Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Travel | Food and drink in Dubrovnik, Croatia

My recent trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia, has converted me to this wonderful country – read about Croatia as a luxury travel destination here as well as what you can expect from a Dubrovnik city break.

But one of the most important aspects of any holiday is the quality of the food and drink. I had two questions: 1. What is it like to travel in Croatia as a vegan? And 2. What do Croatians drink? Here’s what I discovered.

Croatian wine is actually really, really good

Yes, really! But, if that’s true, how come it’s not better known in the UK? Good question. The Croatians are rightfully proud of their wineries and favour their native wines over imported bottles from Italy or France. The country’s producers make enough for its inhabitants plus a bit for export but the majority stays in Croatia.

The Pelješac Peninsula is one of Croatia’s main wine-producing regions, and easily accessible from Dubrovnik. We set off bright and early one morning, arriving at our first stop, the Milos vineyard. This family business has been cultivating the Plavac Mali (‘small blue’) grape variety for generations, resulting in a wide range of wines – from a light rosé to several reds, and even semi-sweet and sweet red dessert wines. We were introduced to them all by a member of the Milos family in the beautiful tasting rooms, with freshly baked bread and cheese to nibble on. Both wines and snacks were delicious (even so early in the morning) and the experience of sampling these vintages in this family cellar was one to remember. Plus – if you buy your bottles based on the prettiness of the label, you’ll love this wine!

Next, we drove a little further into the peninsula to Korta Katarina, whose story I found absolutely fascinating. Its owners, American couple Lee and Penny Anderson, first visited Croatia in 2001 as part of a post-war charity visit providing humanitarian aid to Bosnia-Herzigovina and Croatia. They fell in love with the beauty of the Dalmatian coast and the amazing produce grown here, -later investing in an old hotel that has now become the Korta Katarina winery. The place itself is gorgeous. No expense has been spared in raising this relatively new label to the standards you’d expect from its French or Californian equivalent (indeed the wine itself is aged in French oak barrels). You can visit Korta Katarina to taste their wines, enjoy drinks at the wine bar or even stay in one of ten suites in this magnificent villa overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

The Plavac Mali grape is a cross between Crlenjak Kaštelanski (ancestral Zinfandel) and Dobričić (an ancient red wine grape variety from the Dalmatian coast) grapes. It’s this combination that has long perplexed wine experts, who often confused Plavac Mali with Zinfandel, the famous Californian wine. Mike Grgich is a native Croatian winemaker who founded Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley in 1958. Grgich claims that Zinfandel’s origins have to be in Croatia and that Zinfandel is either Plavac Mali or a close relative. No one really knows how the grapes found their way from Croatia to California, and Korta Katarina have brought back Californian Zinfandel vines to Croatia to produce their wines, closing this intriguing loop.

My dad is very into his wine and we exchanged texts while I was at Korta Katarina, him demanding I send live text updates as to what we were drinking and what I thought! As well as the impressive selection of wines, the tasting at Korta Katarina included an amazing spread of olives, tomatoes, cheese, bread, tapenade and hazelnuts. We were very spoilt.

Our third stop on the wine tasting trail was Navis Mysterium. Now this story is like something out of an Asterix book! Their Plavac Edivo wine is produced in the same way as all the others on the Pelješac peninsula. But its ageing process is completely unique. The bottled wine is aged for three months before being placed inside a terracotta amphora. These amphoras are taken out to sea and submerged – cork side down – at a depth of 18–25 metres for one to two years.

The reason? These deep sea locations around the peninsula provide perfect thermal conditions – a constant temperature and barely any light. Of course it also helps that the amphoras and bottles emerge from the depths covered in a beautiful layer of shells, coral and algae! And I love the idea of tourists looking out to sea from beachside loungers and not knowing there's an ocean full of wine out there. But this isn’t a novelty product. The wine itself is an award-winning red that does the region proud.

How easy is it to eat vegan in Dubrovnik?

It was with trepidation I mentioned my meat and dairy free diet on my recent trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia, but I needn’t have worried. We ate like kings and queens at every meal, and I didn’t once feel left out while carnivorous companions feasted.

Directly above Dubrovnik is the Panorama restaurant, accessible by road but more excitingly by cable car up the side of Mount Srdj. Here, we enjoyed the best views of the city beneath and the sea beyond, and ate a meal made from some of the region’s best fresh produce. My highlight was the risotto main course, while my companions were treated to freshly caught local fish and steak.

The buffet breakfasts and dinner at the Valamar Lacroma Dubrovnik Hotel were quite a sight to behold – every possible breakfast dish you could image was up for grabs, with plenty on offer without meat or dairy (including a range of non-dairy milks for tea, coffee and cereal). Again, so much fresh produce was on offer and I particularly loved the grilled peppers and sauteed potatoes I ate for dinner.

On our way back from our wine tasting adventure, we stopped for lunch at a picturesque harbourside restaurant called Bota Šare, where we ate a four-course meal. But it was our final farewell dinner at the Langusto restaurant back at the hotel that really hit the mark. For my starter, I was served a Mediterranean potato salad with string beans and cherry tomatoes, which was so tasty and looked amazing, too, as the potatoes were purple. Next was couscous Swiss chard with fennel and beetroot sauce – again, those flavours were so fresh. The main course was barley with grilled vegetables and caramelised cauliflower, which is one of my favourite vegan dishes ever. And for dessert? Pear strudel with mint pesto. Equally delicious, equally inventive. This meal at the hotel made me feel well taken care of as a vegan.

To answer my own questions...

What is it like to travel as a vegan in Croatia? A lack of language skills never helps but everyone I encountered was helpful and eager to find a solution that worked for me. The meals I ate were good – some more inventive than others, but all using such delicious local fruit and veg that even simple salads were a pleasure to eat. It can be done!

And what do Croatians drink? Easy. Some of the best wine in the world. Živjeli!

My stay at the Valamar Lacroma Dubrovnik Hotel was provided for the purposes of this review but all words and thoughts are my own.
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