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 Rustic Cuisine of Istria, Croatia
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Family Owned Restaurant-Hotel
Provides Immense Pleasure
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by Barry Napier

May 2006 - Istria, the north-western region of Croatia, is nothing less than stunning. All real travellers want to find that hidden gem…and Croatia is just that. 

Croatia is rated the fourth best tourism destination in the world, and top destination in Europe. In 2005 Istria had 2.6 million visitors, accounting for 37% of all Croatian tourism.

Istria is determined to retain everything that makes Istria unique, including its ‘hinterland’ or central area, with its beautiful mountains covered with unbroken variegated forestry, hill-top medieval villages, intensely green valleys and ancient roads, many of which are delightful stone tracks or narrow, twisting, single-vehicle tarmac roads. 

And somewhere in amongst these wonderful sights and places you will find small, family-owned, restaurant-hotels. More correctly they are really bed and breakfasts, but who cares about terminology when talking about mouth-watering food and wonderfully friendly hosts?

My first visit to Istria was at the invitation of Dr James Waddell, from Wales, UK, to write an article on his luxury villa. Almost completed, it is near the ancient village of Vizinada, with its breathtaking views over the Mirna valley, Croatias’ prime wine-growing area. The village is very old and untouched and can boast a German count and a Scottish countess as two of its inhabitants. James’ Vila Olivier (spelt with one ‘L’ in Istrian style) nestles amongst vineyards on a hill, with views over the Adriatic to Venice.

James and his family are used to fine food and wine. Every evening my wife and I, with his own family, were taken to a different restaurant. As his guests we certainly never lost out on the deal!

Each restaurant we visited is family-owned and most doubled as bed and breakfasts; some are rustic and others in small villages and towns. All are a gourmet’s delight where everyone is greeted like family. Long discussions take place with the owners about the food and wine on offer that night, and how it should be cooked. This is mingled with personal chats concerning each others’ families, everybody evidently genuinely interested.

In Istria, restaurants cook seasonal produce, so everything is fresh. Bread, often baked on site or locally, contains no additives and even James’ wheat-intolerant wife is able to eat bread without a problem. Comparing westernised and Istrian restaurants, James sums it up: “In the UK fine food is sophisticated. In Croatia, though just as delicious, you get unsophisticated gourmet food.”

Rarely will you get plated portions. Food usually comes on huge platters and you pick out what you want. In a Novigrad fish restaurant, the owner’s wife stood by to slice particularly rare fish so that everybody had some. Croatians are fastidious about atmosphere and presentation – you will not find cutlery, plates and dishes, or wine glasses, cleaner anywhere in the world! In another village restaurant it as like walking into someone’s home, with just one smallish room. The table cloth was old but clean, and the food was... wow! The personal service was even wowier!

My first visit to the Milena restaurant, seemed to be a long and mysterious drive into nowhere. But the restaurant was an award-winner. A typical Croatian farmhouse, it had a very unusual boundary wall made of bottles. The owner, Dorde (pronounced ‘George’) Stefanov, told us that before the disastrous civil war not so long ago, he used to get coach-loads of visitors to see the walls. But it all stopped when hostilities broke out and he now has to rebuild his customer base.

Dorde came to greet us personally, both arms outstretched. Wearing his chef’s white apron, he smiled broadly and clasped James like a brother. None of us could sit down until we had shaken hands.
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Dorde Stefanov and Father

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It was lovely and hot, so we stayed in the courtyard out front. The sun shone through the bottle wall, making each bottle sparkle like diamonds. Beginning with local beer, we progressed to starters, then main meal and sweet. Throughout came the finest wines, created in the Mirna valley nearby. All the vineyard owners are known personally to Dorde, so he can guarantee you get the best wine in the country. 
One unique fact about Croatian beers and wines is that they contain no artificial ingredients at all, so you don’t get hangovers! Drink some water in between bottles and you’ll be okay. Dorde has an endearing habit. He opens each bottle and sips a taster before offering it to his customers. If he thinks it isn’t up to his high standards, he will open another one. We finished as the sun went down, gloriously red behind the rolling hills and vineyards. 

At the end of my stay we again went to the Milena, but had to go indoors because of the rain. Though only six thirty, customers are already there. A large local-family meal was in progress in one room, everyone having a marvellous time, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. We were shown another room with a large picture window, with its own private table, big enough for our party, eight in total.
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In the corner of the room is a large traditional wood-burning cooking oven with open top and a large chimney hood overhead. On the walls are charming old photos of the owner’s family, and many old farming tools and cooking utensils.

Again, the owner came in beaming, chatting to James before suggesting a menu. This night it was to be suckling pig and home-made pasta with truffles…truffles costing very much less than in other countries. Of course, the best wines are brought in, and we all enjoyed a hearty meal.

Dorde is an exceptional chef. Not surprising since he started serving customers for his father at the age of four. Dad is heartily alive, but Dorde now runs the business. Not long before we went to Istria, an Italian expert  presented him an award for his cuisine. He proudly insists on using only traditional equipment and methods. His family even hand-peel the potatoes: 100 kgs a week in winter and a huge amount more in summer. Because of his love of Croatian heritage, he built a traditional round stone hut himself, in his garden, just below the restaurant.

Dorde is also making a name for his home-made fish pastes. But this does not mean business rules his life, as it does in so many westernised countries. He enjoys his life… Dorde introduced us to the secret ingredient of his stress-free life: ‘polako’, a Croatian word meaning to take it easy; to go with the flow and have a sense of well-being.

As with all Istrian restaurants, there is a main meal on the menu plus a few others. But, if you want something else, just ask, and chefs will simply cook whatever you want (if it is in season and on the premises!). You can even pre-order specials, like our suckling pig. 

Many restaurants specialise. For James, Dorde is “the meat man” and Sergio in the small harbour town of Novigrad is ”the fish man”. Even so, all can provide a menu of your choice, including vegetarian. As you might guess, all the food is organic. The Melina also specialises in homemade goat’s cheese and specially prepared dried white cod (an Istrian delicacy).

All restaurants take intense pleasure in giving pleasure. And the delight showing on the faces of staff is yet another pleasure! Yet, for all the expertise and top-class cooking, prices are reasonable. And, again to quote James, who compares with the rest of Europe: “You get fine wines at table wine prices.” And every meal is finished off with a small glass of ‘grappa’. At 37% proof you don’t need any more than a mouthful!

Dorde’s Konoba Milena restaurant, started in 1986, is off the beaten track but well worth a visit. And if you want to know what it is like to live in an authentic Istrian family-run B&B, why not stay with the Stefanov family?

They have one en-suite room for two persons, two rooms for two persons with shared bathroom, and one en-suite for up to four persons. This one includes a sea-view balcony.

Guests are free to join in feeding chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, goats and the cat and dog! There are walks in the woods and meadows, and guests can pick the fruit and wild asparagus (often sold at the roadside throughout Istria). You can have wine-tasting in a neighbouring wine-cellar and, if still upright, you can use the cycle route. If you want to, you can even join local hunters (who eat what they shoot).

Konoba Melina is a typical Istrian rustic establishment. If you want the genuine flavour of both Croatian food and people, then it is ideal…if you can find it! It is in the tiny village (just a few homes) of Bava (it means ‘barrel’), on a hill near Višnjan, off the main road from Motovun and Porec. The website has a very good map.

You are advised to book your table in advance, such is Melina’s popularity with locals (always a good sign). And if interested in staying, there is an email address.

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Contact:

Barry Napier 
barry.napier@ntlworld.com

Agroturizam – Konoba Milena
52463 Višnjan, Bacva 3, Istria
Tel: +385 52 449 353
Fax: +385 52 427 696
Email: milena@pu.htnet.hr
www.milena.hr

Dr James Waddell: 
james@waddellj.freeserve.co.uk

Also See: Jack Nicklaus Begins Work on a Signature Golf Course in Istria, Croatia / May 2006

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