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Eat: Croatia

The isle of Vis, scattered like seeds across the sparkling Adriatic, is taking an artisanal, organic and super-local approach to its cuisine

Eat: Croatia
Image: Hemis.fr/SuperStock

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“In my grandfather’s day, when you went down to the harbour, people would have fled overnight,” says Pino Vojkovic, my guide, recalling the time after World War II when Marshal Josip Tito and his Communists had an iron grip on Vis. Recognising the strategic importance of the island in the war against Italian fascism, Tito turned it into a military zone bristling with gun emplacements, barbed wire and submarine pens. “People emigrated to escape the regime, and the population shrank,” says Vojkovic. “Many went to California, to work in the fishing industry, or to Australia. Only after 1989 did they begin to trickle back.”

Significantly, it was only then that Vis — a no-go area for decades — began to welcome visitors, giving it that refreshing if slightly dream-like feel of a land tourism forgot. This could be the Mediterranean in the early 1970s, with a food culture that’s artisanal, organic and super-local. It’s not unusual to eat in restaurants where everything has been grown, or caught, by the chef.

One early hunter-gatherer was Nick (Niksa) Roki, who began to grow grapes in the sandy vineyards surrounding his home in Plisko Polje, a hamlet on the old road between Vis and Komiza — the two main towns on the island. In the Roki family’s vineyard restaurant, now presided over by his son Oliver and daughter Monika, I quaff a glass of Volijok white, made from the Bugava grape (the other well-known local variety is Plavac Mali, for reds), then sample the kinds of dishes that have established Vis as Croatia’s gourmet island.

One is wild asparagus, quite unlike the cultivated variety. Khaki in colour and no thicker than string, it has a pungency unlike anything I’ve tasted, and is served with chopped hard-boiled eggs seasoned with black pepper, slices of smoky prsut (like prosciutto) and cubes of cheese, similar to parmesan, from the nearby island of Brac, drizzled with Roki’s own olive oil.

Afterwards I’m taken to a breeze-block building and shown the peka — a cast-iron ‘bell’, placed over coals, under which meat or fish can be cooked for up to two hours without losing any of its moisture or flavour. Today, octopus and gurnard are on the menu, the latter referred to by locals as ‘sea swallow’.

There is time, while we wait, to try the ‘national’ dish: viska pogaca, a flan of salted anchovies (once a massive industry on the island) with tomatoes, onion, capers and olives, topped with a dough made with olive oil. Two carafes of Volijok later, the gurnard emerges from under the bell — the skin crisp and stickily caramelised, the flesh sweet and delicate. It’s served with nutty risotto rice, a legacy of Venice. Words such as brodet (a thick soup, like Italian brodo), pomodori (tomatoes) and prosek (fortified prosecco) bear testimony to the Italian influence, as does gelato — best at the harbourfront kiosk in Komiza — and the fiery spirit travarica, a herbal grappa.

I drink this as an aperitif at Konoba Stoncica, approached by boat across a glassy inlet where up to 40 yachts — many of them mega — are moored overnight in summer. Palms form an exotic windbreak round my table, and Pave Lincir, one of three brothers who serve as winemaker, chef and fisherman respectively, fires up the peka. “Everything we’re eating and drinking is produced right here,” he says, “all of it organic and natural. We grow watermelons weighing up to 33lb without fertilisers — only water and sunlight.”

My main course will be slow-roasted lamb and potatoes from under the bell, but the starter is a tomato-based soup of onion, carrot, garlic and parsley — all grown on the smallholding — plus meat juices and vermicelli noodles. While the lamb is cooked to perfection, Pave chargrills vegetables and makes his own bread in a wood-fired oven.

This rusticity is a far cry from Villa Kaliopa, the most romantic restaurant on the island, near the museum in Vis Town. Sitting at a candlelit table in the garden, I tuck into a silken carpaccio of monkfish while my wife has the wild asparagus with hard-boiled eggs, from a breed of chicken which, according to the chef, Goran Pecarevic, is “black, fluffy and lays small pale-green eggs”.

However, Pojoda, also in Vis Town, is the restaurant of the moment. Last year it was rated by chefs, journalists and gourmands to be the fourth-best in Dalmatia, and in 2011 took the number one slot. The signature dish is pojorski bronzinic — squid, lentils and barley — like a Croatian version of kedgeree.

In Komiza, diners at Konoba Jastozera sit at tables on wooden platforms over the water and watch as a crustacean of their choice is snared in a net and hauled from the sea. We opt for the cheaper Konoba Bako on the waterfront, only to find it too keeps lobsters and fish in a rockpool — the freshest of seafood feasts.

Five Vis food finds

1. Roki’s Vineyard: Acclaimed winemaker in Plisko Polje, with homely peka restaurant run by Oliver and Monika Roki. T: 00 385 21 714 004. www.rokis.hr

2. Roki’s Shop: In Vis Town, by the ferry port, selling the family’s wines and honeys. T: 00 385 21 714 004. www.rokis.hr

3. Konoba Jastozera: Nautically themed restaurant in Komiza, set over water in which lobster dinner lurks.
T: 00 385 21 713 859. www.jastozera.com/en

4. Travarica: Fiery brandy infused with up to 20 herbs, from rosemary, mint and lavender to carob pods and sage. Drink before a meal, with dried figs.

5. Procip: Sheep on Vis are farmed for meat — so this fresh sheep’s cheese from Brac island is welcome, cut into slices and baked in caramelised sugar.

Four places for high Vis cuisine

1. VILLA KALIOPA

A favourite of the yachting set, the summerhouse at the 16th-century Garibaldi Palace in Kut, a district of Vis Town, is the most romantic place to eat in the Dalmatian archipelago. In summer, diners sit at tables in the garden, arranged in private bays screened by palms and statuary. Fresh catch of the day, presented on a tray at your table and grilled, is a good bet. Scampi chowder and seafood carpaccio (I had monkfish with capers) are also recommended.

■ How much: Three courses from £28 with wine. Vladimira Nazora, Kut. T: 00 385 21 711 755.

2. POJODA

This Kut institution, with its walled courtyard fringed by lemon and orange trees, is known for its starters and soups, among them a brodet (stew) of fish and beans — a combination brought back by Komiza fishermen after sailing to Spain and Portugal. Pojoda’s signature dish, pojorski bronzinic (squid, lentils and barley), is a variation on the fish/legume theme. Novelty comes in the form of octopus burgers, chargrilled and served with tomato sauce. Another reliable option is whole grilled snapper.

■ How much: Three courses from £22 with wine. Don Cvjetka Marasovica 8. T: 00 385 21 711 575.

3. KONOBA STONCICA

Approaching by sea around a headland topped by a lighthouse, I couldn’t believe how modest this place looks — a ramshackle pavilion on the beach, with tables under a pergola fringed by palms. Diners look out on an idyllic bay where yachts bob at anchor. Organic fruit, vegetables and vines are grown on the smallholding, and the speciality is meat, cooked under the peka or chargrilled. Sardine, bonito and amberjack, caught by the youngest brother, Toni, are often on the menu.

■ How much: Three courses from £15 with wine. Stoncica Bay, near Vis Town. T: 00 385 21 711 952. www.konoba-stoncica.com

4. KONOBA BAKO

The poor man’s Konoba Jastozera (the ‘overwater’ restaurant in Komiza where diners see their lobster caught and cooked), Bako keeps its seafood fresh in a rocky tank surrounded by nets, anchors, pottery and other archaeological artefacts. Start with prsut (ham), cheeses, salted sardines or anchovy carpaccio, followed by fish soup or black cuttlefish risotto. Hardcore piscivores might choose grouper, yellowtail or even scorpionfish cooked with capers, laurel, rosemary and olive oil, accompanied by a bottle of Bugava.

■ How much: Three courses from £21 with wine. Gunduliceva 1, Komiza. T: 00 385 21 713 742. www.konobabako.com

 

Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)