Walking through a farmers’ market in any town on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is an exercise in surprise. Every few days there’s something new to tempt one’s taste buds. Blink, and you’ll miss cherry season. Take an extended break from grocery shopping and you’ll have missed out on luscious figs the size of limes or rich, aromatic truffle cheeses.
As in Canada, the farmers’ markets of Croatia are community hubs, and customers range from tourists looking for souvenirs to professional chefs stocking up on their day’s supplies. One reason, says Croatian-born Ivana Orešić, a chef and author of the cookbook My Dalmatia: Tastes, Savours, Colors, is that the prices of many items, from eggs to cheese, are markedly different from those found at a traditional grocery store. “For Croatians, everything is expensive,” says Orešić. Plus, at a market one can get specific quantities, minimizing the waste of both food and money. Another reason, says Orešić, is that most of the locals eat at home. “People here think that they’re the best cooks. I know my parents would always say, ‘At home is better. You never know what is happening in the background, or what they have in the kitchen. At home is the best.’”
Despite this traditional way of thinking, a finedining culture is beginning to emerge. Restaurants like Pelegrini in Šibenik, Perivoj in Split and Azur in Dubrovnik all provide patrons with traditional Croatian recipes that have a modern twist, with French, American and Asian influences. Tea Mamut, 27, is a rising star in Croatia’s culinary scene, and is the only Croatian to date who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. “People in Croatia love Western stuff,” Mamut says, which is why she combines American dessert trends with classic Croatian recipes. Currently the pastry chef at Perivoj, Mamut also has a line of desserts, Good Sweets, that is carried in the country’s biggest grocery store. “I’m using what people like, but using it in new ways,” says Mamut. Today, high-end restaurants (Perivoj included) are where visitors and locals alike can enjoy a spectrum of dishes.
And Croatian cuisine does, indeed, contain a spectrum of dishes, influenced by a number of cultures, including the Greeks, Romans and Turks. “If you look at the plate, you will see the influence of history,” says Orešić.
The Croatian Mediterranean diet, which as of December 2013 is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, most closely resembles that of Italy, primarily in the freshness of its ingredients, Orešić explains. “Every day you can find fresh fish and fresh vegetables. And when you have fresh ingredients, you don’t have to cover them with anything. We use only basic spices—olive oil (extra virgin always), garlic and parsley. Maybe rosemary and bay leaf.”
In effect, clean eating and slow food aren’t simply gastronomical movements in Croatia, they are integral to the country’s cuisine and culture. Even the cooking techniques are simple, Orešić says. “Typical in Dalmatia is grilled everything,” the chef says, and food, including fish, is cooked over an open flame—sardines a dozen ways, grilled calamari, octopus salad. On the side: fresh vegetables or boiled potatoes topped with olive oil and rosemary.
“It is rich food done poorly,” Orešić says of Croatian cuisine, meaning that the style of cooking is very simplistic. It’s a motto that even the most advanced chef can appreciate, especially the ones who frequent local farmers’ markets in search of the freshest ingredients.