I see now why Lord Byron called Dubrovnik “the pearl of the Adriatic.” With numerous beaches around the city center, giant medieval walls, and an identity all of its own, Dubrovnik has been an important tourist destination for 75 years. It’s the ideal place to begin a culinary trip through Croatia and taste some traditional Dubrovnik dishes.
This morning I ordered two of the local pastries: strukli and burek sir. Strukli (strudel) is filled with either berry, apple, or cheese. I ordered the cheese, and it was easily the best strudel I’ve ever had. The pastry was so light and flaky, and the filling had the slightly tangy flavor of the local cheese. Some evidence suggests that strudel actually originates in Croatia. Burek sir—also not to be missed—is similar to spanakopita. It is stuffed with spinach and sir cheese, rolled into a pastry tube, then coiled and baked.
At 11am, I met Branka Franicevic, a tour guide with the local tourism board. We walked through Pile Gate and along the main street, Placa Stradun. She told me that the street used to be a seawater canal, and I tried to picture Dubrovnik in 700AD.
Dubrovnik was one of Europe’s first cities to successfully host a democratic government. The city had the third largest navy in the world during the 1500s, and it amassed huge amounts of wealth by playing the Ottoman Empire off of the Venetians, the whole time staying an independent gem between the two. The city’s icon walls were first built to protect it against the Venetians coming from the west. Then they were constructed all the way around the city when the Ottomans came from the east. Dubrovnik’s walls are truly one of a kind; Napoleon began tearing down city walls when he realized that they not only kept enemies out, but also trapped diseases inside. Following the spread of severe plagues, he had every European city under his control tear down its walls. Uniquely, he left Dubrovnik alone. Today you can walk on top of the walls for 70 kuna ($11); it takes about an hour and a half and should not be missed.
Another important part of Dubrovnik’s past is the more recent 1991-1995 war between Croatia and Serbia. Branka described what it was like during the Serbo-Croatian War. The Serbs took a high position above the town and started shelling. The shells burned the insides of many homes, but caused very little structural damage. The Serbs cut off water and electricity to the city, and the locals were forced to hide in the strongest fortifications. Branka refused. “If I was going to die, I wanted to die in my own home”, she said. Her neighbor arrived one day “with a large glass of rakija and told me to drink it. Usually, I would be on the floor, but I drank it all and it barely stopped my trembling.”
Rakija is similar to Turkey’s raki. A fruit brandy, it comes in many flavors and is sometimes imbibed in the morning alongside espresso (the coffee culture in Croatia is very similar to that in Italy). Branka’s story struck me as very brave, and it helped me understand the complicated history of the Balkan countries. Think of the Balkan countries as “dating” prior to WWII, as these countries got along reasonably well during the early 20th century. When they got “married” with the creation of Yugoslavia, the marriage was happy at first, but things went sour with the death of the iron fisted, charismatic President Tito in 1980. The divorce was ugly, with significant conflict and tensions building between the Yugoslav republics. In 1991, the country fell apart, devolving into a series of civil wars. The sting has since subsided, and there’s no conflict between the Balkan countries today.
Besides learning the local history, I’ve been eating it. Dubrovnik is foremost a city of seafood, but seafood lovers accustomed to locally caught salmon steaks shouldn’t look for that here. Shellfish, calamari, octopus, tuna, and small fish comprise the court, with oysters holding the throne. My favorite dish was the octopus salad (salata od hobotnice) that I ate at Restoran Porat. Located outside of the city center, Restoran Porat was the least touristy place I visited. The quality of the food was excellent, and it was much cheaper than inner-city restaurants. The octopus was served in bite-size pieces in a marinade of local olive oil, tomato, onion, fresh parsley, and red-wine vinegar. It is boiled for at least two hours to make it tender.
Croatian restaurants are divided between restoran and konoba. Broadly speaking, restoran are higher-end and konoba are usually family-run and tavern-like. I did not find that this distinction held up in Dubrovnik: the term konoba has become so popular among travelers that most restaurants use it. So, when in Dubrovnik, make your restaurant choice by its menu, and definitely try restaurants outside of the city center.
Traditional dishes to keep an eye out for are black risotto, raw oysters, and mussels. Do not miss the vegetable or seafood soups. Soup is usually served as the first course, and the local chefs have a knack for creating flavorful broths. They are very thick, and most chefs prepare them using the consommé method.
My favorite local white wine came from the Cara region of the island Kurcula (look for this name on the labels), and it pairs very well with the seafood dishes. It is dry and nicely acidic. The local red wines are great with pastas, pizzas, and meats (of course), and some of the light-bodied plavac mali are good with heavier seafood dishes, such as the black risotto. Plavac mali is the red wine grape that is genetically related to zinfandel.
Tomorrow I’m going to the coastal town of Split, but tonight I’m going to hit the street and check out the local wine scene. Between wine shops, bars, and restaurants, someone has to be willing to teach me more. I’ll post the full story shortly.
Written by and photos by Mattie Bamman (the Ravenous Traveler) for EuropeUpClose.com
This is part two of Mattie’s travelogue Eating the Adriatic. Follow Mattie as he eats his way through Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.