of doing things. If you’re not going to do it the right way, don’t do it at all. Otherwise, someone’s grandma is going to chase you out of the kitchen.
If you go out to eat, your server will probably tell you that their restaurant is the only one that cooks a certain dish the ‘right’ way. Don’t worry, they all say that.
Traditional dishes in Croatia are unique and delicious– Some terms to know:
“Peka” is a meat or fish stew cooked under a bell-shaped pot in an open-fire hearth. “Sarma” is a Turkish-inspired dish made up of three different meats– veal, pork and spec– all mixed together with rice and spices, rolled in pickled cabbage leaves, then slow-cooked in a pot for several hours. “Pašticada” is flank steak that has been marinated in red wine, vinegars and spices for 24-hours, then cooked for five hours until the beef is tender, and served with house-made gnocchi. We added some roasted vegetables to make this hearty dish a little more healthy.
We’ve tried all of these dishes plenty of times at various restaurants, but re-creating them proved to be a difficult task for Pat.
After dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in town, we struck up a conversation with the owner, and Pat told her he had tried making Sarma. When he said that he was looking forward to tackling Pašticada next, she gave him a wry smile and said (in the most good-natured-yet-condescending way that only a little old lady can do), “Go ahead, but it won’t be as good as a Croatian’s.”
She’s a sassy one, and we love her for it.
They take great pride in their recipes. Without divulging too much of her ‘secret sauce’ to us, she did tell us a bit about the fundamentals behind the Pašticada cooking process,. What makes it so good is the careful time spent in preparation, and most of all, having the ‘right’ ingredients.
She drives 20 kilometers from Split to a small village every day to get the beef and vegetables for Pašticada. She insists it’s the best (and only) place in the world to get the ‘right’ stuff.
If you come to Split, you must go to her restaurant. She runs it with her husband, and they do all the cooking and serving themselves. We had the best cheese we’ve ever had, called “Pag” cheese, which named after the island it comes from. We also tried their hand-made ravioli with local prosciutto, ricotta and truffles. And of course, the Pašticada is to-die-for.
There’s no website, but I’ve listed the name, address and directions at the end of this post.
Many Croatian dishes are prepared and served for different holidays. While most Croats can’t imagine a holiday without roasted rack of lamb, grilled fish and barbecued octopus, there are some traditions to be followed.
Cod, prepared in various ways, is always served on Christmas Eve. Turkey and Sarma are served on Christmas Day, and smoked pork loin is on the menu for New Years’.
Croats have quite the sweet tooth as well. You can’t walk down the street without seeing at least a dozen people eating gelato. Other sweet treats include “Fritule,” which is similar to a doughnut, with sweet balls of fried dough and toppings like jam and nutella. “Kremsnita” is another favorite– it’s a vanilla custard cake with puff pastry topping, and it’s a staple dessert in Croatia. I use the word ‘dessert’ lightly…people eat this all day long.
Despite it being one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world, Croatian wine is still unknown to most people. Wine production began on the southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Hvar and Korčula nearly 2,500 years ago, and many of those vines still grow today.
Croatia has a similar classification system as other EU member-countries in order to ensure quality and origin. For years, there were only two designated wine-producing regions in Croatia: the Continental region and the Coastal region. However, in 2012, a group of winemakers, sommeliers and wine experts created a new system of four regions: Dalmatia, Istria & Kvarner, the Uplands, and Slavonia & Danube. These are divided into 12 subregions, and 66 appellations.
On the islands, local grape varietals, microclimates and the harsh nature of the vineyards produce some very unique wines. Some of which are good, and some, in my opinion, that are a little too ‘out there’.
Most of the wine that is produced in Croatia is white, the remainder is red, and a small percentage is rosé. The grape varieties used here are a bit confusing, not only because the names are so unfamiliar, but because there are strict rules about which varieties can be used where. There are quite a few “international” grapes that are allowed in Croatia’s major wine-producing regions, but indigenous grapes still reign supreme in the out-lying areas.
The white wines we’ve grown to love during our time here are Graševina, Malvazija and Malvasia, and Traminac. They’re all crisp and refreshing, with low to medium acidity. Perfect for sipping by the beach on a warm day.
Highly regarded red wines in Croatia all seem to hail from the Plavac Mali grape.
There are three levels of quality classification to look for in Croatian wines:
- Vrhunsko Vino: Premium Quality
Kvalitetno Vino: Quality Wine
Stolno Vino: Table Wine
Traditionally, locals will dilute their wine with either still or sparkling water, producing a drink known as gemišt (a combination of white wine and carbonated water) and bevanda (a combination of red wine and still water). My inner wine snob was horrified by this when I figured out why they served a cup of ice alongside my already-chilled Chardonnay. I was even more horrified after I realized how good Croatian wine really is. Needless to say, that’s one custom I won’t be adopting during our time here.
Put it all together…
Between the traditional dishes, fresh ingredients and unique wine, Croatia has all the makings for a truly indulgent experience that any chef or food lover has to try.
We’re sharing it with you because we love you guys, but personally, we’re hoping this all stays under the radar so we can keep coming back to enjoy more of our new favorite food and wine without a crowd.
OH, and before I forget, one other Croatian custom you should know about. Before you order a slice of pizza, you should know that, more than likely, it’s going to arrive to you folded up and covered in mayonnaise and ketchup. I don’t know why. And yes, it’s as gross as it sounds. But it’s a thing, and people here seem to love it.
It’s probably a crime in Italy. Especially if you pair it with your watered-down Cabernet.
“Kod Sfinge Vanevropske Zviri” – AMAZING restaurant in Split
Address: Ulica Andrije Buvine 1, Split, Dalmatia
(Take the main entrance to the palace from the Promenade, and take your first right. There’s no signage, but there’s a board outside that says “My wife makes the best cakes I’ve ever tasted.”