The Adriatic Highway—or Jadranska Magistrala—parallels Croatia’s mainland coast. The road forms the western edge of the Balkan Peninsula in Southeastern Europe and runs 400 miles from the country’s Dalmatian region, in the south, to the Istrian Peninsula, near Italy, in the north. Along the way, it passes seaside towns laid out by the Romans two millennia ago. It rolls though villages anchored by church bell towers and encircled by olive-grove aprons. During harvest season, you can see men and women filling buckets with plump red grapes from their steep hillside vineyards. Leathery brown from the sun, they dab sweat from their faces with handkerchiefs as you speed by. Jagged limestone cliffs shadow the motorway from the east. To the west, a thin guardrail separates the blacktop from a sheer drop into the royal-blue sea studded by some 1,200 islands strewn across the horizon.
More than just a highway, the Jadranska Magistrala, technically the E65, is a cultural and gourmet corridor. The two-laner is a progressive dinner for visitors lucky enough to know where to discover its culinary treasures. A smorgasbord of red and white wine, piquant olive oil, wind-dried prosciutto, dense cheese brimming with the taste of herb-filled pastures, fist-sized truffles and direct-from-the-sea oysters are ready to be toasted, tasted, sucked, shucked or mopped up with pieces of fresh, warm bread.
In mid-autumn I set off from Dubrovnik, near the Croatia’s southern tip, determined to eat my way across the country. Though not a foodie, I have worked in and traveled across Croatia many times. And one of the first things a visitor to this small seaside nation learns is that Croats truly understand food. They have relationships with the farmers in the market. They know the days of the week when the best vegetables and cuts of meat arrive. Croatians always seem to have an uncle who makes wine on an ancestral island plot. You want fresh olive oil or truffles or that perfect liqueur? They know a guy … and that guy is likely their father. A typical citizen would just as well not eat as eat tasteless, packaged dishes.
Before my trip, I asked a man working in one of the country’s many outdoor green markets why even someone with my limited culinary sensibilities could sense something special about Croatia’s offerings. He looked at me and smiled the way Europeans often do when confronted by such a question from an American.
“Look,” he said, his stubby fingers weighing out radishes on an old-fashioned scale balanced by individual, handheld weights. “What you call organic, we just call food. We make simple things. But the ingredients are all of the top quality.”
Outdoor green market in Zagreb, Croatia
Photo via Flickr/Ramón
About an hour north of Dubrovnik, I took a left off the highway and onto the Pelješac Peninsula, which is famous for red wine and oysters. Pelješac is a microcosm of Croatia. Surrounded by sea and with a spine of rolling hills, it was colonized by the Greeks and Romans, who realized its strategic position—both gastronomically and militarily. Ancient, stone-block churches stand guard above valleys, where families work the same land they’ve occupied for centuries.
Driving along the 44-mile peninsula in the autumn—on one of the many wine roads here—means continuously waiting behind donkeys loaded with bouncing baskets of the region’s prevalent red-wine grapes, which are ancient relatives of California’s zinfandel variety, known as plavac mali. Almost as soon as I passed one donkey and its owner, who would grin and tip his straw hat, I was stuck again, this time behind a go-cart-like tractor overflowing with more of the valuable produce. At regular intervals, red-tile-roofed houses advertised bottles of vino for sale in words scrawled on wood—the same way roadside placards in my home state of Georgia hawk “boiled peanuts.”
After visiting several wine makers, I finally pulled into the Miloš Vineyard in the tiny village of Ponikve. The owner, Frano Miloš, is known as both a poet and a heavyweight among vintners. As he shook my hand, he smiled and explained that Croatians are starting to take back a wine culture that had been lost over the last sixty years following Communist Yugoslavia and a war that left the economy in tatters. He began to explain how he makes his wine, and then he stopped and suggested we taste wine only after getting a sense of where it comes from.
As his corrugated vineyard, cradled in a steep, south-facing amphitheater bowl, came into view, it became obvious that there was nothing easy about this wine production. Like much of the southern coast, known as Dalmatia, the vines here have evolved over the centuries to grow in harsh, direct sunlight and in a soil full of moisture-sucking, sunlight-reflecting, white, calcium-carbonate rocks. Consequently, Miloš told me, the production is small and much of the wine is sold domestically.
Photograph via Miloš Vineyards
On the upside, he continued, that evolution means the vines—like the wine, the raw gourmet ingredients generally and the people here—are tough and rugged, strong and robust. Miloš’s flagship plavac mali label, Stagnum, was as dark as blood with “legs” that stuck to the glass when I swirled it. It was a zinfandel on steroids and rich like liquid food.
“Stagnum can show how people lived and survived in this area for hundreds of years,” the winemaker said as he put his nose deep into a glass from a 2002 bottle. “This wine is full-bodied and rich and complicated. The dryness shows the high quality and still it has 14.4 percent alcohol. Plavac mali is a miracle of nature … it’s like a wild horse. I don’t want to crush it, I must reign it in properly.”
He toasted me, ”Sto godina—100 years.”
I drove back up peninsula to Ston, a town valued for centuries for its productive salt flats. Ante Radi?, who was wheeling barrels of red wine into the cellar of his restaurant, stopped in mid-roll as I walked up and told him I wanted to learn more about Croatian food. Above us, the town’s three-mile-long wall, the longest fortification in Europe, cut across the blue sky. Built in the 14th century, it was meant to protect Ston’s saline investment from marauders.
Radi? invited me to his house above the restaurant, which coincidentally was also called Stagnum (the Latin name for Ston). His wife spread out a small feast of sardelas (sardines) with slices of fresh onion, tangy green olive oil and bread.
“In two minutes, in any direction, you can have mussels, seafood, oysters and great wine … what else is there?” Radi? asked rhetorically. “People here don’t wear watches. If it’s morning they fish. In the afternoon they repair nets. If you want to taste this country, you must get on the water and earn it.”
Mali Ston oysterman
Photo via Flickr/Mario Fajt
Radi? pointed me toward the village of Mali Ston, or little Ston, where I convinced an oysterman to take me out on his skiff and show me his farm in the Mali Ston Bay—a sliver of water between the peninsula and the mainland. A few minutes from the shore, he cut the motor and rowed to an expansive grid of wooden posts poking through the surface. Atop the posts, horizontal poles formed squares and designated individual plots. Lashed to the poles, strings of shellfish dangled, fattening below the waterline.
The oysterman told me that the oysters, Ostrea edulis, are cleaner than almost anywhere in Europe because of the perfect balance between the salty sea and the sweet freshwater that pores into the bay from the Neretva River. He then reeled in a few and methodically cracked them open. He paddled out of the grid and then started the motor. With big eyes and ravenous tongues, we sucked out the contents of the shells—like eating the last oysters on earth—until we were back on his rickety wooden pier.
Brine and oyster juice covered my hands, notebook, shirt and chin as I stepped ashore in Mali Ston. I walked over to Vila Koruna, one of a handful of restaurants that line the bay, to dine in earnest. I ordered the creamy oyster soup. When it arrived I was still disposing of a plateful served on the half-shell under shavings of ice with wedges of lemon. When I mentioned my love of the bivalves to my waiter, he thrust an “aha!” finger into the air and then returned with what I could only assume was the Forest Gump platter. Dishes of oysters filled every empty space on my table: baked, fried, gratinated, and served with basil and red-wine sauce, dill, mint and seaweed.
I wobbled to my car, loosened my belt and turned back onto the Adriatic Highway. I was contemplating the fact that I’d just eaten my weight in oysters, and for about one-tenth the price normally paid in the States, as I entered the fertile Neretva River Valley north of Pelješac. A line of wooden produce stands framed the road.
The Neretva River Valley
Photo via Flickr/Hennie Cuper
“We eat what the land gives us,” a woman with dark hair and ice-blue eyes told me at one of the stands. Under a rainbow-patterned beach umbrella, shelves were crowded with green beans, onions, peppers, tomatoes, kiwis and pomegranates. Lemons and apples stuffed crates on the ground to either side. At eye level, honey and bottles of liqueurs made from pears and carob lined a ledge.
After purchasing a few oranges, a jar of honey and a bottle of liqueur, she gave me a bag of pomegranates and wished me “sretan put—bon voyage.” As I loaded the car, it occurred to me that a trip on this coastal highway was like shopping in a giant farmer’s market. In the backseat, bottles of wine were crammed in with bunches of grapes, homemade bread and a bag of Ston salt.
I had a three-hour drive to Split, the largest city on the Croatian coast, ahead of me. Then I would have to hurry to catch the ferry to the island of Vis and my next gourmet stop. Before I got into the car, the woman asked me where I was headed. “I’m in a rush to catch a ferry. I’m afraid I’ll miss it.”
“Relax,” she said. “Foreigners always worry. Are you here to enjoy yourself or are you here to watch the clock?”
Alex Crevar is Paste’s travel editor. He splits time between Europe and the United States.