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Chefs on tour: Francesco Mazzei and Tom Brown in Croatia

Chefs on tour: Francesco Mazzei and Tom Brown in Croatia

Great British Chefs 15 November 2017

See what happened when we sent two of the UK’s hottest chefs on a culinary tour of Croatia, a country famous for its olive oils, truffles and wine that’s fast becoming Europe’s most popular foodie hotspot.

If you haven’t heard already, Croatia has gone from being a country relatively unknown for its food offering to one of the most exciting gastronomic destinations in Europe. With a stunning Mediterranean coastline, picture perfect vineyards and vast forests home to some of the best truffles in the world, it’s where you’ll find stunning produce, fine wines, amazing seafood and dishes which celebrate simplicity and flavour above all else. And what better way to discover a country’s burgeoning food scene than by sending a pair of chefs over there to see what they can find?

That’s exactly why we sent chefs Tom Brown and Francesco Mazzei to Croatia for three days. They acted as the perfect duo to investigate the country’s food and drink – Francesco comes from nearby Italy, which shares many common ingredients and cooking methods with Croatia’s west coast, while Tom is an expert in fish and seafood, which Croatia prides itself on. While they weren’t sure what to expect, from the moment they touched down into Zagreb they knew they were in for a treat.

‘To be honest I didn’t know much about Croatia before I went – certainly not as much as I know about Italy or Spain – but because it is near Italy, I was expecting good things,’ says Francesco. ‘However, when I tasted things like the olive oil I was pretty blown away by the quality. It’s a beautiful country and the first thing we did when we arrived was go to the market. The ingredients were amazing – fresh porcini mushrooms, all sorts of incredible vegetables like wild asparagus – as a chef, I naturally wanted to spend all day there.’

‘I had literally no idea what Croatian food and drink was like before I went,’ adds Tom. ‘I knew it was between Eastern Europe and Italy, but that was about it. But when we started exploring Zagreb we looked around this amazing fish market. There were so many different species which you just don’t see in the UK, and even though it was late on a Friday there was still such a good selection and a real bustling atmosphere. When we got out into the countryside the next day, it was far more beautiful than I thought – I didn’t realise Croatia had so many hills and valleys.’

The chefs' first meal in Zagreb was at Restaurant Vinodol, which specialises in traditional dishes from the region. Think squash and cottage cheese strudel (known as bučnica), local cheeses and charcuterie. It was a fine way to start the adventure, and there were many more foodie treats to come.

One of the trip’s highlights was a morning spent hunting for prized Istrian truffles, which grow wild in the region’s woodland. It’s the only place in the world apart from nearby northern Italy where you can find white truffles and the black variety grow year-round, meaning they’re always on the menu. Francesco and Tom set off on a hunt with Prodan Tartufi, a family-run truffle hunting business that’s responsible for finding these prized gems. With the help of some very well-trained dogs they unearthed some incredible specimens, before returning to taste their crop in a variety of traditional Istrian dishes.

‘The truffle hunt was really good, a lot of fun,’ says Tom. ‘It was really nice to see first-hand how they grow and where they come from; everything we were taught was really interesting. The truffles themselves were amazing too.’

‘I think Croatian cuisine has always been there, but it’s only now after the country has recovered from the war that we’re starting to hear about it,’ says Francesco. ‘Istrian white truffles are known all over the world, and the black truffles we found whilst out hunting were incredible.’

Along with truffles, the olive oil was a real eye-opener, especially for Francesco. Istria has received countless awards for its olive oil, with experts naming it as the best region in the world for olive oil in recent years. Tom and Francesco visited Chiavalon, one of the country's top producers, and had a tasting at Ipsa, which makes wines as well as oils. ‘Some of the best olive oils in Italy come from groves with the perfect amount of wind, sand and water available to them,’ says Francesco. ‘In Istria some of the olive trees enjoy these perfect conditions as well, and the way they are looked after is absolutely perfect. They’re grown in such clean, beautiful surroundings, which really affects the final flavour of the olive oil. Istrian olive oil was always well-known but to actually taste it for myself is fantastic.’

‘The olive oil was clearly very, very high quality, and it was really interesting to hear about it,’ adds Tom. ‘As a chef, I’m incredibly passionate about food and it’s so nice to hear suppliers and growers talk with that same enthusiasm. Listening to what the olive oil producer had to say really inspired me.’

With produce that gets chefs this excited, it makes sense that the dishes Francesco and Tom tasted on their trip stood out as well. While the meats, cheeses and vegetables the duo tasted were all delicious, it was one particular speciality – Kvarner scampi – that really stood out. ‘We went to a restaurant called Astarea on our first night and Nino the chef cooked everything over a wood fire, which added so much flavour,’ says Tom. ‘I loved the freshness of a lot of the food – it let the produce do the talking, which is right up my street. It was so simple but just done beautifully.’

Francesco was a fan of the simple approach many of Croatia’s best chefs apply to their cooking, too. ‘The scampi we had was probably the best I’ve ever had in my life, and the seafood in general was certainly the highlight of my trip,’ he says. ‘We had scampi cooked in all sorts of delicious ways, but my favourite was at Astarea when they were served roasted with black rice – it was the best!’

Other restaurants worth mentioning on the trip included Stari Podrum, which serves the Croatian beer San Servolo with traditional Istrian dishes including Maneštra (a soup not too dissimilar from minestrone), meat stews and truffle dishes; San Rocco, a more modern place where the chefs made the most of fantastic fresh white truffles and Plavi Podrum, which is known for its fantastic Kvarner cuisine – particularly the Kvarner scampi served raw, grilled or with pasta.

How many Croatian wines can you name? Probably not too many – but that’s all about to change, as across Europe foodies are realising that the country is home to some truly special varieties. The chefs tasted their way through many indigenous Croatian grape varieties, both red and white as well as sparkling. Tomac and Radovan were among the more interesting producers they tried, but there was one in particular that really wowed them. ‘Croatian wine is a bit like Croatian olive oil – it’s always been there, but we’re only now realising how good it is,’ explains Francesco. ‘My favourite was the Kozlović Malvazija, a delicious light, crisp and fresh white wine that is a perfect match for seafood.’

‘I’d not had Croatian wine before and I was expecting it to be a bit of a fledgling industry,’ adds Tom, ‘with the wines quite young and early on in the development process. But they tasted fantastic – just as good as anything you’d get from France, Spain or Italy.’

The trip certainly proved a success, with Francesco and Tom returning home with a newfound respect for Croatia’s produce and cuisine. But the real test is whether they will go back of their own accord. ‘I am of course Italian and I love Croatia because it has that Italian feel to it,’ says Francesco. 'I’m looking forward to going back and exploring the south of the country a bit more, where there are some fantastic beaches. I come from a seaside town so I’ll always have a passion for the coast, and I think it’d be good for the kids to explore a new country too.’

Tom was even more besotted by the country, especially as he had little to no idea what to expect before he visited. ‘I loved how beautiful the scenery was – everywhere we went it looked like a postcard and the landscape was visually stunning – and the food and drink matched it perfectly,’ he says. ‘I honestly can’t talk Croatia up enough, it just blew me away. It surpassed everything I thought it would be, and nothing would stop me from going back.’

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