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“New Europe” is not quite so new anymore but culinary geopolitics move slowly and, instead of signatures on international treaties, they depend on those of food critics and guides. These days, the realpolitik of a country also comprises its culinary offering, and Croatia knows it, as it prepares to enter the élite of European haute cuisine.
La Liste, which includes the world’s 1000 best restaurants, added two new Croatian addresses to its 2017 selection, those of Damir&Ornella in Novigrad and Stancija Meneghetti in Bale. The same year, Michelin published the first digital edition of its famous red guide, focused exclusively on the capital city Zagreb, on Istria and the city of Dubrovnik - awarding only one star to the Monte restaurant of Rovigno.
In 2018, the mapped area has been extended further and the starred establishments now include the Pelegrini in Sibenik and the Restaurant 360° in Dubrovnik, along with about fifty other addresses. But what really counts is that Croatia is one of the countries to have gone on stage during the presentation of the guide entitled Main Cities of Europe 2018 which selects “the best of the best” of European fine dining. This guide thereby celebrates this country as one of the food tourism destinations worthy of note.
Geographically positioned between the harsh winters of the Balkan and the coasts of the Mediterranean sea, for centuries the Croatian cuisine has been a combination of risottos, freshly caught fish and typically Italian sweet and sour “saor” dishes; nourishing dishes of goulash, smoked pork, the cabbage and potatoes typically consumed in East Europe and Ottoman influences from Greece and Turkey.
In the course of the centuries, Croatia has been part of the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary and the Habsburg Empire. Istria and the Dalmatian coast were under the dominion of Venice for almost three centuries, starting from the 1400s. After the First World War, Croatia became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and fell under the Soviet influence, following the second world war. Since 1992, it has been an independent state and, since 2013, a member of the European Union, but half a century of socialist standardization still has an impact on its present-day cuisine, and not only.
Make Croatian Cuisine Great Again
Like an interrupted story, the rich and variegated traditions of the past, small-scale productions, excellent products, winegrowing techniques and autochthonous varieties were frozen for decades, forgotten in the name of mass production and they hardly survived the generational turnover. So, today, it has become necessary to dig into the collective memory of grandparents and great-grandparents into verbal recounts of the past, in search of a gastronomic identity that has to be totally rediscovered.
“We have all the ingredients necessary to make Croatian cuisine great in the coming years: raw materials, cultural, climate and landscape diversities, chefs with experience in great international kitchens and an expanding tourist industry” explains Rudi Štefan, chef and owner of the Pelegrini restaurant during the first edition of the Chef’s Stage congress, held in Sibenik in March 2018 for promoting local cuisine.
There is a great awareness, coupled with a desire to express the local identity and to go beyond the stereotypes of the many “international-style gourmet cuisines” and the pizzerias with grilled fish that abound in tourist locations in the summer months. Štefan has made a bold step forward at the Pelegrini and many others are following his example.
Croatia is well worth a gastronomic tour, here is where to stop off.
Modern Croatian Cuisine
If Masterchef can be considered an indication of a country’s culinary progress, then Croatia has that as well (along with other cooking shows). TV celebs include chefs Mate Janković and Andrej Barbieri, two judges who are also engaged in providing advisory services to various on-trend restaurants.
The capital city of Zagreb is seething with venues and restaurants (they even put on a Cocktail Week). Highly appreciated by the local inhabitants, the Malibar, Tač and Baltazar bistros serve modern Croatian cuisine while fine dining lovers cannot afford to miss the Noel restaurant, owned by chef Goran Kočiš, whose creative cuisine is flanked by a classy wine and cocktail list.
In Istria, on the border with Italy and Slovenia, the cuisine d’auteur is represented by Marina Gaši of the Marina Novigrad, and chef David Skoko of the Batelina restaurant, close to Pola, who is a fisherman’s son and a true expert on Adriatic fish.
New Dalmatian Cuisine
As we make our way down the coast, among the thousands of islands dotting a crystal-clear sea, Venetian influences are to be found in the many pasta recipes and the traditional crnirižot, a risotto with squid ink. However, alongside traditional fare, there is a growing number of exponents of “New Dalmatian Cuisine”.
As well as Rudi Štefan, this philosophy is shared by chef Marko Gajski of the Lešić Dimitri Palace, located on the island of Korčula, and the winegrowers of the Boškinac winery on the island of Pag, who have opened a bucolic wine resort nestling among the vineyards. At the restaurant of the Hotel Boškinac you will not be served traditional island dishes based on grilled fish and seasonal vegetables, but a modern and creative interpretation of local ingredients by chef Matija Bregeš – one of the places visited by Anthony Bourdain during the episode his programme ‘No Reservation’ dedicated to Croatia.
Start with a Visit to a Konoba
Konoba, literally meaning tavern, is a country-style venue where the food is simple – and often delicious. Offering home cooking, seating for 10 and plastic tablecloths, the Konoba Merenda of Šibenik, where time seems to stand still, is only for undemanding foodies, but there are also “posher” versions like the Konoba Boba on the island of Murter or the Konoba Opat on the island of Kornati. Konoba Fetivi in Split and Konoba Mate on the Island of Korčula are indicated by the Michelin guide as Bib Gourmand.
Even though they are the last in our list, konobas are the first places you should try, to get a feel for the flavours of the local cuisine and have the necessary cultural benchmark to understand the contemporary evolution being pursued by chefs. There is no future without memory, whether you are at work in the kitchen or sitting at the table. Dobar apetit!