In the old days, the typical staple foods of the poor were grah (a thick bean stew with or without a piece of sausage or smoked meat in it) and palenta, also called žganci or pura (boiled maize flour). The first has held its ground as a cheap gablec or marenda, a meal frequently taken by working people at mid-morning and the latter, ideally with yoghurt, is making a comeback as health food.
Sarma (rolled cabbage leaves stuffed with minced beef and pork) is one of the best inventions for women who go out to work: the more often it’s reheated, the better it tastes. Ideal to serve to unannounced guests (perfectly normal in Croatia!), say, during the long Christmas holidays.
Preparing the best fish, short for fish paprikaš, a spicy, hot fish and noodle stew is a favourite pastime for men (it’s almost exclusively ‘man’s work’!) living along the Drava and Danube river banks. Rows of cauldrons hanging over an open fire are like something out of a scene from Asterix and are a familiar sight during formal, outdoor competitions. It is a matter of elementary politeness to sound very convincing when you assure your friend that his fish is something very special. And don’t worry, the sweat running down your forehead while eating it will be spontaneous!!
Of course, you will never make the mistake of even mentioning a freshwater fish to anybody from the Adriatic coast: the previous night’s catch prepared na gradele (fish grilled on grapevine wood and generously laced with locally produced olive oil and fresh rosemary) will make you feel like a god of ancient times. Small wonder that thousands of Italians travel for hours just for the sake of that heavenly taste!!
The idea of “home, sweet home” in the North-West is normally associated with purica s mlincima (roast turkey with baked noodles) and štrukli (boiled, then oven baked crêpes with walnuts, cheese etc.): both are, beyond any doubt, authentic Croatian delicacies. Kulen from Slavonia (a kind of pork sausage, formerly served only on special occasions or given as a gift to doctors or lawyers; now a popular first course), could also claim to belong to the same category, as could paški sir (sheep’s cheese from island Pag).
Some of the locally-produced, green-gold olive oil comes from olive trees planted at the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and is still perceived as both food and as a universal medicine.
If you’re in the south, you must try the drniški pršut (cured ham from Drniš) traditionally dried in the cold wind outdoors, and if you happen to be at a folk festival in Zagorje, be sure to try the delicious kotlovina (meat and vegetables prepared in a special shallow, wide-brimmed pot).
Ignore the advice of any locals pretending to be very cosmopolitan or refined, and enjoy food that the poor used to be able to afford only on special occasions, such as janjetina na ražnju (lamb roasted on an open fire – or you could try suckling pig as an alternative) with fresh onion or janjetina ispod peke (lamb baked on a hot clay surface under a conical hood surrounded by hot embers).
Specialities from the “roštilj”(barbecue) such as čevapčići (spiced mixed minced meat) and ražnjići (a kind of kebab), newcomers from the Orient, are now well established and fully accepted.
And last but by no means least, you don’t have to be a millionaire to treat yourself to the taste of Istrian truffles unearthed in the forest undergrowth by specially trained, pretty expensive truffle dogs (and sometimes pigs). As most of you will know, the truffle has proven, magical effects on (but not limited to!) marital relations.
Locally made sweets and chocolates, not yet famous abroad (perhaps due to poor marketing) certainly compare favourably with the best in the world. The absolute leaders are the authentic Croatian brand of bajadera (nougat with almonds), griottes (Mediterranean cherries in dark chocolate with alcohol, made according to a recipe nearly a century old) and a great export item, chocolate with rice.
As you might expect, one of the sharpest dividing lines amongst Croats has nothing to do with politics, football teams or dialects. No, the safest identification mark is what one orders when one is leaning up against a šank in a tiny buffet or a konoba frequented by ordinary people. The sacrilege of asking for a gemišt (white wine with mineral water) can be committed only by somebody from the North where, allegedly, mineral water was added to the local wine in the old days, in an attempt to neutralize its acidity. The proud son of the South (Dalmatia) will drink a bevanda (red wine with water), only exceptionally drinking it neat (cijelo). This division is not unlike that separating wine and beer drinkers among the Europeans, the split only partially affecting Croats as they do not mind imbibing either, depending on the occasion, weather, type of meal, etc. ….
In the old days, the only source of water on most islands was rainwater collected from the roofs into tanks carved in the rock. To improve the taste some wine would be added even for ordinary thirst-quenching. The alternative was kvasina, diluted sour wine.
A mobile copper still which can be moved from one house to another is still a common sight in villages and small towns upcountry. A few plum trees in the back yard and you have your own home-made sliwowitz as a libation and to share (and compete!) with your friends, to offer as a sign of welcome to a visitor or as an aperitif (and after all that food earlier it will help with the digestion!).
Loza, short for lozovača, a grape based brandy, used to be the preferred strong drink of the country people from the South. Nowadays, the more sophisticated often drink a smoother version called travarica, its healing herbal extracts providing a good reason for imbibing it at any time of the day, both as an aperitif and a digestif.
Local preferences apart, the idea of a state monopoly on alcohol applying to the owners of small orchards is incomprehensible to the natives. State control is limited to large manufacturers of hard liquor and producers of quality wines.
To foreign connoisseurs, Croatia used to be first and foremost a country of rather heavy, full-bodied red wines such as dingač, postup and a number of plavac varieties from Dalmatia (the Pelješac peninsula and the islands of Hvar, Brač and Vis). The vineyards in the North (Kutjevo, Djakovo and Ilok) date back to Roman times and, until recently, primarily supplied wines for local consumption.
The fragrance of traminac was possibly most successful in finding its way to the tastebuds of specialists abroad. The revival of the private sector has brought out quite a number of enthusiasts making good and reasonably priced wines in small but well-equipped cellars.
A tip: Should you get to know a gourmet from the region of Lika (Ličanin), you might be taken to a simple eatery or (even better) to his home and your taste buds are in for a treat: the robust, unique taste of homemade Sauerkraut with smoked pork spare ribs. Of course, the path is smoothed with sliwowitz and every few mouthfuls are washed down with a good, heavy red wine.