According to local legend, when God finished making the world, he threw his leftover rocks over his shoulder and into the sea. Upon turning around, he concluded that no other work was necessary and thus was the Kornati archipelago on Croatia’s Adriatic coast born. With its sapphire ocean, emerald fields and forests, amber-tiled roofs and diamond-white stone houses, the Croatian coast is, without doubt, a jewel of both natural and man-made beauty. There are more than 1200 islands, islets and reefs in the Croatian archipelago, but just 48 of them are inhabited by at least one person, with the five most populous islands accounting for more than 50 per cent of total island dwellers. Tiny villages that are little more than a konoba (a local cafe bar) and a scattering of stone houses cluster around coves and inlets or cling to rocky ridges lined with local lavender.
“I love the smell of the grapes and vine leaves under the hot sun, and the wild herbs growing haphazardly against sharp, craggy rocks,” says Deborah Kaloper, whose family holiday home is on the island of Zlarin in the Sibenik archipelago, just north of Split. “I love the colour of the sea, a light blue-ish green with amazing clarity.” And when the heat of a mid-summer’s day gets too much, “the pine forests are a reprieve, shady and cool, whispering and whistling as the summer’s breeze blows through the pine needles, carrying the smell of the sea.”
Deborah has been visiting Zlarin since she was eight years old and the house is where her father, Jerry, was born 76 years ago, and where he now spends every summer with her mother, Dianne. “Time seems to stand still on the islands,” Deborah says, “and allows you to really relax and to be simple and stripped back.”
With a permanent population of about 250 people and a ‘no cars’ policy, Zlarin is the very definition of the simple life. A typical day begins with a breakfast of fresh bread, homemade marmalade and checking the fish traps, and ends with a bocce tournament or catching up with friends at a konoba. It’s a far cry from the Californian port district of San Pedro where Deborah grew up. “Before World War II broke out, my grandfather left for America to start a new life, and planned to send for his wife and son to join him,” explains Deborah. “Then the war came and his wife (my grandmother) became ill and died, so my father was raised by his grandparents and an aunt here in Zlarin. He was reunited with his father in San Pedro in 1951, when he was 13.
My dad became a butcher and owned a grocery store and meat market, and is an avid fisherman – fishing was a part of his childhood, learning from his grandfather. We still use that same boat during our summer visits. At his store in LA, the Sunshine Market, he supplied the fishing boats that left from the port in San Pedro on their way to Mexico and Alaska with food and supplies, especially his homemade sausages.”
Every morning during summer on Zlarin, Jerry is up early and heads out in his leut, a traditional wooden boat with oars (now updated with an engine), that has belonged to the family for 100 years. “He retrieves and resets the fishing traps for our dinner, hoping to catch a few fish or octopus. After that, it may be a walk to the pier to catch the ferry to the mainland (20 minutes away) or a bike ride around the island.”
Almost everything the family eats on the island is local and homemade. For a mid-morning bite there’s “a snack of prosciutto, my cousin Merica’s homemade goat’s cheese and a glass of homemade wine or rakija – my Teta (Aunt) Antula’s wild rose variety is amazing. That and Merica’s black cherry are my favourites,” says Deborah. “Most households make their own rakija and may have six to seven varieties in the cupboard.” Also before lunch there might be some work in the garden – harvesting almonds, gathering vegetables or picking olives when the season is right.
The food on Zlarin is simple yet delicious – full of the flavours of the sun, sea and landscape in which it is grown. “It’s simple, unpretentious, rustic and natural. Everything is caught, grown or raised on the island,” says Deborah, who grew up surrounded by her grandparents in San Pedro and learned from them the value of raising one’s own animals and vegetables. “I loved feeding the rabbits with my grandfather and picking the blitva (spinach) from the backyard.
I learned my love of baking and cooking from my family as they were, and are, all great cooks. Dida’s (Grandfather’s) brodet (stew) was so delicious, and I would always have second helpings from Baba’s (Grandmother’s) blitva. But Nonie, my mother’s mother, really had a special talent when it came to baking – her breads were so light and sweet and her pastries thin and perfectly crisp.” Christmas was a particularly special time. “My favourite memory is of helping her with the Christmas baking – cookies, date cakes, tortas, krostule (fried pastries) and orahnjca (walnut roll) with her and Popa at the table in their warm, cosy kitchen,” Deborah adds.
Back on the island in the heat of summer, however, lunch is the main meal of the day. “It usually includes soup, no matter how hot it is and then a main of grilled fish or meats. Or pasta with a meat or tomato sauce, polenta and, if we’re lucky, Teta Odjena’s njoki (gnocchi),” Deborah explains. “Garden or tomato salads are splashed with homemade vinegar or we have whatever vegetables are fresh from the garden – such as steamed garlicky chard or zucchini, drizzled with homegrown and pressed olive oil. And there’s bread, always fresh bread on the table.”
The incredibly clear waters, even in the islands’ ports, beckon. And while some members of the family opt for an afternoon nap, others take in a swim then a beer in a local konoba. Dinner is another simple meal, followed by a wander into town to catch up with friends. “There is a sense of calm and peace,” says Deborah of life on the island. “I love the connection with nature and the simple pleasures in life.”
Three hundred kilometres south-east of Zlarin lies Dubrovnik, the charming walled city that is visited by 800 cruise ships a year and which was almost destroyed in the siege of 1991 to 1992. Perched on a rocky outcrop, with some of its city walls plunging directly into the cerulean sea, Dubrovnik is a town that’s infinitely more charming in the morning and evenings – once the cruise ship passengers have departed. Wander down the Stradun (the main street) and slip into the narrow laneways that lead from it. Most are filled with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops, but as you wind your way through the lanes on the sea side, the tourists drop off and you get a glimpse of life in the ancient city. For a spectacular drink any time of the day, slip through a tiny door in the city walls to visit Buza (there are two locations) – a rustic bar that clings to the cliffs offering spectacular views and access to the water. Beyond the city walls there are plenty of kayaking tours and motor scooters to rent. And a visit to the museum on top of the hill (accessible by cable car, steep pathway or taxi) is well worth it to get an understanding of the city’s recent troubled history. There is also no shortage of beaches that boast sparkling waters and many beachside restaurants serving simple, Croatian dishes, along with ever-present pizza on the menu.
This restaurant, situated on the water at the local port, offers a more contemporary interpretation of Croatian food, as well as an impressive wine list. Obala Stjepana Radića 26, 20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia, +385 20 419 419.
Sitting just outside the Pile Gate, the grand entrance to the Old Town, you’ll find more-ish house-made bread and main meals. Seating is limited inside this 200-year-old family house, so it is best to book ahead. Dante Alighieria b.b. Dubrovnik, +385 20 412 910, sesame.hr.
Escape the madness of the Old Town at this luxurious beachfront hotel that’s just a 10-minute walk away. It has a private beach and stunning ocean views from almost every room. Ulica Pera Čingrije 7 20000, Dubrovnik, +385 20 430 830, adriaticluxuryhotels.com/en/hotel-bellevue-dubrovnik.
Photography Armelle Habib
As seen in Feast magazine, Dec/Jan 2013, Issue 27. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.