Croatia has long been recognised for its grand old cities and its wonderful swimming, sailing and beaches. But strangely, it doesn’t have a reputation for its cuisine.
The local ingredients are tremendous, the cooking is straightforwardly stylish and there are dozens of wineries, all of which will be delighted to welcome you in for tastings accompanied by authentic local dishes. We’ll go back to Pelješac and Korčula again and again – it’s got just as much sun, comparably good food and far friendlier locals than Tuscany, without the latter’s Chiantishire overcrowding.
The foodie road trip
It was three o’clock in the morning and the manager of the Lešič Dimitri Palace, a former opera singer, was belting out ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in between swigs of lemon rakija. The assembled hotel guests, glowing with good wine and small-hours camaraderie,were enraptured. The Liverpool supporter sat next to me was close to tears, and gazed adoringly at the wild-haired, barrel-chested singer now tipsily segueing from Gerry And The Pacemakers to ‘Nessun Dorma’.
We were on the island of Korčula, just off the tip of Pelješac (pronounced ‘Pellyshatz’) – a beautiful peninsula which juts out into the Adriatic – and had just come to the end of a foodie road trip. It had kicked off four nights earlier in Dubrovnik, a decent foodie destination itself and a city whose beauty compares with Venice, its main rival for centuries.
From there we made our way along winding mountain roads to Ston, at the foot of the Pelješac peninsula. Ston is famous for three things: it’s home to the second longest wall in Europe (after Hadrian’s); it produces excellent sea salt; and it has some of the world’s best oysters, which we knocked back by the dozen, along with a bottle of honeysuckle-tinged pošip white. We liked the wine so much that later on, during a tour of the island of Korčula, we visited the vineyard it came from, Krajančić Luka (firstname.lastname@example.org, +385 98 427 873) and met its creator, Luka.
He seemed a quiet, gentle character, but lost all his inhibitions after a couple of glasses of the good stuff, and started spontaneously and passionately quoting his own poetry at us – in Croatian. He was also a superb cook: as he talked us through a tasting session, conducted in his cabin on the beach, he plied us with amazing octopus stew, cooked in his own ‘Intrada’ wine, fresh-baked caraway seed bread with high-octane olive oil and smoky barbecued crayfish.
Vines and ancient olive groves
The peninsula is slim – you’re never far from a sea view – and hilly, covered in vines and ancient olive groves, with the occasional flurry of orange trees. Wild thyme, rosemary and lavender grow in great thickets along the roadside (one of the reasons the lamb here tastes so good is that they feed on the herbs, effectively ensuring they’re marinaded while still alive). Some areas, like Dingač, are so steep that vines are planted on 60-degree slopes, and grape pickers have to harness themselves to ropes and abseil down to gather the crop.
Pelješac is scattered with small villages and hamlets filled with centuries-old stone buildings, and is sparsely populated for much of the year, with spikes over the summer and in the olive harvesting month of November. The sun beats down from March to early December, and swimming off the rocky shoreline is superb.
We travelled around in a minibus, listening to a mix of soft rock and klapa, the music of local a cappella singing groups, and, in between the gluttonous indulgence, we stopped off at vineyards, restaurants and several settlements.
An especially lovely break was Korčula, the main city (although it’s still pretty tiny) on the island of the same name, which has maintained its simple beauty despite having been invaded on a near-continuous basis throughout much of its existence. The streets there are staggered, to stop residents being chilled by the powerful Yugo and Bora winds which blow across the island, and the cathedral is blessed with a beautiful Tintoretto painting as its centrepiece. There’s also a hilarious gargoyle of an elephant, created in the fourteenth century by a stonemason who had never seen an elephant but made the best hack at it he could based on hearsay.
Where to eat
Memorable meals are everywhere in this region, and you don’t have to pay a fortune to get them. One of the best we had was in a rough and ready konoba (farm tavern) called the Antunovič, in the village of Kuna (+385 20 742 035) on Pelješac. A forest of hams hung from the roof, alongside net-wrapped sausages, sides of pork ribs and strings of garlic, and everything sold was made by the farmer-cum-restaurateur who was drinking and talking politics with his mates at the next table.
Croatian culinary tour
Dubrovnik (+385 20 442 526, www.esculap-teo.hr). Nautika is a feel-good eatery on a quiet bay just outside the medieval city walls that offers a crash course in local seafood in the form of the ‘Island of Šipan Fisherman’s Plate’ – a sort of Croatian bento box filled with buttery anchovies, fat prawns and citrussy octopus diced with tomato and spring onions, all served with a soothing glass of chilled malvasija, a lovely crisp white. After this prelude, try a belter of an oyster cream soup followed by a dish of john dory with bouncingly fresh lobster.
Just outside Ston (www.milos.hr, +385 098 196 52 54). Frano Miloš is one of the few Croatian winemakers to have gained an international reputation. As soon as Croatia gained its independence and private enterprise was allowed, he bought some land from the collectivised state wineries and started making his delicious ‘Stagnum’ range of wines, which you can try during a laid-back afternoon in his sunlit tasting room built into a rocky mountainside.
Frano Milina Bire
On the island of Korčula(+ 385 98 344 712). Frano Milina Bire is a winery where you can snack on crumbly ewe’s cheese with capers, toasted almonds and slivers of pršut ham washed down with balloon-sized glasses of punchy plavac mali red (like pošip, a grape variety native to Croatia). A typical main course is delicious goat risotto, first created a lifetime ago by the owner’s grandfather to celebrate Tito’s visit to the island. It’s the best dictator party food you’ll ever taste.
We took the edge off our hunger with some of his free-pouring rakija, flavoured with sprigs of herbs, wild berries, pomegranates, cherry and kumquats. Then we tore strips off black-bottomed, freshly baked bread and piled our plates with olives, twists of air-dried beef, slivers of bacon and sparky pickled shallots.
We followed up with a huge pan of lamb, veal and pork chops, slow-cooked on sliced apples and potatoes in a bell-shaped peka pot covered in ash. Twinned with a powerful plavac mali wine, it was a thing of carnivorous beauty and the whole meal including plenty of alcohol cost only £12 a head.
Four-day gourmet tours can be arranged through 1001 Delicija, from €520 per person (+385 98 228 386, www.1001delicija.com).
There’s a range of flights from London airports to Zagreb, Dubrovnik or Split; see www.skyscanner.com to compare prices.
Pelješac is a very pleasant five- to six-hour drive down from Zagreb, two hours from Split or 90 minutes from Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik, try the Hotel Valamar Lacroma (+385 20 449 100, www.valamar.com, doubles from £61). In Korčula there’s the idiosyncratic and gorgeous Hotel Lešic Dimitri Palace (+385 020 715 560, www.lesic-dimitri.com), plush apartments from £300.