© Maja Danica Pečanić / Croatian National Tourist Board

Osijek on a plate

A guide to the paprika-rich and internationally-influenced cuisine of Osijek Baranja county and the wider region of Slavonia

Written by
Marc Rowlands
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Fresh pasta from Istria, served with generous shavings of truffle, sumptuous seafood accompanied by zesty wedges of lemon and the traditional green chard; Croatia's cuisine has become one of the more famous facets of a holiday on the country's coast. And deservedly so.

Locally-sourced flavours and ingredients are nearly always found alongside summertime coastal dishes although, with an ever-expanding gastro scene, some of Croatia's top chefs are now looking to employ adventurous techniques which allow them to experiment with such time-honoured dishes. However, Croatia's gastronomical offer extends much further than the seasonal menus of the seaside. And, after turning their attentions to the famous coastal platters of Istria and Dalmatia, the next area ripe for culinary rediscovery must surely be Slavonia.

Čobanac © Maja Danica Pečanić

The county of Osijek Baranja, located in the far east of Croatia and at the heart of the flatlands known as the Pannonian Basin, is Croatia's great unknown gastronomic star. Here, as in Istria and Dalmatia, flavours and components are selected from nearby, creating a menu in which ingredients complement each other naturally. But, the difference here is the wealth of ingredients on offer.

Dalmatia is characterised by its crystal clear Adriatic, glorious sunsets and the spectacular backdrop of the Dinaric Alps. The rock which lies beneath accounts for much of what you'll see there, from the shingle beaches to the mountain ranges. But, it won't account for everything you eat there.

While citrus-fruit trees, olives, grapes and vegetables like chard flourish in such hot conditions, the soil in Dalmatia is too dry to be able to grow in abundance everything it needs. That isn't a problem in Slavonia, where one local saying goes that if you spit on the ground, it'll result in something growing from the spot.

Fiš paprikaš
© Damir Fabijanić

Any vegetable and fruit you will find in Croatia can be grown in Slavonia, its rich agricultural land a result of its fortuitous position in the Pannonian Basin. Tens of thousands of years ago, this whole region was covered by the sea. This has created the most fertile soil in Croatia, something taken advantage of not only by farmers and industrial-level producers but also by almost every rural household. Such family dwellings in Slavonia usually have an elongated garden at the rear where you can find plum, cherry and apple trees next to rows of beans, courgettes, tomatoes, peppers and onions, plus celeriac and potatoes which grow beneath the ground. There are also many beekeepers to be found in such rural areas, responsible for producing Slavonian honey which, as one of Croatia's best delicacies, is protected at European level.

For much of the century, fruit and veg has been grown in Slavonia, shipped by boat and later, rail, then road, only to end up on the most handsome seaside restaurant tables. Add to this the widest variety of meats available anywhere in the land (and a unique knowledge of how to preserve and prepare them) and you have one of the most bountiful areas of Southern Europe.

Krvavica © Maja Danica Pečanić

Air-dried hams, known as pršut in Croatia and prosciutto elsewhere, are prized across the country, with those from Istria and Dalmatia spoken about the loudest. But the people of Slavonia know their prosciutto is just as good, although you'd be lucky to be able to try it, as most of it is exported and sold abroad. Perhaps more undisputable in their pedigree are Slavonia's sausages. Croatia's finest kobasice come from Slavonia, including the garlic-flavoured češnjovka, Slavonian kulen and Baranja kulen, lean pork-meat sausages which are protected at a European level. This genuine version, a deep rich red in colour thanks to its paprika flavouring, is simply incomparable to versions from outside the region.

Kulen © Maja Danica Pečanić

Slavonia's sausages are usually made of pork, although in some varieties a mixture of meats is used. Nothing is left to waste in the butchering of the locally-reared animals. You'll be able to find Švargl, a terrine made from offal, Čvarci, deep-fried rind (pork scratchings) and krvavica, a Croatian black pudding, also made in the region.

But pork is not the only meat you'll find in the Slavonian kitchen. Wild meats such as boar and deer, hunted in the region, are regularly used, not least in what is arguably Slavonia's, if not Croatia's, best dish, čobanac. This traditional and spicy meat stew is usually cooked for hours in a pot over a fire and the best versions contain at least two wild meats, although recipes are fiercely contested. It is deep brown and red in colour, thanks again to the inclusion of paprika.

Šaran (carp) picks up a smokey flavour when cooked traditionally, u rašljama, suspended over an open fire © Ivo Biocina

A comparable dish is fiš paprikaš, often known in the region simply as 'fish'. Using sometimes fatty fish like Šaran (carp), caught from nearby rivers like the Drava, this thinner and more soup-like paprika-flavoured stew can be seen throughout the year, cooking in pots above flames, up and down the banks of the river Drava. Slavonia's vegetables also do not escape the stew treatment in sataraš, which is comprised of peppers, onions and tomatoes. The light dish is a popular lunchtime favourite.

Beef, veal and chicken also feature heavily in the varied Slavonian diet. Domestic chickens here are usually reared for eggs and left to roam around back gardens, causing the meat to be darker, leaner and more fuller flavoured than anything shop-bought. Even more distinct are the duck and goose dishes you can try here. Their former popularity has now waned, but these traditional meats are kept alive in the Croatian cookbooks of Slavonia (if you get the rare chance to try corn-fed goose liver here, a more ethical version of foie gras, you simply must). Another goulash-style dish is perklet. You won't find this dish anywhere else in Croatia (in fact, most Croats outside the region haven't heard of it). The version using venison is particularly good and is usually a dark brown in colour, bursting with rich, deep meaty flavours.

Slavonia's often untouched countryside is a beautiful place to wander around and you might come across wildflowers growing in meadows or by the waterside. These help create some of the finest-flavoured honey to be found in Croatia, best bought straight from the producers at local markets. All of Slavonia's delicacies can, of course, be washed down with some of Croatia's finest (and cheapest) white wines, which are also grown in the region. Of the wine varieties to be found here, Riesling and Graševina are perhaps the most famous, but don't forget to look out for Slavonian Sauvignon Blanc, one of the newest varietals to be introduced to the region. In some instances, Slavonian Sauvignon Blanc can be a spectacular discovery.

A winery in Slavonia, lauded for its contemporary architecture design by Zagreb's Dva Arhitekta

With its flatlands perfect for cycling and walking holidays, its heritage well preserved and enjoyably free of tourist hordes, there are many reasons to visit historic Osijek Baranja County, not least the traditional Slavonian menu. And, if history and tradition are not your thing, you can try some of the region's more contemporary offerings, such as craft beers like Osijek's Beckers or Croatia's best pizza, the Slavonska, on which spicy sausage, ham and bacon meet hot peppers.

This article is sponsored by the Croatian National Tourist Board: 'Croatia Full of Life'.

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