It goes without saying that tourism is an essential part of Croatia's economy. Such is its importance, any perceived drop in growth causes near panicked reverberations within the country's media and institutions. As the Croatian tourism industry looks to diversify, hoping to extend Croatia's tourist potential throughout all of its regions and seasons, it's nevertheless possible that improvements could yet still be made in the already popular summer months. It is vital that Croatia is viewed as a welcoming and accommodating holiday destination. Yet a 2018 survey places the country near the bottom of places good to visit if you are a vegetarian.
The 2018 study, conducted by comparison site The Eco Experts, looked at how easy it is to maintain a vegetarian diet in 26 European countries. Croatia was marked as the sixth worst country in Europe for vegetarians, coming only ahead of Greece, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark and Portugal, which was the worst. Switzerland was officially marked as the best European country for vegetarians, with the Nordic countries of Finland, Norway and Sweden coming second, third and fourth respectively.
To measure a country's vegetarian friendliness, the study compared three statistics; the number of vegetarian-friendly restaurants per 100,000 people, annual meat consumption per person, and the average price for one kilo of meat. Perhaps Croatia's low scoring isn't surprising; meat is a major part of the Croatian diet. A 2014 survey stated that almost 30 percent of household expenditure was spent on food and drinks with almost three percent of that being spent on meat.
But traditions and trends in Croatia don't tell the full story. Ten years ago, visiting Croatia as a vegetarian (or as a fan of craft beer) would have been a different experience to what it is today. Just as Croatia has experienced an awakening in terms of craft beer enjoyment, it is beginning to with vegetarian cooking. But then, it really shouldn't be that difficult; catering for vegetarians is just a part of offering a well-rounded service to all guests. It makes very little sense to turn someone away from your restaurant because they want to eat a meal whose ingredients cost a fraction compared to that of the meat eater sat by their side. However, the widely accepted standards of how to adhere to vegetarianism, of actually understanding it, still remain out of reach to many in Croatia.
In recent memory, while sitting in a Dalmatian restaurant with a group of friends that contained two visiting vegetarians, the limited menu available to them was not the end of their trials. Both chose to order povrće na žaru (grilled vegetables). 'These are the most delicious grilled vegetables I've ever had!' exclaimed one, the other agreeing. When it was, perhaps unkindly, pointed out to them that the extra dimension of flavouring they were enjoying came from the meat grill (the black remnants of which charred their food) and the meat fats that were on it, their facial expressions transitioned rapidly from wide-eyed and shocked, to saddened and then sadly resigned.
Catering for vegetarians is often not commonplace in Croatia. Should you be invited to your Croatian friend's family home when grandma is cooking, only to have to explain to her that you don't eat meat, it's possible your announcement could be met with bewilderment or even pity. Grandma's bafflement would no doubt be compounded the fact that, at numerous times in her life, she and her immediate family have gone without meat. But, unlike you, they will have done so not out of choice. Without giving grandma prior warning, it's likely you'll get the same meal as everyone else, just without the meat.
But, its really not all doom and gloom for vegetarians in or visiting Croatia. Nor should it be. As vegetarianism and veganism rise among young people everywhere, the same trends are mirrored in Croatia. It's a lot more likely these days that grandma (and the chef with only one grill) will have encountered several vegetarians. In Zagreb just last week, vegan lifestyle could not have been more visible, as the ZeGeVege Festival took place on the city's central square. What's more besides, vegetarian cuisine is nothing new here; meat free meals are part of the staple Croatian diet.
Grandma's necessitated meat free cooking has been practised and perfected over many generations. Almost everyone in Croatia will regularly eat sataraš, a vegetarian stew of Hungarian inspiration made from peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices. Krpice sa zeljem is perhaps not the most exciting of dish, its pasta and stewed cabbage mix usually served as an accompaniment rather than a stand alone main meal, but it's a good base. Zagreb staple štrukli is a savoury cheese pie which can be cooked several ways and is particularly nice when baked. There's bučnica, a savory squash and cottage cheese strudel and other cheese pastries like zlevanka, and gibanica too. The carb-heavy krumpiruša comes in several styles and can be delicious, particularly when made using white pepper. Soparnik, a thin pastry pie with a filling of Swiss chard, is a specialty dish from a part of Dalmatia. Burek, a regular go-to meal at any time of day - the equivalent of buying a pasty or pie from a bakery elsewhere - is the larger, standard cousin of soparnik. Despite protestations from across the border in Bosnia (where “Burek je samo s mesom!” - Burek is only with meat!) it regularly comes in cheese and Swiss chard flavours.
"Burek je samo s mesom" Burek is only with meat! (a diktat observed in Bosnia, but famous across all countries of the former Yugoslavia and the source of a thousand memes)
At family gatherings in Croatia it's common that meat takes centre stage at the dining table, with multiple side dishes surrounding. But just watch where the forks head first after grace. The family recipe of battered and fried aubergine or courgette fritters is not something Croatian children can often replicate after leaving the family home. Such treats can take a lifetime to master and there's little chance your wife's family will have taught her the exact same recipe and technique. Sons returning from months of working in Ireland, Germany or the far east will make light work of such homemade delicacies, while the prized meat remains as yet untouched in the middle of the table. They can, after all, buy meat anywhere. But mom's special vegetable dishes are impossible to reproduce.
Year upon year, Croatia welcomes more tourists and, year upon year, the diversity of those visiting increases. The numbers of vegetarians and vegans visiting Croatia is only going to increase, in response to encroaching environmental factors, a growing awareness of such and the fact that vegetarianism is gaining traction among young people everywhere. Croatia is definitely getting better at catering for them while they're here and indeed after their trip is finished (many famous Croatian exports can now be taken home by vegetarian visitors, such as Liburnski cheese, which is made with microbial instead of animal rennet). But clearly, as this survey suggests, there is still a long way to go. Might not some of the solution to Croatia's poor standing in such a survey already exist within the country? Perhaps results might look very different if we saw innovative versions of traditional, homecooked Croatian cuisine more readily available on the country's restaurant menus?