Who would have suspected that this small feisty country that was a socialist republic with a communist system until 1991 would emerge in a short period of time to become the 18th most popular global tourism destination on the planet (according Millward Brown research)? The country is so industrious that by July, 2013, Croatia will become part of the European Union.
Situated in the heart of Europe beside the Adriatic Sea, it is bordered by Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. In 2006 over 10 million foreign visitors to Croatia generated revenue of US$10 billion. Although approximately 150,000 US visitors headed for Croatia in 2011, most tourist arrivals are from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, France, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Slovenia, and stay approximately 4.9 days.
What is making even jaded tourists sit up and reserve a Croatia vacation? Research indicates that Croatia legitimately boasts its national treasures, unique landscape, and a plethora of things to see and do – but of significant contemporary importance is its growing wine industry and focus on culinary excellence.
Thank the Greeks
We can thank the 5th century Greeks who settled in Croatia-Istria, Vis, Hvar, and Korcula for introducing wine to this region. As the Romans entered the territory, they expanded supply to meet increased demand. To show their love and respect for the wine god, Bacchus, the Romans even built a temple in Istria on the northern coast. In Moslavia they named a hill (Mons Claudius) to honor the Emperor, who planted vineyards in this locale.
Even during the 15th century Ottoman Empire the value of Croatian wines was recognized, and Muslim law made allowances for sacramental wines. Such was the significance of wine that a 1407 statue in Korcula has an inscription stating that landholders would lose their profits and have their right hand cut off for neglecting vineyards.
In 1874 the Hapsburg Empire took control of Croatia, increasing wine production until phylloxera vastatrix destroyed most of the vineyards. Most recently, the Communists buried land mines in the vineyards, making it dangerous to plant and harvest the grapes.
Nine years ago (2004) Hugh John, the British publicist and author of the Pocket Guide of Wine, brought Croatia wines back to the world stage by writing wonderful things about them in his book. In this same year, the Croatian Embassy in Paris organized a tasting of a few Croatian wines for the French magazine, La Revue du Vin France, and Tomic wines made the front cover of the May issue. In this same year, Ivan Enjingi from Hrnjevac, who planted the family’s first vineyard on the slopes of mount Krndija in 1890, was declared the absolute world champion in coupaged white wines by British Decanter wine magazine. In the following year (2005), Enjingi won several medals at the Decanter World Championship; it was now clear that Croatian wines were world-class.
/strong>Croatia Wine Regions
White wines dominate the market (two out of every three bottles). Grasevina is the preferred white grape, followed by Bogdanusa, Grp and Posip, and Vugava. Dominating the reds are Terlan and Plavac Mali. To be competitive in the world market, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Riesling have been introduced to the Croatia white wine portfolio.
Central and South Dalmatia
Zinfandel was born here and some of the best and most expensive wines of the Mediterranean region are found in this region.
From the coastal town of Zadar to slightly north of Split, this sub-region is the source of the Babic grape (native to Croatia) that produces an inky red wine with lots of tannin. This peninsula, the largest in the Adriatic Sea, was once part of Italy (early to mid-20th century).
This area is characterized by cool continental weather, with many hills and mountain peaks leading to sprawling plains and fertile river basins. The region is bordered by 3 large rivers: the Danube, the Drava, and the Sava. This is the epicenter of Croatia’s most widely planted vine, the native Grasevina, which produces dry, fresh, lightly aromatic white wines.
The Wine Road leads to 30+ wineries. Among the whites, look for Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and native vines planted along steep, rocky slopes. For reds there’s room for Pinot Noir and a local grape called Portugiser.
Vina Croatia 2013
The wines of Croatia were recently featured in New York City. The event was held at the Astor Center. I found the following wines of interest:
Bura Dingac 2010. Plavac Mali (Dalmatia)
Dingac is the name of the region in the southern Dalmatian coast on the peninsula of Peljesac, and gives its name to premium quality red wine. This is Croatia’s first protected wine region and a noted site for Plavac.
Deep red in color, this rich and resourceful wine offers a touch of sweet and sour cherry to delight the nose. On the palette there is a hint of ripe roses trending toward decay. This unique wine pairs well with spaghetti bolognaise and aged cheese.
Damjanic Malvazija 2011. Malvasia Istriana (Istria and Kvarner)
The Damjanic winery is run by 33-year-old Ivan Damjanic whose fame is noted in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. His family started to make wine in the early 1900s. Although the family produced award-winning wines in 1945, Istria became part of socialist Yugoslavia and many of the vineyards were nationalized, killing the serious winemaking industry. It was not until 1999 that Damjanic decided to bring the family wine business back to life; to accomplish this objective he sold his motorcycle and bought a vineyard tractor.
Damjanic Malvazija 2011. Peering into the glass, I am captivated by its pale yellow hue that conjures up young daisies. A small breath suggests a light green grassy slope. I was saddened that the drop led not to a taste of grapefruit or elderflower, but rather of salinity and slight bitterness. In the summer it deserves to be slightly chilled before pouring and paired with cured ham (prsut), sausages, and cheese.
Nada Zlahtina 2011. Zlahtina (Istria and Kvarner)
Zlahtina is an indigenous white grape variety which was, until recently, planted exclusively in Vrbnik’s field on the island of Krk. It is named after a Slavic adjective meaning noble.
Holding the glass to the light I am pleased to note the light yellow liquid trembling in the glass. A small inhale brings the fragrance of flowers and lemons, apples and pears. Low in alcohol, tannins, and acid, this is a delightful and refreshing experience to enjoy with a Croatian shrimp stew or a filet of white fish. Zlahtina is best enjoyed while young at cellar temperature.
BIBIch R6 2009. Babic, Lasina, Plavina (Dalmatia)
Produced in Skradin by BIBIch Winery. The grape varieties are from Northern Dalmatia and related to Zinfandel. The wine is aged for one year in American oak barrels.
Oh how beautiful in the glass – a deep ruby red velvet. A quick swirl releases hints of chocolate and cherries and spices into the air. As I try to capture the bouquet, I find a fleeting strand of perfume. Slightly sweet on the tongue and a soft (almost butterfly light) finish that leaves a slightly sweet memory on the palette – this complex wine is perfectly paired with roast beef or aged cheese.
/strong>Croatia Dining by Region
The cuisine of Croatia varies by region: Istria, Dalmatia, Dubrovnik, Lika, Gorski Kotar, Zagorie, Medimurje, Padravina, and Slavonia.
Croatia gourmet dining is slowly expanding beyond country and ethnic borders and the good news for New Yorkers, or visitors passing through New York, there is an absolutely wonderful location to enjoy this cuisine in a very unique setting.
According to Yelp.com, there are but a few Croatia dining options within subway distance of Manhattan. At the invitation of a friend coming all the way from Texas to go to Long Island City to learn about the Croatian culinary arts, I found myself walking borough blocks in a neighborhood untouched by Mr. Bloomberg’s quest to modernize Manhattan. Long Island City is a step into New York history, where people live in low-rise small private homes, with postage-stamp front yards (not quite a lawn) and backyards for yelping dogs and young kids dashing through garden sprinklers… but I digress – Michelle and I are on to a food discovery.
Dining Like a Croatian
We took the R train to Steinway Street, got off and then began checking street signs for 34-01 45th Street, the home of the Rudar Social Club. Out of sheer frustration (and we were freezing) we stopped at a small neighborhood bakery and asked directions. Fortunately we were within a few moments of the Club and the food of Croatia.
How do I share the surprise of the United Miners Soccer Club building? The industrialized location is near Northern Boulevard and except for one lonely sign; there is nothing to even suggest the delights within. I know, never judge a book by its cover… and fortunately we did not. From the outside, the restaurant looks like a neighborhood bar for truck drivers and their girlfriends with a Heineken as the most exotic drink on the menu. But step inside and walk down the stairs to the basement – and OMG!
We arrived before the official opening time and banged on the door, hoping to find someone to let us in (we were cold and hungry). Within a few brief minutes the door was opened; we were ushered into the warmth of an old fashioned bar, and quickly whisked down a flight of rickety steps – to – a dining room large enough to seat over 80 people. The space was definitely old-world (think 1940s neighborhood dining) and boasts a large fireplace that provides the backdrop for the retired soccer players and coal miners who started the club and restaurant when they first arrived in the USA to reminisce and dine.
It was 1977, and a group of emigres who had been miners in Labin (Istria) moved to the United States. Missing the camaraderie of life in Croatia, they formed the club based on their two interests, soccer and mining (Rudari in Croatia). A desire to maintain the culture and customs of Croatia prompted the recent addition of a Folklore group where young singers share their Croatian heritage with the community.
The good news is that the restaurant serves cuisine from Istria and the Dalmatian coast. The even better news is that old-world recipes form the foundation for the dining delights that burst through the kitchen double doors to eager diners.
Focus on the Kitchen
The kitchen is directed by Chefs Marijana Matteoni and Suzana Nemaric who are noted for their Fuzi and Njoki.
The best way to start the dining experience is to select (some or all) from:
-PRSUT I SIR. Italian smoked ham and sheep’s milk cheese
-NJOKI SA ZVACETOM ISTARSKI. Homemade potato dumplings served with veal sauce
-FUZI SA ZVACETOM ISTARSKI. Homemade bow-tie pasta served with veal sauce
Move on to:
-TELECA JUHA. Veal soup with noodles
-CEVAPCICI. Grilled mixed ground meat
-KISELI KUPUS I KRANJSKE KOBASICE. Sauerkraut with Krainer smoked sausage
-LIGNJE PRZENE. Fried calamari
-BLITVA S KRUMPIROM. Swiss chard with potatoes
-PRZENI KRUMPIR. French Fries
Close this splendid dining moment with (both):
-PALACINKE. Crepe filled with your choice of apricot jelly, nutella, or lemon/sugar PALACINKE SA
-ORASIMA ILI SIROM.Warm and sweet crepe with your choice of walnuts or ricotta cheese
Pair these authentic Croatia culinary specialties with wines from the country, start a chat with the warm and friendly people at nearby tables, and guests have a dining experience that must be experienced, time and again.
Getting to the Club
The R train to Steinway Street, LIC is a quick way of reaching the Club which is open Tuesday-Sunday, with bingo and wine events scheduled throughout the year. For reservations: 718 786 5833.