Cycling for Good Eats Along the Dalmatian Coast
By Maggie Rentmeester
If I close my eyes I can still recall the enchanting scent of the sea mingled with sun kissed rosemary and herbs on the breezes. Scenery resplendent with verdant rows of grapevines, olive groves and meticulously cared for vegetable gardens greeted us around every corner. Rocky harbors filled with fishermen skillfully maneuvering boats into the dock stuffed with the day’s fresh catch. Ah, the sights and scents of Croatia.
We spent our first night with the VBT biking group in the town of Trogir. There we strolled through the ancient town and stopped at the local farmer’s market and nibbled on fresh sun ripened strawberries and apricots. After meandering along cobbled streets through narrow passageways we stumbled upon an enchanting restaurant called “Kamerlengo”. The luscious aromas emanating from the wood-fired grill lured us in. We couldn’t help ourselves! Upon entering, we reveled in the ambience: cozy tables sheltered by flowering vines, surrounded by ancient stone walls with the grill master located center stage delighting all by expertly tending rows of fresh scampi and sea bass on the sizzling grate. Our friendly waiters quickly took our order and within a few minutes we dove into a giant platter heaping with grilled seafood. Everything was perfectly cooked, seasoned simply with olive oil, garlic and sea salt; anything more would have been a crime. Both main proteins were served with succulent grilled zucchini and green peppers, homemade bread, and crisp, fresh local wine. Even after some serious post-dining finger-licking, extra napkins were required by all!
We left lovely Trogir to begin our multi-island cycling adventure. Brac Island was our first stop, a quaint fishing village where locals still navigate its quiet roadways with donkeys loaded with hay. We strolled a short distance along the harbor for dinner at Konobo Gustirna: our group was greeted with homemade brandy, Rakija, pronounced rah-kee-yah. Croatian culture dictates guests are served this delicious aperitif immediately upon entering a host’s home, a superb custom we were able to partake in multiple times. The brandy is available in a number of different flavors: my favorites were cherry and walnut, but other folks loved the lemon verbena and lavender. Konobo Gustirna specializes in “Peka”, a signature dish of Croatia’s Dalmatian region. The dish is comprised of a mix of meats or seafood combined with fresh vegetables and seasoned with olive oil and fresh herbs cooked in a large round pan covered with an iron lid and finally topped with hot coals, locals call it cooking “under the bell.” The dish needs to be ordered several hours in advance. The secret to Peka’s deep flavors and amazing textures is long, slow cooking allowing essences of each element to mingle. It’s reminiscent of an ancient version of the crock pot – only so much better. We had one dish with chicken, pork and lamb and another with octopus. Large chunks of tender meat bathed in delicious savory gravy sopped up with homemade bread melted in our mouths and left us all sated. George told us, “I think I ate too much octopus” …then laughed and said he’d probably never said that before or nor would he ever have the opportunity to say it again. Peka is well worth the advance planning and a dish not to be missed when in Croatia.
Our fabulous VBT guides were able to arrange several home-hosted dinners during our cycling and sightseeing trip. Having an opportunity to dine in a local’s home allowed us to develop an intimate sense of the culture’s traditions and everyday lifestyle. My group attended dinner at Sandra’s. She and her husband ran one of the local bars and managed many acres of olive trees and grape vines. Her teenage daughters helped serve and started us with a beautiful platter of homemade sausages and local goat cheeses. Our main course was Punjena Paprika (stuffed peppers), fresh green peppers which were filled with a mixture of beef, pork and rice served in a tangy, smooth tomato sauce. Fluffy, buttery mashed potatoes served as a side was the definition of comfort food at its best. Homemade crusty bread, crisp salad of fresh-picked greens and tomatoes tossed with our host’s own olive oil and vinegar rounded out our meal. Chocolate torte provided a sweet end to our meal. Desserts were luscious and creamy but, unlike many in the United States, only lightly sweetened.
Our second home-hosted dinner was at Ante’s and was my favorite meal of the trip. Ante, his wife, and children run the Tri Sestrice (Three Sisters) apartments in Hvar Town. Ante is a trained chef with extensive gardens on his property and a strong belief in cooking fresh, local, organic foods. Our guides explained that there were no dinner choices for the evening; we would be served whatever Ante had that was ripe and available for that day. We were spectacularly lucky! Ante’s friend had caught a blue fin tuna for our main course. We started with an appetizer dish he called “shalsa”—prepared by taking fresh vegetables (zucchini, onion, herbs, and seasoning) sautéing until cooked through, then adding ½ egg per person simmered gently until the water was evaporated off. Soft, fluffy, fresh eggs mingled with the vegetables and fragrant herbs in a perfect medley stimulated our appetites. The tuna had been marinated for a couple of hours in olive oil, sea salt (gathered by Ante!) and pepper. After allowing the tuna to reach room temperature, Ante seasoned the grill heated with olive wood with a branch of rosemary dipped in olive oil. The fish was grilled for 1 minute for each centimeter of thickness and plated with steamed potatoes and a medley of vegetables including fava beans and zucchini. There was no talking as people were served–only sounds of yumminess: “Mmmmm”, “Oh my”, were heard all around the table. I can’t even describe how scrumptious the tuna tasted, bright, fresh, tender, and succulent are words that come to mind.
Pizza! The Mediterranean influence was prevalent in Croatia. Pizzerias outfitted with brick ovens could be found in nearly every town: crispy wood fire grilled pizza with fresh ingredients was available in even the smallest village. Tuna, margarita, salami, vegetables, mushrooms, and fresh cheeses were just some of the choices; corn appeared on several menus, too. I am normally not a pepperoni fan, but homemade Croatian sausages were fantastic and we enjoyed several pies layered with thinly sliced salami-type meat. Salads of fresh greens, sun-ripened tomatoes, crisp cucumbers drizzled with olive oil and tangy balsamic made for the perfect accompaniment. Many lunches were washed down with refreshing radlers (a delightful blend of local beer and lemonade) which were wonderfully thirst quenching and low in alcohol.
Another example of Mediterranean influence were the ever-present and countless gelaterios. We learned to judge the quality of the product based on color—specifically, if the pistachio gelato was a dull, almost light army green color you’re good to go. Bright green means artificial additives and time to look elsewhere. Our choices were seemingly limitless: mojito, chocolate, Nutella, peach and strawberry yogurt, I don’t think a day went by without a gelato! Bicycling up the hills was worth it; no guilt suffered for eating daily ice cream.
Hvar Konobo Menego, Hvar Town—located in the refurbished ancient stone family home of the owner and staffed by charming servers dressed in old national garb of Hvar came highly recommended by our VBT guides and didn’t disappoint. Our waiter suggested we order a number of dishes, all authentic Croatian, and served family style to share. We started with a traditional fisherman’s snack: Dalmation stuffed bread with anchovies, onions, capers and smoked cheese (billed as Grandma’s secret recipe!) followed by crispy toasted homemade bread stuffed with a tangy, salty, gooey spread. Entrees included gnocchi with shrimp and gorgonzola cheese — delightfully light with a creamy, rich sauce, grilled fresh sea bass — crispy skin and flaky white interior, chef’s special beef with gnocchi—melt in your mouth tender beef with those fabulous gnocchi. All of the wine, fruit and vegetables served were grown at the owner’s wife’s family gardens on a nearby island. The meal was an incredible explosion of deep flavors and astonishing scents.
Our trip was capped off by a traditional picnic prepared and served by our guides. All of our trips VBT have included a “guide picnic” and are a definite highlight. They certainly outdid themselves with a huge spread of Croatian specialties all served overlooking the harbor at Verboska. Our spread included locally made sausages: cevapcici, kulen and spek, goat cheeses from several different islands, crispy, salty chips served with tuna pate, crunchy fresh vegetables, and homemade bread, all topped off with several varieties of creamy chocolates: a visual and gustatory feast.
Beautiful Croatia: a feast for the senses. Delicious foods, gorgeous scenery, fabulous biking and wonderful new friends, I can’t wait to go back!
I would recommend this trip or one like it to anyone who even dabbles in cycling.
Please visit Vermont Bike Tour’s website (www.VBT.com) as an excellent starting place for your biking adventure.
Published October 2015