On this trip I get to taste a thousand flavours of the Mediterranean, do the Conga on one of its beautiful islands and have a late night cooking session with four excellent (if not a slightly drunk) chefs. Croatia is a beautiful country and Šibernik one of its prettiest towns.
From Split it’s only an hours to drive to Šibenik, the beautiful historic coastal town in Dalmatia, where I was to stay for the next five days. My driver took me past family vineyards and along windy roads with glimpses of the sea, the fertile green hills unfolded and the sun was still bright but low in the sky when I arrive at 7pm. I was there for the Taste the Med Food Festival – a celebration of the tremendous variety of culinary offerings on the shores of the Mediterranean.
My base was a studio flat in the small historic centre of town, I wandered off to meet the chefs and have a ‘pre festival’ dinner at Croatia’s voted best restaurant (two years running no less) Pellegrini. The philosophy of chef patron Ruolf Štefan is based on a creative combination of tradition and innovation. In short he served superb food.
The festival started in earnest the next day with a kids cook off making pizza. The atmosphere was great with the little Mediterranean chefs getting messy hands, cheesy grins and all supervised by some of the regions finest culinary skills. Festival organiser Ingrid Badurina Danielsson encouraged the children in between chatting away to local radio and TV. As you can imagine the whole event was a local sensation with the media. Followed by a display in Michelin star cooking from chef Lionel Levy from the Intercontinental Hotel Dieu in Marseille. 200kg of muscles with plenty of local white wine, onion and garlic was one of the highlights.
Later that night I was invited to four of the chefs flat where they cooked an impromtu meal for their guests. It was fantastic to see the skills of these talented chefs from around the world. Lionel from France with his trusty colleague Lionel Perrodin, from Japan there was Ippei Uemura and Jeremy Girvan from Belgium. Knife skills were on show as they chopped and sliced and cooked and drank (yes, there was a little wine as well).
The next day kicked off with a nod to the past and traditions of the region with The Croatian Grandmas, four ladies of a certain age who cooked and talked their way through a few local favourites. Then on to the Barone Fortress, with views over the azure sea from the top of the hill overlooking the town and the official opening of the festival by the Mayor and other local dignitaries. Ten Michelin starred Italian chef Marco Stabile led a new brigade to provide a splendid fish based lunch. I must also point out that the weather at this time of year (late Spring) is just perfect. We sat outside in glorious sunshine eating divine food and perfectly chilled wine.
Šibenik is the perfect base for a holiday it offers a rich sense of history. Like so many places in the region it has been conquered many times, the Venetians, Serbs, Slovenes, Fascist Italy, the Communists and Germans have all left their mark. The last Balkan conflict was over twenty years ago. Since then the historic centre has been completely restored. Packed with art galleries, boutiques and tiny bars and restaurants it really is the place to stay. Most of the streets are too narrow for cars so walking was the best way to get around. Don’t worry about distances, as it’s very compact and follow the simple rule, if you’re going down hill you will come to the beach, if you’re going uphill you will get to the main road.
The Cathedral of St. James is a UNESCO heritage site built entirely of stone and completed in 1536 in both Gothic and Renaissance styles, has a beautiful interior. Also worth a look is St. Nicholas’ fortress, which lies on an Ljuljevacat island just off the Šibenik channel across from the Jadrija beach lighthouse. Getting about on a boat to visit the thousands of islands is also recommended many trips are on offer from the harbour.
Every June and July the International Children’s Festival is held in Šibenik. With plays, dancing, workshops and an abundance of creativity over a two-week period this is a must for families. Now in it’s 5th decade it brings the streets alive and might just bring out your inner child.
I took a boat trip out to Prvić Luka Island, one of the thousands along the coast. The destination was for one of the festival events with some of the chefs contributing to the evening of fun at the Hotel Maestral. With carpaccio of octopus, a tight Cuban band and a warm evening eating under the stars it was hard to improve on. As the night went on and the superb local wines flowed the fun started with impromptu groups of Conga dancing popping up between the tables and a bit of karaoke well into the small hours. A very jolly evening indeed.
Another day, another cook off. This time I was in the national park with dramatic waterfalls as a backdrop against an intriguing challenge, a French chef and a Croatian chef cooking the same recipe but with their own interpretation. Risotto was the weapon of choice. It was fascinating to watch such talent excel in front of a crowd. Both dishes although following the same recipe tasted quite different and were presented using what was around them. Large leafs were picked and tiny flowers chosen to decorate. Again there was a great sense of fun and camaraderie and afterwards a walk around the park, a safe natural environment for families to enjoy.
I had the privilege of being one of the judges in the main square in a three-way cook off between local businesses. In a healthy atmosphere of competitive rivalry they set about their cooking at a feverish pace. This time the dish was mussels with risotto. The compere of the evening was Doric Pincić who presents a popular food programme on Croatian TV. There was a clear winner, so that was easy!
My lasting memory of Croatia is the final night feast up at the fort looking down over a setting sun on the Dalmatian Sea. A huge fire pit BBQ had been set up with all sorts of exotic foods prepared as well as a collection of fondue burners and sauces for all tastes. This was a special night, again under the stars with classical music provided by a string quintet and everybody chatting away about the last few days.
This trip was a great insight into the psyche of the country and its environs through the food they love and enjoy. The people of Croatia (and their neighbours) are united in their love of food and drink. They have much to offer in other areas too, an outstanding coastline with history oozing from every building and charming people who can’t do enough to help. It’s perfect for families, couples and solo travelers alike. In my ‘judgment’ if I were you I’d book, travel and enjoy all it has to offer.