The Expectations of my Australian Guests…

                       See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil! What goes on tour..stays on tour! 

Talking about Croatian food and wines, and expectations of our foreign first-time visitors …

In September  2018 I had a group of 8 Australian foodie and wine buffs and most of the group of 10 had been here before and were back for more!.HOWEVER, On arrival into Split one gentleman called Peter, a first-timer  from Perth in Western Australia made the comment..’I have heard Croatia is a beautiful country scenically, and I’m looking forward to, experiencing the magnificent coastline, but you wouldn’t come here for the food and wine would you Robyn? You would more happily go to Italy and France wouldn’t you?” It was Peter’s first visit to Croatia.. I remained quiet, bit my tongue and 18 days later, after escorting the group through the regions of Dalmatia, Kvarner, Istria and Continental Croatia, visiting many vineyards and tasting a great variety of Croatian fine wines paired with delicious traditional meals. I asked him to give me his impressions..

We’ll get back to that story a little later…

My name is Robyn Vulinovich ex restaurateur of Italian Cuisine, from the Gold Coast in Australia, presently a consultant in the tourism sector here in Croatia..I continue to follow my passion presenting the very best of unique food and wine experiences in a country I have come to call home and also serving as a specialist in all things Croatian with the independent traveller in mind; small group cruises; writing of customized travel itineraries according to the age of my guests, and their particular interests..which almost ALWAYS includes authentic food and wine experiences.

Difference between Tourists and travellers. A tourist hops from place to place..been there! done that! While a traveller is more interested in learning, tasting, seeing, smelling aromas, understanding and hearing a new country, using all of our senses! I like to think that my guests are 100% travellers!

So Getting back to Expectations ..Many of our  ‘Travellers’ have heard about this distant country called Croatia..ex-member of former communist-socialist Yugoslavia. They remember the scenes of war..they’re not sure what it was all about..and most are very eager to learn a little about this piece of recent history…but most of all they love hearing about the local way of life of today, what’s happening in this part of the world, sometimes comparing the cost of living with that of Australia, talking about family values and traditions, but ultimately they love being immersed  in the local food and wine scene as well as learning a little about the culture and history.

Their expectations conjure up thoughts of many kinds. They’ve heard about the seafood, the oysters of Ston, the konoba restaurants serving traditional style meals, whether that be somewhere up in the Dalmatian hinterland in a private agritourism, on an island, or in a city, tasting local cheeses, visiting ancient olive groves, or in a local restaurant serving the days catch, their expectations are hopeful of finding places with ambience, where the waitperson takes time to explain the menu, and the local wines and although they have heard lots of good travel stories from their mates, they arrive with their differing expectations hoping to be fulfilled!

History of Croatian food…It would be very difficult for me to answer the following question, ‘What is the national dish of Croatia?’ if I had to choose a single dish or a single menu it would be impossible because the Croatian cuisine is distinctly regional, and sampling each one of the local specialities is an exceptional and totally different experience. It can roughly be divided into Mediterranean and continental, even though the Mediterranean cuisine along the coast differs from the cuisine found in the hinterland or on the smaller islands, not to mention the differences between specialities found in Istria in the north and down in southern Dalmatia.

While there are many excellent restaurants, one of my favourite culinary experiences has been up in the village of Vrgorac at the BOROVAC family agritourism, almost a 1.5 hour from Split heading south-east into the mountains, approximately 9 km from the Bosnia&Herzegovina  border Grandfather’s stone house and Konoba have been renovated, nestling under the ancient fort of the town. Here you will be warmly welcomed By Dragica and Željko into the Konoba, with a glowing fire in the cooler months and seated at a low table surrounded by a comfortable cushioned area ..making yourself comfortable and preparing for an absolute gourmet traveller’s delight..starting with a large selection of welcome liqueurs, each with a special quality ..”Take your pick..try a few!” ..The food starts arriving,.a selection of homemade cheeses from fresh to more aged, goat’s milk, and cow’s milk, pate’s of chicken and duck liver, olives, pancetta and prosciutto, home-baked bread, and pastries, cold-pressed virgin olive oils, a savoury slice, and while we are excitedly feasting on these specialities, the meat and potatoes are slowly roasting in the iron peka under the coals..served with roast seasonal vegetables and a bowl of fresh salad greens dressed with a drizzle of that delicious homegrown olive oil….and a squeeze of lemon juice..Dessert was the most amazing Dalmatian style cheesecake, serving with a little berry coulis..and even MORE, amazing..all that was presented on the table was grown and produced here at the Borovac family property. Needless to say, they have been awarded first prize for the very best agrotourism in this part of the country  …and well deserved!

My guests were singing the praises of this unique experience …of the warmest hospitality, the ambience of the Konoba, the aromas, the taste, the local wines that pleased the palate and the glowing embers of the fire, all blending to create an unforgettable dining occasion.

At the other end of the spectrum, a recent group of 6 Foodie and Wine buffs, from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, visited Croatia for the very first time.

Their expectations were high!  Following a 7-day cruise Split to Dubrovnik on a luxurious authentic timber gulet boat where they were treated to great traditional Dalmatian meals on board, they were also treated to some of the very best of Croatian wines and wine tastings at various Island vineyards discovering wine varieties of grape that they had never heard about before! Wine tastings were taking on a whole new and exciting meaning to this group! ..They were so impressed, and following the cruise, I prepared an 8-day itinerary on land. First stop was a degustation 6-course menu and wine tasting at BIBICH Vineyards near Skradin…an hour north of Split.…they were so impressed, they bought boxes of BIBICH wine to take home to Australia…! Here they found first-class cuisine and world-class wines as far as they were concerned..they were in awe of this establishment, the 500-year-old restored vineyard of Alen Bibich. Their other extraordinary culinary event was enjoyed at the multi-award-winning restaurant of PELEGRINI in Šibenik..Not knowing what to expect, but trusting in my recommendation they entered the restaurant at 12.30pm …4 hours later they finally dragged themselves away…calling me to rave over the quality of this fine dining restaurant that continues to be acclaimed as Number One in Croatia 3 years running! The attention to detail, the explanations of the cuisine and wines by waiter and sommelier were so appreciated..One of the group, an avid photographer photographed each bottle of wine, every cork and every glass of alcoholic beverage along the way…Here is the email I received following their return home to Australia……

Hi Robyn,                                                                                                                                                                        We have fabulous memories of our time in Croatia and we will definitely be back. We saw so much over our 2 weeks but feel we barely touched the surface. ‘Carpe Diem’ is a great gulet made extra special by Frano, Lorena and Nico. We are seriously thinking of heading north from Split towards Istria in 2019.

The land part of our holiday was equally terrific. We would especially like to thank you for helping put together a well-paced 8 days with lots of variety Our driver Marin was a champion, great sense of humour and lots of titbits of information. I am not sure which of our two special lunches I would but first, both were outstanding with world-class food and wine. Our Bibich Wines arrived safely back home and will bring back great memories in the years to come. Each of the guides you arranged for us were delightful individuals with excellent English and they gave us a much better understanding not just of the sights but of the history and character of Croatia. 

Thank you again for all your efforts in ensuring our holiday went smoothly, especially in helping us to check in Split. Sorry, we did not have the opportunity to say good by properly, Tony and Anna had made a mistake on their departure time so we had to rush to the Airport. All 6 of us loved our time in Croatia it over-delivered in every way and we can’t wait to get back again.                                                                             Best Regards, Dinah & Peter Davis.

There have been many other similar groups, during this recent summer..a mother and her two adult daughters from Sydney spent 10 days eating and travelling around the countryside..while based in Split they took a number of organized day trips … to the Krka River Falls where they had platters of cheese and prosciutto, Dalmatian Ham at it’s very best, bowls of mixed salads, tomatoes and cucumbers that were bursting with flavour always served with home-baked breads…and high quality virgin olive oils always on the table, and ready to be drizzled on the fresh bread!  They were in love with it all and especially The Babić wines of the local Krka region..

Another small group visited The Island of Hvar and after touring around some of the little fishing villages, they were taken to an old Dalmatian village of Vrisnik up in the hills above Jelsa for lunch. Here they met Andro, the proud owner of Konoba Vrisnik, his old stone family home belonging to his ancestors has been lovingly restored and here is where so many of my guests have been very impressed with the food, and Andro’s red wine Mali Plavac (Little Blue), a local Dalmatian variety and a superb white wine called Bogdanuša also grown in his vineyard. At Konoba Vrisnik you’ll find the friendly calming ambience and warm personalities of Andro and his family. On this occasion we found Andro checking on the peak. He explained the way the meats were being cooked, a mixture of veal, lamb and chicken slowly roasting over the hot coals. One of my guests was allergic to MSG, so I asked Andro if there was any MSG stock cubes or any flavour enhancers in the delicious split pea and ham soup. Andro was horrified..his face screwed up and he flung his arms in the air in absolute rejection to my question! Enhancers in my soup? I would never use such enhancers in my soup! NEVER! The Aussie group so appreciated the dining experience, their expectations were more than satisfied.

In Australia …marketing of travel to Croatia seems to be primarily by word of mouth.. ‘Would be’ travellers hear from their friends about the beauty of the Dalmatian Coast about the freshest seafood prepared as only the Dalmatians know how…basically on the grill over the coals…brushed with olive oil, salt and basted with a sprig of rosemary from time to time…or a tuna steak grilled to perfection while covered and partly steamed, yet grilled…resulting in the most delicious and succulent piece of tuna you’ll ever taste! …and the high quality of the wines.  Many of them opting for visits to some of the local vineyards, and more recently our Aussies are hearing about the other gourmet regions of Istria, and the Zagora Region around Zagreb, the Hinterland  Region inland from Split, and the Southern Konavle Region near Dubrovnik, oysters and Mussels in Ston, The World Class cheeses of Island  Pag in Northern Dalmatia, and the lamb of Island Brač. But as I said, marketing is mainly by word of mouth..and I think this is one of the best forms of promoting any travel experience.

Probably the least known region in Croatia is Slavonia and yet it has so much to offer, particularly in the field of privately run Bed and Breakfasts that are now being offered and down to earth agritourism properties. Slavonija (not to be confused with Slovenia) is the region .over in the east near the Hungarian border.. flat fertile fields as far as the eye can see..and once the food bowl of the nation until the EU market introduced European food at very competitive prices…however, this area still today produces a range of smallgoods, smoked meats and pork rinds, sausages of all descriptions including their famous blood sausage, salamis, jams, marmalades, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables,  wheat products, sauces and vinegar..The wines of this region are also outstanding..There is much to delight the food and wine hedonist in Slavonija…home to some of the nation’s leading winemakers.

The interest in visiting food and wine producers, particularly local food and wine trails, cooking schools, meeting the people involved, tasting their products in places of scenic beauty is growing year by year..and I am very happy to be part of this type of quality tourism.

Recently we took a group of Australians to Island Pag on our way north from Split to Istria culminating in Zagreb…Pag is scenically exotic …cheese, salt, lace, olive trees of Lun, ending the day at a family restaurant called Grandfather’s House…and Cheese production home of GLIGORA cheeses.. Pag is a very unique environment…seemingly a wasteland of stone sea and salt..devoid of vegetation due to the force of the strong Bura winds blowing out to sea from the mainland and depositing sea salt across the Northern side of the Island..however, this island is very rich in produce, particularly world gold medal Gligora award-winning cheeses, ancient 1000-year-old olive groves producing first-class olive oil, and Pag lamb..a speciality as well as the ancient salt pans where salt has been harvested since the days of the Roman Empire..not to mention the fine laces of Pag!

Definitely a Slow Food Paradise..visiting the vineyards of Matoševic and Meneghetti, Veralda and Klaudio Tomaz in Istria..to name a few…visiting the atmospheric 15th-century village of Bale and the hill town of Motovun..here you will find pasta dishes to die for..Sept is the time of year for porcini mushrooms and the local forests are a truffle hunters delight! Coupled with some of the finest of local wines, sitting and dining on a hilltop village overlooking centuries of Venetian architecture, stone houses and walls, with the famous winged lion of Venice carved into stone adorning the entrances of many buildings dating back at least 500 years…as we walked through the quiet and quaint narrow streets of Bale, I saw a woman in her shop talking to a couple of olive oil enthusiasts..I stopped to listen and she gestured to me to come closer.

Lucky I did..with my Aussies following me..we listened…her story was inspiring ..the ins and outs of producing a high-quality extra virgin olive oil, and then showing us how to properly become an olive oil taster..My guests loved this impromptu presentation. Purchasing a few bottles of this liquid gold and later drizzling it over fresh bread was another traveller’s delight.!

Croatia is a place where a discerning traveller can stop awhile and enjoy the environment, the food, the history, and culture,  in a country that is considered to be very safe and where expectations are easily fulfilled.

The Australian traveller is known to be pretty easy going…. They don’t easily get upset..they are not usually demanding…most proprietors say they are delightful guests…however, they do expect value for money, no smoking in restaurants, and good service with a smile.

I am very proud when meeting and greeting my guests…knowing I have a wonderful smorgasbord of places to visit.. I hope I have been able to explain to you the style of tourism that many of our guests really enjoy…Croatia is a place where daily life seems to be moving at a much slower pace than most..certainly slower than the fast hectic pace in Australia..time to wander, smell the roses, explore and indulge in authentic traditional cuisine and local wines that are now being awarded by world wine groups such as Decanter…this is the Croatia my Australians love to discover and experience…out of the way places, away from the commercialised tourist routes… food and wine trails are becoming increasingly popular in Croatia..meeting the local people, the producers, and for those who allow sufficient time ..there is certainly an abundance here in this country to satisfy the senses..and the appetite!

Finally getting back to the story about Peter from Perth …the wine buff… I reminded him on the last evening of our tour of the dramatic statement he had made on his arrival..!

‘Peter, after touring through Croatia, please tell me your impressions of Croatian Food and Wine’.  He held his head in his hands, and for a moment he was quiet…trying to think of the best words to explain his thoughts and feelings about what he had discovered here in Croatia..He had travelled from Island Cres in the north to Dubrovnik in the south, sailed through the Dalmatian islands to Zadar, and toured through the regions of Lika and Kvarner to Istria, finally arriving into the capital of Zagreb in the  Continental  part of the country..he had loved it all, was totally in awe of the diversity and freshness of Croatian Cuisine, and as for the wines..he was amazed and has definitely added Croatia to his list of BEST COUNTRIES TO VISIT FOR FINE AUTHENTIC FOOD AND WINES:

I felt so happy…he was a tough nut to crack..but Croatia had done it again..another MORE than satisfied traveller now back home in Perth and spreading the word!

Robyn Vulinovich, Split, Croatia.