Plucked from the sea or reared and cultivated on the land according to traditional methods, Croatian fish, meat and vegetables are then prepared with extra virgin olive oil, on wood-fired grills, on road-side spits and beneath slow-roasting, dome-shaped lids. The result is a simple but delicious Mediterranean cuisine that you can expect to find the length and breadth of Dalmatia. Istria has its own regional specialities, as does Zagreb.
Listed on nearly every Dalmatian menu, 'black risotto' is far more tasty than it sounds - or looks. Squid ink provides the distinctive colouring and satisfying flavour, squid and other seafood the meaty ingredients. Make sure you're familiar with your dining companion as this is the kind of dish that turns your teeth and tongue black - not great for a first date - but as crni rižot is usually prepared that morning and heated up, it'll arrive much quicker than something that might require time on the grill.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without fritule, little battered doughnut balls dusted with powdered sugar and filled with rum and raisins. Different households may add a touch of lemon zest or grated orange peel here and there, but the key here is sharing. Fritule are not exclusive to the season of goodwill, but available most of the year round as a special treat.
A fish stew most associated with the island of Hvar, though you’ll find similar versions across Dalmatia, gregada is often made with scorpion fish or grouper – whatever is fresh that day is chopped into large chunks and added to a pot of generously sliced potatoes and lashings of olive oil. Chefs then add their own extras, usually parsley, but all simmer the pot on a slow heat, shaking it from time to time, keeping the chunks whole. Serve with wine and a winning sunset.
Ispod peke, literally translated as under the bell, is a classic feature on many Dalmatian menus. It’s not a dish, it’s a method of preparation involving slow- cooking under a dome-shaped lid, covered in hot ashes. For a proper peka meal, you should order from the restaurant that morning or even a day in advance. Typically, you can choose from octopus, lamb or veal, but other meats and fish are often on offer. The distinctively succulent flavours are unique, complemented by a substantial serving of potatoes. Bring an appetite.
In Istria truffles are more than just a cottage industry – they’re big business. Look out for restaurants with the tartufo vero sign, which means they’ve met Istria’s high standards for handling and serving the delicacy. In Livade, weekends in October see the judging of the best truffle, cookery classes and truffle auctions. Here you’ll find Istria’s most famous truffle restaurant, Zigante.
Slavonian kulen is made by hand from special cuts of top quality pork sourced from mature pigs, and takes nine months to cure naturally. It’s dry, spicy and when sliced has the same saturated colour and distinctive texture throughout – the only additives are salt, garlic and red paprika. At summer’s kulen festivals, kulenijada, notably in Vinkovci, the previous year’s batch reaches perfection.
Scampi from Kvarner Bay are considered the best in this part of Europe. In Istria as well as Kvarner you’ll find them boiled, grilled, prepared in sauce, marinated, breaded, wrapped in Istrian ham, spit-roasted and even raw, embellished by first-class olive oil.
Like wine, Croatia’s olive-oil cultivation dates back to Roman times. And, like wine, for decades the industry was nationalised and standardised for the benefit of quantity over quality. In Istria, in particular, a new, independent generation has developed the production of small-batch, high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil. The Istrian Tourist Board has even produced a route map so that you can visit these family-run groves – the map will lead you to tiny villages and hamlets, many set in spectacular landscapes.
Croatian oysters have a more intense flavour than their Atlantic counterpart. The most renowned varieties come from Ston on Pelješac in Dalmatia, and the Limski kanal in Istria. In both lesser-visited locations, the adventurous traveller will be rewarded by finding casual vendors purveying divine oysters by the side of the road or from a makeshift outlet, as fresh as it gets.
Local sheep grazing in the salty air, Bura wind and on vegetation particular to Pag produce milk of a flavour equally specific to this island in northern Dalmatia. Sheeps’ cheese has been produced here for centuries, generations of expertise going into each distinctive wheel you see lining the shelves of the traditional stone houses dotted alongside the fields. Matured for up to 18 months, similar in texture to Parmesan, these cheeses are then sold at markets and to restaurants, where paški sir is a regular feature as a starter or dessert.
Inhabited by more sheep than humans, the island of Pag produces lamb of a particular delicacy, lean and pale pink in colour, best prepared spit-roasted. The key to this unique flavour is the milk that the young lambs are reared on, local sheep grazing on aromatic herbs in saline surroundings. Late spring and early summer are thought the best times to consume Pag lamb, the meat also marinated in rosemary, thyme and other natural herbs.
A revered Dalmatian dish with culinary links to southern France, pašticada is a stew of marinated beef, prunes, figs and alcohol of some sort, wine or prosecco. A proper pašticada requires some 24 hours of preparation, including giving the meat an overnight soak in vinegar, garlic and usually bacon. Served with gnocchi, it’s a dish served on certain saints’ days or at weddings.
Given the current global trend for hamburgers, their Balkan cousin, pljeskavica, has become popular in European cities as a more appetising curiosity. Essentially a large patty of minced meat, a slightly spicy mix of beef and lamb, pljeskavica is served similarly to ćevapčići, with large dollops of ajvar pepper relish and a small mound of chopped raw onion. In local restaurants, it also comes with lepinja flatbread though tourists are usually happier to see a side of chips instead.
To try real Croatian prosciutto ham in its home setting, head to Konavle in Dalmatia and the traditional pršut-producing village of Duba, where the deserted karst hills and the dry winter Bura wind create the perfect conditions for production. The finest air-dried hams come from small family estates and cost between 100kn and 140kn a kilo.
This ubiquitous Dalmatian dessert is the Croatian equivalent of crème caramel, a custard pudding whose key local ingredient, rose liqueur, is the reason for its regional name of rožata. In less discerning tourist restaurants, you may be served inferior versions made with vanilla extract but a decent kitchen, particularly in Dubrovnik, should be able to produce the traditional version. Often maraschino cherry liqueur gives it an equal kick.
Don’t think of cans or crowded buses – here in Croatia, sardines are the kind of thing to be celebrated by star chef Anthony Bourdain. Fresh-caught and grilled to perfection, they're full of white meat and flavoured with a little lemon and oil. They can even be made into a brodetto stew, with some tomatoes, herbs and a little wine.
Found in and around Zagreb and Zagorje, up to and beyond the border with Slovenia, štrukli are a cousin of strudel, filled pillows of dough served as dessert or enjoyed as a treat mid morning or mid-afternoon. Baked or boiled, these small but hefty portions are invariably filled with cottage cheese and slathered in cream.
Though less celebrated than their more sought-after cousin, the truffle, wild mushrooms can be delicious and are far more versatile. In autumn, particularly around Istria after a wet spring, they are often sold at the side of the road, arranged by type – ask the vendor for cooking tips. Families also set aside entire Sundays for mushroom picking, though if you head off on your own, make sure you know what you’re throwing into the pan afterwards.
Let's be honest - the best burek in the region is usually found in Bosnia rather than Croatia, where a lot of what you find is greasy and disappointing. But many bakeries take the time and trouble to prepare it well, filling these flaky, layered pastries with cheese, apple or meat. Cheese-and-spinach is also popular. If breakfast isn't a part of the deal in the hotel or hostel where you're staying, burek is the ideal cheap filler to take you through from mid-morning to early evening.
...or ćevapi for short, fat little sausages of minced meat - ideally a beef/lamb mix - are a Balkan stable, either eaten as street food or in standard domestic restaurants. Usually ordered in portions of three (if you're feeling frugal), five (standard), seven (hefty) or ten (pushing the boat out), these savoury favourites always come with a blanket-sized helping of flatbread, lepinje, served on the side in eateries or wrapped around the meat if you're taking away. Equally de rigueur are copped onions and ajvar, the fire-red condiment of peppers and aubergine.