Istrian gastronomy ... where to start? As Brits, we are used to travelling to Europe to find a taste (literally) of Europe as 'it used to be'. So the Tourist Board's catchphrase 'Mediterranean as it used to be' appeals to the British traveller's sense of adventure in trying out the unknown and trying to capture holidays of yesteryear. We all know someone who has said, "I remember when we used to go abroad and could find a little café in a backstreet where the steaks were perfect, the service impeccable and the wine flowed and cost pennies."
Sadly there are few places left in Europe in the 21st century where we can say that. Not until now (unless you have been keeping it to yourself!).
Croatia has never been known to the British as a food and wine destination, a gastronomic paradise. However, with the excitement increasing over Croatian wine as it now finds its way to British shores, so the British traveller will find a gastronomic treat in store in Croatia.
It is pure foodie heaven.
In December 2010 a friend posted a remark on Facebook that he had just been sampling a truffle from Alba in Miami. This was responded to with a host of comments from people drooling over a photo of said truffle. We had to resist the temptation to exclaim that we feast on truffles for a whole season, lashings shaved liberally over home-made gnocchi or ravioli, seasoning olive oils, creamy truffle sauces over tagliata, and the simplest truffle omelette.
Therein lies the most refreshing side of Istrian gastronomy – the food is seasonal. Of course, if you visit tourist restaurants in tourist towns you can eat the same food throughout the year, as in towns from Brighton to Blackpool. But go back to how you found that typical café in the little village, and ask your Croatian neighbours to tell you the names of the restaurants and taverns that don't advertise and aren't necessarily on the main street. You may find yourself in someone's front room with just a few tables, a jug of wine and a spoken menu; whatever the situation you should be well looked after.
The traditional 'Hunting Shooting Fishing' way of life now may be largely archaic in the UK, but these three elements do make a significant mark on Istrian gastronomy. Venison and wild boar are hunted in autumn, and the Adriatic is fished throughout the year supplying plentiful and diverse splendours. Watch people scouring the woods for wild asparagus in spring, rare mushrooms and chestnuts in autumn.
Before your meal ask for a local olive oil to accompany your bread – swirl a peppery green oil on to your plate and dip fresh bread, a perfect accompaniment to an Istrian platter of local prosciutto, wild boar salami, ricotta and pecorino cheeses, or drizzle the same oil over a bowl of warming winter maneštra soup.
Typical main dishes will comprise fresh fish and meat; roast spit or slow-baked meat under a cast iron bell (peka) or a gilthead sea bream roasted on a bed of potatoes, red peppers and tomatoes, a turbot or baby Adriatic sole simply grilled and served with a fresh rocket and tomato salad. Istrian squid are larger than the frozen watery squid served in tourist traps, ample room to stuff them with meats, fish and cheese. Find the famed oysters and mussels from the Lim Canal, buy local fish from the boats moored alongside most town quays, enjoy fresh queen scallops (capesante) and prawns buzara. Look closer at the menu and you will find Austro-Hungarian additions – goulash, a version of sauerkraut, apple strudel and ricotta or chocolate tortes.
There are only two requirements: firstly, take your time – this is the slow food movement at its best – and finally wash it all down with a malvazija, teran or refošk and see how perfect wine and food matching really can be.