Meet Jelena Vukas; a globe-trotting Croatian copywriter from Split – a beautiful historic city on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Croatia is not an easy country for vegetarians; but Jelena told me all about what to try and when I turned my hand to Croatian cuisine it was delicious.
There are many particular dishes, but when I think of Split I think of prosciutto, fresh seafood, salty sheep’s cheese, figs, grapevines and peaches, flower honey, nuts, stews, brodets, fresh olive oil scented with lavender, smoky wood-fire pizzas, thick creamy ice-creams and anything cooked under a peka (earthenware or iron-cast bell which food is placed into, covered with and then the bell is placed in between embers to cook, bubble, release all of its juices and….you can drool now…I am).
What about the rest of Croatia, are there certain flavours that define the food?
Croats enjoy a Mediterranean diet that has been influenced by a swarm of empires that have ruled the land throughout history. We are used to slow-cooking traditional recipes that our grandmas taught us. There’s loads of fresh food, but lots of it is meat and other produce of animal origin. Think seafood, pork prosciutto and sausages, salted lamb, game, etc. Some mix of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, chard, cabbages will always be at the table though. Everything will have an abundant garlic and olive oil base. We are heavily into baking breads, cakes, dough and pastries. Veggies and meats are usually roasted in ovens, on embers or in open fires.
What’s your absolute favourite?
Just one? I love extended breakfasts and drawn out coffees while deliberating over politics and the morning paper, I love ajvar (vegetable relish made from peppers, courgette and aubergine), fresh seafood, traditional Christmas multiple-course feasts ending in sweet deserts, and roast-lamb and peka-cooked vegetables for family reunions. I suppose the easiest and most nostalgic vegetarian recipe is the chard soparnik, which originated in Croatia during the 15th century and was said to be ‘the poor man’s food.’ Wine goes with all meals, but I think soparnik tastes great with elderberry juice.
How is Croatia for vegetarians? Are there many or are they pretty rare?
They are pretty rare because they miss out on the majority of the local cuisine, which is pretty traditional. It comes as a result of culture – it was only a few decades ago that most Croats still had some form of agricultural farm, complete with goats, sheep, chickens and cattle and went actively fishing and hunting to stockpile food.
I’m guessing that makes it pretty hard to be vegetarian in Croatia then?
Most of the soups and risottos will use animal stock as base, there will be bacon in dishes that won’t even be mentioned, fish isn’t even
considered meat…it can be difficult but if you’re willing to give it a go you can make it work. There are plenty of fresh produce growers, bustling food markets filled with cheeses, fruits, nuts and legumes, there are bakeries and pizzerias (the good not the junk-food kind) on every corner, and there are vegan and vegetarian (and simply vegetarian-friendly) restaurants popping up all over the place. With a little effort, you’ll be all right. Rural areas will be a bit tougher, but the advantage there is that they’ll have a stockpile of fresh produce that you’ll be able to work with.
So what’s the absolute number one thing for a visiting veggie to try then?
Ajvar (veggie relish) is my favourite thing in the world and I’m glad I could actually find it in remote cobwebbed areas of the supermarkets in both NL and Australia! There are plenty of other things you can try: roast polenta with ajvar, cracked pepper biscuits, posna sarma without meat (cabbage rolls with rice and grains), poppy seed strudel, strudel, traditional cabbage and chard sides, plum pies, fritule (fruit doughnuts), all the local fruit (my favourites are figs, plums, grapes, peaches, citrus fruits), there’s plenty of cheese (just try them per region), fresh breads with nuts and seeds, traditional chocolate cakes (with oranges and walnuts), truffles, jacketed potatoes (washed, cut in half, drizzled in garlic, olive oil and salt and roasted), ice-creams and wood-fire anything that you can get your hands on. Just enjoy it!
Jelena’s recipe for Soparnik went down a storm in the Forking Off house, especially combined with ajvar roasted vegetable relish. I made that too and if you’d like to try it you can find the recipe on ForkingOff.co.uk.
Soparnik is essentially two thin, circular discs of dough sandwiching swiss chard, parsley, garlic and red onion between them. You can find chard in British supermarkets, but not always – not on the day I went foraging unfortunately. I used a combination of curly kale and fresh spinach which worked really nicely instead.
For the dough I used a trusty pizza base recipe, here it is (you can use white flour instead of brown if you want, it’s down to personal preference):
- 200g White Flour
- 150g Wholemeal Flour
- Pinch Salt
- 1 tsp Yeast
- 1 ½ Tbsp Olive Oil
- Up to 250ml Cold Water
1. Mix the flours and olive oil and add the salt and yeast.
2. Slowly add the water a bit at a time, kneading the mixture until it forms a single ball. Don’t add it all if you don’t need it all.
3. Knead the ball until it is has some elasticity; to test it, rip a piece off. If it doesn’t stretch before it breaks off then keep kneading.
4. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil into a clean mixing bowl and roll the ball in it until it has a thin film across its surface.
5. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave somewhere warm and dry to prove for at least an hour, preferably two or more.
Whilst this is proving, prepare the other ingredients:
- 3 Cloves of Garlic, Finely Diced
- 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
- 2 Handfuls of Fresh Chopped Parsley
- Swiss Chard/Curly Kale/Spinach
- Pinch Salt.
1. Cut the dough ball in two and roll both out into circles as thin as possible. Grease a large round baking tray and lay one base out on it.
2. Mix the greens and parsley, 2 of the diced garlic cloves, 1 1/2 Tbsp of olive oil and a pinch of salt in a bowl and then layer the mixture evenly over the first base.
3. Lay the second disc of dough over the top of the first and roll up the edges of the bottom layer to seal it.
4. Sprinkle the last clove of diced garlic over the top with a pinch of salt and cook on 180C for approximately 20 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown.
5. When it’s finished, brush the last 1/2 Tbsp of olive oil on the top and serve cut into traditional diamond shapes with a bowl of ajvar relish.
For this and other recipes, visit the Forking Off website.