Istria: A Culinary Journey through the Land of Plenty

There are plenty of pastimes you can embrace in Istria, from lazy stints beachside to cycling its hilly roads and discovering its cultural landmarks. But there’s no better way to get to know this triangle-shaped peninsula on the western coast of Croatia than through its flavours.

At the verdant hideaway of “green Istria,” nature’s bounty is prepared in refreshingly understated ways, revealing its spectrum of rich tastes. The people of Istria have learned over the centuries to let it be; the less you mess with nature, the better. In this story featuring the producers that Valamar collaborates with, take a journey through Istria, learning about its food and wine and what makes them so prime.

Istrian dairy delights

“If you get the fat in your glass of fresh milk, you hit the jackpot,” says Sandi Orbanić, owner of Latus dairy in the village of Gornji Orbanići near Istria’s inland town of Žminj. I’m sitting in the all-white tasting room of the Milk & Cheese Bar, a swank space of this family-run dairy farm that has been reaping awards for its cheeses. But this is no ordinary tasting. At this feast of fresh dairy products, yoghurt comes served in a wine glass, and flavours are paired with stories about the area, the farm and the family. We learn how Žminjski sirić (cheese from Žminj) came to be; during the hard times after World War II, when Istrian families had many mouths to feed, none (grannies) used to hide the prized chunks of cheese in wheat, a safe place away from hungry children. Unknowingly, they conserved the cheese and dried it, the grain adding a sweet tinge – the perfect preservative provided by nature. Decades later, Latus still produces dairy without artificial aromas, colours and preservatives. Started back in 2000 and today counting 28 employees, Latus churns out approximately 8000 litres of milk per day and about 150 tonnes of cheese per year. Some of the milk comes from their own 25 cows, whom they lovingly call “ladies”; they also source milk from 15 cooperative farms in the area.

After the yoghurt and the milk, my palate opens up for more dairy delights. Then our host brings out five slices of cheese on a plate. “You need to eat the cheese with your hands, to really feel and smell it.” When I taste my first slice, it feels like a breeze-powered run on Istrian pastures in springtime. She places aceto balsamico and olive oil on the table and encourages us to sample each cheese with and without the extras. Made of full-fat cow’s milk and aged on fir planks, the Istrian cheese is a treat, but it’s Veli Jože (Giant Jože) that steals the show, deliciously ripe and sharp under its autumn brown rind. “There is no cheese that tells the story of Istria more accurately than Veli Jože,” adds our host. The dairy venture at Latus peaks with a yummy dessert featuring an often-overlooked ingredient: skuta (Istrian ricotta), served with fig marmalade. “We don’t have copies, only originals,” says the host. “What the cows eat on a particular day ends up in our milk and cheese.” It’s this wildly varied feast of flavours that tells tales about the heartland of Istria.

The feast of smoked meats

When you visit an Istrian home, a platter is placed in front of you, laden with prosciutto, cheese and olive oil. There’s nothing more welcoming than this trifecta of Istrian tastes. Beyond just being tasty, it tells the story about the local soil, climate and longtime passions passed down over generations. At Pršutana Jelenić in the village of Sv. Petar u šumi, two brothers have taken on the family tradition of dry-curing meat. Their Istrian pršut, much-lauded and awarded, takes the spotlight. So do the brothers, who perform across Istria with their six-person band. When they don’t make meat, they make music. “We played 27 gigs in August 2019,” says Paolo in the tiny tasting room of their prosciutteria as he cuts the violin-shaped pršut using a thin knife with precision and grace. “Playing the keyboard is my stress therapy,” adds Paolo as he hands me a slice with a metal holder. During their “office hours,” when not playing weddings and summer parties, Luka and Paolo churn out about 2500 pršuti per year.

You can savour tradition in the way they are produced, with the skin removed and the hip bone left intact. They cure each pršut by hand with sea salt and season it with pepper, garlic and a pinch of laurel leaves. It’s then left to dry for at least a year, without any smoking. “We let it get a little hot and a little cold, without controlling it too much,” says Paolo. “The idea is to let it be as natural as it can get. That’s how you get this Chanel perfume,” referring to the pungent smell coming from the drying room. Their work never ends. In addition to their prized pršut, they produce other delicacies like Istrian pancetta, cured aged pork belly cut into slabs and left to dry in the air, aided by bora winds. The brothers are guardians of tradition, producing ombolo, dried pork loin seasoned with sea salt, and Istrian sausage spread, with parsley and olive oil, meat products that have provided a source of sustenance for the people of the Istrian peninsula.

Passion-infused olive oil

Another source of sustenance in Istria, spanning centuries and cultures, has been olive oil. Though it experienced a lull of neglect over several decades, olive oil production in Istria has been back in full swing. Flos Olei, known as the “bible of olive oil,” declared Istria the world’s top olive oil region for the fifth year in a row; in its 2020 guide, it lists 77 extra virgin oils from Istria. In the top ranks is Chiavalon, one of Istria’s most acclaimed olive oil producers. “Olive oil is our passion and our way of life,” says Tedi Chiavalon standing underneath a hackberry tree at their family estate in Vodnjan. Wearing a sporty outfit that makes him look like he’s about the go trail-running the hills of Istria, he adds: “It was my brother Sandi’s love for the land, for the olive and for agriculture. And then he captivated us all – and there was no way back.”

The Chiavalon family kept a small olive grove of about 50 trees until 1997. Then in a span of two months, Tedi and Sandi lost their beloved nono (grandfather) and father. In their honour, Sandi, 14 at the time and already in love with the olive, planted 100 trees. While his peers were out riding their bikes and collecting football cards, Sandi had a passion that at the time seemed curious. It soon became apparent that Sandi was set on producing high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. He went out to study olive oil production in depth and brought the latest in agroecological technologies to their family estate. After a couple of other careers, Tedi joined the business. Today the Chiavalon brothers have 7500 olive trees on their estate and an additional 3000 trees on the nearby farms they work with.

Harvests in Istria happen early; olives are picked by hand and using hand-held pneumatic branch shakers. To create their delicious Chiavalon blends, certified 100% organic, they use indigenous olive varieties – Buža, Bianchera (Istrian Bjelica), Carbonazza (Crnica), Moražola and Rožinjola (Rosulja); these have grown in the Vodnjan area for centuries. Inside the swish and cosy tasting room, we learn how to taste olive oil. “You first smell it, then warm the glass with your hands. That’s when the scent opens up.” It works like magic, the way you suddenly smell freshly cut grass, artichoke, wild chicory, mint and rosemary. Food pairings are pure pleasure. Their Romano, delicate with gently spicy and bitter notes, goes gorgeously with fish dishes. The strong Atilio, with flavours of black pepper and almond, pairs particularly well with meat, especially steaks. Their latest is Mlado (Young in Croatian), olive oil produced during the first three days of the harvest in limited quantities (2500 bottles); it’s an excellent pairing for pastas and risottos. But really, it’s fit for any feast.

The art of winemaking that spans six generations

Then there’s the Istrian wine, a sublime story of earth, wind and sun. Wine has been produced on the gentle hills of Istria since time immemorial, but it’s the recent crop of talented winemakers who have built on tradition, threw in some playful new elements and taken wine production to the next level. Leading the pack among those is the Arman family, helmed by the father-son team, Franc and Oliver. Their ancestors started planting vine on the hills of western Istria as early as 1850, but it was grandfather Edoardo Arman who devoted himself to diligently planting the indigenous Malvasia and Teran varietals. He poured love, passion and much hard work into these vineyards, passing them on as fundamental values that Franc and Oliver carry on today. Learning from their forefathers and respecting centuries-old knowledge, the pair perfected the art of making “good” wine.

At their four hectares of vineyards and the winery in the village of Narduči, up a winding road that leads up into the hills north of Vižinada, Franc and Oliver carefully choose and pick the best grapes by hand. To produce their wines in a completely natural process, they use cutting-edge oenological technology in the family cellar five metres below the ground, nurturing, ripening and storing them in ideal conditions. Among wine connoisseurs, their award-winning wines are known for their personality, distinctive aroma and a rich bouquet. Floral and fruity, the pale-yellow Malvazija tinged with green tastes crisp and pleasantly acidic. Fresh and fluttering in taste, the Perla Bianca natural sparkling wine is a full-bodied experience, yet unpretentious. Yet it’s the Teran that Arman is most renowned for; the ruby-red Teran Barrique is aged for twelve months in oak barrels, delivering a taste that’s robust and dry.

The latest launch is the unique Il Grande, inspired by Veli Jože, the famed giant from Istrian lore. This powerful cuvée of Teran, Merlot and Cabernet Franc has an aroma of dark chocolate and a strong structure filled with ripe tannins – pure delight at every sip. Sitting at the Arman winery with magnificent views and sipping on a glass of their exceptional wine, you can taste the rich past and tradition in the glass. It’s a story that spans six generations of winemakers, four types of Istrian soil and many faces of the same zeal – for sublime wine.

Bloggers, journalists, tourist guides, artists, entertainers and all kinds of hospitality experts and enthusiasts have gathered under the ValamArtists handle to lovingly bring you the best out of the Croatian holiday experience. Enjoy the ride!
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