Istrian Peninsula – The Food Edition
And then we found Heaven. Culinary Nirvana. Gastronomic Paradise. You get the drift.
The Istrian Peninsula is the northwestern most region of Croatia and is a small peninsula that juts down and sits right across the sea from Venice. It’s a region quite different from the rest of Croatia as it is perhaps more culturally related to neighboring Italy than to the Balkans. When we arrived at our rural guesthouse the owner told us about the family homestead a few miles away where 3 generations of his family had been born. When his grandfather was born, Istria was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; when his father was born it was a part of Italy; when he was born it was Croatia. That gave us a solid introduction to this region. We had rented a car for this portion of the trip and quickly noticed that all road signs were in Croatian and Italian, further driving home the point that this place was special and different.
Hilltop Towns and Coastal Charm
Granted, our #1 purpose of being in Istria was to eat, but occasionally you do have to give the body a bit of time for food to digest. So, we filled in our non-eating hours by exploring the numerous hilltop towns of the regions and driving through miles upon miles of vineyards and rural countryside. This was the perfect place to have a car rental as it would have been impossible to fully appreciate the delightfulness of the peninsula without it. This is also a place where many visitors do biking trips as it would be an equally great way to explore, if you’re into that whole burn the calories that you eat sort of thing. We were quite happy in our little car, driving around with the windows down and turning down whatever country lane caught our fancy.
So about all those calories
Why all the fuss about the food, you ask? Well, for starters I’m a complete sucker for what the world typically understands to be “Italian Food”. Turns out, this region of Croatia has pastas, pizzas, gnocchis, risottos, seafood and could totally compete with the best of the best in what we know as Italian-fare. I’m told it’s very similar to northern Italian cuisine, which makes sense given that it is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Trieste, Italy. We had of course read about this, as that is what inspired us to add Istria to our itinerary, but we didn’t really understand until we pulled up to some, whatever, no big deal, kind of bar/restaurant and ordered a pizza to share. And were BLOWN.AWAY. I’m sure to the locals this was just some ordinary-bar-food pizza but to us it was what dreams are made of. That set the stage for our 5 days in Istria.
Getting into the Konoba scene
So in Istria, there is a word for small, home-style cooking restaurants: Konoba. Our new favorite word on earth. Most are just a few tables on someone’s porch out on a farm or near a vineyard. Some are in town and are more classic-restaurant. All offer nothing but local, just-picked-it-this-mornin’-fresh ingredients, using family recipes of simple dishes. Most of the menus at the Konoba’s we visited weren’t extensive; they had maybe 8-10 options to choose from. Dishes were meant to be shared and enjoyed with family and friends. And nearly all incorporated the famous Istrian truffles and peppers, wild asparagus and mushrooms and fresh pasta.
Speaking of Truffles
The pearl of Istrian Gastronomy is by far the truffle. Not the chocolate. The wildly expensive mushroom that can only be found with certain by wild boars or specially trained dogs and looks like an ugly old root when it’s dug up. White truffles are la creme de la creme but the regular black truffles are uniquely flavorful as well. We started out by ordering a simple plate of scrambled eggs with truffle at the local Konoba in the town where we were staying, and we shocked by how much truffle the grated and sprinkled on top. Anywhere else the dish immediately would have cost a fortune but here it was just, eh, whatever, a plate of scrambled eggs. From then on we had to order at least one truffle dish at every meal and enjoyed with filet mignon and in pasta and in cheese.
Back to Exploring
Even though we should keep talking about the food, enough about the food. The main tourist attraction, and rightfully so, is the Pula Arena. While it’s not the largest that still stands (apparently it’s the 6th largest) it is the only Roman Arena that still has its entire circle of wall partially intact. Found down on the southernmost tip of the peninsula it was a solid stop for a look the impressive construction left to us by our ancient friends, the Romans.
So long Istrian Peninsula, I’ve got to get back to you one day soon – I’ll bring my Thanksgiving pants next time, I promise!!