Food & Drink

Why Eating Your Way Through Istria Should Be Top of Your Travel Bucket List

Croatia’s Istrian peninsula is rich with the bounties of earth and sea—and with remnants of the many cultures that have claimed it through the ages. We savor this melting pot on the Adriatic.

Rovinj, a city on the western coast of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula

By Adam Erace
Photographed by Jaka Bulc

Sep 1, 2021

BEFORE WE GO FURTHER, you should know there are no yachts in this Croatia story. No below-deck rabble-rousing or port-side parties of the kind you’ll find in Dubrovnik or Hvar, where the rich and fabulous descend each summer. This story is about Istria, located at the opposite end of the country, where the “champagne” most commonly popped is sparkling Malvazija Istarska, the versatile native white, and the seaworthy ride is a bivalve harvester roped to the dock of Tony’s Oyster Shack at the beachhead of Limski Fjord. 

The cruise director of this no-frills vessel and owner of the oyster shack is Emil Sošić, a blue-eyed, buzz-cut connoisseur of Malvazija, massages and Tina Turner. Emil spends most days on this fjord, and his boat may be a harder invitation to come by than any yacht in the Dubrovnik marina: Emil must judge you to be an Oyster Person, or a Wine Person, ideally both. “Because I offer only oysters, wine,” he says. On the rare occasions he indulges a non–Oyster/Wine Person, he faces off-brand demands: “Why is there no water? Why is there no Coca-Cola?” He sighs. “An Oyster Person does not ask for this.” 

Emil’s family has lived on a hill overlooking the fjord for seven generations, and he’s been farming flat European oysters for 16 years. They are among the many gastronomic specialties of Istria, an under-the-radar culinary capital home to hundreds of olive-oil estates and wineries, a coastline brimming with immaculate seafood, and ancient foodways that are nurturing a new generation of makers raised amid the turmoil of the Yugoslav Wars. When something is excellent, Croatians say, “Top!” For those who travel to eat, Istria is top. 

Our boat glides down the 10-kilometer fjord. The angle of the sunlight, the nearness to the sea, the mineral runoff from the forested hills that rise up on either side like furry green wings—they all cause the color of the water to shift, from cloudy jade to aquamarine to deepest denim. It’s like sailing across the surface of a mood ring. Halfway between the beach and the Adriatic, the farm materializes: more than a thousand oval buoys lined up like the lanes in a lap pool, each tethered to an oyster cage below the surface. Emil’s captain flings the anchor overboard, engages the winch to raise the cages, then heads aft for a cigarette. 

“Ask anyone here, where are the oysters in Istria?” Emil says. “Limski Bay. And ask, who has the oysters in Limski Bay?” He points to himself with a neatly manicured finger. A few years ago, there were other farmers raising oysters and mussels, but, according to Emil, they all gave up. Bivalves take their sweet time in these legally protected waters. “Other farms mature oysters in two years. Ours take three and a half,” he says. “Nice and easy.” As if on cue, Tina Turner’s raspy intro to “Proud Mary” blares over the boat’s speakers. “You see we never ever do nothing / Nice, easy,” she growls. “We always do it nice and rough.” 

Over the course of a week in Istria, this is what constitutes rough: the calf-searing ascent to dinner at the Michelin-starred Monte, in the shadow of Rovinj’s hilltop St. Euphemia church; finding a roadside strawberry stand closed; truffle hunter Nicola Tarandek’s dog biting a precious fungus in half during a hunt in the Motovun woods. Which is to say, not very rough at all. The people are openhearted, the infrastructure impeccable, the lifestyle salubrious. Some destinations conceal their treasures, make you work for them. Istria puts them all out on a picnic table underneath a vine-laced arbor, then covers them in world-class olive oil. After more than a year away from Europe, it’s about as low-stress a reacquaintance as an American can get. 

And we’re rollin’. “Rollin’ on the river!” Emil sings as we slide up to the dock. While the captain pours himself Malvazija from a plastic water bottle, Emil shucks oysters and wild “sea truffles” (cockles—salty and preternaturally sweet) and arranges them on a tin platter. I slurp an oyster down. Its brininess shocks my face like a cold wave, then retreats to reveal rich creaminess—panna cotta del mare. I toss back a few more and wash them down with the Malvazija, young and jicama-crisp. I could stay here all day, eating oysters and drinking white wine on a ramshackle dock, overlooking a glittering body of water, but Istria has more to show me, so I jump back in the car, and we’re rollin’.

ISTRIA IS SHAPED LIKE a slice of pizza, and Pula, the peninsula’s largest city, is just northwest of the point. It’s an octopus of pedestrian alleys and leafy boulevards climbing out from the seaport. Wandering the city, I encounter Roman ruins, in various stages of preservation and decay, as common as ATMs. The most impressive, the Pula Arena, watches the waterfront from a hill. Nearby, the market heaves with strawberries and wild asparagus in the spring, stone fruit and melons in the summer, and Stancija Kumparička dairy’s fantastic goat-milk cheeses—vacuum- sealed for travelers—all year long. 

Pula makes a convenient base for exploring the region, and its Pješčana Uvala neighborhood is the kind of quiet, residential seaside cloister you’d see on House Hunters International. Tykes tearing across the beachfront playground, teens playing pickup basketball, friends unfurled on sofas on café patios. There are plenty of well-kept boats in the marina, none of them yachts, and plenty of attractive homes, only a few of them Modernist villas overlooking the sea. Hotel Valsabbion is one such: four bleached-white stories with a shimmering  lap pool and 11 spacious rooms that balance thoughtful details (Frette bedding, essential-oil diffusers) with bohemian spirit. 

Premantura, with a population of less than a thousand, sits between Pula and Istria’s actual southernmost point, the wildflower-carpeted cliffs of Cape Kamenjak. Luka Žuljević and his wife and business partner, Anja Bendeković Žuljević, moved to the village two years ago, when their distilling hobby—the start of what would eventually become micro-distillery Monachus Gin—began outgrowing their Zagreb apartment just as they were outgrowing their city-based full-time jobs. The proximity to the sea, and to the botanicals that now give Monachus its Istrian terroir, became irresistible. 

I follow Luka and Anja’s dusty ’89 Suzuki Samurai to Cape Kamenjak’s upper trailhead. Anja leads me up the stony path, pointing out unruly wild figs and pungent immortelle, its silvery leaves bowing under mops of yellow blossoms. “On hot days, the smell of the plants is more intense. It’s incredible,” she says. The cloudy weather has the flora feeling stingy, so the dominant smell is salt air, borne on the Adriatic bora wind. 

Back at the Žuljevićs’ home in Premantura, the botanical aromas reveal themselves when the gin starts flowing on the garden patio. They float up one by one—lemony coriander, bright mandarin, piney blue juniper, zesty immortelle, smoky vanilla from the fig leaves—then harmonize into a subtle, elegant bouquet. “Our still is small for the industry, perfect for us,” Luka says. “The flavor is always best in small batches.” 

This is a time of many firsts in the peninsula’s food-and-drink realm, and they’re happening in garages, home kitchens, barns, and spare bedrooms. After visiting Anja and Luka, I drive to the interior town of Svetvinčenat, where a chalkboard sign outside the two-year-old brewery Kampanjola Eko Bira reads, in Croatian, IF NO ONE IS HERE, CALL THIS NUMBER. I call, and owner Darko Pekica ambles over from his house. For a place that doesn’t even keep regular hours, the hospitality is over-the-top generous. Darko sets out a tasting of Kampanjola’s malty porter and easygoing blonde and brown ales, the first to be certified organic in Croatia; a bottle of oil from the olives he grows; and a board decked with his sharp, nutty aged cheeses. (The secret: he reads Walt Whitman to the cows.) 

Bora Nera, Istria’s first specialty coffee roaster, also appears to be closed when I pull up to the address—not the café I expected, but owners Matteo Cardin and Erika Forlani Cardin’s terra-cotta-colored home in Vodnjan. “Oh, yes, we’re open. Just ring the doorbell; my husband will let you in,” Erika answers when I call. Which is how I wind up sipping funky Sumatran espresso on yet another scenic patio, at yet another villa, with a view of yet another envy- inducing garden—this one full of Whoville cacti, hardy kiwis, scarlet poppies, and a pawpaw tree smuggled from the hinterlands of New Jersey. 

Matteo sells me a bag of his Rwandan Gakenke beans that smell like chocolate- covered raspberries, but he won’t let me pay for the espresso. As far as he knows, I’m not a writer, just a guy who showed up on his doorstep interested in coffee.

A WHO’S WHO of problematic empires ruled Istria until Croatia’s declaration of independence in 1991: Roman, Venetian, Napoleonic, Austro-Hungarian. After World War I,  Italy and its Fascist regime forcibly  Italianized the region, subjugating (and murdering) Croats and Slovenes, who fled to Yugoslavia. After World War II, Yugoslavia and its Communist regime forcibly de-Italianized the region, subjugating (and murdering) ethnic Italians, who fled to Italy, North America, and beyond. 

Still, Italy’s influence is as culturally and culinarily embedded as the olive trees that have been grown here since the first century. Prosciutto is as revered as it is in Parma, but here it’s gamier, muskier, deeper in color, and cut in chips thick and sturdy enough to build a house of cards. 

It’s the same with the region’s pristine seafood. Everything from mackerel to langoustines is accorded intense respect, and nowhere more than at Marina, in Novigrad. Chef Marina Gaši enchants me with her poetic crudos: scallops with roe aioli, elderflower-freckled amberjack with coffee and kumquat. And don’t tell my Italian friends, but the crazy-popular Pizzeria Rumore, purveyor of pistachio-and-mortadella pies and out-of- body experiences in the medieval aerie of Labin, beats all the pizza I’ve eaten on the other side of the Adriatic. 

Farther inland along the hilly switchbacks, the menus at the homey family-run restaurants known as konobe (the Istrian version of Italian trattorias) reveal watermarks of the region’s Austro-Hungarian past. At Konoba Malo Selo, a cozy tavern that specializes in dishes featuring meat from indigenous, long- horned Boskarin cattle, hearty fare offsets the evening chill in the carport turned courtyard. They’re sold out of steaks, so my server suggests braised Boskarin “goulash” with gnocchi. For dessert, it’s gibanica, an apple-and-poppy-seed strudel popular across the Balkans, and synthy Whitney Houston covers set against the rustling of an ancient mulberry tree. 

Deeper into the woods, at Konoba Kotlić, ravenous hikers and mountain bikers swallow the “Istrian plate” of crackling pork sausage, tenderloin, and sharp sauerkraut, while the forest swallows this fairy-tale stone cottage, like a Croatian Angkor Wat. Mojmir Ibrahimovič, Kotlić’s longtime supplier of foraged mushrooms and homemade cheese, rescued the restaurant in 2017 when the previous owner wanted to close. “What do you think?” he asks, leaning in. His brows are so bushy they meet his lashes, forming a trellis over eyes as ice- blue as the Mirna River below. I think the Istrian plate—along with the featherweight gnocchi and shiny red ski-chalet fireplace and found myself wishing my muddy hiking shoes were white go-go boots. 

The Billy is a sunny yellow 10-room motor lodge located between two tiny Tucker County towns, outdoorsy Davis and artsy Thomas, and across from Blackwater Falls State Park. After sunset, the lights that run along the eaves make the place glow like the valley’s nightlight. Owner and bon vivant Joy Malinowski, who has a strong personal aesthetic and a background in art, restored the property about seven years ago. Inspired by the look of her childhood home, the place feels sincerely mid-century instead of staged. Malinowski is also the house raconteur. Her cousin is fashion photographer Stan Malinowski, who shot for magazines ranging from Vogue to Playboy

The lobby serves as a living room where overnight guests can mingle with locals and passersby who have come for drinks and a bite. The Billy’s restaurant, Ish Kitchen, serves its own take on tapas. My snack flight began with a Turkish kofta meze, followed by Brazilian cheese puffs with creamy cilantro sauce and capped off with Spanish papas bravas. Dipping, smearing, and sopping are delightful ways to eat, and the cooks know their sauces. Dining from vintage enameled snack trays made it all the more fun. 

Back in the early 1900s, during their boomtown years as timbering and mining hubs, Davis and Thomas drew immigrant workers, artisans, and craftspeople from all over the world. While tooling around Thomas earlier that day, I read historical markers that described the era when 15 languages could be heard in the streets. The Billy’s menu is a salute to those peoples and their contributions to this region. Appalachian foodways have always been as multicultural as the people who lived there. The Billy’s fare might not be conventional, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not authentic. 

MY baffled GPS had stopped talking to me 15 kilometers back, so I kept my eyes peeled for a big green mailbox and, when I found it, turned onto the rutted dirt road that leads to Lost Creek Farm, the mountaintop home of Mike Costello and Amy Dawson in the small town of Lost Creek. People jump at the chance to attend Lost Creek’s Farm & Forage Supper Club. (Anthony Bourdain filmed one for an episode of his TV series Parts Unknown.) The dinners, held monthly in warmer weather, are not so much farm-to-table as tables on the farm. Guests, usually a couple dozen or so, sit in the shaded clearing in front of Costello and Dawson’s 1880s farmhouse, on land that’s been in her family for at least six generations. 

Costello and Dawson take their culinary inspiration from ingredients they raise or find, with menus coming together at the last minute despite some of the dishes’ being months in the making. The art of Appalachian food preservation is not only traditional, it’s practical, creating an everlasting harvest in a place with a short growing season and formidable winters. 

Dinner was served family-style. We feasted on juicy, sun-warmed red and yellow heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with JQD salt. We ate ruddy orange rings of candy roaster squash brushed with sorghum and sprinkled with fresh sage leaves. The slightly spicy skillet-fried rabbit was drizzled with shagbark hickory syrup Costello and Dawson had made from their own trees. The pair also make maple syrup, which they stir into the butter they serve with their skillet corn bread. Dawson bakes it using the Bloody Butcher corn, named for its brilliant red color, that the couple grows and grinds. As we ate, Costello and Dawson shared stories that helped us understand how the mountain landscape, friends and neighbors, heritage seeds, cultural history, and years of work conspired to make this multifaceted meal possible. 

On each table sat jars of homemade preserves, pickles, and jewel-toned chowchow, the sweet and tangy relish made from what some people call garden orphans, a ragtag assortment of cabbage, peppers, and unripe tomatoes gathered before the year’s first hard freeze. Those of us raised on this type of mountain fare intuitively used the spicy, vinegary, peppery, sweet and acidic condiments to finesse each forkful, doctoring our plates to our liking in endless combinations of texture and flavor. Newbies and flatlanders caught on quickly. 

As bowls and plates emptied, we got up to stretch our legs and amble about the farmyard. The ridgeline and the setting sun began their late-afternoon matinee. The air was crisp and a breeze made the leaves on the trees shimmy. Conversations hummed. People continued their reveries. We were sitting on top of the world.

The Definitive Istria Travel Guide for Foodies 

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Valsabbion
The modern design of this Pula property doesn’t sacrifice comfort. valsabbion.hr; doubles from €99. 

Meneghetti Wine Hotel
Stay in a dreamy villa amid olive groves and vineyards. meneghetti.hr; doubles from €350. 

San Canzian Village & Hotel
A laid-back-luxe retreat with a pool and a culinary focus. san-canzian.hr; doubles from €245. 

Villa La Vita Bella 
This spot near Poreč is built for languid terrace meals. oliveandspicecroatia.com; villa from €350. 

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

Kabola Winery 
An organic winery producing some of Croatia’s best bottles. kabola.hr

Konoba Kotlić 
Comfort food so good you’ll weep. fb.com/konoba.kotlic; mains €9–30. 

Konoba Malo Selo 
The place to go for Boskarin beef and cozy vibes. konobamaloselo.hr; mains €7–34. 

Marina 
A celebration of the bounty of the Adriatic. marinarestaurant.eu; tasting menus from €60. 

Pizzeria Rumore 
Labin’s premier pie shop rivals any in Naples. fb.com/pizzeriarumore; mains €7–12. 

Tony’s Oyster Shack 
Slurp down bivalves straight from Limski Fjord. istrida.com

Vina Fakin
Motovun’s most lauded winery highlights native grapes. fakinwines.com

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