The cuisine of the region is as exciting as its history. Sandra Lougher, author of My Favourite Croatian Recipes, is your guide.
For centuries, various nations came to Croatia bringing along their culture and new influences. This has resulted in a rich and diverse culinary tradition, a mix of different types of cuisine - Mediterranean, Oriental and Central European.
Croatian cuisine can be divided into continental and coastal. The cooking of the continental Croatia is based on meat, mostly pork or veal. Smoked ham, sausages, paprika - flavoured fish stew and heavy, nourishing soups are typical.
The main ingredient of the coastal cuisine is fish. It is mostly boiled - "na leso" or grilled - "na gradele" on an open fire, and seasoned with olive oil and aromatic herbs.
Like the whole of the Croatian cuisine, Istrian cuisine is divided into coastal and inland. The cooking of the coastal regions is mostly based on excellent fish, shellfish, vegetables, olives and olive oil. The most delicious fish are grouper, sea bass and sole. They can be cooked in many different ways; there is a saying in Istria that you can have fish three times a day, but always prepared in a different way. Grouper is excellent baked over slices of potatoes, jut seasoned with olive oil and chopped rosemary, and sea bass grilled or stuffed with onions, garlic and bay leaves.
Oysters from the Lim Channel - Limski kanal are highly appreciated in Istrian cuisine. They can be topped with the mixture of breadcrumbs, cheese, garlic and olive oil, and then baked in an oven or grilled.
Some of Istria's best fish restaurants are located in the Lim Channel.
The cooking of the central part of Istria is based on pasta, wild game, prsut (smoked ham) and cheese. Pasta is often cooked with the famous truffles. These precious mushroom species grow underground and can only be found by specially trained dogs or pigs tracing them by smell. Apart from pasta, truffles can also accompany wild game. Venison cutlets served with a few slices of truffles gently cooked for a few minutes in butter are delicious way of preparing these expensive mushrooms. The main places to find truffles are in cen central Istria, in the damp Motovun forest near the river Mirna. Truffles have always been known as a famous aphrodisiac and delicacy of the world cuisine.
Fresh wild asparagus can be found in Istria in April and is often sold at the roadside by old Istrian ladies. They are often served with eggs or added to various dishes.
Istrian smoked ham - prsut is just as highly respected as the Dalmatian version. It is dried in the bura, strong north - eastern wind and the Istrian people claim it to be the best in the world. Perfect prsut should be soft and pink in colour. It is usually served as a starter with some good local cheese, but also as a main ingredient in the dishes like Istrian cannelloni and Prosciutto – stuffed courgettes.
Istria has been heavily influenced by Italian methods of cooking. These influences are very obvious in preparation of meals like manestra - minestrone, njoki – gnocchi and various risotto dishes. Soups and sauces are coloured with tomatoes and flavoured with herbs.
Rosemary and bay leaves are among the most commonly used herbs. Rosemary is used as a seasoning for roast meat, especially lamb, and a sprig of rosemary soaked in olive oil for basting when fish are grilled. Bay leaves are added to stews, soups and marinades. Garlic is one of the most important ingredients in the preparation of fish, shellfish, meat and game. Olive oil in Istria is of an excellent quality and has proven medicinal qualities. Both garlic and olive oil are used in preparation of meals in nearly all of Istrian cuisine.
A certain Istrian wine should accompany every delicious Istrian dish. Chicken stew, manestra and grilled fish are well complemented by white wine Malvazija, brodet - fish stew or meat by Borgonja. Merlot goes well with cheese, wild asparagus and rabbit stew. Red wine Teran should accompany Prsut or grilled Istrian sausages. With desserts like Istrian fritule – miniature doughnuts or krostule - fried pastry, Muskat is always recommended.
Istria, the Adriatic's largest peninsula, has about 70 private wine cellars that are open for tasting. The major- ity of them are located inland. The Open Wine Cellar's Day is usually held on the last Sunday in May.
Herb - flavoured brandy Travarica is definitely something to enjoy. Every region has its own traditional way of making it. Travarica can be made of as many as twenty types of aromatic herbs like fennel, sage, thyme and various others. It is wonderful as an aperitif and recommended for digestion and upset stomachs. There is also Biska, brandy made with mistletoe leaves, and Medovaca, made with honey.
Istrians are known as very warm and hospitable people, especially in inland Istria. It is quite common to be invited in for some prsut and a glass of local brandy, giving visitors a great opportunity to learn more about the traditional way of life in a rural Istrian household. There are numerous good restaurants in Istria that serve delicious local specialities. Great places to try some traditional dishes in Pula are Vela Nera and Scaletta, and in Lim Channel restaurants Viking and Fjord.
In Rovinj restaurant Veli Joze is known for wonderful oven - baked lamb with potatoes, and in Motovun there are Mcotic restaurant and farmhouse Stefanic.
The Porec Riviera is full of good restaurants; just a few to mention are Istra, konoba Bare and Siesta that serves excellent lasagne with truffles.
Further north there is Novigrad where seafood risotto is speciality of the restaurant Giovanni, and in Umag konoba Cipi offers delicious asparagus and scampi risotto.
At Croatian restaurants the emphasis is on savouring the meal and enjoying the local specialities and the atmosphere. During summer months, restaurants will often have live entertainment offering friendly and relaxing night out with family and friends.
An after - dinner stroll through one of many lively Istrian resorts and a glass of chilled wine in a pavement café will be a perfect end to a warm summer's evening.
"My Favourite Croatian Recipes" by Sandra Lougher is available from: www.amazon.co.uk, www.waterstones.co.uk, www.whsmith.co.uk, www.tesco.com, or to order from all good bookshops.