I have loved Croatia since the 80′s when I found myself, at 18 years old, penniless on a beach in Greece. I needed to find my way back to the UK to earn more money to extend a summer spent ‘Interailing’. The first stage of the journey involved a train from Athens to Belgrade with a friend and a couple of Croatian girls returning home. We only just made it through the quite stringent border controls as Yugoslavia was still very insular at this time. We survived on Ouzo and goodwill and I still associate the area with this attitude.
I have been back a few times but had not been to Rovinj (pictured above) before last week. Perched on the Istrian coast it is a sweet little port with a lot to offer, including its proximity to Italy (Venice is a couple of hours by boat) and countless vineyards. It is an area of fish, wine, truffles and game with an admirably simple approach to gastronomy. Its people are relaxed and welcoming, especially ‘off season’. The local currency is Kuna and your money goes a long way here. The Adriatic is renowned for its calmness and colour so sailing around the unspoiled islands of the archipelago is a big draw, as is nature trekking. I made it to a couple of islands but spent most of the time reading, writing and playing tennis. The tennis infrastructure is excellent and lessons half the price of the UK.
Rovinj now has its first 5 star hotel the Monte Mulini and wine is one of its big selling points with ‘The Wine Vault’ (pictured right). Head sommelier Emil Perdec has a deserved international reputation and leads a big team by example. The wine list (over 500 bins) is mainly Croatian so it provides an opportunity to really explore the potential of local varieties, or ‘culturas‘, such as Malvasija and Grasevina. The fizz is improving and there are some easy drinking sweet wines such as Prosek made from the autochthonous Hvar grape varieties Bogdanusa and Parand Trbljan. It is now well known that Zinfandel is the same as Plavac Mali and Croatia’s contribution to the world of wine is really underrated. One successful match at the Wine Vault was Belje Merlot 2008 with a main of goat and asparagus. The local tiny asparagus spears are incredibly bitter but attributed with healthy properties by locals. Small slices of kid liver (sic) were scattered in it and the Merlot stood up well to the strong tastes. A bit on the modern side for a traditionalist like me; 14.6% alcohol but technically good it convinced Decanter medal judges and has done well at blind tastings. Mark up was reasonable and local bottles excellent value compared to French imports.
The best meal of my trip (although pasta with truffles is both affordable and reliably good in Istria) was something called ‘fisherman’s pie’ in a local cafe. This is a simple pizza base folded with anchovy, tomato, onions, garlic and herbs. Doused in lots of the local wonderful olive and wood fire baked it is obviously Italian influenced and passes the quality control of Venetian millionaires who drop anchor nearby. Cheap, honest food (£3), I could have eaten it every day with a glass of house rose’. It is a dish that sums up the area.