I am a food nomad. I wander the world looking for delicious things to put in my mouth (easy tiger). My holiday is not complete without a culinary expedition, and I preferably have one of these every single day. So what does the Southern Dalmatian coast have to offer?
Nearly every menu is exactly the same – grilled fish, octopus, and steak, followed by white (shellfish) or black (squid-ink) risotto, a variety of shellfish cooked in buzara stock, and then the ubiquitous bland range of pasta and pizza. Accompanied by an overpriced winelist of 99% Croatian wine, 85% of which is oxidised, or has a prominence of volatile acidity, diacetyl or over/underuse of chemicals and preservatives. Then there will be either a $400 bottle of Moet or a $100 bottle of Jacob’s creek – just to balance the list.
Interestingly enough, the supermarkets contain no fresh seafood whatsoever. They also contain only a sparse range of vegetables – it appears the nation exists almost entirely on frozen and tinned foods.
So what, and where, do you eat and drink?
Firstly, you eat seafood, but you chose it, and your venue carefully. We were fortunate enough to live only 200m walk from what I believe might just be one of the best restaurants in the Dubrovnik area. Konoba Kasar. They bring their oysters and sea eggs (urchins) straight out of the water and onto your plate. The black risotto was the best of all the venues we tasted it at, richly flavoured, aromatic and stocky with no stink, al dente yet creamy, and deep, deep black – not the plates of charcoal-gray lumpy glue we were served at other restaurants. Their white anchovies with capers and lemons were simple, but perfect (every time), the scampi buzara sweet and fragrant, and when we finally got completely sick of the gorgeous seafood, the pastas were a little more inventive than elsewhere. If you click on the link, you may not be able to understand the language, but you can see the smiling face of our wonderful waitress, who refused to let us play cards, but encouraged us to drink as much as we wanted.
When you finally get sick of the seafood, there is a cracking little tapas bar in the Dubrovnik old town. Lucin Kantun is up one of the alleys off the main drag, and here you can perch cock-eyed on iron chairs struggling with the cobbled hill while young and inexperienced yet friendly waiters serve you reasonably priced wine and champagne. Get in early – before 8pm, the steps were filled with anticipatory diners, who were literally salivating over my lamb kebabs with honey lavender, tender grilled duck breast, and the kids’ choice of home-made spring rolls (so much better than I expected – we ordered more for the adults). They pounced on our vacated table like hyenas and only then I saw the desserts on another table – ahh… next time.
Across the bay is the famous Orsan restaurant. When we arrived, our eccentric landlord boasted the guests had included Beyonce and Michael Douglas. He may have even included James Bond at one point, but Malik was prone to excited rambling. Their boat service picked us up from the other side of the bay, and we watched the sun set over our home at Zaton Veleki while they served us icy champagne (yes, real stuff), and introduced us to Grgic Posup (more on that coming in the next post). Lobster salads, grilled local fish, and risottos were good without being spectacular – the gnocchi with shrimp and gorgonzola sauce was much better than it sounds, and the dish of the evening. The bill was a little shock – twice that of Kasar across the bay, and probably not quite as good.
Another find in the Old Town was Mea Culpa. Again, down an alley and down another alley, wedged in between another pizza taverna and a thousand year old chapel is the best pizza in Dubrovnik. Take your hand fan in summer, because it’s in the bowels of the town, and in such a small space that the fire from the oven bakes the patrons as perfectly as the flakey thin, bubbly dough. It is about as good as it gets. Topping is simple, but this pizza is the kind you eat all the way past the crust – and it’s hard to stop licking the saucy napoli left on your sticky phalanges.
Wine, as I mentioned, is bleh. This may have something to do with the history. Although the Italians and Austrians, and even in the late 1800s the French – all great wine producers – have contributed to the foundations of Croatian wine, the communist system of Yugoslavia brought a quantity rather than quality element to production, an the subsequent war destroyed much of the vine plantings. Many Croatians drink their wine diluted, and once you sample the table wine, you too will understand why.
We did discover a delightfully crisp and aromatic white, Matosevic Malvasia Alba on the first night, and a couple of fair roses further on, with our greater preference resting on the Krauthaker and Batic. We also realised that it is best to avoid Stolno Vino (table wine) if one wants to retain brain cells, and stick to the Kvalitetno Vino (Quality wine), and if possible always opt for Vrhunsko Vino – that’s the really good stuff.
Our greatest wine find was Grgic (if you roll the ‘r’, and pronounce the ‘c’ as a ‘ch’ you might just sound like a local). We started with his Posup at Orsan, and again later at Kasar (for half the price). It’s a wine local to the area, and had quite a bit to do with our second trip to the Mali Ston Peninsular. My next post will go through our intrepid search for this famous wine, and the beautiful surrounds. He is also responsible for a spectacular Plavac (pronounced Plavats) red wine, superior to the second runner of the region, Postup.
After years of travelling to Europe and partaking in the spectacular food and wine, I have to admit that this part of Croatia still disappoints for me. But I do not discount it as a food destination in the future. The limestone hills and high sunshine hours in summer promise good wine vintages, and as it moves closer to a merging with the EEC, hopefully better technique and quality control will see its way over the border – the land is there, and the sea is the cleanest in the world – there really is little excuse. Years of war will always set agriculture back, and not only that, Croatia has recently seen such a high influx in tourists that it appears they are struggling to find a balance between their own food identity and the desires of tourism. Hopefully they will soon realise that it is their job to tell the tourists what they want, not the other way around.
So, a couple of highlights in a fairly dim area, but let’s just give it five years and see what happens.