Croatia is definitely not just about pljeskavica (large meat patty) or ćevapi (mincemeat roll) washed down with Karlovačko beer. Brimming with colour and flavour, the fine local cuisine ensures that even foodies among you will find something to delight their taste buds. Individual dishes only vary slightly from region to region, but along the way there are plenty of local specialties waiting to be discovered during your voyage, especially on the islands. For example, the celebrated travarica (herbal brandy) that’s infused with myrtle on the island of Hvar. So what should you sample on your Croatian adventure?
Istria’s treasure: the white truffle
Without a doubt, Croatia’s most prized culinary delight is the Tuber Magnatum Pico or large white truffle. The most valuable on the planet, this truffle has a truly unique aroma and an unforgettable flavour. Although white truffles are also found in France and Italy, it was in Croatia that the largest of them all was discovered. Christened the "Millennium" and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, it tipped the scales at an impressive 1,310 grams but rather than being sold, was enjoyed at a dinner attended by 100 special guests in the village of Livade. The village quickly established itself as the truffle capital of the world and it's certainly worth paying it a visit during the Zigante Truffle Days expo (mid-September to mid-November).
White truffles have thrived in the Motovun Forest in Istria for over 80 years, but you can sample pasta, risotto or steak with truffle sauce in any of the better eateries around the country. And there’s always other delicacies to pick up on the way that are made with this fragrant delight, such as truffle oil, truffle chips, truffle salt or truffles preserved in a jar for you to cook up your own culinary magic.
What to taste in a restaurant
ISPOD PEKE OR “UNDER THE BELL”
To be clear, ispod peke (or under the bell/lid as we call it in English) is not the name of the food itself, but rather the method of preparation. The bell being is a wrought-iron lid, it has been used for various purposes in the Croatian culinary tradition, including as an ancient way of baking bread. Nowadays, various types of meat are prepared under it, but it’s especially octopus which has become a real delicacy using this method. To make this dish takes time, but the basic requirements are an outdoor cooking area and a pot that’s placed in the hot ashes. The pot, filled with ingredients, is covered with the heavy dome-shaped bell (lid) and more hot embers are placed on top, slowly roasting the food in its own juices. The only downside is that you have to book this dinner arrangement at least one day in advance.
If you moor on the island of Sali, you can try ispod peke at Konoba kod Sipe just a few minutes walk from the harbour.
Several kinds of meat can be sampled in Croatia, but it’s lamb that Croatians are the champions of. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Šibenik, stop by Vicko (formerly Torcida), a restaurant renowned for its lamb. Don’t come here in search of an ocean view, as it is located right on the road somewhat further from the coast. But you'll forgive this little shortcoming once you've experienced their culinary skills.
CRNI RIŽOT (black risotto)
Whilst in Croatia, you can also sample risotto (or pasta) with seafood. A notable speciality you’ll come across is crni rižot, a unique dish from cuttlefish, acquiring its distinctive colour from the cuttlefish ink. Either you’ll love this dish or hate it, there’s really nothing in between.
FISH AND SEAFOOD
Fish and seafood are, of course, a Croatian speciality. Often advertised on the menu as 1st class (white fish) or 2nd class (blue fish), there’ll be several varieties of white fish to choose from as well as the classic anchovies. Be sure to sample the squid, which can be found in every restaurant and you can’t go wrong. As a side, we recommend the Croatian staple blitva (blitva s krumpirom — chard leaves with potatoes).
View from Konoba Jastožera on the island of Vis.
A condiment made from sweet red peppers, aubergine, garlic, with varying amounts of chill. Most suitable with meat, there are those who would put ajvar in or on anything, such as pasta, scrambled eggs or just a simple slice of bread. But as they say, there’s no accounting for taste...
An incredible appetiser from pork leg that’s hugely popular among Croatians. The local pigs bred for this are specially fed and weigh up to 16 kg. Protected with a geographical origin indicator, the natural process of drying, smoking and maturing the meat takes at least a year and gives Dalmatian prosciutto its unique taste. When the meat has turned a uniform pink colour, it is ready and can be served on its own or with cheese and bread.
PAŠKI SIR (pag cheese)
A highly-acclaimed sheep’s cheese produced on the island of Pag, with a distinctive and delicate taste which melts in the mouth. The cheese is made exclusively on the island from a breed of sheep that are among the smallest in the Mediterranean, yielding very little milk. Thanks to the strong north-easterly wind, the bora, the pastures on which they graze are covered in sea salt and almost look as if completely covered in snow. And this is what makes the milk so naturally salty. Highly-valued, this cheese is mostly sold after a few months of ripening, although you can find it matured for over a year. Without a doubt, this is one of the best sheep's cheeses in the world.
OLIVES AND OLIVE OIL
Cultivating olive trees is traditional throughout Croatia, from Istria to Dubrovnik. The finest quality oils come from small olive groves where each tree is individually cared for. But Croatia wouldn't be Croatia if it didn't also have its own traditions and customs in olive processing. Instead of using normal water to wash the olives, for example, they use the sea itself, bestowing the oil with a unique character. Excellent olive oil with Croatian bread is a traditional appetiser in all the best restaurants.
Fig trees are mainly to be found in coastal areas and on the islands. Although cultivation itself was far more widespread in the past, you can still buy them fresh as well as in the form of fig jam, which is a real treat.
The bakeries are a must
Croatian bakeries, located in every town, are not just for sampling the infamous bread. We highly recommend the following treats.
Simply the best donuts you've ever had! Although you can choose between chocolate and jam, chocolate is the real winner for us. But you can't go wrong with the second choice either.
A delicious dessert, a variant of which you might have come across in Slovakia or Hungary as kremeš or Bosnia as krempita. Either way, it's definitely worth it: a sumptuous vanilla cream softened with whipped cream, all in a delicately crispy puff pastry.
If you don’t have a sweet tooth, try these soft salty sticks of bread. With just the perfect amount of crunch, this king of rolls will still be delicious the next day.
Croatian vanilla kremšnita.
Experience a harbour market
Almost every major town or city has a market where you can buy fresh fruit, vegetables and other fresh produce, and we definitely recommend heading there first thing in the morning. But in some places, such as around Pakleni near Hvar, the market actually comes to you with boats passing by the moorings each morning offering fruit, vegetables, baked goods and other delicacies. The only downside is that if you are at the last bay on their route, you might not get what you want. In Split or Makarska, there are more established markets where apart from food, you’ll find clothes and shoes. Particularly in Makarska, you’ll find it easy to browse for an hour, depending on how often you succumb to temptation.
A fantastic experience is to moor and head to the harbour where the fishermen are anchored. There you’ll be able to buy the freshest fish to prepare for lunch. In fact, once we witnessed a huge tuna being butchered and as other passers-by were equally captivated, we shared it. A skilled local cleaned it for us, sliced it up and then we just enjoyed it.
What to wash it down with?
With plenty of sun, slopes and rich soil, Croatia produces wine that’s definitely worth tasting! But you also can't go far wrong if you buy domace crno vino (homemade red wine) from the locals, which tastes like a fine wine but is much more affordable. There’s also a long tradition of white wines and you’ll have a wide selection of bottled wines to choose from. If you'd like something a bit more refreshing, we definitely recommend trying the gemišt: basically a white wine spritzer, combining Graševina (a traditional white) with Jamnica (mineral water). It’s a fantastic combination, absolutely perfect on hot summer days. If wine isn't really your thing, cool yourself down with a refreshing beer such as Karlovačko or Ožujsko.
If you prefer something a bit stronger, you should try the Rakija, a brandy made from fermented fruit, and definitely the local Travarica, a plum brandy infused with assorted local herbs. Each region has its own special variety - honey, aniseed etc. On the island of Hvar, for example, they infuse it with myrtle, while in Dalmatia, you simply have to sample the one made from walnuts.
So, cheers! Or as the locals say “Živjeli!!”