Croatian Déjà Vu
By Deborah S. Nelson, Author/Publisher VRTG
France is known for wine, Italy for pasta, Spain for bull-fighting, and Switzerland for banks. But just what is Croatia known for? In fact, where is Croatia?
Croatia is a small European country separated from Italy to the west by the Adriatic Sea with a coastline which includes some 1246 small islands. Croatia shares its northern border with Slovenia and a southern border with Montenegro. One of six countries of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia is a unique cultural and political blend of east and west; where its people now exuberantly celebrate their right to vote.
I flew Croatian Airlines from Dusseldorf, Germany after a four-hour layover. During such times, people-watching becomes a pastime. My attention was easily captured by crowds of people socializing as they gathered at the gate to Split, Croatia. I noticed they were part of a tour returning home — mostly older women. We were all herded onto a bus which took us to the tarmac where the airplane awaited us. Once we started boarding, I noticed that many of the women resembled my mom, giving me an unexpected sense of nostalgia.
Then a woman of around seventy sat next to me on the plane, who also reminded me of my mom when I last saw her alive. The thought crossed my mind that it takes awhile to get over losing your best friend especially if she is also your mother. This trip will be a good break for me, I thought.
Savor the Flavors
My next writing assignment took me to Villa Drage (translated Lovely Villa), a few miles outside of Trogir. I arrived in the middle of an annual, family work party — just in time for the big afternoon meal of the day! My education about local Croatian food began immediately.
First, I met the man of the house, a retired journalist and his son, Arsen, a political journalist. The family also included a daughter who was about to publish her first book; and lastly the mother, whom I was told, was the captain of the ship. I felt at home with three professional writers and the captain of the ship all under one roof!
Arsen explained that he likes to include all colors of the rainbow with every meal. Not only is it beautiful, but also a nutritionally healthy practice. Our afternoon dinner was no exception. The main dish was prepared with an outdoor cooking method called ispod peke, which loosely translated, means under the dome. Under a wood-heated metal dome our delicious, mouth-watering chicken, potato, and carrot feast slowly roasted.
The meal began with a soup, (an aroma like my Slovenian grandmother’s soup) prepared with mini-dumplings, followed by a fresh tomato, cucumber, and onion salad made with homemade olive oil dressing. The wine was some of the best red I have ever tasted. Then, there was the apple strudel for dessert. Baked right there, with almond-flavored highlights, it rivaled any gourmet baked goods I had ever eaten. The light flakey pastry crust melted in my mouth. I had two! I just could NOT help myself.
After the meal Arsen’s father announced that it was a tradition to take a nap. Not sleepy, I took some down time by the pool. In the quiet of the afternoon, I experienced another déjà vu. My mom used to take naps without fail every day at this same time.
Food Déjà Vu
Each day at Villa Drage, kitchen aromas were enticing; they reignited long forgotten memories. Something about that soup stirred up ancient visions of visits to grandmother’s house. In fact, the home cooking I tasted at Villa Drage was so familiar that it did not taste like foreign food at all! Everything is fresh-picked from the garden.
My grandmother always cooked fresh vegetables from her large garden. She was devoted to growing food as a way of life. At evening meals we ate a unique vegetable called bub, which tasted like lima bean, but with a deeper, darker flavor and color. My host combined bub with homemade pasta, tasty green peas, and bits of meat to create a flavorful main dish — very familiar and very good. While eating at Villa Drage, I continually experienced food déjà vu!
Every morning we drank Turkish coffee. The beans are finely ground into a fresh deep, brown dust. Then water is boiled and poured into a copper container with a long handle so as to keep the handle cool. Once the fine coffee paste settles to the bottom, the top liquid is poured off into a cup — so good! My sister says Turkish coffee makes her feel wired but I found this coffee to be the freshest, deepest, darkest, and smoothest java I have ever tasted. Luckily, I did not get the jitters.
Land of Olives
Speaking of my sister, she keeps up with family history more than anyone in our family. Due to my report of the familiar cooking aromas, and my unexpected affinity for the Croatian language, she started digging into Mom’s side of the family.
We had heard that Mom’s dad was from this area, or Serbia, but no one was sure. As memories resurfaced, I recalled Grandma‘s frequent expression of exasperation to Grandpa when they didn’t quite see eye to eye, “You crazy stubborn Dalmatian, Sam Banich!” Interestingly, Villa Drage islocated in the Dalmatian region of Croatia.
Meanwhile, my sister contacted our 98-year old aunt and our eldest cousin, who both knew Sam Banich personally. They confirmed that he was from the general area, and was truly Dalmatian!
With my grandmother being from Slovenia, just north of Croatia, and my grandfather from Croatia, it is no wonder that people on the plane looked like my mom! For the first time in my life, I realized Mom was 100% Slavic. That makes me 50% Slavic. What an epiphany! Unwittingly, I had arrived at my homeland. Now I understood that my olive-colored skin had originated from a land of olives.
Colors of Croatia
The Villa Drage Estate includes groves of olive trees. The OK Brand of olive oil is actually produced from trees grown on the property. Arsen, my host’s son, explained that there are many types of olive trees, some live to be as old as 1000 years. During the rule of Tito (1945-1980), if a man wanted to marry, he was required to plant 100 olive trees.
The color olive has always been one of my favorites. Aside from the color olive, I became aware of an abundance of vibrant colors during my stay at Villa Drage. The terra-cotta red roofs, the fine red wines and, electric red geranium flowers are everywhere.
The red wine from the Peninsula of Croatia, branded Dingac, is made by friends of the Villa Drage family. This wine is served at dinner meals, adding a glorious flavor to everything. I was told that although red in color, this type of wine is called plavac (meaning blue), after the blue grapes used to produce it.
Speaking of blue, there are no bluer skies than in Croatia. The puffy white clouds contrast with the stark cerulean blue skies — a rich color hard to forget.
The green in Croatia brings to mind the color of freshly grown vegetables. During my stay, we dined daily on fresh vegetables from the Villa’s garden; including arugula, iceberg lettuce, fresh rich, green peas, bub, and a fresh spinach-like vegetable whose name I could never quite grasp. Eating green in Croatia was a new experience, since everything tasted rich and fresh — the ultimate in green flavor!
Colors of Villa Drage
The many rich and varied color schemes presented in each of the five bedrooms were stunning — one bathroom with an unexpected combination of green and plum tiles throughout. My bedroom, with private terrace, was boldly decorated in orange; and sparkled with sunny yellows, beiges, and deep brown tones. The queen-sized comforter was hand-stitched with orange and red circles matching the colorful orange, pale yellow, and deep browns of the throw rugs.
The en-suite bathroom continued the theme with dark brown tiles, orange towels, and unique Italian-designed shower water fixtures. With the lights off, the shower head brightened up my experience with variable colored lights built into the shower head.
The overall interior decorating is contemporary with glass shower doors, rich tiles, and overhanging light show shower heads. Suites were well-appointed with thick towels (with loops for hanging), elegant soaps, handy shelving, walk-in closets, blow dryers, and even wooden hangers. The lines and designs of the home include arches, terraces, and terra-cotta roof tiles — all typical Mediterranean architectural features.
Plush couches in living areas are L-shaped sectionals — more than luxuriously comfortable and able to seat a crowd to recline and watch the big screen TV. A plum and red color scheme is punctuated by a warm red, plum, and beige oriental rug in the main living room floor. Another living area upstairs, allows small groups to enjoy different programming or activities. In addition, the villa offers many areas where people can quietly work, rest, or watch TV, including a large library with skylights overlooking the living room with a view of the outdoor terrace.
The villa dining room is handy to the kitchen, set with cloth napkins and nice china for authentic family meals. Treated as an honored guest, I felt comfortable to be part of each and every meal. During one dinner, two wine glasses were set at my place, one for a white wine and one for red. I sensed that this villa has a wonderful spirit of family — that any family staying here would create memories of a lifetime! I certainly formed many fond memories of Villa Drage.
The views of downtown Split are enchanting — especially from a beautiful dining area beneath a couple of friendly shade trees. The pool is perfectly positioned a level below the outdoor dining and cooking area. Above that is the jaw-dropping view of the city of Split and the Adriatic Sea. This villa offers many levels, nooks and crannies, and special areas. The wine tasting room is an authentic-style bistro area. Don’t forget to work out in the gym, another separate building near the pool, in case you enjoyed a little too much great Croatian food!
Trogir — Not to Be Missed!
In the nearby city of Trogir, the market is not to be missed. My host and I ambled through the market with rows and rows of fresh foods and olive oils. The unique shaped bottles of rakijas (flavored brandies) also captured my attention. The market is a color feast for the eyes and a treat for the taste buds. A young lady gave me a sample of cheese; it was so good that I bought a pound.
After our visit to the market, we dined at one of the best restaurants in the old city, called Alka. Alka is a sport where a rider on a horse throws a long spear through a metal target. This sport celebrates the Croatian victory over the Turks (1699) after 300 years of Turkish domination.
We were served pasticada, a Dalmatian specialty dish of marinated meat. My host explained that the sauce is the main distinguishing feature of this recipe. The sauce was made with a symphony of flavors, including clove. This meal included homemade pasta called njoke, freshly made, and mouth-watering fresh-baked bread. A special Dalmatian caramel dessert called rozate topped off the meal. The cherry on top was absolutely the most flavorful I have ever tasted! Pure ecstasy. But even more flavorful, was the after dinner cherry brandy liquor! This meal ranks as one of the most memorable meals of my life.
Next time, I intend to taste the legendary chocolate truffles made in a remote Croatian mountain village.
What is Croatia Known for?
I haven’t tasted all the flavors of Croatia — yet. The view from Villa Drage overlooking the Adriatic for me is one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. Obviously, I am biased. Being 25% Dalmatian, and 50% Slavic, Croatia is effectively my genetic homeland. However, I believe even the most sophisticated American will find the flavors of this country fresh and enticing. The wines, olives, and olive oils, rakijas (brandies), grilled fish and meat, baked goodies and cheeses, and of course, those organically grown garden veggies, all leave an indelible impression. As I depart for Dubrovnik, it is hard to say good-bye to my Villa Drage hosts, but I leave with clear insight that Croatia shall soon be known for its remarkable flavors.
This villa certainly qualifies for the category of Ultra Luxurious Vacation Rentals, but we selected it for Family Focused Vacation Rentals due to its many options for children. This villa is perfect for a large family looking for a memorable time, whether for a family reunion or wedding party. It would be hard to find anything better for this price in Croatia. For availability and reservations at the Lauren Berger Collection you may call her at (888) 522-1099.
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