We start with cherry brandy. Everybody seems to make brandy and it’s the first thing they serve to guests.
We came to Croatia not knowing what to expect for the food scene after having heard emphatic reports both good and bad. With our foodie inclinations we hoped for the best but really, who was right? Was the wine thin and acidic and the food mainly well-done fish or Austrian-inspired meat and potatoes? Or were Italian finesse, Greek passion and Mediterranean sourcing the dominant culinary drivers?
You know you are in the presence of a serious cook when you’re presented with four homemade brandies to choose from.
We divided our experience into two distinct categories: pre-Josko and post-Josko. Josko is a native of Split with a fierce loyalty to his region and country. He loves food and makes his own wine. And he knows people. Before Josko arrived, we ate at a couple local eateries in Split with indifferent results—“risotto” made with long-grain rice, fish stew savory with chicken broth, bland dry red wine. When Josko arrived, everything changed—the wine became outstanding (if more expensive), the seafood tender, juicy and balanced with citrus, capers and veggies, the bread and pizza fresh and crunchy. We quickly handed the meal decisions to Josko.
Grappa is a special case of homemade brandy and THE specialty of ordinary Croatians. It begins with a truckload of grape skins discarded after making wine.
Everybody in the debate is likely right. It depends who you listen to—and more importantly, who you know!
Here is a classic grappa still, located in a cellar. Grappa is offered before or after a meal, and can have widely-varying levels of alcohol.
Which brings up a key point of our whole bike adventure: we consistently out-ate our pedaling. You could safely assume we had a net positive calorie score because we didn’t cycle uber-long distances and, more to the point, Mike and Josko kept presenting us with outstanding food and wine. “Fat and fit” was our motto (respects to Dave Gluck). And yet….preliminary reports suggest very little weight gain among the participants, which means:
a) we lie, or
b) we walked a lot when we weren’t cycling, or
c) we have trouble converting kgs to lbs, or
d) Croatian wine has special weight-reducing properties,or
e) all of the above
Take your pick and make your best case…and excuse us while we return to the table!
A memorable meal starts with a memorable setting. Here we await our Octopus Peka in the farmhouse garden near Hvar Town.
“Peka” refers to the cooking vessel, a bell-topped pan immersed in coals for long, slow cooking. Here the chef (with Josko) shows us the fire and peka.
The chef removes the bell lid, designed to hold coals, to reveal the octopus and potatoes.
Meanwhile, we explore an appetizer tray of local delicacies: octopus salad, tuna or sea bass tartare, olives, thinly-sliced octopus, spicy pickled cherry tomatoes, and shrimp…
…until our octopus peka arrives. It was a good as it looks!
Croatian beers are mainly pilseners and lagers. Ozujsko is a crisp, refreshing pilsener with a great name–O-zhuz-ko.
Karlovacko is a prominent brand that makes pilsener, lager and a German-style dark beer. Given an alcohol content in the low 4% range, we found the 0.5 liter pilsener a favorite lunch choice.
Plavac Mali is the favored red wine grape, a descendent of ancient Zinfandels. Posip is the grape behind signature Croatian white wines. Both types create slightly dry wines with distinctive floral finishes, attributable to the climate and limestone soil. We could spend the equivalent of $30-35 a bottle in restaurants for outstanding wine.
Back to food…Taj Mahal in Dubrovnik surprised us with great Bosnian dishes–starting with Bey’s Soup…
….continuing with a grilled lamb skewer….
…ending with a baked apple filled with walnuts, chocolate and honey. Yes, we found wonderful food in Croatia when we knew where to look!