Although visitors would expect Dalmatian cuisine to be dominated by rich varieties of fish from the crystal-clear Adriatic Sea, we learned much about the rustic meals that are the traditional fare of the Croatian people living in the rocky mountains of the Konavle Valley near Dubrovnik. The sea was once more of a pirates’ domain than a source of fresh food, and people lived in the hills because they were afraid of being prey to seafaring robbers.
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Local dishes can be found in the valley at one or two traditional restaurants, such as Konavoski Komin, which is in the small Konavle village of Velji Do. One gets an impression of the climate here when driving up a steep serpentine road to one of the best views of the entire Adriatic coastline. Strong and mild winds, plus an abundance of sunshine and humidity, are essential for growing the basic produce used for making the delicious local meals.
Original Konavle rural cuisine is an easy way of cooking the gifts of nature growing on the hills above the coast. The main hot dish, which we ordered in advance, is called Peka (which means “under the bell”) after a typical cooking technique of southern Dalmatia. Lamb or veal, mixed with locally grown potatoes, is slowly roasted under a cone-shaped iron lid that is placed over sizzling coals and covered with ashes.
The waiter will show you a small fireplace in the courtyard where, using the same technique, bread is baked and fresh marrows and peppers are grilled. Moderately hot ashes help to mix the juices of the ingredients “under the bell”. Our meal has a succulent taste after somewhat more than two hours of cooking, and the meat falls off the bone.
Before receiving the main course, the host serves us pršut, the Croatian form of Italian prosciuto, which is another local delicacy of salt-cured, smoked and air-dried, thinly sliced ham. Connoisseurs maintain that a minimum of nine months is required for perfect taste. The meat is salted during the first months until a sufficient amount is absorbed, the farmers then press out all of the remaining juices. The pršut is subsequently smoked and air-dried for several months at brisk temperatures.
Although the means of preserving food are as simple as the lives of the people living in the mountains, some flavours are still added by a coastal climate, especially to homemade cheese. Cheeses made of cow and goat milk are prepared according to original, centuries-old recipes.
Other than fresh cottage cheese, a delicacy is cheese that has remained for 40 days in a mixture of olive oil and sunflower oil – the longer it remains in the oil, the stronger its taste becomes. Oils preserve the aroma of milk and the fragrance of Konavle grass and the sea that you can taste when the cheese crunches and melts in your mouth.
Smooth-tasting dry cheese, which is produced similarly to pršut, is kept for 30 to 40 days in a wooden cage and covered with a net to protect it against insects. This type of cheese can be served immediately after it is dried, but this does not apply to pršut. The meat becomes palatable in a further four months after smoking and drying; in the meantime it is stored in a drying chamber.
Nutritious and tasty local dishes are best accompanied by one of the excellent wines from the surrounding vineyards. The white elixir, Malvasija, is the third of its kind grown in Europe. When tasting the Malvasija made by Mr Crvik, a wine grower in the village of Čilipi, many will recognise the aroma of Malvasia, the Malmsey or Madeira. The Konavle Malvasija is slightly sweet and grown during dry and warm summers. Its yellow grapes give it an apricot bouquet.
Thinly sliced pršut is accompanied best by Konavle red wine of mixed grapes or Plavac (full-bodied with a sour cherry and strawberry aroma).
After enjoying traditional Dalmatian meals, a spontaneous decision was made to devote one more afternoon to local traditions and also undertake wine tasting in Mr Crvik’s cellar, which has been awarded several distinctions for his high-quality wines. This perfectly rounded off our stay in the region.