Photo by Ino Kuvacic and Chris Middleton
Dalmatia and its cuisine
Dalmatia is a region defined by the sea, with white-pebbled beaches, azure blue sky and the myriad islands that sparkle like jewels in the crystal clear Adriatic. The climate is typical of the Mediterranean, as is the vegetation, with olive trees, lavender bushes, vineyards and fragrant pine trees. Vegetables and seafood are the staples of a diet that has had to do the best it could with harsh, rocky terrain. Dalmatians had to be frugal and inventive, creating the best they could with limited produce. Meat has always been a luxury and rich dishes were only ever served at festivities or during special times of the year, such as Christmas. Much like other Mediterranean diets though, this has been a blessing in disguise as the diet is healthy, as is evident in the traditionally low rates of diet-related illnesses. Vegetables such as silverbeet (Swiss chard), tomatoes, asparagus and beans are the cornerstone of the Dalmatian diet and feature heavily in the recipes in this book, along with the fresh harvest from the sea, such as sardines, octopus and mussels. And of course olives and grapes are like gems produced by the earth in this region, olive oil often being considered as ‘liquid gold’.
More elaborate dishes that feature on the Dalmatian table include brudet (a thick fish soup, which is served with soft polenta), crni rižot (squid ink, or black, risotto), punjene paprike (stuffed capsicums/bell peppers) and salata od hobotnice (octopus salad). Special occasions call for more complex dishes, requiring hours of preparation, and include meat. Slow cooking is characteristic of celebratory dishes in this area – pašticada is a rich, slowcooked beef cheek stew with a thick prune and tomato sauce, often served with gnocchi, while peka is a slow roast of meat, potatoes and vegetables, cooked in their own juices in a wood-fired oven under a bell-shaped cover.
Wine-making has been an important part of Croatian culture for thousands of years and, as with the cuisine, there are two main wine regions – continental and coastal. Despite being a tiny country, Croatia has over 300 geographically-defined wine-producing areas. People all over Croatia enjoy wine with their meals daily, and have done so for many centuries.
A typical Croatian meal
So what does a typical Croatian meal look like? In many parts of the country, and similar to many other countries in Europe, when entertaining guests, meals often begin with plates of cured meats (pršut in the south, kulen in the north) and various types of cheese, pickled vegetables and bread. This will be accompanied by an aperitif, such as a brandy, followed by the first course, a bowl of warm soup – no matter what the weather.
Photo by Ino Kuvacic and Chris Middleton
Next will come either a meat dish, such as peka or pašticada, or a roast, with a particular favourite being lamb on the spit from the island of Pag or the mountainous region of Lika. Suckling pig on the spit or roast turkey are also popular dishes in various parts of the country, and meals are usually accompanied by salads, roast vegetables or, in the north, boiled pastry called mlinci. Fish dishes would also be served as a main course in Dalmatia, such as many of the recipes featured in this book.
No meal with guests is ever complete without sweets and cakes, which often contain seasonal fruits and nuts (plums, apples, apricots, cherries, walnuts and hazelnuts). Strudels (from the Germanic influence), cream cakes, dumplings (eaten throughout Central Europe) together with pancakes are traditional favourites.
There is one more thing that no Croatian meal is complete without – brandy and liqueurs. A typical start or end to any meal is sweet cherry brandy (maraschino), warm walnut brandy (orahovica), pear brandy (kruškovac), potent plum brandy (šljivovica) and herbal grass brandy (travarica).
Baked black olives
This recipe is very simple and is a great way to preserve olives. I love olives prepared like this – they are slightly bitter and tangy in flavor and they keep for a long time without any chemicals or preservatives. My family has a small olive grove on the island of Šolta in Croatia. When I was young, this was our favourite way to enjoy olives all year round.
Photo by Pixabay/photoAC
Makes 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz)
- 100 g (3-1/2 oz) salt for the jar, plus 2 tablespoons extra
- 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) fresh large, round black olives (select nice‑looking ones), washed
- 50 ml (1-3/4 fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
- rosemary or thyme sprigs
- In a saucepan, bring 2 litres (68 fl oz/8 cups) water and the salt to the boil. Turn off the heat, add the olives and let them sit in the hot water for about 20 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C (400 degrees F). Line a baking tray with baking paper.
- Drain the olives and dry them with a clean tea towel (dish towel). Transfer the olives to the baking tray and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. They are ready when they start to wrinkle. Remove the olives from the oven and leave to cool on the tray.
- Transfer the olives to a large sterilised glass jar or several smaller ones. Top the jar with some thyme or rosemary and sprinkle with the olive oil and the extra 2 tablespoons salt. Shake the jar and seal it. The olives will keep for several months sealed. Once opened, keep them refrigerated and eat within a week.
More from Dalmatia:
Cover courtesy of Hardie Grant Books
Excerpted with permission from Dalmatia by Ino Kuvačić, published by Hardie Grant Books May 2017, RRP $40.00 hardcover.