For one sudden, unnerving second, I have become Caligula. The victims are arranged in front of me, impressive in their armour plating – and I have to decide which of them will die tonight for my pleasure; who will survive a little longer. “These two might be the best,” Daniela Kramaric says, identifying a pair of particularly muscular-looking specimens. “But really, this choice is up to you. They are all good.”
The clack of their claws on the platter draws me back to the reality that these are not gladiators destined to battle to the death on a bloody amphitheatre floor, but the scampi who will provide the third act of my dinner. I feel a pang of guilt as I dispatch the two suggested gentlemen to the kitchen, and their dooms. It is a momentary emotion, replaced by a glass of malvasia and Daniela’s reassurance. “The scampi from Kvarner are perfect,” she stresses. “There is just the right level of saltiness in the water, just the right amount of photosynthesis. They don’t have the hard shells of North Sea scampi. They are delicious.”
She isn’t wrong. When the two condemned crustaceans reappear, they do so as pure curls of pale flesh, served entirely raw, with a dash of white pepper. They are among the most remarkable things I have ever tasted – redolent of the sea, but also of a freshness that seems to melt into the tongue. I relax – certain that I have fully appreciated their sacrifice.
They are, though, only one of the delights placed before me at Plavi Podrum, a restaurant on the harbour in the fishing village of Volosko. It looks like any Mediterranean eatery, tables on a veranda opposite boats bobbing in the shallows. But it reveals itself as a haven of gourmet magic – helmed by Daniela, its owner and expert sommelier. Over two hours, there are portions of marinated red mullet, wild asparagus soup, and linguine with Istrian black truffles.
Even the olive oil is a miracle. “This,” she says, plucking a thin green bottle like an apothecary in a Victorian pharmacy, “is from Vodnjan, near Pula. They only pick from olive trees that are more than 100 years old.”
In some ways, it is no shock to find food of such finesse here. Volosko is pitched roughly where the Gulf of Kvarner cleaves the Istrian peninsula from the rest of Croatia. It lies just over 40 miles (60km) south east of Trieste, Italy – a country whose gastronomic flair needs no explanation.
Indeed, between the world wars, Volosko was in Italy – a fair portion of Daniela’s clientele is still Italian diners driving into “the old country” for the evening. But increasingly, Croatia needs no overspill illumination from its near-neighbour on culinary matters. It shines of its own brilliance.
Last autumn, a restaurant in Rovinj, in Istria, gained the country’s first Michelin star. It won’t be the last.
Not that there is much obvious foodie refinement when I drive to Rijeka. The focal point of the Kvarner region will be a European Capital of Culture in 2020. But on this warm Friday, there is no time for artistic ideals. Only work. Containers are spilled on the dock, and the fish market has been hard at it since dawn.
It is still in labour as I try to push through the crowd of shoppers assessing slabs of skate, dorada and tuna. Too busy, in fact, and I escape into Fiume, an eatery which wears Rijeka’s former Italian name – where my early lunch is more like dinner for the servers, who have been catering to stallholders since first light.
It is marvellous all the same – a bowl of marinated octopus and shrimp on a bed of rice blackened by cuttlefish ink, so hearty that I fear I will not need to eat again all week.
This would be a shame, as I have handed myself the “task” of experiencing the shoulder of Croatia via taste buds and stomach. I do not have to go far for a next course. Out in the bay, Krk looks an oasis of flavour from the minute I cross the road bridge. There is Volsonis, a bar slotted into the remains of a Roman building in the tiny “capital” that I can picture centurions. There is House of Krk, a prosciutto specialist where hams hang from the ceiling like pink vampires. And there is Nada, a restaurant and winery on the north-east shore at Vrbnik that offers soft vintages by the glass, and a tuna steak that comes with soy sauce and hummus.
I sit here as the afternoon ebbs away, toying with a zlahtina sparkling wine and the pertinent question – of where, precisely, Kvarner ends and Istria starts. Perhaps at Opatija, on the peninsula’s east flank – which has gleamed as a resort since 1844.
Perhaps at Moscenicka Draga, a hamlet 30 miles (50km) further south, where campsites by the beach talk of simple things, but chef Stiven Vunic elevates the conversation in restaurant Zijavica – with a tuna tartare so fresh that only the absence of head and tail convinces me the fish is not still alive. Maybe at Plomin, where the estuary of the river Boljuncica is a wound in the side of the land mass. I follow its flow in reverse, east, past medieval hill-citadels Pican and Gracisce, until I emerge back on the sea in Novigrad.
Istria has become increasingly known for such sunspot destinations – the rise of Pula as a budget-air hub (with flights from the UK) cementing its position in the realm of 21st century travel. Over two days, I seek them out.
Rovinj is a wholly pretty pocket-sized version of Dubrovnik, all orange rooftops and cobbled lanes – Monte, the recipient of that game-changing Michelin star folded into one of them.
Pula itself is as swarthy as Rijeka, though it leavens the image with its Roman amphitheatre, pulling me again into an echo-world of gladiators and battlecries. Lovrecica is so minuscule that I struggle to locate it – though I persist, on the advice that its Restaurant Badi is a glorious affair. So it proves in a dish of ravioli with sea bass and black truffles, the rich aroma rearing up from the plate.
It would be easy to assume that everything good in Istria goes on in earshot of the waves – but the region’s gift for the edible also wells up inland.
High on a hillside in the village of Ipsi, Irena Ipsa and her husband Klaudio wring sumptuous olive oils from the 3,500 trees in their heavily slanted fields. She sits at a table in her garden, uncorking a bottle of the pinot gris that they also produce on their fertile acres, sounding almost bemused that what began as a quasi-hobby in 1998 now sees them export to Japan. “When we started it was difficult to find proper Istrian olive oil,” she says. “People made it for themselves, for their friends. Now – everything has changed. You have to make your best to survive.”
She has not been alone in realising that the horizon is international. Ten miles (16km) north east in Buzet, Visnja Prodan is an advert for the area’s ascent to the gourmet pantheon – although she directs all the acclaim to Mel, Pico, Stiv and Brum, the terriers with whom she hunts for treasure.
When I meet her in the dew of an early morning at Prodan Tartufi, her family’s truffle farm – which exports to cities as distant as Hong Kong and Vancouver – the dogs are already barking, keen to scour the estate for nuggets of black-and-white gold which can sell for up to €10,000 (£8,800) a kilo. Mel and Pico are on duty for today’s venture.
They can devour any truffle they find in a frenzy of excitement, and she has to watch them constantly. “But you have to trust the dogs,” she says. “You think you know each inch of land, but they can find new spots. They don’t look like they are working.”
Nor does she – in the sense that she clearly adores what she does, having abandoned a career in mechanical engineering and a strategic role with a major car company to be the driving force of a business that her grandfather started for fun. We find only one truffle in an hour’s search, but it is tricky to gauge who is happiest as we return: Visnja, whose job is a passion project; Mel, who has found said chunk of fine fungus; or me, who will have part of it shaved into my breakfast – further demonstration that Croatia is no longer an acquired taste.
British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) serves Pula from Heathrow, and easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com) flies to the city from Bristol, Liverpool, Gatwick and Southend. Ryanair (0330 100 7838; ryanair.com) drops into Rijeka Airport, from Stansted.
The Hotel Amadria Park Grand in Opatija (00385 51 295 001; amadriapark.com) has double rooms from £110, with breakfast. The Boutique Hotel Rivalmare (00385 52 555 600; rivalmare.hr) has double rooms from €198, with breakfast.
plavipodrum.com; volsonis.hr; konoba-zijavica.com; restaurant-badi.com; monte.hr
Producers and wineries
nada-vrbnik.hr; kuca-krckog-prsuta.com; ipsa-maslinovaulja.hr; Prodan Tartufi (prodantartufi.hr) offers truffle-hunting tours from €60 per person – with breakfast.
kvarner.hr; visitopatija.com; krk.hr; istra.hr; croatia.hr
Three amazing hotels for food lovers in Istria
Villa Ariston (Opatija)
Slotted onto a low clifftop towards the south end of the “Lungomare” promenade, this retreat is the Croatian seaside at its most elegant. Its stylishness extends to its house restaurant, where Robert Benzia, the chef, crafts morsels such as a yellow potato gnocchi with a spiny lobster bisque for 220 Croatian Kuna. His abilities are such that it’s is a new addition to the Jeunes Restaurateurs (JRE) group of the best eateries in 14 European countries.
Details: 00385 51 271 379; villa-ariston.hr. Doubles from €94, with breakfast.
Hotel San Rocco (Brtonigla)
At first glance, Brtonigla is little more than a rural crossroads, lost five miles (8km) inland from Novigrad. At second glance, it is home to what the Fernetich family has made of their old farm – transforming it into a 14-room spa retreat with an infinity pool in the grounds, that is also part of the JRE club. Dinner revolves around seasonal degustation menus which include the “Cappuccino” – potato mousse with squid ink and truffles.
Details: 00385 52 725 000; san-rocco.hr. Doubles from €129, with breakfast.
Swaddled in countryside to the point of near-invisibility, this 25-room escape rewards those who drive the last two dirt-road miles to find it. It has a beach club a three-mile walk down through its vineyards, but it punches its weight most in the main lodge. Chefs Danijela Pifar and Bojan Vukovic cook a nine-course tasting menu (915 Croatian Kuna) that features a steak marinated for 48 hours.
Details: 00385 52 528 800; meneghetti.hr. Doubles from €171, with breakfast.