Taste of the Adriatic in a Shell
When I turn off the Adriatic motorway onto the Pelješac peninsula, an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik, a narrow bay opens up. It is castaway dreamland: the sea is pure turquoise, dotted with tiny islands, no more than a fringe of rocks and a patch of pines. On its glistening calm surface, countless buoys sit arranged in floating parks.
Enclosed by the second largest peninsula in Croatia, the bay of Mali Ston stretches some 28 kilometres. Narrow, isolated and protected, it is heaven for shellfish, with nearly 90 species living here. “Only two are farmed,” says Mr. Sveto Pejić, owner of the oldest operational salt works in Europe, Solana Ston, and Vila Koruna restaurant that overlooks the bay.
“Oysters and mussels, they love it here. The bay is brackish – there’s a great influx of freshwater, from the Neretva river to submarine springs. It is also very calm; oysters don’t like extreme tidal waves. And it is clean”.
Mali Ston is, in fact, one of the last healthy habitats of ostrea edulis, ‘the edible oyster’. At Vila Koruna restaurant, guests can try oysters prepared in 11 different ways: fresh on ice with a drop of lemon or wild orange, grilled, baked or deep-fried, in soup and with six different sauces (sea fennel, mint, basil, dill, Pošip white and Dingač red wine). “Our oysters refresh, soothe and entice to love,” adds Pejić with a smile.
A few metres from Vila Koruna, I hop from a stone riva (waterfront) onto a wooden boat with decades in its prowl. It feels like tradition embodied. My host for the ride is Antonio Mihočević, fourth generation oyster and mussel farmer who swapped a seaman career for continuing the family business. “My great-grandfather was the first to grow oysters, and my grandfather opened a small shop and tasting parlour. I am now running boat tours for people who want to visit our farms and see what we do.”
As we pull away from the shore, he pours me a walnut liquor and serves some broštulani mjenduli (candied almonds), a traditional local nibble. Mali Ston and its tightly knit stone facades open up to a picture-perfect panorama: the town is towered by 14th-century walls that travel five kilometres over to the town of Ston, built to protect the historically strategic salt works.
We pass an island with a small church, but I spot no newer construction here. The bay has been protected since 1983; in 2002 its status was upgraded to a special marine reserve. And then suddenly, the boat is surrounded by black buoys, hundreds of them. We are at the farm.
Navigating skilfully, Antonio pulls up a line from the sea. A bundle of long plastic strings is hanging off the rope, with baby oysters, roughly the size of a euro coin, gleaming in the sun. “This is the second phase of the growing process,” he says. “It starts further down in the bay, closer to the open sea. Oysters are hermaphrodites; some release gametes, others collect them. Larvae are then released into the sea. They float for a while, then sink to the seabed, where they attach to these plastic collectors”.
The bundle in his hand is a collector cut into pieces. “We prefer to let them grow organically like this, but it is not always possible. Fish eat them like snacks”. To try and prevent this, Antonio had to fence off the entire farm with nets.
We glide a few buoys over, and Antonio pulls up a plastic cage-like crate. “When nets fail, we have to remove seed oysters from collectors, and shelter them in these crates until they grow a bit,” he explains. Then they go on to cement each one on to ropes and let them mature to their market size. Altogether, it takes around two to 2.5 years. “By the time it reaches your plate, each oyster has been handled at least five times. It’s a lot of work if you are doing it right”. While talking, Antonio casually grabs a dozen pieces off a rope and starts opening them. It looks so easy. “You have to find the thinnest knife you’ve got. Slide it inside and wiggle it gently, aiming for the muscle. It will just pop”.
The oyster is succulent to bite and melts in the mouth. In this sea-to-table dynamic, ‘to’ is lost. The sea is the table, and you can taste it.
Paired perfectly with a sip of pošip wine, the oyster is the essence of this region, a testament to the abundance that arises from living in harmony with nature. About two million pieces are produced each year: that is two million chances for you to savour some of the best Croatia has to offer.
The Lim Channel
If you are travelling in Istria, you are in luck: oysters also love the Lim channel, carved into the western shores of Croatia’s largest peninsula. Part of the Lim valley, the channel stretches 12 kilometres deep into the mainland, and it’s flanked by steep and lushly green hillslopes.
Often called a fjord, this flooded river canyon suits oysters for the same reasons as Mali Ston: it is calm and clean. You can taste oysters on farms or in restaurants by the channel, prepared in many different ways. Make sure to pair them with Istria’s famous white malvazija wine.