Gotta thank Twitter for introducing me to Taste of Croatia! We were following each other for some time and then at the recent Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend, I met Lada Radin (one of four people in the collective) in person and immediately thought she’d be a great fit for my Local Voices Croatia series. Hence our chat, about Croatia’s fast-changing gastro scene.
Tell us a little about Taste of Croatia.
It started by accident. There was the four of us writing about enjoying food & wine (Manjada, Enogastromama and Gurwoman), each in their own separate corner of the web. We were brought together, on a mere hint, an idea of something bigger, and somehow we clicked. I don’t think any of us expected that we’ll work so fine together, sharing the same vision.
That mission was to create a place (in virtual space) that will be a center of quality content about Croatian gastronomy. We wanted to share our good experiences so everybody can try the same, to explore and have fun while doing it. At least as much fun as we had.
Croatia’s foodie scene seems to be on a slowish but steady rise. I feel that people in Croatia are very attached to the true-and-tried, so to speak, and not too experimental with their palates. What’s your take on Croatia’s current gastronomic scene?
Oh yes, Croatians are quite conservative eaters. A chef, a friend of ours, once said: “It is not cause they’re stupid or something, they just seem to not travel enough and therefore, are not opened to new experiences, most of them.” We would agree. The tradition is quite stiff around here, and everybody prefers sticking to “their mothers’ cooking”. Projects that are too new or too unusual fail most of the time, unfortunately. It’s about changing the mentality, the perspective, and it’s a long process. But then, there are shows like Masterchef and Ana Ugarković that speed it up rapidly. In a country where only the worst students were sent out to be chefs (cause they were no good anyway) for decades, it’s almost logical.
If a visitor to Croatia had only three dishes to try, staples of Croatian cuisine that they shouldn’t miss, what would those be?
Well, if we put aside the raw ingredients like oysters, truffles, asparagus or tuna, it would have to be pašticada (stewed beef in thick sweet sauce made from root vegetables, wine, prunes or dried figs and spices, served with homemade gnocchi), soparnik (two layers of thin crusty dough, similar like in focaccia, filled with Swiss chard, onions, garlic and olive oil, sprinkled with chopped almonds) and brudet (a kind of a fish stew). Of course, it is hard to pick only three, because different parts of Croatia have really different traditional dishes.
Do you also lead gourmet tours of Zagreb and other cities or destinations in Croatia?
Definitely something we will be offering in the future. As this project has grown, there have been more and more emails asking about specific places, routes and tours people wanted to organize for themselves. As we are quite familiar with many small producers, winemakers and places worth experiencing, we thought: Why not? We’ve organized it a dozen times for ourselves, why not help other people discover great spots of Croatian gastronomy.
Since food is your passion, would you share your three favorite restaurants in Zagreb?
Vinodol restaurant in downtown Zagreb. It has been there for ages but has refreshed its menu, so in a way they still serve traditional dishes but using modern cooking techniques. In the summer it’s full of tourists, but believe me, happy ones. It’s classical Zagreb dining, and a great place for getting to know Croatian gastronomy.
A hidden place on Dolac market called Amfora is another favorite. It looks like a worn-out joint from old socialist times. But, on the menu you’ll find stuff from the fish market next door: various kinds of fresh fish, mostly smaller and not so fancy kinds, grilled or fried, at a very reasonable price: anchovies, sardines, mackerels, whitings, hakes, surmullets…
In the end, I’d point out something Zagreb should have more of: Lari & Penati. Cool & cozy gourmet bistro, with urban atmosphere and music, crowded, cheerful, and above all, tasty and honest.
Which three restaurants in Zagreb do you consider tourist traps?
It is hard to point those out, not because we’re afraid to say it but there aren’t that many classical tourist traps in Zagreb. Though the “value for money” is still a problem for many restaurant owners so you better check out online reviews to see where people were least happy. Or find the good restaurants by browsing Taste of Croatia.
Would you share your very favorite restaurants elsewhere in Croatia? Places that are worth traveling for.
Istria is always a good destination to explore. Most of the places there offer decent food and atmosphere, especially so called “agrotourisms”. Some of our favorites include Stari Podrum near Momjan, Martin Pescador near Trget and Agrotourism Tončić near Zrenj. A special mention would have to go to Konoba Batelina near Pula where you’ll try fish wonders you never thought were possible. They offer wonderful things made of underrated fish, such as fish tripes or shark liver pate.
The popularity of Croatian wines on the global scene is also on the rise. What are your favorite wine regions and winemakers in Croatia?
It would be cruel to make us pick. Every region is so different, so special, there is just no room for comparison. Istria’s progress is remarkable, and has made all other regions look up to it. There are wonderful things going on in Slavonija and Baranja, for instance. Zagorje is waking up with some special products like ice wine and sparkling wine. Dalmatia is classic, their powerful Plavac Mali wines are only for the ones who wish to taste the energy of the Mediterranean sun preserved in a bottle. Many young winemakers are making Croatian wine scene grow rapidly.
Can you describe a typical Zagreb moment?
Oh, sure! It would have to be a reminiscence of an early summer morning in the center of the town, after you’ve done your grocery shopping at the main farmers’ market, Dolac. The city is not too crowded. It is still not too hot, but you know it’s going to be, and it somehow doesn’t upset you at the moment. You’re sipping your first coffee on your favorite terrace, wondering whether you should go to work or just skip it.
Any strong stand about Croatia’s entry into the EU?
In case it doesn’t fall apart by the time we get there, it may teach us some discipline and civilized behavior. As we at Taste of Croatia are not too fond of capitalism, we feel that Croatia could be sustainable independently if only the people were a bit more organized and hard-working.
To escape the city for a day, where do you like to go?
The town of Samobor is a good start. It’s just few kilometers away, and offers great places to eat, hike or just enjoy the nature. Those include Slavagora, Gabreku 1929., Kod Špilje, Bermet Filipec… Seoski Turizam Kezele is a bit further away (50km), in Moslavina. It’s a great family getaway because apart from great food and drinks, there’s also plenty to do, from animal petting and sports activities to staying in one of the rooms in an authentic Moslavina house from 1936 and happily digesting your meal.
In Zagorje, near Krapinske Toplice it would have to be Vuglec Breg. A winery, a restaurant, a congress place, both modern and traditional at the same time, it kept the atmosphere of an old village with cute but modern cottages where you can stay if you had too much fun in the wine cellar.
What’s your favorite spot along the Adriatic, your own special beach hideaway?
It would have to be the island of Vis. Besides absolutely remarkable gastronomy they seem to nurture, the island is small enough to discover it on a motorbike, but big enough to find your own perfect beach hideaway.