Standard bearers: Taste Croatia

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Taste Croatia

It’s easy to forget there was a time not so long ago when the words “I’m going to Croatia” were met with surprise—even bafflement. Though long acknowledged in eastern Europe as the place for sun, sea, food and fine wine, few Brits really knew anything about the country, let alone went there on holiday.

Now tourism has gone through the roof, says Chris Stewart of Taste Croatia. “They are going there and they are going mental for the food, truffles, wines, olive oil, cheese. And where the good tourist dollar goes, good food business dollar quickly follows suit.”

For years they didn’t export. Products like pumpkin seed oil, cold pressed from the pumpkins which pave the fields of Međimurje, Slavonia and Podravina every year were unheard of beyond those regions and the areas of the Austro-Hungarian empire which produced their own. Likewise olive oil—though that is obviously produced in many regions, in Croatia there’s a particular type unique to the area of Istria near Italy. “They’ve been producing olive oil here for centuries.”

Croatia is changing. The food is changing with it. Producers both small and large are upping their game and selling their wares overseas. Yet when it comes to the production methods behind the food and drink Chris and his partner Ana-Maria import, very little has changed at all.

Black Slavonian pig
Take the Slavonian salami, for example. Made by the same family for more than 100 years, even the pig breed is ancient: the black Slavonian pig. As its name suggests, it’s indigenous. It’s been roaming these valleys and mountains for as long as pigs have been around and at the small farm Chris’s Slavonian salami and kulin hails from, it still roams.

“I believe strongly that what happens to an animal in life, comes through in its meat,” says Chris. The meat here is a prime example. Far from being confined to pens and sheds, the pigs are reared largely outdoors. The organic oats, barley and corn they feed on hail from the farm next door. “The whole farming method is traditional, from the way it’s reared to the way it’s slaughtered”—at a local slaughterhouse, so the pigs don’t have to endure a stressful journey.

There are no additives or preservatives beyond natural salt. The curing—for the salami up to six months and for the kulin, a year, before being smoked over beechwood—makes these rich, hearty delicacies the edible manifestation of Slow Food.

There is more besides—much more. Chris only works with family producers, or producers who have been in their game for a long time. His olive oil comes from a husband and wife duo in Istria, and his fig sweets—a unique and traditional delicacy in Croatia—are made using a recipe dating back to the Austro-Hungarian republic, by a family whose history of fig production dates back just as far.

Taste Croatia

The Hapsburg’s reign
“There are no preservatives or anything. They are literally dried figs rolled into balls”—hand rolled and hand packaged by the family and their small team. “They were popular during the Hapsburg’s reign among the less well off. In winter, when there were no vegetables, no fruit and little meat, these were an important product,” says Chris.

Sweet, sticky and honeyed, eating them in Britain in the 21st century seems more of an indulgence than a necessity, but the need for fig preservation is as urgent today as it has ever been. Croatia is bursting with figs. Come August and September, the country—and this region of it in particular—is alive with the plump, pregnant fruits and dozens upon dozens of pickers trying desperately to ensure none go to waste.

“They work very hard. There are a lot of figs and if they’re not picked, they won’t get harvested. They also ripen fast”–as anyone who has ever kept figs for more than a day out of the fridge will well know. Along with the fig sweets (smokvenjak) are fig cakes, fig jams and pickles and, most powerfully, fig vinegar: distilled from figs that have been fermented for a funky nine months.

“It’s almost alcoholic.” Use like you would an aged balsamic vinegar and drizzle on salads, meats or ice cream. You’ll find no sweeter way of enjoying the taste of Croatia in August, all the way through winter. Yet as perfect as figs are as an example of the sort of deeply traditional and naturally sustainable practices you’ll find among certain food producers in Croatia, an article about Slow Food and this stall would not be complete without a mention of the dinarski cheese.

Wild grasses and herbs
It is, as with so much at the stall, steeped in history: made the same way on the same island, Pag, for centuries. Stock is often limited because, as Chris points out simply, “there are only so many goats and cows the island can hold.” The goats and cows are bred outside and feed off the wild grasses and herbs “including rosemary,” he continues, “which really comes through in the cheese.” 

The sea winds rustle through the grasses, imbuing them with a natural saltiness that gives this cheese its award-winning edge. It’s hugely expressive: of the area, of the ancient dairy that makes it, and of Taste Croatia and its ethical approach to food sourcing. You can’t hurry Slow Food, but we can’t help but hope there’s some in next time we drop by.