Croatia, no longer an undiscovered 'gem' attracting a cult following, is rapidly becoming the flavour of the month across Europe. It's not hard to see why - much more than just a magnate for sun and sand worshippers, it also offers a burgeoning and exciting food and drink culture, where talented young chefs are making the best use of Croatia's incredible variety of local produce, not to mention the exciting domestic wine production. I spent my first weekend in Croatia last month and was astounded by the options on offer.
I flew into Pula, one of the main hubs in Croatia's northern Istria region and was promptly whisked away by my hotel's driver to the idyllic, coastal town of Rovinj. My destination: Hotel Monte Mulini, Rovinj's first 5-star boutique hotel overlooking a private cove in the Istrian coastline. I could not have wished for a better base for my weekend excursion, everything about the hotel - service, location, and food - was exceptional. It comes highly recommended.
The hotel is keen to use all its marketing clout to bring more international visitors to Istria, the largest Croatian peninsula and a truly unique, beautiful region. Between the endless rows of olive trees, bucolic bliss and vineyards, Istria exuded more than a whiff of Tuscany. Interestingly, Italian is spoken almost as widely as Croatian and the two languages have equal recognition. However, unlike that venerable Italian region, Istria has not yet become an overcrowded tourist destination, making it an extremely attractive place to visit.
My weekend certainly started on a high note, visiting local wine growers and sampling their range of superb wines and olive oil. In fact, I sampled some of the purest, most intense olive oil in my life during the weekend, all sold for relatively little. Croatians are a justly proud people and everyone I met wasted no time in answering my questions about Croatia's food culture. Or should I say Istria's food heritage, because as they are keen to emphasise, Croatian cuisine is heterogeneous, different regions such as Istria have their own unique culinary traditions.
As we might expect, those traditions are heavily influenced by geography. Rovinj has a thriving port so fish featured rather prominently during my weekend. The Istrian Peninsula also shows strong Italian and Mediterranean influences - olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, sage, marjoram and cinnamon are used in many dishes. Charcuterie, as evidenced by the frequency it appeared as a starter, is also very popular, throughout Croatia, I was told, as an appetiser. Food is often boiled rather than baked and the Istrian diet is considered one of the healthiest in the country.
So for the uninitiated, Istria's most popular dishes and produce are Istrian stew or Manestre (beans, sauerkraut, bacon, potatoes and spare ribs) Salted Cod, Cuttlefish risotto, white truffles, an abundance of wild mushrooms, Ombolo - marinated pork loin fillet grilled - and of course, olive oil.
My first experience of Istrian haute-cuisine was at Hotel Lone, a neighbour hotel to Monte Mulini that offers guests and visitors a delightful outdoor terrace for summer dining. I ate a veritable feast of Porcini mushroom soup followed by lightly seared Tuna steaks. Too full for dessert, I nevertheless sampled the excellent sweet Malvasia wines; Malvasia is a key grape in white wine production in Croatia. Everything was fresh, intensely flavoured but not remotely heavy or overbearing - the epitome of fine Istrian cuisine.
I also dined at the Monte Mulini's restaurant - The Wine Vault - the following evening. A similar fine-dining experience ensured, the restaurant's chef used to work in France so all his Istrian dishes have been given a Gallic makeover. Seared Scallops were marinated in a typical Istrian sauce of sweet onions, garlic, olive oil and wine. The Turbot was served on a bed of Blitva, which is a cousin of spinach and prepared with potatoes, garlic and yes, you guessed it - olive oil.
My final evening was spent in Rovinj, a charming and historic port that offers incredible views of the coastline from the church courtyard at the top of the town. In the old part of Rovinj cafes and wine bars abound - we had dinner at La Puntulina, a great romantic spot that serves Istrian classics overlooking the Adriatic.
The following morning, I bade a final farewell and packed by bags for rainy London. Still, I felt strangely happy, for I knew that this was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Croatia. My advice to you is this - get here quickly before the hordes of tourists arrive!
Hotel Monte Mulini
A. Smareglia bb, HR - 52210
Rovinj, Croatia T +385(0)52 636 000