Croatia has some of its food products protected at both a national and European level, their status designated by their unique place of origin. Neretva mandarins (Neretvanska mandarina) are one of them.
Travelling down the entire length of the Croatian coast, the Adriatic highway or Magistrala hugs the shoreline affording wonderful views of the sea and nearby islands. But, around 40 kilometres south of Makarska, on the way to Neum and Dubrovnik, it suddenly veers inland. Your view of the sea disappears. As the road rises, the vista returns, the sea replaced by a vast flood plain. Natural and managed pools of water run along the surface separating a mismatched patchwork of agricultural endeavours. Standing in stark contrast to the uniform rows of olive trees and grapevines seen everywhere else along the coast, this is a breathtakingly beautiful topography. This is the Neretva Delta.
Covering around 12,000 hectares within Croatia, of which over 10% is strictly protected, the Neretva Delta is rich in rivers, wetlands, rare birds and fish. The communities living in its surroundings utilise the wetlands for farming and have a distinct cuisine which stems from this natural asset. Speciality river fish, snail, eel and frog dishes can all be found in nearby restaurants.
Within the rich soils of the river Neretva's valley, many fruits such as watermelons and lemons are cultivated. Between Ploče, Metković and Opuzen lies an area where, almost exclusively, high-yielding citrus fruit trees have replaced the vineyards which once grew here. Less than 100 years old, the mandarin orchards here originated from one single Japanese variety. But, today, around ten slightly different varieties are cultivated, allowing the harvest to be staged over many weeks between the end of summer and throughout autumn.
Over one million of the moderately-sized mandarin trees yield over 60,000 tonnes of fruit each year. Nearer in appearance to a tangerine than an orange, and slightly less acidic, Neretva mandarins are an easily peeled and easily segmented fruit which are highly prized across Croatia. Their repute has been ensured because of their consistency; they only ever hit the market when they are ripe, wonderfully fragrant and extremely sweet. When picked, they are not simply plucked from the plant. Instead, like the vine tomatoes you see in the supermarket, they are individually cut from the tree with the stem and sometimes a leaf or two still attached. This ensures no diminishing of the fruit's sweetness on its journey to market and then the home.
Click here to find out what European recognition does for Croatian produce and see all of Croatia's best delicacies which are protected