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Archive for the ‘Croatia’ Category

black truffle cheese amuse bouche at Zigante, Croatia

Considering how much I’ve read about Lidia Bastianich’s roots in Istria, I was sad that our experiences eating out and drinking in Istria were generally so-so. Our best food market experience was, in terms of consistent freshness and variety of produce, at the enormous Mercator hypermarket in Pula (think Wal-Mart size), and our best restaurant meal (La Puntulina in Rovinj) had charming décor but uneven food. The wines we tried (and we tried bottles from at least a dozen vineyards before I gave up) were very sour. Sour-tasting wine must be the local preference, because I find it hard to believe that all the winemakers in the area are making mistakes with their wines in the exact same way.

Below are my food and wine notes from our week:

Wild Asparagus:

We were in Istria during wild asparagus season. Being followers of all food trends, even ones heavily marketed by the local chamber of commerce, Jon and I were inspired by all the Croatians we saw collecting wild asparagus from woodsy roadside patches. The problem is that we weren’t exactly sure what wild asparagus looked like, so we ended up “harvesting” a lot of what turned out to be weeds. Eventually, we found wild asparagus at the Rovinj outdoor produce market for 25 Kuna ($5) a bunch, and it turns out wild asparagus looks like cultivated asparagus, except it’s extra long and thin. One night, we made a wild asparagus risotto, and I wasn’t a fan. The wild asparagus is very bitter, though I give it high texture points for delicacy and thinness.

Croatian Wines and Grappa:

Until we found Bacchus wine shop in Rovinj, we were buying 1L bottles (when it only comes in 1L bottles, watch out) from small supermarkets we came across in the hill towns. Bacchus is near Rovinj Harbor and sells a wide variety of Istrian wines, all at relatively high prices. For example, we restricted ourselves to the under-200 Kuna ($40) half of the store, and even then, buying five of the least expensive bottles cost $120. I wouldn’t complain so much about the price if the wines had been tasty, but they weren’t. The Istrian reds (mostly teran grapes) we tried were watery and sour, even those from locally-prominent vineyards like Arman or Kozlovic. The whites, mostly made from the malvaziya or chardonnay grape, were better than the reds, with an Ortonero Art malvaziya delivering the least watery of tastes. A dessert wine from Arman Winery was tasty enough that our travelling companions bought some to bring home to the US as gifts.

After a few days of trying significant numbers of Istrian wines, we resigned ourselves to making sangria from local reds, and we cheered when Mike showed up via the Paris duty-free with a few French wines in tow.

Despite the acres of grapevines in the region, I think Istria has a long way to go before it’s wine country. We were better off drinking the large, glass container of mistletoe grappa in the villa, and if you’re going to drink the wines, seriously consider the beauties of sangria.

Places to Eat (by town)

Rovinj:

Restaurant Graciano (Obala path boraca, 4) sits near the designated parking lot for visitors to Rovinj, which means it’s not the most idyllic setting in the world. That said, there’s a large roofdeck with a view of the scenic bits of Rovinj, and we greatly enjoyed lounging around there and watching the sun go down. The prosecco we ordered was tasty, and the pizza we shared (wolfed down) with our aperitif made for a relaxing pre-dinner hangout.

Giannino restaurant, Rovinj, Croatia

Giannino came highly recommended by both our Time Out and Rough Guide to Croatia, and while the seafood was good, the pastas were disappointing. Our table, oddly Chinese-restaurant round with lazy susan, was in a dank little corner of the otherwise warm, casual restaurant. In addition to seafood, we ordered three or four pastas, all of which were drowning in a gloppy cheese sauce (a recurring theme with Istrian pastas, we were to find out over time), which was too bad given our expectations that Rovinj would be the land of excellent pastas, a la Itay. As for the seafood at Giannino, the scampi gets special mention for being sweet and juicy, and the sea bass tasted particularly fresh. With two bottles of Croatian wine, our tab came to 155 Kuna ($30) each.

Osteria, Rovinj harbor, Croatia

Marina Gostionica Osteria is the least-touristy-looking of the many restaurants that line Rovinj harbour. We were drawn by the outdoor seating, and we figured as long as we stuck with pizzas, we would be fine. Too bad the waitress neglected to tell us straight up that none of the dozen or so pizzas listed on the menu were available that day, so we made a lot of last-minute choices, with mixed results.

I ordered a pasta frutti di mare, figuring seafood in Rovinj had been pretty strong, and I was hoping that it would be sans gloppy cheese sauce. It turned out my pasta was tasty despite the orange-colored seafoody bits, which appeared to be to seafood what hotdogs are to meat. Jon’s and Colleen’s “risottos” were just regular long-grain rice with some cheese thrown in for creaminess, so I was glad I’d steered clear of those. Food schadenfreude. Colleen did, however, order an attractive and delicious grilled calamari as a starter, so I guess balance in all things. Overall, a mixed quality of food, but nice location. Not sure I’d go back, though I remain convinced it’s the least of all evils if you want to eat harborside.

Puntulina restaurant exterior, Rovinj, CroatiaLa Puntulina (+385 52 813 186) is a pretty restaurant and bar. It’s perched on the sea near the St. Euphemia Cathedral. There’s a casual outdoor area by the sea connected to the bar, so we greatly enjoyed our cocktails one afternoon – bellinis with real peach nectar were tasty, though served in a water glass. Prices were 30-40 Kuna ($6-8) a drink, which was a bargain only if you live in the UK, I suppose. Despite a weird incident with the server (she brought Sarah a virgin pina colada instead of the cuba libre Sarah had ordered, and then she single-handedly replaced Jon’s order of a red with an order of white when it turned out the bar had run out of the red he’d ordered), we had a good time and went back the next night for dinner.

The restaurant has an outdoor dining terrace that almost juts over the sea below. The place settings are elegant, so we looked forward to a nice meal with a sunset view. Of the appetizers we ordered, only the grilled calamari with polenta cakes stood out as especially good. Otherwise, starters like the stuffed squid seemed a little limp or not particularly fresh.

I enjoyed the salt-baked branzino that Mike and I shared (the fish was enormous), but I think the price we paid mostly reflected the drama of seeing a giant fish covered in tons of salt and then served tableside. The salt kept the branzino moist, so it was steaming hot and fresh. Simple and good, but would I pay 350 Kuna ($70) for it again? Probably not.

Zminj:

Pizzeria Orhideja is where we ate lunch when we set out for Zminj in search of an “agricultural fair.” The pizza wasn’t memorable, but it was hot and fresh and cost only 42 Kuna ($8) per person, so no big complaints. Our disappointed feelings in Zminj probably stemmed more from the “agricultural fair” turning out to be a bust, rather than from anything wrong at the pizzeria.

Pula:

Scaletta restaurant exterior, Pula, Croatia

Scaletta (Flavijevska 26, +385 52 541 599) is the restaurant of a small hotel by the same name near the Pula Arena. Again, the food varied. Jon’s farfalle in quattro formaggio was the best of the bunch, which confirms the idea that simple is best. Otherwise, either the sauces on all our pastas were too thick or the braised seafood/meats weren’t braised long enough to get rid of their toughness.

The amuse bouche of anchovies on toast with olive oil and arugula was simple and delicious, and then the pasta I ordered was a disaster. Tons of gloppy cheese, some tiny shrimp, and that was it. There were only four ravioli, and a few shavings of white truffle, which is what I think drove the price of it up to 95 Kn ($19). I’d skip Scaletta when you’re in Pula, and instead, eat more of the 3-cm-diameter donuts that vendors sell on the street. With a little powdered sugar, they’re the ultimate dessert.

Livade:

Black truffle and potato soup at Zigante, Livade, Croatia

Zigante specializes in truffles – white and black. If you hear any restaurant mentioned in Croatia, chance are high it’s Zigante. I had my suspicions about the place when I read it was known for having had the world’s largest truffle (certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, they’ll have you know). The experience of eating lunch there was fine, but not “wow” level. First, we had to push pretty hard to get a table that wasn’t shrouded in darkness (i.e., to move to another empty dining room that had natural light). Second, the food ranged only from bad to pretty good. The cream of potato soup with truffles seemed more for show than for any aroma from the black truffles. Shaved truffles formed a pretty topping on the soup, but (maybe because they were a topping) there wasn’t much truffle flavour when the time came to stop looking at the soup and actually eat it.

My homemade tagliatelle with white truffles had a great aroma, but the pasta was past al dente and the slightly-cheesy sauce had filmed over, which signalled to me that it’d been sitting under a warming lamp. Not what I expected from an allegedly high-end experience.

The only genius moment came during the amuse-bouche, which was the black-truffle studded cheese (see photo at top of post), served with arugula and a wrinkly olive. The cheese was so aromatic and zingy that I thought we were in for a big treat of a meal. Alas, it was kind of downhill from the cheese, and it turns out Zigante has several retail stores (in Motovun and Groznjan, for example), so you can buy the cheese there and call it a day.

Lunch with a bottle of surprisingly good sparkling wine (Misal Persuric Brut) totalled $50 a person, so I can’t complain about the price. At current UK-dollar exchange rates, that’s what I’d pay for a night at the neighbourhood gastropub, but honestly, I’d take a pork belly at the Albion any day over the sloppy tagliatelle I had at Zigante.

16 May 2007 Update: Apparently, I would have had a better food experience if I’d traveled with Mark Bittman and Lidia Bastianich. Click here for the 16 May 07 NYT article about eating in Istria.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also enjoy reading my other two posts about Istra:

Seaside towns in Istria:  Rovinj and Pula (posted 24 April 2007)

Hill towns in Istria:  Mrgani, Motovun and Groznjan (posted 20 April 2007)

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View of Rovinj and St. Euphenmia

When Istria markets itself as the New Tuscany, in some ways it’s exaggerating (e.g., the food and wine, on which I’ll post next, is disappointing), and in other ways, it’s selling itself short. As an example of the latter, Istria has not only the picturesque hill towns described in my last post, but also it has seaside towns that are a dead ringer for any number of Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre towns. Specifically, Rovinj (pictured above) reminded me of Amalfi and Vernazza.

Because Rovinj is just 30 minutes from Mrgani, we visited the town four times during our week at the Captain Morgan’s Villa. Rovinj is a big enough town that we could find supermarkets, open-air markets and restaurants open at regular, reasonable hours, but in addition to these sorts of conveniences, it’s also high on charm and history. It seemed as if everyone in Rovinj spoke Italian and some German (perhaps because the Germans have already “discovered” Rovinj as a destination?), and during the summer, the rumor is that you can take a 3-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic to Venice.

In no particular order, my favorite parts of Rovinj are:

rovinj sunset over the water

  1. Sunsets. Whether you’re watching from a boat, sidewalk, restaurant terrace or roofdeck, it’s impossible not to ooh and ahh over the Rovinj sunset.
  2. The Church of St. Euphemia. The sun-bleached stone of St. Euphemia and its campanile (bell tower) crowns Rovinj. Climbing up the winding cobblestone streets of Rovinj (cobblestone streets are always winding, aren’t they?) to reach St. Euphemia is just part of the fun. When we reached the church, we had an almost 360-degree view of the Adriatic, as well as of a wedding taking place in the church. It doesn’t get more feel good than a wedding.
    Also, saints being what they are, there’s a creepy, morbid story to share about the church. The short version is that in the 3d century, a lovely young Constantinople virgin (Euphemia) was thrown to the lions by everyone’s favorite persecutor of Christians, the Romans. Her heavy stone coffin miraculously washed up on Rovinj shores 500 years later. Hence, the need for an elaborate church in this otherwise sleepy seaside town.
    The sculpture of Euphemia that sits atop the campanile spins like a weather vane, so if you believe boat captains (see below for more on our buddy, Milo), locals predict the weather based on the direction in which Euphemia points.
  3. The Lim Fjord is not the natural wonder we’d hoped it would be, but we did enjoy the adventure of bargaining with Milo, a water taxi operator, to get him to take us to the Fjord. Homemade grappaWe were a little nonplussed about our deal when Milo asked for 200 Kuna ($40) up front and then promised he’d be back in two hours to take us to the Fjord, but considering the major tour operator in the area, Delfin, totally disappeared when (I guess) they realized they couldn’t get enough people on their boat to justify an outing to the Fjord, we didn’t have too much choice. Milo did, in fact, come back to the harbor to pick us up, and his irreverent commentary, odd refusal to acknowledge the many nude sunbathers our boat passed, and his generous servings of homemade grappa made the 1.5-hour cruise well worth the money.
  4. Drinks on the sun-drenched, seaside patio of Puntulina Restaurant. Although our server flubbed our final round of aperitifs (i.e., Sarah mysteriously ended up with a virgin pina colada – highly entertaining, obviously — and Jon was given a glass of wine that wasn’t even the same color as the one he’d actually ordered. When Jon asked the waitress what had happened, the server told him that the restaurant had run out of the wine he’d ordered, so of course she gave him “another wine.”), we were happy and feeling very relaxed on the restaurant’s patio. To the extent you got the cocktail you ordered, the drinks were quite good and the views of the Adriatic excellent.
  5. The covered, outdoor market. Finding fresh produce in Istrian supermarkets was a major challenge, so the key to getting tasty and gorgeous fruits and vegetables is to swing by outdoor markets like the one in Rovinj closest to the designated parking area.
  6. People-watching in Rovinj harbor. There are tons of cafes and restaurants lining the harbor, and even though we were in town during low season, it was still a treat to sit back and check out our fellow travellers. The harbor also is where we spent a lot of time trying to convince Milo (see point 3) to take us out to see the nearby Lim Fjord.

Overall, despite the many schlocky-looking restaurants lining the harbor, Rovinj is a very walkable and relaxed town. It’s great during low season, but I think if you throw in the possibility of a day trip to Venice via ferry, the high season in Rovinj sounds pretty irresistible.

In addition to our many trips to Rovinj, we spent an afternoon in Pula, which was about an hour’s drive from Mrgani. EasyJet recently started direct flights between London Stansted and Pula, so it’s an easy starting point for trips to Istria.

old roman arena in Pula, Croatia

Although it’s a seaside down, Pula’s water views are interrupted by huge construction cranes and tankers. Gotta make a living somehow until hordes of tourists start generating more revenue, perhaps. At least the old Roman arena is still standing. At the Pula arena, Jon and I were so excited to be offered an audiotour (we’re addicts) that we just forked over our 30 Kuna for it without applying some healthy skepticism. It turns out most of the audiotour describes what events would happen in the arena in Rome, and then the audiotour would comment on whether or not such goings on could have happened in the Pula arena. In short, not a very helpful audiotour, but the arena is a gorgeous pile of rock to explore. It’s not half as big as the Colosseo in Rome, but we had the whole place to ourselves, which is something that probably never happens in Rome.

The old Roman Forum in Pula is now a large, sunny piazza, lined with cafes. Because everyone in our group was craving ice cream, and because the piazza cafes claimed not to serve gelato, we didn’t spend too much time admiring the piazza’s ancient Roman buildings. The gelato we eventually found was no great shakes, but what did get me excited was the Mercator HyperMarket located just after the entrance to town. I don’t normally sing the praises of big box retail, but after several days of scrounging around tiny mom-and-pop stores selling dicey and pricey goods, it was nice being in a large, clean store that stocked anything you could possibly want. Even Vermont maple syrup.

And that’s the story of our seaside town adventures in Istria. Stay tuned for the food and drinks post next!

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Groznjan views, Istria, Croatia

After having spent eight days exploring Istria, the peninsula in the northern part of Croatia that markets itself as “the new Tuscany.” Visually, I’ve decided that many Istrian towns lived up to the description. Hill towns glowed gold in a warm, spring sun, and all the ones we visited were crowned by weathered stone buildings, many dating back to Roman times.

The villa we rented, Captain Morgan’s Villa, sits in a small hilltop town called Mrgani, named after the pirate, Captain Morgan, who allegedly founded Mrgani after giving up his plundering ways. Other than the town name and our villa, there’s nothing very nautical in town, so I’m not sure why Captain Morgan would have settled there (except perhaps to attract tourists like us).

The closest town to Mrgani that you can (sort of easily) find on a map of Istria is the marginally-larger town of Kanfanar, which boasts a post office and a tiny supermarket. Mrgani is a collection of two dozen stone buildings and made for a quiet getaway. Most mornings, Jon and I went running past vineyards and country views to reach Jural, 2 km away. Jural is an even smaller hill town than Mrgani and distinguished only by the number of barking dogs we found there. If you brave all the barking, though, and walk through Jural, you come upon a stunning bird’s eye view of the Lim Fjord.

Dvigrad ruins, Istria, Croatia

Also near Mrgani were the ruins of Dvigrad. The name means “two castles” or “two towns,” which is what used to stand there during Roman times in the 700s. Apparently the towns survived into the 1400s, when the Venetians took over Istria, and then soon after that, the residents cleared out or died out because of disease. If this description sounds totally vague, it’s because none of our three guidebooks (Footprint, Rough Guide, Time Out) could tell us much, and Dvigrad isn’t the kind of place that comes with audiotours.

The good part about Dvigrad’s obscurity is that were able to explore the site by climbing around ruins and wandering aimlessly through crumbling towers overgrown with weeds. I felt like I had discovered an archeological treasure. On the other hand, the ruins are haunting and substantial enough that I wished some organization were watching over the ruins and perhaps giving some context about the original use or history of the buildings that used to stand on the site. Maybe in ten years, Dvigrad will be regulated and preserved (though this would probably mean bus tours and souvenir stores would follow).

My favorite hill towns were Motovun and Groznjan.

Motovun walkway

Motovun is a hill town that’s marketing its truffle-rich forests and picturesque Medieval buildings. When we arrived in Motovun, we parked as close to the top as we could (only residents can drive all the way to the top) and then climbed the cobblestone streets to reach the oldest part of the town. The higher we climbed, the older the buildings were. On the way up, we passed stores selling the same overpriced gourmet goodies: truffles, Croatian wines (more on this in a soon-to-come post), olive oil and grappa.

First we passed through a 15th century gate that introduced views of the surrounding green valleys and rooftops. There was a café just beyond the gate where we took a much-needed Orangina and gelato break at the end of our wanderings in Motovun. Past the 15th century gate, there’s a 13th century gate that admits you to the oldest, original part of Motovun. A stone walkway encircles this collection of 13th century buildings, and as we walked along the path, we drank in views of rolling hills and forests and engaged in high school prom-style photo portraits. Very fun.

Groznjan walkway, Istria, Croatia

After seeing Motovun, I was ready to declare it the prettiest of the hilltop towns, but then we decided to drive another 20 minutes to see Groznjan, which really took the cake for sheer beauty. Groznjan is today an artist colony, which is a result of the Croatian government’s effort to save hill towns from abandonment by offering cheap rents to artists. The town has survived two near-wipeouts – the first one in the 1600s from the bubonic plague, and the second one in the 1960s after Italy gave up Istria and the town was abandoned by Italian residents who moved out of Istria. I think the repopulation of town by artists has paid off, because everything from the flower pots to the building signs is picturesque. The town is small enough so that you could wander every winding street in less than half an hour, but it’s so pretty we spent over an hour ambling around and admiring the views. You can see the Adriatic in the distance as well as dramatic valleys below. Groznjan was hands-down the prettiest town we visited during the week.

Not all the hill towns were worth a visit. For example, we wasted part of one afternoon in Zminj, which Villas Forum (the agency managing the rental of our villa) described as a must-visit because of an “agricultural fair” that takes place there during the second Wednesday of every month. We were expecting the color, bustle and tourist goodies like those you’d find in markets in Provence or Tuscany. Instead, we found only one short street lined with stands selling cheap, unattractive clothing and shoes. Blue overalls or olive-green canvas jackets, anyone? Other than a rotisserie chicken stall at one end of the street and a few grappa sellers, there was no food for sale. It wasn’t much of a market, much less an “agricultural fair.” The rest of the town was not particularly picturesque, either. I’m curious if anyone has had a good experience in Zminj?

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