Eat Like a Local: A Guide to Buying, Cleaning and Cooking Fish
Travelling to Croatia? Food will be as much a part of your travel experience as the picture postcard images you post to Instagram. If you don’t eat like a local you are doing yourself a disservice. Don’t shy away from getting your hands dirty, dive in, you may just surprise yourself.
So, you’ve chartered a yacht to sail Croatia or you’ve booked an apartment for the week and are excited for your summer holiday and everything it brings – swimming, sunning, relaxing, exploring, indulging…
As well as swimming in the turquoise waters and exploring the picturesque towns and villages of the Dalmatian coast, you are just as excited about sampling the gastronomy that the world seems to be raving about. Maybe you come from a landlocked country or in your local tavern, ‘fresh seafood’ means fried fish ‘n’ chips with mushy peas…
While you love seafood, the closest thing you have actually been to fresh seafood is the fish tank at your daughter’s school or the aquarium… nevertheless, you cannot wait to dine in some of Croatia’s best restaurants and indulge in seafood to your heart’s content – stewed, grilled, carpaccio, fried… bring it on.
And you would be right in thinking that the Dalmatian coast boasts a plethora of wonderful dining experiences, we’ve even created a Michelin Guide to Croatia’s Coastal Restaurants but, no matter how great the restaurant, you will never beat fresh fish directly off the grill – especially by your own hand.
I am from New Zealand and now live in Croatia, married to a Dalmatian; so I am lucky in the sense that a trip to the local fish market (or our neighbour – the local fisherman) and cooking fresh fish on the grill is a norm now. But, before living in Croatia, I had never cooked fresh fish myself – and preferred my fish to arrive at a restaurant table, resembling nothing of the swimming creature it once was. Cleaned, filleted, cooked please – and definitely no head! So, I understand your hesitations.
However, now I love having a whole piece of fish in front of me, drowning it with olive oil and getting stuck in with my hands. No meal has ever come close to this simple pleasure for me. Maybe your first step in this process is to order a whole fish from a restaurant, push your table manners to the side, along with your cutlery and use your hands – taking turns between mopping up the olive oil with the fish or bread and washing it all down with a glass of local wine – Pošip is my go to.
Local rule: a fish should swim three times in its life: in the sea, in olive oil and finally with wine!
Once you feel emboldened by eating your first whole fish, I then challenge you to visit a local fish market – buy, clean and cook your own fish.
Here’s a quick guide to buying, cleaning and cooking your fish!
1.When perusing the local fish market, check the eyes of the fish – if they are clear and bright, you have a winner. An extra little hint that I was told by a local – never buy fish from a stall underneath a red umbrella – the coloured umbrella is there to make it more difficult to see the quality of the fish.
2. Sardines, Sea-bream (Orada) or sea-bass (lubin) are nice fish for grilling and for beginners – they also look a lot less intimidating than John Dory, scorpion fish or monkfish! If you want a little more confidence in the market, check out our English-Croatian fish dictionary here
3. Cleaning: When purchasing, if you ask nicely, many sellers will clean the fish for you, if not, it’s really not as difficult as you think, watch the great guide below (just skip the filleting part – we are grilling the whole fish). Hint: clean your fish on the rocks by the sea so scales don’t go everywhere (they’re a menace to clean afterwards) and the fish guts go back to whence they came (it’s the circle of life…) Remember to salt the fish with a heavy hand once cleaned.
4. Cooking: grilling in a lightly oiled pan (or barbeque if you have one), is the best option. Sardines take 5 – 7 mins to grill – they should be lightly charred on each side and the flesh should pull away easily. Sea bream or sea bass, takes around 8 – 10 minutes grilling on each side. Again, the skin should be nicely charred, and another little trick is that if the bones along the spine pull out easily, it is cooked. You can also cheat, and once you have grilled it for 8 – 10 minutes on each side, pierce the skin at its thickest point and see if the flesh is looking white and delicious or you can use a temperature probe – at around 60°c, it is cooked
5. Serving: Place the fish on a large dish and then drown it in good local olive oil – do NOT cheap out on this part, good olive oil is the keystone of a great seafood dish, actually, any dish. Cover in garlic and fresh parsley, maybe a squeeze of lemon and ‘to je to’ – that’s it!
Every week we serve our guests fresh, grilled fish and week after week we hear them say that it was one of the best meals of their trip; it isn’t just about the food, it is the whole ritual around it – it’s the freshness, the simplicity, the setting… anchored in a bay, eating fresh seafood with local olive oil and wine, in the good company of friends – old or maybe even new… these are the moments we remember.
Of course, there is more of an art to every aspect of this which I could wax lyrical about for many hours but I guarantee, this simple act of buying, cleaning and cooking your own fish, will not only become one of the most memorable aspects of your holiday but it will empower you to act boldly in other areas of your life.
In the wake of the death of a great man, a champion for food, travel and connection, I’ll finish with these words:
“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.” – Anthony Bourdain