The Istrian peninsula has a proud tradition of locally sourced and delicious food. I heard that Istrian food is grown and farmed within a 10 km radius of where it’s eaten. Intrigued by the thought of feasting on local and seasonal food, we decided to make our Croatian vacation this past September into a foodcation.
There doesn’t seem to be much material out there about Istria and Istrian food. Istria is touted as being similar to Tuscany in food and looks, which I think is a stretch, but in its own right it quietly makes yummy wines, olive oil, and hearty, simple food, mixed in with some hysteria over truffles. Indeed, the Istria Gourmet website is intent on smothering you with all the culinary experiences you must try in the region. I downloaded their free PDF guide, which was indispensible for our trip. The guide also details where you can go to find all this wonderful food.
View from our balcony
In the interior of Istria, there are several agrotourisms/farms that open their doors to visitors. You can either make a reservation to eat a meal with one, or you can stay overnight, keep eating, and involve yourself in the farm activities. Many even invite you to learn to cook with them. If you eat only a meal, it’s not like a restaurant where you order food. They cook what they cook and that’s what they bring out to you.
After some research, we decided to book a week at the Agrotourizam Dol, near Pazin in the heart of Istria. I found it through the Central Istria Tourist Board website. It took a few tries to get an email response back, but I’m glad I was patient. The value, at 35 Euro/265 Croatian Kuna per night for a double room, was astonishing. Especially for the quality of food we ate there. The breakfasts were included, and the evening meals cost around 7 Euro without wine. But the wine itself was also a total bargain.
We were truthfully a bit nervous when we arrived, wondering what we were getting into as we drove our rental car down a scary, long, very steep country road to the bottom of the valley where the agrotourism is happily situated. We were hoping for a quiet week in the wilderness, and it looked like our wish was granted!
Just like at Grandma and Grandpa's
The room turned out to be fine and was clean, homey, and simple. The bed had worn, smooth sheets that smelled of sunlight. There was a balcony where we could sit and look out over the farm. The Mann and I are really not fussy travelers, but we would have gladly paid more for just a bit more luxury. The teeny tiny bathroom frustrated us both and the shower was both weak and painful at the same time, and either extremely hot or extremely cold. The balcony had wooden stools to sit on, but after some time we (and our aching backsides) were desperately wishing for normal chairs. But at 35 Euro per night, who’s to complain?
The farm naturally had an abundance of animals: Horses, ponies, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, cows, and these gorgeous, silvery gray Istrian oxen with pretty faces. The oxen were also, well, delicious. Burp. The roosters woke us up every morning, except for when the noisy Italian family moved into the room next door and we woke up to the crowing of the mother screaming at her son: Massimo! Basta! Oh, little Massimo was a terror, indeed.
The entire family works together on the farm. The mother cooks and runs the restaurant. One of the daughters helps out serving the food. She spoke English, and the rest of the family spoke Croatian and Italian. When the daughter wasn’t there to help us, I resurrected my horrible Italian. It made me want to start studying Italian again. The family has been farming in this location for generations and they are very proud of their food and wine making.
The restaurant, where the magic happens
The restaurant is on the bottom floor of the main house and is a cozy, long room with stone walls and a stone fireplace. There are several picnic type tables with benches. The main action seems to take place on the weekends, when the farm and restaurant are bursting to capacity with local people and late-night parties. The family doesn’t cook on weeknights, unless you arrive on a weeknight, and then they will make you a meal. With all the busyness over the weekend, we didn’t quite get the quiet retreat we were looking for, but that’s OK, the food more than made up for it.
The food. It was a revelation. It was honestly some of the best food I have ever tasted in my life. I didn’t know it could be like this! I’ve never eaten food that fits so holistically with the surrounding environment. It tasted like the farm. I could taste the animal in the cheese. The fresh milk actually had a taste.
The food was sourced from the farm. Almost everything that hit our plate came from their farm and their hands.
Everything is homemade. See the shaving marks in the ham?
For breakfast: Fresh bread, creamy butter, and marmalade that melted in your mouth. Homemade cheeses and dried ham (prosciutto). And, sometimes, they would bring out the Uštipci, doughnut-like things that went so perfectly with honey.
The evening meals were heavenly. They started with bread and an Istrian soup such as Maneštra, with corn, beans, and vegetables (and an incredible, tasty texture) or a chicken noodle soup with a nourishing broth and fine, handmade strands of angel hair pasta. The second course usually consisted of meats and pastas. Handmade penne and ravioli topped with a ragu of tender Istrian cow. Peppers stuffed with mashed meat and onion, and served with potatoes and sauce.
You could wash down the meals with homemade red wine that came from the vineyard down the valley from the farmhouse – it was a surprisingly very drinkable table wine. Nourishing, simple, and smooth. The wine was served in an Istrian ceramic pitcher.
And then, the crowning achievement, the meal I am still thinking about to this day. We were lucky that on the Saturday night of our stay, the farm was hosting a traditional Istrian wedding meal and celebration for some local folks. The meal was a Pašticada, a traditional beef dish that is marinated in yummy things for a day and then slow-cooked with more yummy things, including red wine. The farm had a stone hut with an open-fire oven where this cooked. The entire day we smelled the roasting meat, as the smoke wafted out of the chimney and right to our balcony. The meat was served on an enormous platter, along with homemade gnocchi and roasted vegetables. The meat pieces were caramelized on the outside and tender on the inside. Sigh. My only regret was that I was so happily eating I never took a photo of it.
Remarkably, dessert was served after the meals. Plates of cookies or a Palatschinke, a crepe-like nummy thing folded around fresh marmalade.
Then, when you are sure you are so full you will never be able to waddle back to your room, they present grappa with herbs or honey to help you digest the feast.
A side effect of staying with them for a week is that the more they got to know us, the more food and wine they brought out for us. The little wine pitcher was fuller and fuller every time. When we finally checked out, fat and happy a week later, they presented one of the pitchers to us as a gift.
We may just make a yearly foodcation to Istria.
So. Hungry now?
The wine pitcher they gave to us. It's so proud. It seems to say, look at me, I’m here to serve you wine!
More photos of the farm: