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History in a Dish – Croatian Food

If you go to Zagorje, try the local štrukli (a type of strudel). If you find yourself in Slavonia, try the kulen (a hot and spicy salami). If you lose your way in the heart of Istria, don’t miss the local venison stew with macaroni noodles. If you end up in Dalmatia, don’t forget to try the black risotto… Croatian cuisine is distinctly regional; sampling each one of the local specialties is an exceptional and totally different experience

Croatian cuisine? We would indeed be in a quandary if we had to chose a single dish or a single menu. Croatian cuisine is distinctly regional, and sampling each one of the local specialties is an exceptional and totally different experience. It can roughly be divided into Mediterranean and continental, even though the Mediterranean cuisine along the coast differs from the cuisine found in the hinterland or on the smaller islands, not to mention the differences between specialties found in Istria and northern and southern Dalmatia.

The same can be said of the country’s interior, where differences in the landscapes, with mountains and valleys, reflect the differences in local dishes: the opulence of the Pannonian plain in Slavonia and Podravina stands in contrast to the western, more meager and less demanding regions such as Medimurje, Moslavina, Zagorje, Posavina, Banovina and the rocky, more restrained Lika.

Since Croatia has been a crossroads for both conquerors and merchants for centuries, a number of good trade routes passed through the region, such as those for spices. Soon after the discovery of the New World, for example, different foods and methods of preparing them appeared, and this created new eating habits. This resulted in a specific, refined mixture of different types of cuisine, today known as Italian, Oriental and then Central European, from Hungarian to Viennese, ranging from rural to urban styles to the sophisticated aristocratic favorites from a few centuries back.

Although Croatian cuisine is often gladly represented by a full table, with several courses and heavy foods, particularly meat and side dishes, contemporary dietary trends highly value Mediterranean cuisine with its many varieties of fish, shellfish and mollusks accompanied by cooked vegetables and wild plants, lightly seasoned with virgin olive oil and aromatic herbs. The lighter parts of Lika cuisine are also very healthy: cooked lamb with fresh cabbage, as well as sauerkraut, potatoes and fermented cheeses (basa and škripavac).

Surely one of the best-known specialties is the štrukli from Zagorje. Don’t miss the opportunity to try it in a soup, cooked or baked, savory or sweet, as an hors-d’ouvre or main course, as a snack or dessert. The authentic kulen, perhaps one of the best home-made spicy salamis, is also greatly appreciated, as are the many types of delicatessen products (the famous Gavriloviæ salami). In Pannonian Croatia you can find spicy fish stews (fiš-paprikaš), the èobanac (a “shepherd stew” made with several types of meat) and goulashes made from wild game. Poultry is also a much-loved meat: the specialty of Meðimurje is roasted duck with buckwheat porridge, while in Zagorje they similarly like roasted turkey with mlinci (a type of home-made pasta). In Turopolje, just south of Zagreb, roasted goose is the order of the day.

The northeastern parts of Croatia are renowned for their pork dishes, either salted or smoked, which is served in thin slices with fresh cheese and cream or dry cheese (prge or luroš), fresh onions, tomatoes and peppers. Ham cooked with sauerkraut is also a favorite. The sauerkraut is prepared using a natural, time-honored method and best eaten with blood pudding. In Croatia people also love to eat nourishing soups, casseroles and similar dishes with many vegetables. The inhabitants of the coast enjoy fine fish, either grilled (na gradele) or simply cooked (lešo). Even so, there are plenty of other delicious fish recipes: buzara (fish or shellfish in a special sauce), brodet (similar to Italian brodetto) and seafood risottos and salads.

Dalmatian and Istrian smoked hams (pršut) can match any Italian prosciutto. The same can be said of the fine coastal cheeses, from those made by shepherds on the island of Pag to those soaked in olive oil which can be found in the Dubrovnik environs. The Neretva Valley is known for its frog specialties, while the Sinj peka (a type of iron pan for baking bread) in which lamb, goat and leg of veal are baked, is said to have a history of 3,000 years! The harsh, rocky terrain has forced people to learn the art of using wild vegetables (such as asparagus and capers) and mushrooms, as well as the art of preserving food (olives, anchovies, dried figs).

Every person has to discover for him- or herself the variety of high quality bread and pasta (fuži, rezanci, trganci), as well as the variety poultry and wild game dishes. There are all sorts of pastries and cakes, ranging from puènica s makom (cake with poppy seeds) and orahnjaèa (walnut cake) to the smokvenjak (a dried fig dessert) and paprenjak (spice cake) from Hvar. The excellent meals are always accompanied by high-quality Croatian wines, from the famous hearty dingaè from Pelješac to the Istrian malmsey, the Traminer from Ilok and the graševina (similar to the Riesling) from Kutjevo.

Croatian brandies (rakija) are also well known: along the coast there is loza and travarica, while in the continental regions the well-known plum brandy šljivovica can be found. The Croatian liqueurs are also in a class of their own, such as the fine Dalmatian prošek, the Samobor bermet and Zadar’s maraskino. There are also the wonderful but rare medica and licitar, which can these days only be found at the church festivals in northwestern Croatia. If you are ever invited to a konoba (a small inn) on a Dalmatian island or a klijet (vineyard cottage) in Zagorje, you will not only experience friendship and warmth, but also get the opportunity to taste the best that Croatian cuisine has to offer.

There is no better place than a cool konoba to try the thinly-sliced, wind-dried pršut or bacon topped with black or green olives that were washed in the sea. This is followed by a toast with the intoxicating, tannin-flavored red wines served in a wooden jug that circles the table for hours. Accompanied by the characteristic local mellow singing, there is no better way to conclude a wonderful culinary experience.

(author : Bozica Brkan, Croatia — The Croatia Airlines Travel Magazine)

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