Croatia is tasty. For real. Really really tasty. And gorgeous. Jaw-droppingly stunning. At every turn. We just returned from a week exploring southern Dalmatia – the area between Split and Dubrovnik and are already missing the mild weather, beautiful sea and fresh, fresh seafood. Fresh like, plucked from the sea that morning fresh seafood. Sooo delicious. And unique.
Croatia has a rich, colorful history – albeit tumultuous, dramatic and confusing at times. You can feel these varied historical influences all around you. In the language. In the architecture. In their approach to life. Slavic, Venetian, Austrian, Croat and more. It all comes together and melds here. In a delicious and unique blend that is only Croatia. We loved it. It felt different, but approachable and inviting. And like I said, it is beyond beautiful.
You can taste it in the cuisine. As the Adriatic cousin of Italy – this is the most obvious culinary connection. And while you will find risottos and pastas on most menus, Croatia does them in their own way. A rich and fertile landscape with HUGE swaths of beautiful coastline, the cuisine here has lots to offer the adventurous palate, but can equally accommodate the not-so daring. Me – I usually like trying it all.* My youngest two kids – not so much. They want things that look familiar. And are recognizable. Sans sauces and layers. Basically without flavor. Oh well. We try to find a balance between nourishing them and pushing their palates ever so slightly in the process. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it backfires and we have tired, hungry and cranky on our hands. Hangry is not pretty on a family trip. I said – it’s a balance.
Here are some of the delicious things that we tried while in Croatia (maybe not all of us!):
Sporting over 1,100 miles of coastline on the mainland of Croatia alone, when you take into account the 1,200+ islands that dot the waters offshore – you add nearly 2,500 more miles of coast. That is a lot of water peeps. Beautiful blueish greenish sparkling Adriatic water. The lion’s share of islands in this neck of the woods – err water rather – belong to Croatia. This is where the fish congregate – in and among the safe harbors between all these little (and not so little) lops of land lingering along the Croatian coast.
Local specialities include octopus, cuttlefish, mussels, oysters, clams and fish like sea bream, amberjack, tuna, mackerel, anchovy and more. My absolute favorite dish was the crni rižoto, or black cuttlefish risotto. It’s very black color is from the ink inside the cuttlefish. Taken when the fish is caught, the ink is not from an extract or bottled. This richly flavored dish is normally offered as a sharing plate for a starter. You can order for your dinner. I probably did. More than once. But the portion is usually huge. Save some for later!
My absolute favorite dish was the crni rižoto, or black cuttlefish risotto. It’s very black color is from the ink inside the cuttlefish.
And if you like seafood – don’t leave Croatia without trying the octopus salad. I tried it everywhere we went. It was always delicious. Don’t be scared. Yes there are tentacles. And suckers. In your salad. But the texture isn’t what you would think. It isn’t chewy – or at least it shouldn’t be if prepared correctly. Usually served with an olive oil vinaigrette and capers, local greens and onions. Sublime. Especially when served with the crni rižoto (cuttlefish risotto.)
My husband loved the grilled squid. As Americans, we are familiar with fried calamari, but grilled squid is something else. It is wonderful. Simple and healthier than the standard appetizer application we are used to.
I am also a big fan of fresh oysters on the half shell. I try them most places I can find them. Briny, fresh and slurpable – don’t miss them down near Mali Ston – an hour north of Dubrovnik on the coast. You can’t miss the characteristic oyster farms all along the water as you make your way down to the little fishing village. You can rent a boat and visit an oyster farm if you love them that much. What a great idea! Groans from my kids. I settled for sampling 6 to start our lunch on the water.
Anchovies are a specialty here as well. When we checked into our Airbnb outside Vela Luka on the island of Korčula, we were presented with an artfully arranged plate of salted anchovies in olive oil and local capers to try with crusty bread and Croatian beer. And while you may have cringed at my squid, cuttlefish, oysters and octopus delights… I have to admit – I don’t love anchovies. I never have, really. But never fear, they didn’t go to waste as I ended up chopping them up with the capers and some olive oil to make a sauce for our pasta that night. Now that was tasty.
Speaking of olive oil – Croatia is a major producer as a Mediterranean country. So it isn’t a surprise that it is the base for most of their diet and cooking. Olive trees are EVERYWHERE in southern Dalmatia and it was harvest time while we were visiting. Especially on the emerald island of Korčula. We were charmed by locals on ladders raking ripe olives onto nets draped across the ground to collect by the bushel. Our car rental agent and local expert, Luka from Mediterano Tourist Agency explained that the olives on Korčula are very distinct, even in Croatia. Their skins are quite bitter and it gives the oil from here a “spicy” nature which was less desirable in the past and all attempts were made to get rid of this unique character. Until that is – they realized their specific olives have higher Omega 3 fatty acids – those beneficial fats touted in the heart-healthy diets the globe over. Now Korčulan olive oil producers use this to their advantage. Luka will tell you that the oil that comes from this island is not as great for cooking, but excellent as a dressing or finishing oil. I will tell you – don’t try to eat the olives straight from the tree. WOW. Bitter is right. They are so beautiful though!
In Croatia, the majority of olive oil production is done via small-scale private orchards, 80% of these under 1 hectare in size. The oil is still produced by hand and large scale production is not as prevalent here as in other countries. Makes for authentic and truly local olive oil – ulje in Croatian – pick up a bottle or two. Find an Uje Oleoteka (Olive shop) or step inside one of their oil bars to sample all the different varietals and find your favorite.
Croatia has an amazingly fertile growing landscape and you will see fruit trees littering the landscape. Almost every back yard has either an olive tree, a citrus tree or a pomegranate tree – or all three. Figs, also weigh heavily in importance for the local produce, but we missed the fresh season and found them only dried or in jams, compotes or sauces in the local markets.
If you make the drive from Dubrovnik to Split (or vice versa) you will most likely traverse the Neretva River delta south of Ploče. This fertile delta provides irrigation for tons of fruit productions – specifically tangerines and citrus fruits. And all along the highway you will see glorious little fruit stands where to procure fresh and preserved local offerings. Bring cash, these little establishments don’t take credit. But don’t worry – there is an ATM in Opuzen near the Tommy grocery store mid-valley. And there are tons of little tangerine touters after that. We bought some sugared citrus peel, lavender honey and tangerines to take along. I would have bought more, but didn’t know how to get it all home to Denmark.
Besides the seafood dishes mentioned above, Croatia has many other local delicacies in their strong regional food landscape. We only visited southern Dalmatia this time and can only speak to what we tried there, but I will tell you what we tried was delicious. Besides the prevalence of seafood, you can also find beef, pork, lamb and goat dishes. Near the Neretva River delta their special dish is an eel and frog stew. We did not try this. My children scowled at the idea. I will admit, I was a little more squeamish at the thought of what bits might be in that soup.
What we did try was a special roast beef dish known as pašticada. Marinated overnight in herbs and wine, the beef is roasted and served in a rich brown sauce over gnocchi or potatoes. Delectable. Luka, our local lore purveyor explained that pašticada was a traditional Croatian wedding dish. Beef was only used at special occasions back in the day. Without refrigeration, a butcher would only cut up his cow when he knew that all of it was sold or spoken for. A smaller goat or pig was easier to butcher and sell before it went bad and therefore more prevalent for everyday eating.
Croatians, like other countries in the Mediterranean make excellent wine. They are proud of it. The grapes here are their own. If you like dry white wines – you are in luck as there are several varieties grown only here in Croatia. I loved the dry, crisp Pošip and was happy to take recommendations from locals as to their favorite. Grk – a varietal only grown on the island of Korčula’s sandy Lumbarda side was harder to come by. I wanted to try it, but could find nary a bottle. We didn’t make it to that side of Korčula sadly as we were enjoying our own quiet peaceful Vela Luka end of the island. Next time!
WHERE TO EAT CROATIAN FOOD
Visit a local Konoba – a smaller family run restaurant off the main tourist drags. Ask a Croatian for their favorite – you won’t go wrong.
Ul. ban Mladenova 9, 21000, Split, Croatia
Local specialties shared in a cozy, if tiny little place with attentive service. Straightforward delicious dishes on a little street off the glitzy Riva waterfront promenade in Split. Try the cuttlefish risotto, lamb chops, octopus salad or beef pašticada. The crème caramel was also yummy, but less French and more a flan consistency.
Cosmijeva ul. 2, 21000, Split, Croatia
This was an awesome lead from our foodie friend back in our from – thanks muchly Kara! As the owner of Pastini restaurant chain in Portland, Oregon, I trust her judgement! Bokeria was excellent. I loved the octopus salad (go figure) and the grilled sea trout over puréed cauliflower with pomegranate seeds. My son had maybe one of the best burgers EVER here with truffle oil, cooked perfectly. Simple options for less adventurous kids as well – much appreciated was the simple roast chicken and fries. A little more fancy here than a local Konoba, but service was impeccable and food was divine.
Luka Ice Cream & Cakes
Kroatien, Ul. Petra Svačića 2, 21000, Split, Croatia
Another suggestion from our Oregon connection, Luka was well liked. By us all. It was a little bit of a hike after our swim west of Split, but so worth it. The ice cream is divine – and on a chocolate cone no less?! But the cakes were our favorite. Try the tiramisu and the Croatian cream cake called Krempita. Yum.
Obala dr. Ante Starčevića 9, 20230, Mali Ston, Croatia
On a recommendation from our lovely Dubrovnik Airbnb host, Emily – we stopped in Mali Ston on our drive north from Dubrovnik to Split. Passing vistas with cliffs and waterways overlooking little oyster farms, we landed in a sleepy little fishing village. Sitting outside with a view of the boats on the water, we enjoyed a fabulous meal at this popular Konoba. Try the grilled squid, house special black risotto and fresh oysters.
Every main town has a pazar or green market. Here you can find fresh produce, meats and foods. In Split, there is an excellent one right in the old town on the port side of the St. Dominus Bell Tower. There is also a fish market if you want to try your own hand at cuttlefish risotto or the like – find it here:
Hrvatska, Obrov ul. 5, 21000, Split, Croatia
We love trolling the aisles of the local super market or grocery store. Staying in apartments is always easier for our family of five. We can get some provisions and stave off the hangry and keep costs down. We try to balance eating out with cooking at home half of the time while traveling. In Croatia, look for Tommy, Konzum or Billa grocery stores.
I hope you have gotten a tiny taste crush for Croatia. Even if seafood isn’t your thing – there is so much to try. Will be sharing more about geography and activities we enjoyed in upcoming posts. Stay tuned. Did I miss a favorite Croatian dish? Please share in he comments below – I guarantee that will not be my last visit and I’ll need new things to try!
Cheers from Copenhagen, which is thankfully still full of blue skies and not such cold Autumn weather … yet!
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*(Except raisins. I can’t stand raisins. I can’t explain why. Or anything in a larval form. I draw the line. But most everything else, I will try.)