Two gems visit two gems of Istria

When Denise Medrano first visited us in Istria in April she vowed she would return at some stage soon, so we were delighted to facilitate her recent visit with her great friend and fellow blogger Niamh Shields, who was coming to Istria for the first time.

To us November in Croatia means 2 main things in gastronomic terms: (1) truffles (2) mushrooms. Oh, 3 things actually come to mind… (3) wine. Almost forgot but that’s because it’s always there!

Therefore our itinerary had to involve a good balance of wine and food that suited 2 such well known bloggers whose Twitter and Facebook names involve the words ‘Wine’ and ‘Eat’.

About the only problem with a trip to Istria can be getting there.  Pula Airport is nearest in Croatia, but it is serviced by Ryanair over the summer from both Stansted and Birmingham; Zagreb (which includes Easyjet from Gatwick) is 2 hours away; Venice (serviced by almost every airline) is also 2 hours away; Rijeka is another summer airport for Brits. So Trieste in northern Italy is the nearest destination airport which runs throughout the year and we will always recommend it although our guests and visitors have to put up with Ryanair and Stansted (do try Birmingham Airport though, it’s very clean). The other negative is that the planes arrive later in winter, 3 or 4 pm in the afternoon so one loses most of the day with the journey.

This has all been a long winded way of saying we picked our intrepid pair up at Trieste and set off to Istria, destination Vižinada, as quickly as possible, so that the day wasn’t wasted.

As this was a gastronomic tour rather than purely wine, we had opted for some winemakers where the idea of winter seasonal food matched their wines, or there was a key element that brought the two together.

In the first instance, we knew our newest winemaker Geržinić ticked all the right boxes; the two brothers Marko and Marino have taken over the hands-on winemaking and their father is a hunter, with their tasting room in countryside in Vižinada, decked out like a pine hunting lodge.  As The Wine Sleuth hadn’t tried their wines yet and wanted to taste something new, we made this our first port of call. Marino was in Zagreb so our host was Marko.  The characteristic of Geržinić’s wines, unlike many others in Istria, is their lack of oak treatment, and with stainless steel ageing only they are fresh, light and clean, which makes them stand out, especially their reds.  Another good point is they are single varietals – 100% grape varieties and no blends in sight.  This is a great place to start for any visitor to Istria, just good honest wines with minimum intervention.

Marko and his family did not disappoint on the food front either! The saltiness of the cheese and Istrian pršut was complemented by the refreshing malvazija and fruit of chardonnay, and the medium body of the fruity reds. Hard cheese is usually a match for an Istrian red, but Geržinić’s unoaked chardonnay is a great all rounder for these cheese and ham platters.  Pršut cured by the family, thick slices on lovely chunks of bread that kept arriving from the kitchen as we sat and ate. Sadly I gave up on photos in favour of eating.

I had pleaded in advance to Marko to ask his mother and grandmother to make their delicious apple doughnuts (fritule), a perfect match for their yellow muškat.  This is a reason in itself for visiting, a perfect pairing, and they did not disappoint.  In fact you can find Niamh’s recipe for these apple balls on her website.

Knowing we were due in Pula to meet charismatic chef Deniz Zembo we had to leave, not before a quick tasting of the new wines in the cellar and promises to return in the new year.

This was our second visit to the newly opened Hotel Amfiteatar Pula, having been invited to its summer opening night party, and it lives up to its name – a one-minute walk from the third largest remaining Roman amphitheatre in the world, the Pula Arena, which enjoys concerts over the summer from such huge names as Elton John, Simply Red, Sting, even Pavarotti performed here.

With a jam-packed weekend and having left Trieste Airport mid-afternoon, and knowing our guests were up very early that morning to get their plane, we made the decision that the Hotel Amfiteatar would be a great place for them to see its potential for a spring or even summer visit to southern Istria.

It is the ideal place to hole up, minutes from the sea with cruises and tours to Brijuni, the Lim Canal or further afield; minutes from the Roman arena for a cultural visit or an evening concert; minutes from central Pula, the forum, square, delicious shops, cafes and bars, and of course it has the wild and whacky Deniz Zembo as its executive chef! Talented, funny, genial and genius combined, his ground floor restaurant is also the perfect mix of easy dining, with an eclectic Croatian wine list (incorporating a mix of some mainstream and slightly uninspiring wines but also some more interesting ones with many favourites amongst Croatians and foreign visitors).

It also has an interesting simple formula of three different three-course meals on the blackboard that change regularly as well as the more intricate menu.

Having consumed much pršut, cheese, olive oil and of course those apple fritule only an hour before, we all plumped for Deniz’s set meal, tucking in with relish with several accompanying wines that really showcased what Istria has to offer at the top end of the market: Roxanich’s Malvazija Antica 2007 and Giorgio Clai’s 2009 Brombonero.

The food for four weary travellers was classic Istrian but also classic international:  wholesome soups to start, then lovely bowls of pasta with Istrian sausage or risotto with boškarin and rocket, a lovely trio of mixed desserts and then a platter of cheeses, and all washed down with that superb range of Istrian wines.

After a satisfying ‘light’ supper, the dynamic duo were ready to walk part of it off with some light late-night sightseeing by the light of an almost full moon, which they did whilst we retreated to a snug third floor room with skylight looking up to the stars, flat screen TV, walk in shower and wildly comfortable bed where we collapsed and slept so well.

With a 9 o’clock departure agreed the night before to start our day of mushroom foraging and truffle hunting, we were up fairly early and down to breakfast before the girls. Set up in the ground floor restaurant the breakfast at the Amfiteatar is more than adequate (coffee and tea from a machine though sadly, which is never tiptop).  The very young-looking breakfast chef did pop his head round from behind the kitchen door to offer us eggs, which we gladly accepted. Our plates of scrambled for me and Trevor’s fried which he had with a few slices of cooked ham from the cold buffet were delicious and just what we needed to set us up for another busy day’s touring. Niamh joined us for this too before heading to Reception to check emails (one annoyance in Croatia – lack of or poor internet connection).

Sadly Deniz was nowhere to be seen, having left the night before to go truffle hunting to find white truffles for his upcoming trip to Holland.  We realised after our own truffle hunting trip the following day why this was a night-time job and he’d had to leave so early the night before, the best truffles are usually gone over night.  As he wouldn’t be back into the hotel until noon, by which time we had to be long gone, sadly we were unable to say goodbye properly.

This hotel is the type of place that has been sorely needed in Istria – for the European tourist it is reasonably priced, accommodating, comfortable, near the airport (Pula airport is less than 30 minutes away), centrally located for trips to other parts of Croatia, and above all it’s friendly.  The receptionist on duty at breakfast on Saturday was superb – excellent English, willing to help with a map and the answers to all our questions, and a big smile!

Amfiteatar Hotel does need to do more on social media Twitter and Facebook to attract the English-speaking market but that’s our only comment and we’re sure that will happen in the future.

We will definitely be back to stay again at the Amfiteatar and have already recommended it to many friends. For its location alone it stands out as a reasonably priced gem amongst the many hotels available in Pula, and is the first that we’ve found that sits right in terms of quality, location and comfort, all wrapped up in a bundle of ‘value for money’.

Oh, and Happy Birthday to the wonderful Deniz Zembo for today!

© Pacta Connect, 6 December 2011