Top Chefs Tour Dalmatia, Praise as a Foodie Destination

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Early in Spring, Great British Chefs – Francesco Mazzei and Tom Aikens recently toured Dalmatia and had nothing but praises to sing about the gastronomy and their overall experience here.

“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.”

Says it all really… these were the words from Tom Shingler, the editor at Great British Chefs when introducing Croatia after two highly-acclaimed chefs visited our gorgeous Dalmatian coast. Chefs – Francesco Mazzei of Sartoria, Radici and Fiume in London and two Michelin star chef Tom Aikens (from Tom’s kitchen), visited the Dalmatian coast and were more than impressed by the incredible produce and cuisine that this region has to offer.

The chefs visited three destinations in Dalmatia – Split, island Šolta and Šibenik. In Split, they stayed at the Vestibul Palace in the heart of Diocletian’s Palace. There, they were joined by the owner Bruno Nizić and Toni Miloš for a dinner of local delicacies, including the famed Pag cheese and fresh John Dory and Dentex.

A trip to Split isn’t complete without visiting the local Pazar (market) and fish market. Life in Croatia and the life of a chef follow a similar pattern in the fact that what enters the kitchen, is only what is in-season – the chefs arrived during wild asparagus season and noted how they took ‘pride of place on many of the stalls’. And Francesco was impressed with the quality of the seafood in the fish market – bright, clear eyes, giving away their freshness.

In the evening, Tom and Francesco joined chefs at SKMER (which offers cooking classes to locals and tourists alike). The two chefs cooked dishes sourced from their day at the markets, while owner and awarded chef Željko Bremec cooked a hearty pot of Dalmatian lamb stew for everyone.

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Credit: Skmer official, Tom cooking at Skmer with Zeljko Bremec

“Tom and Francesco agreed that Split has an awful lot to offer to the intrepid foodie.”

Next, the boys were whisked across to the gorgeous gem (and one of my personal favourites) – Šolta. Island Šolta is only 19 nautical miles from Split, which makes it a perfect day trip, only 45 minutes on the ferry. It is famous for many things, in particular its olive oil and honey, so the Francesco and Tom were taken to visit one of the most well-known olive groves and producers ‘Olynthia’. Here the boys were explained the cold-press technique by owner Frane Kaštelanac before they had a tasting of various infused olive oils. Then dinner was held in none other than Martinis Marchi Heritage Hotel in Maslinica, where chef Toni Miloš cooked a traditional ‘Popara’ (fish stew).

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Credit: Martinis-Marchi Official

The gourmet tour for Tom and Francesco finished in the gorgeous UNESCO town of Šibenik, where Rudi from Pelegrini showed these two chefs what Croatia is really about by taking them out on a local fishing boat where they learnt the true meaning of ‘od mora do stola’, from the sea to the table (except in this case it was a saltwater lake). Their local fisherman Drago caught a grey mullet and red snapper using traditional (and sustainable) techniques and Rudi finished them in the pan with nothing more than a little flour and fresh olive oil. Simple pleasures that most Croatians wouldn’t bat an eye at, yet this is exactly the beauty of Croatian cuisine and what so many in the Western world lack. It says a lot that a chef of a Michelin star restaurant knows this too – you can dress a plate 1,000 ways but sometimes it is enough to let the food speak for itself, and that it did –

“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.”

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Credit: Pelegrini Facebook, the boys on their fishing adventure with Chef Rudi from Pelegrini

When visiting Croatia, sampling the local wine and indigenous grapes is an absolute must so the chefs visited Bibich Winery. Once again, they were taken aback by the quality of the wines, as Croatian wines are still relatively unknown on the market. With 130 indigenous grape varieties and winemakers like Alen Bibić helping to write the wine story of Croatia, it should come as no surprise that these two acclaimed chefs recommend Croatia as a country ‘you must visit if you are a wine buff.’

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Credit: Screenshot, Great British Chefs, Tom and Francesco catching the view over Sibenik from St. John’s fortress.

To finish the tour, the chefs took in the sunset over the Šibenik canal before the inevitable tasting menu by Rudi at Pelegrini which was recently awarded its first Michelin star – one of only three in Croatia!

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Credit” Pelegrini, the gorgeous Pelegrini courtyard

What many Croatians perhaps take for granted – the daily routine of a trip to the local markets, fresh fish straight from the Adriatic combined with numerous family traditions in the kitchen – is finally starting to be noticed by the world at large as gastronomic delights worthy of even the most refined palate. And in turn, local tourism boards are (finally) realising that this is an area worth investing in and that Croatia, can in fact, stand on the world stage as a gourmet destination.

It’s taken long enough, you would have thought Anthony Bourdain’s words in 2012 – “Croatia is the next big thing, if you have not been here, you are… an idiot” – would have been enough but some things seem to take a little longer to catch on here in Croatia. The Split B2B conference that TCN attended last year was the beginning of a long-overdue conversation about the potential for gourmet tourism in Croatia and I hope it is just the beginning.

Tom and Francesco’s experience and glowing review of their gastronomy tour through Dalmatia is just more proof that every foodie and connoisseur needs to add Croatia to their list. While their tour was organised, the experiences these chefs had are available for everyone, in fact, this is barely scratching the surface.

So, now that we’ve primed your taste-buds, when are you visiting Croatia?

You can read the full, wonderfully-penned article of Francesco and Tom’s visit to Dalmatia here on the Great British Chefs website, written by Tom Shingler.

Excerpts and quotes taken from Great British Chefs blog.

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