Dalmatian cuisine is one of the healthiest in the world, so much so in fact that its Mediterranean diet was inscribed as intangible UNESCO heritage back in 2013. The basic concepts are very simple: the freshest, seasonal local ingredients, which ensure that different specialities occur at different types of the year; simple recipes; and traditional home cooking, with those simple recipes passed down from generation to generation. Add to that the fines wines of the region – the powerful red Plavac Mali wines from the Peljesac Peninsula are related to Zinfandel and, coupled with the indigenous Grk and Posip of the island of Korcula, they are among the most prized wines in all Croatia.
Given its proximity to the sea, it is perhaps no surprise that seafood dominates many menus in Dubrovnik, and the simple grilled fish, covered in local olive oil and served with simple vegetables, is a regional classic, and one of the most popular dishes for tourists. It is said in these parts that a fish swims three times in its life – firstly in the sea before it is caught, then in olive oil during preparation, and finally in excellent local wine as the meal is consumed and enjoyed.
With such an abundance of fresh fish, it is somewhat ironic perhaps that the most traditional Dubrovnik fish dish is neither fresh nor from the Adriatic. The most traditional meal of the year is on Christmas Eve – bakalar. Bakalar is dried cod from the North Sea, and its preparation takes time, involving a minimum of 24 hours soaking in water before being prepared. It is served as a stew with garlic and potatoes, and appears on almost every Dalmatian dinner table on Christmas Eve.
As the freshness of ingredients plays a major factor in authentic Dalmatian cooking, the availability of local produce has a key role to play, and if you arrive at the right time of year, Dalmatian cuisine can be even more sensational. Nowhere is this more true than in Spring, when locals will disappear into the countryside in search of one of the culinary highlights of the year – wild asparagus. Forget everything you knew about asparagus before you came on holiday to Dubrovnik, for Croatian wild asparagus is very different, much thinner, very green and with an intensity of bitterness and flavour that one rarely finds in asparagus elsewhere. From simple egg and asparagus salads to far more creative dishes, the region’s chefs offer some excellent meal variations with asparagus themes at this time of the year. Don’t miss it!
For the traditional Dalmatian vegetable, none is arguably more important than blitva, which translates as mangold, or Swiss chard. Healthy, flavoursome and available most of the year, a side dish of blitva, mixed with potatoes, garlic and olive oil is a perfect accompaniment to many a Dalmatian main course of meat or fish.
Travel slightly north of Dubrovnik to the walled town of Ston for some of the best oysters in Europe, but perhaps the most popular fish salad involves the octopus. Octopus is not something which often enters diets in the UK and elsewhere, but the number of tourists who become firm converts of octopus salad each year is staggering. Simple pieces of cooked octopus, served cold, in a salad of olives, tomato, onion, parsley and the ubiquitous olive oil – delicious. And if you are going to try a risotto on holiday, don’t miss the famous black risotto, which gets its distinctive taste from the ink of the cuttlefish.
Meat lovers will also be in heaven. From the classic mixed grill dishes to veal, lamb and chicken served ‘under the bell’ (slow cooked with potatoes and vegetables, known as peka), and the slow-cooked Pasticada with gnocchi is also a firm favourite. Here the meat is slowly cooked for hours in a thick sauce until it is very tender, and it is served with the sauce featuring the juices of the meat, which is mopped up by home-made gnocchi.
You might notice a number of orange trees around the city. The oranges that grow have a very bitter taste, but they are part of the Dubrovnik tradition, and they are celebrated each day at an event called Bitter Orange Day, which is part of the festivities of St Blaise, the patron saint of the city, in the first week of February. The oranges have been put to a variety of uses – extracts are used in fragrances, their juice are made into drinks, and perhaps most famously, bitter orange jams and marmalades make excellent Dubrovnik souvenirs.
Dubrovnik is a gourmet paradise, a combination of extremely healthy good, excellent traditional recipes and a passion for the freshest local produce. A true voyage of discovery awaits. Dobar Tek!