Like many European countries in and around the Mediterranean, eating – and lots of it – has fast become one of the best reasons to head to Istria, Croatia’s Adriatic coastline. From classic fish dishes to haute nouveau seafood feasts, small batch olive oil production and wines of all colours and sparkle, with its fertile farmland and family-run eateries and agricultural cottage industries, Istria is quickly establishing itself as a hub for hungry holidaymakers.
It’s an amazing transformation for a country that was wracked by war as recently as the 1990s. UK tourism in Istria plummeted from 500,000 visitors at the start of the decade to virtually zero after the unrest began and although getting the travellers back has been a slog, in the last few years, tourism has burgeoned. Last year, a quarter of a million Brits landed in the region, a figure set to rise rapidly – perhaps even more so now that Croatia has joined the EU.
Our journey began in Pula, a city steeped in history. Over 2,000 years old, the city’s extraordinarily well-preserved amphitheatre is still used. But it’s what’s in the amphitheatre’s vaults that most clearly illustrates Pula’s Romanic gastronomic roots: hundreds of recovered olive oil and wine amphorae sit stacked alongside ancient wine making apparatus. While techniques and equipment may have changed over the years, the pride, skill and art is still there.
A 15-minute drive north of Pula is Vodnjan, home to the Belci brothers’ olive oil factory. Here we were taught the art of oil degustation – namely, olive oil tasting, which works similarly to wine. I discovered that good quality oil smells like freshly cut grass on first sniff, a light texture and a decidedly peppery flavour. A litre of top of the range olive oil from Istria will set you back around 100 Croatian Kuna – roughly £12. But if you don’t fancy dragging bottles of oil with you on your travels, there’s more to be had at the region’s restaurants.
From the family-run rural agrotourism establishments such Sia and Tikel in the countryside around Vodjnan and Spinovci, where everything we ate and drank was either home-made, home-reared or home-grown to the more luxurious Restaurant Masera in Rovinj, you’re guaranteed deliciously fresh, simple fare. At Masera, we started with home-made ricotta infused with sesame seeds on toast, followed by saffron risotto with prawns and queen scallops, freshly caught sea bass with cider vinegar steeped grated carrot for our main, and home-made orange sorbet to finish. Portions aren’t large but don’t get caught out: lunches are usually at least four courses long. For once, it pays to resist having seconds.
Along with a burgeoning food scene, Istria is also rapidly putting itself on the map as a quality winemaking region. Teran is the rich red grape winemakers pride themselves in growing, and if wine tasting’s your thing, it’s worth paying a visit to the Clai winery in Krasica. Clai wines are biodynamic and take on a smoky oakiness during fermentation. Colours are deep and flavours are bolshy, helped by the typical four-grape infusion Clai has perfected over the years. But for a fusion of tradition-meets-forward-thinking, the Kozlović winery in Momjan is perfect. Partway between a nightclub and a collection of cellars and distilleries, here you’ll find wines to suit a crisper, tangier palette and tasting sessions take place overlooking the rustic tucked away valley of Momjan; the perfect setting for a relaxed and educational spring evening.
But it’s the Trapan Wine Station in Šišan that best exemplifies how new ideas are adding edgy luxury to the tradition. Nicknamed ‘Che’ by a former visitor for his revolutionary take on the art, Bruno Trapan opened Trapan wines in 2005. With little prior knowledge of running a winery, Trapan’s wines have won numerous awards and fans among Croatia’s well-heeled bon vivants. Three of his wines come especially recommended: the refreshing and flirty light blush sparkling ‘Che’; the velvety and seductive ‘Negra Virgo Revolucion’ red; and his sweet red dessert wine (yes, red dessert wine – seems to be the thing in Istria) ‘Dark Rose’.
A fan and friend of the Trapan distillery is celebrity chef David Skoko – Croatia’s answer to Jamie Oliver. Skoko’s co-chefs are his mother-in-law and own mother, while the fish supplied to his restaurant, Batelina, comes courtesy of his fisherman cousin. Set menus don’t exist at Batelina: what you eat depends on what was landed that day. While Skoko loves to experiment, madcap combinations don’t overshadow taste. ‘Once, I thought I’d try cooking with seagull eggs,’ he revealed as he laid a platter of conger eel mousse and shark’s liver pate on the table in front of us. ‘But they’re disgusting…’ We tucked into platefuls of seared shark flesh, red mullet carpaccio, spider crab salad, oysters and roe risotto while he talked.
A surprise addition to our eating itinerary that week was a guerrilla visit to Restaurant Zigante in Livade, not far from the isolated hilltop city of Motovun. Taking its name and patronage from Giancarlo Zigante, who found the world’s biggest truffle at 1.31kg in 1999, his restaurant specialises in everything truffle (or ‘tartufi’). On the last afternoon of our trip, we were treated to a sneaky white truffle ice cream, served with the ubiquitous flare of neon green olive oil – a counter-intuitive delicacy that shouldn’t work, but breaks the cart when it comes to ice cream sensation. Zigante boasts an attendant shop too, where the shelves are lined with every sort of be-truffled delicacy imaginable. Truffle honey, dried truffles, truffle pesto, truffle infused risotto rice and even truffle marmalade. Expensive, exclusive but worth every penny.
In between meals, there’s plenty to see in Istria. For a mind-blowing sightseeing session, the Kamenjak natural park in Premantura should be top of your list. Walk the length of a thin, low-lying peninsula, where witches once lived and Druids flocked to, disbelieve the clear waters on either side of you, ramble down to a genuine pirate bay, and even – if you’re lucky – spot the large grey seal who lives in a cave at the end of the peninsula. The Safari Bar is a must-do once in the park: a hand-built, ramshackle heaven with self service bar and shaded seating.
Further inland, in Istria’s dinosaur region, is the small town of Bale. Small, quirky and full of character, its twisting cobbled streets provide a snapshot into rural Istrian life. For the city version, try the gorgeously baroque Rovinj, with its imposing church on the uppermost point of the city and buildings built on arched stilts, their toes dipping into the crystal waters. There’s even a Champagne and oyster and oyster bar on the rocks overlooking the sea for a splash of romance. It’s the perfect way to round out an Istrian foodie odyssey.
RIH stayed at the Hotel Monte Mulini (rooms from £216) in Rovinj and at the Park Plaza Histria in Pula. Rooms start at £130 per night per person. Ryanair fly to Pula from London Stansted from £157 return. For more information or to book, see ryanair.com. For more information on what to see and do in Croatia, see croatia.hr.