A Moveable Feast: Eating my way through the Dalmatian Islands of Croatia
Whole fish with garlic butter sauce, chargrilled prawns, pasta with tomatoes and cream, mussels in garlic and white wine sauce, served with an ever changing backdrop of blue-green water, purple islands and white and gold stone towns.
Once, in a magazine, I read the words: “If you go to Croatia for no other reason – go for the food.” What good advice that was, although it was not the only reason I went to Croatia.
Surprisingly it was a nun who recommended I take a sailing trip through the Dalmatian islands. She described her time on the boat, and her desire to do it again one day, with such joy and enthusiasm, that it became my dream too.
So, one sunny day in June 2011, I boarded the “Marija Magdalena” in Dubrovnik for a week of sunshine, swimming and sailing in one of the most beautiful places in Europe. It amused me that thanks to a recommendation by a Sister of Mercy, I now found myself staring up at a beautiful wooden boat named after Mary Magdalene. It felt like a good omen.
I came for the saltwater and sunshine, however that journey also left me with memories of delicious, fresh food, prepared simply, and with great care. As we spent day after day on board I was thrilled by the exciting discovery that each new meal was better than the last.
We usually woke each morning to the rattling of the anchor, which signalled that our crew was preparing to move on to the next stunning island. It also alerted us that breakfast was just around the corner. Accordingly, we would shuffle from our cabins with sleepy eyes and rumpled hair for a meal of luxurious homemade yoghurt with honey, fresh fruit and a sprinkling of nuts, along with fresh-baked bread and local cheeses. Afterwards some would go back to bed for a decadent mid-morning nap, while the remainder of us would pad around the deck in bare feet, revelling in the feel of the early morning sun on our skin.
We each had our own routine. I would take to one of the large tables at the back of the boat and spend the morning writing in the cool breeze off the water. That felt like such a luxury to me. When you are living on a boat, time becomes meaningless. We had nothing to do and nowhere to be.
Then just before 10am, a member of the crew would bring around a tray of schnapps – to get the heart started – he would say when we protested it was too early. It never stopped us though. We would toss it back greedily, the flavours exploding in our mouths, before licking our lips with a contented sigh. Heart started, we would lean back against the warm smooth wood as the little boat slid smoothly through the water, languidly watching as bare brown hills sprinkled with cypress trees and fairytale villages drifted by, and white stone houses, with red terracotta roofs, tumbled down to the turquoise sea.
And the meals kept coming – mouthwatering beef, barbecued chicken, platters of roasted vegetables, fish pulled fresh from the sea by the crew - followed by the creamiest ice-cream, fresh fruit, or honey-drizzled pastries. I was in heaven.
One morning I saw our chef haggling for fresh seafood with a local fisherman. That evening when we sat down to dinner we were offered a huge bowl of steaming mussels in white wine and garlic. Oh my lord they were just the best thing I had ever tasted, and I sopped up the juice with chewy, freshly baked bread. Yet only two of us ate them, the remainder of the passengers paranoid about getting sick. I was so embarrassed – we were sitting on a boat on the sea – how much fresher could those mussels possibly be?
In the end it didn’t matter that they had passed on the meal of a lifetime, because I ate almost the entire bowl by myself. I could have eaten more, but I didn’t want to look too greedy. At least the chef who had lovingly prepared the dish would never know that nearly everyone had turned their noses up at it. With hindsight I should have eaten the whole lot myself and be damned.
The mussels were followed by beautifully grilled flaky white fish, potatoes, always so good in Croatia, and steamed spinach. For dessert we feasted on juicy ripe nectarines.
Occasionally I stayed ashore at meal times just so I could wander the delightful markets and sample the food in the different restaurants and cafes, but this always seemed to hurt the chef’s heart. He would wait for me to come back on board and then reel off a description of the dishes I had missed, before offering me a big bowl of ice-cream to round out the evening. He was a good man.
I really am fond of ice-cream. One day we didn't make the usual stop for a morning swim, with rough seas forcing us to continue on to the magnificent island of Split. I walked the streets of the old town for hours before stopping to buy some gelato. It was like lemon velvet sliding over my tongue. The only other times I have enjoyed ice cream half as much were during trips to Sicily and Turkey. But they are stories for another day.
Too soon our voyage on the Marija Magdalena came to an end with the much anticipated Captain’s dinner. We sat down on the open deck at twilight as shrimp grilled with butter and garlic were brought in. White linen tablecloths adorned the table where bottles of local wines were lined up for our pleasure. The shrimp entree was followed by the main course, a grilled lobster each, along with platters of vegetables and salad. A cheese plate followed, featuring only the freshest local cheeses, and finally sumptuous bowls of silky chocolate and vanilla ice-cream. Then, along with the crew, we danced and sang well into the night.
When people think of Croatia, food probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but it should be - it is truly a feast for the senses.