Ino Kuvacic
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books

I was born and raised in Split, Dalmatia’s largest city, probably best known for the 4th century Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace, which forms much of the city centre. I spent my childhood years living between the old family home in Split and our holiday house on the nearby island of Šolta.

My love and appreciation for food and wine runs deep – my maternal ancestors were one of the largest wine merchant families throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in coastal Croatia.

Some of my most profound childhood memories are of wine-making and olive-picking in my family’s vineyards and olive groves. My father’s ancestors were proud Croatian farmers, working the dry Dalmatian land, which consists mainly of rock and only a little soil. They weren’t able to produce much, but what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality and flavour.

So many of the recipes in this book are dishes that I grew up eating and watching being prepared by my family, especially my grandmother Tomica and her sister Ljube. I’ve tried to stay as true as possible to them and if there’s something I would like you to take away from this book, it’s the feeling of honesty and warmth – and of course the importance of using produce of the highest available quality, which has always been the backbone of my cooking.

I hope you enjoy this journey through Dalmatia’s cuisine and some of my own personal culinary memories.

Ino Kuvacic

A rich tapestry of influences

Croatians consider themselves invariably lucky to come from such a beautiful country, with its pristine landscape and delicious variety of food and wine. Located in the heart of Europe, at the crossroads of many cultures and with a population of just over four million, it’s become a huge tourist drawcard in recent years.

Thanks to Croatia’s distinct geographic regions and influences resulting from a long and complex history, the cuisine has many variations. It is a country of regional cuisines, with a distinct divide between the southern coastal and northern continental culinary cultures.

This book focuses on the authentic food of the coastal region of Dalmatia. You’ll notice that the recipes in this cookbook don’t include as many herbs or spices as other cuisines – the key to Croatian cooking is fresh ingredients, grown in nutrient-rich, pure earth. The clean air, abundance of water in many parts of the country and different types of soils all over the region mean that the produce itself is some of the best in Europe. The inherent flavours of the vegetables, meat and fish lend themselves to simple yet refined recipes that warm the heart and soul.

Threads of History

Croatia is a tiny country with extraordinary topographical diversity, bordered by Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina, also sharing a maritime border with Italy. As such, its culinary history has been shaped by its turbulent political history, influenced by the many different ethnic groups that either passed through, exerted power over or occupied the lands that are now Croatia. It has continuously absorbed and adapted the various cultural elements that have made their way through its territories, taking a little of everything to become its own unique blend. Predominantly Italian elements, with notes of French and hints of Turkish, are woven into the lean coastal cuisine (of Dalmatia, Istria and Primorje), comprising lots of vegetables, fish and seafood along with the mandatory olive oil. The north, on the other hand (Zagorje, Slavonija and Lika), has been shaped by Germanic, Austrian, Hungarian and Turkish strands. This cuisine is characterised by hearty meat, poultry, dairy products and starchy foods, rich desserts and pickles – a product of the rich and fertile land.

Dalmatia, the region that makes up most of the southern coast, has been heavily exposed to influences from around the Mediterranean, first being colonised by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who brought wine-making to the region. Following the fall of these great civilisations, the Byzantines and Avars had a major impact on the region, along with the Croatian Kingdom between 925 and 1102. By the 11th century, Dalmatia had become part of the Hungarian–Croatian kingdom and in 1409 Dalmatia was sold by King Ladislav to Venice, opening the region up to Renaissance culture and influence. However, there was an ever-growing feeling of Croatian cultural identity.

The eastern Ottoman Empire swept through the Balkans in the 1450s and, to this day, one can see the culinary impact in dishes such as cevapcici (skinless sausages) and duved (sautéed vegetables with rice). In 1797 Napoleon incorporated Dalmatia into his Illyrian Provinces, lending a heavy French influence to the region, which is evident in some of the dishes such as rožata, a kind of crème caramel.

In 1815, Dalmatia was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire and Italian became the official language. It was during this time that the Austrian and Hungarian cultures heavily influenced the area of today’s Croatia. A lasting legacy were things like the expansion of coffee houses and cakes, such as the famous sacher torte.

With the fall of the Habsburgs in 1918, Dalmatia was claimed by both Italy for a period and the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1945 after World War II, Yugoslavia became the overarching federation and much traditional farming of produce was neglected, instead taken over by heavy industry. After a period of unrest during the 1980s, following the death of President Tito, Croatia finally declared its independence in 1991.

Today, it seems that the hunger for growing local produce and reviving old trades is back with a vengeance. What is grown and produced now in the country is among the best in Europe, and locals and foreigners are becoming increasingly aware of this as they fall in love with Croatian cuisine all over again.

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, 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) 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.

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).

Croatian hospitality

If you’ve ever been to a Croatian’s house, you will know that one thing is true – we’re a hospitable nation. Gost (‘guest’) is an emotionally charged word and visitors are treated with something akin to reverence. This is perhaps one of the things that really sets Croatian hospitality apart. We love to make our guests feel at home, as comfortable as possible, and a major part of this is ensuring they are well fed. The definition of a catastrophe (or embarrassment) in Croatia is not having enough food to serve people, so at all times there must be food and drink in the home deemed ‘worthy’ of any unexpected guests that may drop by, even if it’s just for a cup of coffee.

However, Sunday lunch is reserved for families, and the streets of Croatia’s cities and towns empty out as people sit with their loved ones for this cherished, almost sacred, weekly meal.

Nothing says Sunday lunch like the smell of freshly cooked beef soup wafting down from apartments all over northern Croatia, while nothing spells a festivity like the sweet smell of deep-fried, sugared fritule escaping from someone’s window.

At meal times, portions are generous and dishes are served on the table for everyone to help themselves, although the host will encourage and refill plates. While it’s not considered an insult to turn down food, it’s definitely seen as contributing to the communal spirit by participating in both eating and drinking. Meals in the home have been a focal point of Croatian tradition and history and even though there has been a notable increase in people eating out in recent times, the home-cooked meal will always hold a special place in the heart of Croatians. And the dishes in this cookbook reflect just that.

Slavica Habjanovic

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