Croatia has some of its food products protected at both a national and European level, their status designated by their unique place of origin. Pag lamb (Paška janjetina) is one of them.
In the late autumn and winter months, the fierce winds that blast the island of Pag lift the seawater onto the land which, after evaporation, carpets the broken patches of flora with a thin layer of salt. Existing between a difficult terrain of sharp, rocky hills, this flora contains indigenous grasses, wildflowers and herbs, like rosemary and the sage which famously flavours Pag honey. The flavours of this salt, herbs and other island vegetation are imparted to the sheep who graze there and, in turn, to their lambs via milk. This is what grants Pag lamb its distinct, fine flavour.
There are more than 35,000 sheep roaming freely and grazing in this way on the island. This places the rearing of sheep alongside tourism, the making of Pag salt and the production of the Pag cheese (which comes from the sheeps' milk) as the island's biggest industries.
In Croatia, lamb falls way behind pork and also chicken, beef, veal and mixed, minced meat as the most often eaten. Croatian lamb is very much considered a treat and reserved for special occasions. The country's speciality lamb, including the European-protected ones of Pag and Lika are quite difficult to obtain, a sizeable portion of them are reserved in the summertime by restaurants whose speciality dishes like whole roast lamb, cooked on a spit, thrill every tourist who tastes them.
Croatia's speciality lambs are also smaller than those you might see in a supermarket, imported from New Zealand. This is because of the natural and traditional way in which they are reared. All of these factors push speciality Croatian lamb into a premium price range which excludes the meat from everyday use.
Lamb from across mainland Dalmatia is highly prized, as it that from islands like Krk and Cres, and the lamb of Lika. But, many claim Pag lamb to be the best. Alongside the breed used, the distinct flora upon which each feed is the governing factor in differentiating the tastes. There are worse things you could do than try as much Croatian lamb as possible in order to determine your own truth.
The lamb from Pag never live in a closed area. They instead spend their entire life out in the open. While still partially reliant on milk, they begin to feed on the young, new shoots of glistening grass and herbs which sprout in the early spring. They weigh from 4 to 10 kilograms and are younger than 45 days old when they are at their optimum for tenderness. Between January and March is the traditional (and still the most common) time for them to be prepared for market although, these days, this is sometimes staggered in order to provide a longer period of availability.
Their meat is exceptionally tender, moist and juicy when correctly cooked and has a full flavour which nevertheless holds many subtle notes. A recorded favourite of yesteryear's European royal households, to best appreciate Pag lamb and its distinct notes, nothing other than salt and olive oil is required as a marinade and seasoning, although the spit-roasted version does pick up a tantalizing smokey taste. Served simply roasted or grilled is the best way to fully check out the flavour, the dish best accompanied by potatoes and a dressed salad.
Click here to find out what European recognition does for Croatian produce and see all of Croatia's best delicacies which are protected