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Chefs on tour: Tom Aikens and Francesco Mazzei in Croatia

Chefs on tour: Tom Aikens and Francesco Mazzei in Croatia

Tom Shingler 04 June 2018

Four sunny days, three beautiful locations, two talented chefs, one hell of a trip – see what chefs Tom Aikens and Francesco Mazzei saw, discovered and tasted during a visit to Croatia's beautiful Dalmatian coast.

Countries all over Europe must look at Croatia with a slight sense of envy. In the past decade it has gone from being relatively unknown to one of the must-visit destinations for foodies the world over. With four different historical regions all boasting their own unique cuisines, it has access to incredible rustic stews and country cooking further inland, and some of the best fish and seafood in the world along its Adriatic coastline. Add to that a history rich with ancient Roman, Byzantine and Italian artefacts, stunning architecture and beautiful countryside, and it’s no wonder people are flocking to Croatia for their holidays.

Of course, anyone can wax lyrical about their nation’s food and drink, but to really put it to the test you need some independent experts to take a look at it for themselves. That’s why the Croatian Tourist Board decided to take two of the UK’s best chefs on a fact-finding mission around the Dalmatian coast, focusing on the beautiful city of Split, the island of Šolta and the smaller, more remote city of Šibenik.

The chefs chosen to experience Croatian hospitality at its finest were Francesco Mazzei, the Italian chef known for celebrated restaurants Sartoria, Radici and Fiume in London, and Tom Aikens, who previously had two Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant and now owns his own restaurant empire with outposts of Tom’s Kitchen all over London (and the world). Francesco had visited Istria and the northern parts of Croatia last year, but it was Tom’s first time in the country. By the end of it, they were both thoroughly convinced of Croatia’s gastronomic prowess.

Split

Our first night in Croatia was spent in the centre of one of its most beautiful cities. Split boasts just as much history as Italy and Spain’s touristy hotspots with plenty of beautiful architecture to take in. The majority of the buildings in the centre are built out of polished white stone, and there are even sphinxes and pillars from ancient Egypt on show in the main squares. The fact that it’s on the coast providing quick access to Croatia’s famous islands is just the icing on the cake.

The very centre of Split lies within Diocletian’s Palace, which was built for the Roman emperor Diocletian in the fourth century. There are few places in the world where modern life and ancient history sit side by side, but Split’s old town is one of them. Our hotel for the night was Vestibul Palace, a stunning collection of rooms dotted throughout the middle of the Palace that allows you to stay right in the heart of somewhere steeped in history. Owner Bruno Nizič and chef Toni Miloš joined us for dinner, which highlighted some of the best local produce including cheese from the island of Pag and incredibly fresh John Dory and Dentex.

In the morning, it was time to take a quick tour of the city, visiting the fish and vegetable markets. Wild asparagus season was in full swing, and giant bunches of the elongated spears were taking pride of place on many stalls. The fish market was full of incredibly fresh fish and seafood which impressed Francesco, who noted many of the fish had bright, clear eyes – a true sign of freshness.

In the evening Francesco and Tom were invited to cook with some esteemed local chefs at ŠKMER (The Association of Chefs from Mediterranean and European Regions), an organisation that offers cooking classes to tourists and ensures Dalmatian food is given the attention it deserves. Tom set about cooking wild asparagus in a sabayon before cleaning and filleting local sardines for an orange-scented escabeche, while Francesco flexed his Italian muscles and rolled out a batch of fresh cavatelli pasta with expert precision. Our host Željko Bremec ensured no one left hungry by preparing a mammoth pot of Dalmatian lamb stew.

As we relaxed with a glass of Željko’s favourite digestif, Tom and Francesco agreed that Split has an awful lot to offer the intrepid foodie. Delicacies such as the region’s famous soparnik (a flatbread stuffed with chard, garlic and olive oil) might sound simple, but there’s something about the way they’re made that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Add to that beautiful weather, stunning architecture, several millennia’s worth of history and some seriously good local wine, and you’ve got everything you need for a fantastic city break.

Šolta

Croatia is home to over 1,000 islands, but the most famous of them all lie along the Dalmatian coast towards the south. Our second destination was Šolta, a relatively small island at just twelve miles long. From Split it takes just under an hour to get there by ferry, making it an ideal day trip if staying in the city. With little to no wind, blazing sunshine and a constant twenty-six degrees heat (something which suited Francesco’s Calabrese blood perfectly, but saw me slapping on the sun tan lotion), we set off to see the island for ourselves.

Šolta is famous for its olive oil and wild rosemary honey above all else, and after a short drive through picture-perfect villages and ancient olive groves we arrived at Olynthia, the island’s most respected olive oil producer. Owner Frane Kaštelanac talked us through his cold-pressing technique before we tasted our way through his oils, many of which are infused with other flavours. The wild rosemary olive oil really was stunning; fresh, herbaceous and with a peppery kick at the end. After seeing Olynthia’s olive groves for ourselves and a quick dip in Šolta’s turquoise blue waters to cool off, it was time to visit Martinis Marchi – the island’s most luxurious hotel.

Chef Toni Miloš, who had cooked for us at Vestibul Palace, joined us once again to welcome us to his restaurant and hotel. Set inside a stunning building on Šolta’s coast, the hotel boasts some very extravagant suites and a fantastic terrace restaurant. But rather than sample Toni’s take on Croatian fine dining, he prepared something much more traditional and simple. Popara is a Dalmatian fish stew made of local scorpion fish and John Dory that’s a stunning example of why the region’s food is so highly prized. When the fish being brought to Šolta’s harbour is so fresh, there’s no need for over-the-top techniques or cheffy twists – you just want to keep things simple to allow the natural flavour of the fish to shine through. It was Francesco and Tom’s favourite dish of the trip, as it showcased the traditional cuisine of Dalmatia at its finest.

Well-fed and thoroughly impressed by what we saw on Šolta, the team at Martinis Marchi got us back to the mainland in the most stylish way possible – on board their beautiful motor yacht. Cruising at speed towards Split with Croatian pop music blaring out of the speakers was, in the captain’s own words, ‘the best and most Croatian way to travel’!

Šibenik

After two nights in Split discovering the city and a fantastic day trip to beautiful Šolta, it was time to head north along the coast and visit Šibenik, a city about a tenth of the size of Split but boasting some incredible scenery. While it’s just an hour’s drive away, Šibenik definitely had its own feel about it, with a gentler, more relaxed way of life apparent as we drove through its streets. After checking into our hotel D-Resort for the night – a beautiful building overlooking the marina just outside the city – we met our host for the day, Michelin-starred chef Rudolph Štefan (or Rudi to his friends).

Rudi is the chef-owner of Pelegrini, a restaurant in Šibenik which was awarded a Michelin star last year (as well as being voted the best restaurant in all of Croatia). His menus reimagine Croatian classics, combining traditional dishes with contemporary techniques in tasting menus that celebrate the local cuisine. However, Rudi knew that to really appreciate Croatian fine dining he first had to show us Croatian cooking at its simplest, so he took us out on a small fishing boat in one of Šibenik’s beautiful lakes. This was to be the highlight of the whole trip.

We set sail with Drago, a local fisherman, who went out and, using traditional and sustainable techniques in his small wooden boat, brought back a catch of grey mullet and red snapper. The lake is actually connected to the sea through a narrow channel, which means the water is slightly salty – something which seems to give the fish we caught a fantastic flavour. As the fish were removed from the net, they were descaled, filleted and cleaned by Drago, who then threw the fish to Rudi. Armed with nothing more than a frying pan full of olive oil, Rudi then dusted the fish in flour and fried them whole, right there on the boat. Eating fresh fish on Croatia’s shoreline is special enough, but to eat them straight out of the water on a boat in the middle of a lake with a few glasses of local wine was a life-affirming experience.

With a sound understanding of Šibenik’s natural larder and a lunch of some of the best fish we’d ever tasted, we headed back to terra firma to visit Skradin, a town just outside of the city, for a wine tasting at Bibich Winery. Owner Alen Bibić is known for propelling Skradin’s wines to international acclaim, and he was on-hand to talk us through glass after glass of his award-winning wines. Croatian wine is a bit of an unknown in the UK, mostly because it can be hard to find; many winemakers don’t make enough to export in large numbers so the majority stays within the country. The quality of the wines we tasted, however, was incredible, and Alen’s dedication to using local indigenous grapes such as Debit, Babic, Plavina and Lasin meant there were some really unique varieties to try. If you’re a wine buff, then Croatia is a country you simply have to visit.

After an incredible day of fishing, eating and drinking, we all had a few hours to recuperate at D-Resort before heading back into the city to meet up with Rudi and experience his take on Dalmatian cuisine. Before heading to the restaurant, however, we made the trip up to Šibenik’s St John’s Fortress – one of four in the city which date back to the eleventh century. As the sun set, we were able to take in Šibenik and the surrounding countryside in all its glory.

Our final meal at Pelegrini was a perfect example of Croatian cooking at the modern, contemporary end of the scale. Chef Rudi was hard at work in the kitchen, preparing a tasting menu that encapsulated his style. As a self-taught chef he has been able to approach Croatian food from a new perspective, something he has become nationally known for. Dishes such as wild asparagus pasta were distinctly Croatian, but other plates included ingredients such as dashi and monkfish tripe, which made for a fantastic, interesting menu that was certainly worthy of a Michelin star. Paired with even more incredible Croatian wines – one of which Rudi had even helped make himself – it was the perfect end to a fantastic few days on Dalmatia’s incredible coast.

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