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.
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 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.
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 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.
Korčula culinary tour
Quality five-star representing the pinnacle of luxury in Korčula, located in a beautifully renovated 18th-century bishop’s palace and five medieval cottages, in the heart of the Old Town. Suites are named after stages on the Silk Road travelled by alleged Korčula native Marco Polo: Venice comes with a Venetian red ceiling and theatrically large chairs that look like something from Alice in Wonderland; Arabia is hung with flowing fabrics to give it the feel of a nomad’s tent in the middle of the desert. A recurring theme throughout the hotel is provided by the cushion-piled divans and geometric-patterned wooden screens evocative of interiors from the Middle East to the Far East. All the suites have sleek modern kitchens, espresso machines, free WiFi and flat-screen TVs, although sensitive restoration has left much of the building’s original stonework and wooden beaming untouched. As well as being home to the swish LD restaurant, the Lešić-Dimitri also features a spa with a team of Thai therapists. This is pure honeymoon material – without the crowds of Dubrovnik. A member of the prestigious Relais and Chateaux association.
One of the first of the Pelješac winemakers to carve out an international reputation, Frano Miloš started straight after the collapse of communism by buying up land from the state wineries, going on to develop his delicious ‘Stagnum’ range of wines. These are mostly dry reds made from the local Plavac mali grape, although Miloš also produces a refreshing rosé. Miloš’s sunlit tasting room, built into a rocky mountainside, is the perfect place to spend a laid-back afternoon.
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.
A visit here is worth the trouble of heading off the main road that leads from Ston to Orebić and Korčula. Prosciuttos hang from the ceiling as you enter the Antunović tavern, where all food is home-made: pancetta, sausages, lamb grilled or prepared under a cooking bell, peka. You can taste age-old, traditional meals such as tripice (a sort of goulash made with lamb or veal tripe) and pikatić (lamb offal). Liquors and grappas are also products of the house, the wine from surrounding Pelješac – where else? The konoba generally offers prepared menus for a set price, and appreciates advance warning. Besides the tavern, there is a whole family-run farm with sheep, goats and donkeys. There are only 2,000 donkeys in Croatia today, and their milk costs 200kn a litre, not only because of its scarcity but also its medicinal aspects.
Luka Krajančić is one of Korčula's most enterprising contemporary wine makers, producing individually crafted Pošip wines that can hold their own with any of Mediterranean Europe's quality dry whites. A lot of Croatia's top restaurants stock Krajančić's Pošip – it would be foolish not to call in here to pick up a bottle or two.