A Foodie in Croatia
Updated: May 31, 2020
My food and wine adventures continued last fall with a visit to Croatia. Now, I admit that I knew very little about Croatia before this trip, except that a wine colleague visited last year and thoroughly enjoyed herself. Well, this trip turned out to be one happy discovery after another!
In Zagreb, we were told from the first evening, that no matter what you order in a restaurant, you will get “a big plate of meat”. It didn’t seem to matter if you ordered seafood or risotto, either; that just translated to “a big plate of food!” Hungry after an overnight flight, this sounded just fine. We happily discovered that seafood is fresh and abundant in Croatia.
On my first night, I discovered flavourful Stina Plavac Mali, the "King of Croatian reds".
A colleague recommended a seafood restaurant called “Ribice i Tri Tockice", which translates roughly as "Fish and Other Things", located on Nikole Tesle 17. I enjoyed a meal of lightly grilled octopus - a generous serving - preceded by a wonderful artisanal cheese plate and tasty regional olives. This was the night that I discovered Plavac Mali, a fragrant, flavourful red wine which became my favourite Croatian wine. If you prefer a tender steak, visit “Tip Top”, located near the university. It has historically been a meeting place for poets and intellectuals. We enjoyed a perfectly grilled steak - a generous serving! - and roast pork with “Drunken Mushrooms” and a light cabbage salad, accompanied by a velvety Belje Merlot. As we savoured the last bit of dinner, our waiter arrived with a carafe of homemade cherry brandy, on the house. Tip-they don’t even measure the brandy, because it’s so plentiful!
Zagreb is an elegant European city, but also has a very relaxed vibe, making it an excellent destination for tourists. There’s lots to do and see and there’s a thriving wine and food culture. Many outdoor cafes have gas heaters, so that even in November, you can enjoy a drink or bite to eat outdoors.
From Zagreb, we went to Split, which is famous for the 3rd century Diocletian Palace. This Roman palace encompasses an entire walled village in the old town, making it a fascinating place to visit. Several boutique heritage hotels now make it possible to sleep within the walled village. We stayed right in the midst of the old town across the street from a beautiful bell tower. Our hotel offered a delicious breakfast with many homemade regional specialities, including cake. Nothing like cake for breakfast! There were always three bottles of homemade brandy, different flavours, available in the dining room. After sampling one each day, I decided that my favourite was the herbal one and that a splash of it in my coffee was a great way to start the day. My friend settled for a few devilled eggs and brandy with coffee as his breakfast of choice. Brandy is available in most restaurants, often homemade and of excellent quaity.
The very narrow winding streets of Split give you a glimpse into an ancient lifestyle, but today they are full of hospitable bars and cafes, alongside high-fashion shops. Fun fact; the necktie was first designed in Croatia. So if you like silk ties or scarves, you will find many exquisite ones to choose from and sometimes an entire shop is devoted to them.
My favourite food discovery in Split was the food market. This very extensive market spreads over several blocks and down to the waterfront. You can find virtually anything there, from fresh produce to high fashion purses. When you’re travelling and eating out daily, sometimes it’s relaxing to kick off the walking shoes and have a casual lunch back at the hotel. So as I strolled through the market, I picked up cheese, bread and salami, all homemade, along with fresh clementine oranges, figs, nuts and a delicious Croatian speciality, fragrant marmalade made with rose petals. Heavenly! You have to try that rose marmalade to believe how delicious it is. On toast, with cheese, or even straight out of the jar on your fingers!
A delightful lunch with artisanal rose marmalade, cheese and fruit.
Next, we visited Dubrovnik, where we stayed in the old medieval walled town, in a boutique hotel restored from a Renaissance heritage building. The Prijeko Palace Hotel is located a short walk from the harbour and the main street in the old town, which is closed to traffic. Each room features the work of a different artist. This new/old combination creates a modern ambience as it celebrates Croatian history at the same time. One quiet day after lunch, I was treated to a private tour of their extensive wine cellar, which holds up to 2000 bottles during high season. Franjo,(Frank) the sommelier was very generous with his time and talked extensively about Croatian wines. Throughout my visit in Croatia, I found that people were very willing to share information about their food, wines and culture. Gracious hospitality comes naturally in Croatia.
Several wine varietals grow in Croatia. Popular Zinfandel originated there. My personal favourite was definitely Plavac Mali, a fragrant, versatile red. I also discovered Vugava, a delicate dry white with tropical notes, and Skrlet Moslavina. Croatian wines are not yet well known in Canada, but when you come across them, are well worth checking out. Surprise fact: Croatia makes Ice Wine, too! A popular brand is Bodren.
My favourite wine discoveries:
Dingac Kiridzija Plavac Mali 2017
Plavac Mali is called "the King of Croatian red wines". Highly fragrant with notes of plum, dark fruit, regional herbs, dark chocolate and vanilla. Bursting with flavour, it opens up beautifully and becomes more fruit-forward. Dry with soft tannins. Excellent balance and juicy acidity make it very versatile with food. Plavac Mali reminded me of Pinot Noir, but more full-bodied and even more fragrant. I enjoyed this with seafood, both grilled octopus and scallop carpaccio. Wines made by Dingac were highly recommended.
Stina Vugava 2018
A dry, medium-bodied white with delicious tropical fruit aromas and flavours, hints of vanilla and floral lilies. Rich creamy mouthfeel and tropical finish. It paired nicely with a Caesar salad and I suspect it would also complement grilled garlic shrimp.
Klasnic Skrlet Moslavina 2018
Skrlet is an indigenous grape varietal that grows in the central region of Moslavina. To remember this name, think of the word ”scarlet”; the varietal is named because of scarlet red spots on the grapes. Medium-bodied and well-rounded, it gives notes of ripe pears, apples, vanilla and white florals. Bright acidity and relatively low alcohol, so it is a refreshing sipper or accompanies white fish, chicken or pasta.
My overall feeling about Croatia? I loved it! The people are very hospitable and there’s a relaxed ambience everywhere. People are friendly and willing to spend time talking about their culture. Their warm welcome makes you feel right at home and you just don’t want to leave!
With its central Mediterranean location along the spectacular Adriatic, you are surrounded by both the natural beauty of the coastline and architecture that goes back many centuries. Although I would happily revisit the same spots again, next time I also want to explore some of the islands with their sandy beaches and warm turquoise water and of course, visit a few wineries. There’s a lot to enjoy in Croatia, whether you are an art-lover, history buff or foodie. I can’t wait to return!
Franjo, our sommelier, told me about Croatian wines at the Prijeko Palace Hotel
Jane Staples - Wine, Food & Travel Writer, Accredited Sommelier
photos, Jane Staples