Land of delights Local truffles, oysters and goat’s cheese – a mouthwatering marathon across the northern Croatian peninsula of Istria.
You could, of course, simply spend your time here lazing on the beach, eating ćevapčići and quaffing cheap red wine. But you would miss out on pretty much everything Istria has to offer. With its mountains, villages and medieval towns, the Croatian peninsula is very like Tuscany in Italy – but with an untamed, unspoilt quality all its own. Rich soils and clean water provide the basis for excellent ingredients, and many people here are dedicated to good taste. Time to pay them a visit on a culinary journey of discovery.
1 OYSTERS in Vrsar
It’s six o’clock in the morning on Lim Fjord, an inlet that stretches a good ten kilometers inland, in the west of the peninsula. All is still until one of the men starts up the engine and the floating workshop moves off. It’s really a raft with a roofed section that doubles as a coffee-making area and office. Beside it is a stainless steel bench for cleaning the catch. All around us are hoses, lines, plastic baskets and basins suspended from hooks. There’s a steady wind blowing, and it’s cold. Three men in oilskins and gumboots are on board. Iván Bratović, 37, with laugh lines and short, cropped hair, is one of them. The head of the crew, he and two friends took over the Istrida shellfish farm 11 years ago. They sell mussels and clams, but their most valuable product is the European oyster, which requires particulary clean water.
Oysters have long been a delicacy in Istria, and have been farmed on Lim Fjord since ancient times. The men reach one of the bays in which today’s harvest has been grown. Blue, green and black buoys indicate where the oysters lie, in baskets of 100 apiece. Others grow on vertical lines let down in the water – the traditional form of cultivation with which the men occasionally experiment. Using hooks and a winch, they haul the crop out of the water: black lumps covered in reddish-yellow seaweed, two-and-a-half years old. It’s the best age for an oyster. Bratović pulls out a knife, frees three oysters of the roughest dirt and opens them. A squirt of lemon juice to underscore the mineral flavor – perfect!
2 Wine in Krasica
Is there a secret to good wine? Rubbish, no such thing, says Giorgio Clai. “It’s simply a question of the time you devote to the wine, how closely you scrutinize it, feel it, smell it, taste it.” Clai produces varietal wines and cuvées, and all of them are organic. His specialty are ancient Istrian grapes: the white Malvasia and the red Refosco, which he ferments on the must and entirely without additives. This allows the wild yeasts contained in the skin to become active. The result is “nature wine” to some, to others “orange wine.” Clai, 59, gray-haired with a pepper-and-salt, five-day beard, states simply: “I just call it wine.”
The man is stubborn and enjoys playing the rebel. He cares nothing for awards and prizes, although he has amassed quite a few. To Clai, what’s more important are “the people who come to me and try my wine, the conviviality. That’s what wine is for, isn’t it?” If there’s an accolade he can accept, then it’s this: “That at the end of their visit, people place an order for their wedding.”
Natural winegrowing methods fell by the wayside for a while in Istria because they allow for less control, which makes planning more difficult. How the yeasts develop depends on the sun in summertime, on the temperature of the wind in the fall, and on the rainfall in-between times. But it’s that interplay of nature and coincidence that Clai adores – along with experimenting. What happens if we leave the grapes on the vine one week longer? Sometimes hail will destroy an entire crop and all of the work invested will have been in vain. That’s why some people call him a freak or a crazy hippie. But he is not alone in his quest. Dimitri Brečević, 38, who has his own small vineyard nearby and also works for Clai, is a “comrade in arms.” “Sometimes we feel like inmates in a mental institution,” he says, “we look out the window and say: Luckily we’re not out there with all the crazy people.” What comes next? Clai produces a wooden board with smokey bacon and cheese, then fills our glasses: a cuvée of Malvasia, Pinot gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon. The wine is the color of pale copper and wonderfully multilayered in flavor. These crazy hippies are absolutely right!
1 WINE IN KRASICA | 2 TRUFFLES IN PALADINI | 3 OYSTERS IN VRSAR | 4 CHEESE IN KRNICA
3 Truffles in Paladini
For a long time, the farmers of Istria had no idea what to do with the strange-smelling tubers they found growing in the ground. They called them “devil’s potatoes” and left them to the wild pigs. In the late 1920s, a visiting Italian enlightened the locals about the value of the truffles lying right at their feet in the forests all around. Today, there is hardly a corner of Central Istria where you won’t find a couple of truffle hounds yelping in their kennels. These animals are kept busy practically all year round, with black truffles in season from April to August, and the more costly white truffles in season and ready for harvesting from September to January.
The dog owners always hand a good portion of the truffles they find to the Karlić family in the tiny village of Paladini. Father, mother and son Ivan all trade in the tasty tubers. The boy, now 23, had only just learned to walk when she started taking him with her into the woods to hunt for truffles, says mother Radmila, 45. She taught him to look under hazelnut and oak trees especially, because that is where the best specimens are usually found. At the age of 14, Ivan bought himself his first bicycle with the proceeds from the sale of his largest truffle discovery to date, a white specimen weighing 203 grams. Now Ivan scours the woods every day with his dogs and sometimes, he also takes visitors along.
Back at the family shop, Radmila sells not only fresh truffles, but also truffle liqueur, truffle pesto and their latest product, Truffella, a kind of chocolate spread laced with truffle. At the end of a truffle hunt, successful or not, Radmila always makes scrambled eggs and serves them with a centimeter-thick layer of grated fresh truffle – what else?
4 Goat’s cheese in Krnica
Aleš Winkler’s pastures cover 260 hectares of land and extend between the tiny villages of Mutvoran and Krnica on the quieter, eastern side of Istria. His 250 goats graze there. Graze? In these meadows, the grass is lavishly interspersed with wild rocket, sage, mint and thyme, which furnish almost all the seasoning needed for the cheese Winkler makes from his goats’ milk. He adds just one ingredient to a single variety of cheese, and that’s a handful of saffron.
Once a lawyer practicing in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, Winkler upped sticks nine years ago and moved with his wife and two very small children to this remote corner of Croatia. They began their new life in a dilapidated farmhouse, where they set up the first organic cheese dairy in Istria. Winkler does not like to talk about his old life, divulging only this: “At 20, you don’t know what you’ll be doing at age 30. At 30, you don’t know what you’ll be doing at age 40. At 40, you have an appallingly clear idea of what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life.” These days, he thinks up something new each year to make sure they don’t fall into a rut. At the weekly market in Pula, 20 kilometers away, he has rented a stall, where he now also sells Croatian-Asia crossover fare: his cheese, combined with Korean kimchi and Japanese ramen noodle soups.
You cannot order Winkler’s cheese and have it sent to you. “We want people to come to us,” he says, his arms folded across his chest. Those who do are richly rewarded: Konoba Primitiva (which translates as “simple restaurant”) is Winkler’s latest concept. Instead of choosing their food from a menu, diners eat what the chef puts in front of them on the huge wooden table on the terrace: delicious pasta followed by fish a friend caught that morning, local ham and, of course, Winkler’s aromatic homemade cheese. And as we feast, the evening sun bathes the hills around us in golden light.
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