With ancient fortified walls protecting its bounteous produce, Korčula has some of the best seafood in Europe and the most skilled masters preparing it – Anthea Gerrie
PHOTOGRAPHY ULF SVANE
The Greeks brought wine, the Venetians laid exquisite stones and Marco Polo bequeathed pasta to his hometown of Korčula. It’s surprising that this beautiful Croatian island within a couple of hours of the country’s top resorts – Dubrovnik and Split – remains relatively undiscovered. Not so undiscovered that Prince Andrew has not already enjoyed its wares, mind you, while F1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone is regularly spotted shopping at the morning fruit market. All this helps explain why such a tiny jewel has a boutique hotel, a fantastic winery, an enclave of restaurants and a cake shop with worldwide followers among its lesser-known treasures.
It is undoubtedly the food and wine, shaped by a long list of invaders – Austrian, French and Russian conquerors followed the Venetians who ruled for centuries – that draw the connoisseurs as life is lazy on this island and natives never leave, Marco Polo being the uninhibited exception. Apart from days when there is a candle-lit religious procession or a performance of the Moreška – a terrifyingly spectacular costumed sword dance – there is almost nothing going on. Entertaining tourists wasn’t even contemplated until a century ago, when it was acknowledged that the island’s stone-carving and ship-building industries were on the wane, and the few sandy beaches and safe harbours could be used as a source of income.
Activities today may be limited to bathing on beaches or in world-class pools (Korčula is a noted producer of both swimming and water polo champions), cycling, trekking hilltop nature reserves, sailing, shopping for exquisite Adriatic coral jewellery and simply hanging out, but home-made pasta, super-fresh fish, local lamb, olive oil and wild herbs are always lying in wait to refuel.
Culinary traditions remain undented by time, thanks to an army of island elders who have devoted their lives to safeguarding ancient recipes and ethical cultivation practices they would not dream of allowing to become extinct in the name of progress. If only other European islands had done the same!
Take Smiljana Matijaca who, for the past 21 years, has turned up at her tiny town bakery by 5 a.m. to peel tons of oranges and lemons, hull almonds, and crush walnuts to make the traditional cakes without which festivities such as christenings and island ceremonies simply cannot be held. “These goodies, which all our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had recipes for, are vital for our celebrations but no one else bothered to keep making them, so when there’s a do the cry goes up ‘call Smiljana,’” laughs this strong-armed lady who still makes cukarin – little pretzel-shaped cookies that are dunked in Prošek (a sweet dessert wine) – the traditional way with ammonia.
“It may sound odd, but it’s essential for the right texture and flavour,” she explains, adding: “If you don’t use it, you really can’t be said to have baked true cukarin.” Such is her love of these traditional tasty morsels, her bakery is named after them.
Then there’s tousle-haired young agronomist Vlaho Komparak, who has made it his mission to make honey flavoured with the sage, lavender and rosemary growing wild across the island in the hilltop apiary behind his house. The honey must be reserved in advance – despite producing three tons a year, Vlaho always sells out.
Also at risk of constantly selling out of her produce is Diana Marović, who returned to her family smallholding after years of nursing in the capital Zagreb, to raise her children and restore her grandmother’s olive groves. Now she makes not only olive oil but also liqueurs and vinegars, flavoured with hand-foraged herbs and rose petals. “I spent years researching the traditional recipes and I still use a whole kilo of rose petals to make one tiny flask of liqueur,” she says. When not in her beautiful and romantic little shop Eko Škoj on the ‘new’ promenade – the elegant palm-bedecked strip lined with ancient fishermen’s houses beside a harbour, out of which locals fish sea urchins for their lunch, must be at least 200 years old – Diana is at home on the farm a couple of miles out of town, making marmalade and candied peel from her own orange trees.
Another, apparently unrelated Marović serves the classic dishes of old to tourists at one of the simplest but best al fresco restaurants along the sea wall of the old town. At Konoba Račiška, chef Matko Marović explains why islanders have such a strong tradition of eating Srdela u Savuru (sardines in a sweet-sour sauce). “The fishermen always used to catch so many sardines that a method was needed to preserve them for the whole week in the days before refrigeration,” he says, flouring the little fish before they sizzle in the oil, which are then plucked back out to be treated to a fragrant herb bath.
Self-taught Matko – who took to the stove when he grew tired of working in an office – flours and fries the small super-fresh fish in sunflower oil and sprinkles them with salt, before removing them and adding chopped onions, bay leaves, sprigs of rosemary and a little sugar to the pan. The marinade, to which garlic and a lot of fresh lemon juice have been added, is poured over the sardines that are served with the inevitably wonderful local bread when the juices have cooled down.
Given that sweet-sour sauces were brought to the outposts of their empire by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, it’s tempting to think that Marco Polo might have enjoyed these marinated sardines in his home, just steps up the alley from Račiška. It’s easy to imagine the explorer (who was born here in 1254) gaining inspiration for his travels from the panoramic view of the mainland and neighbouring islands from the square loggia tower – his birth home’s finest feature.
Keep ascending the steps (these numerous stone staircases connecting the sea wall with the elevated centre of the old town are a special island delight) and you arrive at the piazza, dominated by the 15th-century St. Mark’s Cathedral (Cathedral Sveti Marko) with its gloriously embellished cupola. The treasury, which is full of rare silver and other precious objects, can be visited while opposite the cathedral, a museum tells the story of the rich history of the island.
St. Mark’s was the apotheosis of a century when no surface was left untouched as stonemasons vied to decorate every pillar, portico and roof, and adorn buildings with ornate coats of arms. The handsome grand entrance to the old town is much younger; the stone staircase of 1863 leads up to the 13th-century square tower bearing the crest of the Venetian Doge. Several other towers, round and semi-circular, skirt the sea wall that encircles the old town.
Fronting the piazza with a terrace high above it is Adio Mare, which 40 years ago was the only restaurant in town not attached to a hotel. It’s ironic that it serves the most comprehensive range of seafood on the island, yet does not have the view enjoyed by the many eateries that have sprung up along the sea wall in the past 15 years – the result of an independent Croatia firing locals with an entrepreneurial spirit after the lazy years of collectivism. Today, the culinary action is hot all along the sea wall but, apart from the spectacle of a five-kilogramme octopus simmering for hours under a huge iron dome (or peka) in the open fire at Konoba Komin, travel further afield is needed to discover the island’s most traditional dishes. One such is pogača – better than any pizza you’ve ever tasted and far more
labour-intensive; it’s available exclusively at Konoba Maslina, a roadhouse that’s 10 minutes’ drive from Korčula town, just before you hit the low-key beach resort of Lumbarda.
Ljiljana Duhović, who runs the restaurant with her husband Marko, shows how it’s prepared: it’s not a pizza at all but a large, roughly flattened dish of focaccia topped with delicately sliced courgettes, aubergines and local sheep’s cheese that melts as they are run into the wood-fired oven. It’s not the most complicated dish Ljiljana makes – that must surely be her pašticada, a stew of beef marinated overnight in wine after being stuffed with carrots and herbs – but it’s the most popular. No one visits without ordering one of the focaccia pies to share, with an order of its little sister pogačice: small, square puffs of heaven that are a Croatian take on the Native American frybread sold on the roadsides of Arizona. Being handily situated along the beach run keeps Maslina buzzing but there is nothing to take you inland to the tiny hamlet of Pupnat, apart from a desire for simple yet sublime cooking. Biba Milina once created complex and sophisticated dishes for the fancy LD Terrace, the restaurant in Korčula’s Lešić Dimitri Palace hotel but her mission now is to let the produce of her own goats and chickens speak for themselves.
The fanciest dish – and one of the finest tasted on the island – was LD’s house-made macaroni garnished with grey mullet roe on our last night. But Biba’s barely cooked omelette of young wild asparagus, home-made prosciutto and pecorino cheese, shivering in the lunchtime breeze, really did give that complicated concoction a run for its money, using just four impeccable ingredients.
It’s that ability to dodge at will from a highly sophisticated dinner – not only at LD but also neighbouring Filippi in Korčula town, where the dressing for the macaroni might well be duck ragu – to a simple taste of heaven in the herb-scented silence of the interior that makes this island a special treat for the taste buds, spirit and eye. Indeed, Marco Polo would be proud to explore his hometown today.
Anthea Gerrie and Ulf Svane travelled to Korčula courtesy the Croatian national tourist board (croatia.hr)
Korčula is two hours and 40 minutes from Dubrovnik, and four hours from Split. The currency is the Croatian Kuna (HRK) and Korčula is one hour ahead of GMT. Dubrovnik is a two-hour 40-minute flight from London.
British Airways (ba.com) serves Dubrovnik, the nearest airport, daily from London, while easyJet (easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick to Dubrovnik four times a week during the high season (June to September).
The Croatian national tourist board (croatia.hr) has useful information on the country’s history, culture and geography.
The Korčula Tourist Board (visitkorcula.eu) has more information on Korčula’s attractions, events and activities.
Jester’s Fortune by Alan Lewrie (McBooks Press) an 18th– century naval adventure based on the Adriatic Coast.
Want to offset your carbon emissions when visiting Korčula? Make a donation at climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world.
WHERE TO EAT
Adio Mare Long-standing Korčula favourite that keeps up with the times by serving lobster and other local seafood sashimi-style. Its great glory though remains its Black Cuttlefish Risotto. Choose local Bire Grk from the short wine list. Reserve a table on the roof terrace as it gets busy.
Marka Pola 2
(Tel: (00385) 20 711253 or visit konobaadiomare.hr)
Filippi Occupying a prized spot in the old town, Filippi serves traditional dishes such as Octopus Salad and home-made macaroni with a modern twist. Duck is a speciality, and the best of the island’s wines are served.
Šetalište Petra Kanavelića
(Tel: (00385) 20 711690 or visit restaurantfilippi.com)
Konoba Gera This outdoor eatery abutting an organic family farm in a tiny inland hamlet serves Šegedin Stela specialities. Macaroni is made minutes before being plunged into the pot; and airy, sugary crostele with candied lemon peel and home-made liqueurs round things off superbly. Stela Šegedin, Zmovo
(Tel: (00385) 20 721280)
Konoba Komin Enjoy views from the sea wall and succulent peka dishes – octopus or lamb cooked in the fire under a huge, iron bell- shaped dome. Order in advance as cooking time is long and slow.
Šetalište Petra Kanavelića 26
(Tel: (00385) 20 716508)
Konoba Račiška Settle down at an al fresco table and devour local
sardines in sweet-sour sauce or brodet, the local take on bouillabaisse.
Šetalište Petra Kanavelića br 1
(Tel: (00385) 99 3151350)
Konoba Maslina This roadside taverna near the beach resort of Lumbarda serves island dishes seen nowhere else, including pogača – grilled vegetables topped with melty cheese on flattened home-made focaccia. Hearty appetites can continue with pašticada, a rich meat stew.
Lumbarajska cesta bb
(Tel: (00385) 20 711720 or visit konobamaslina.com)
Konoba Mate Biba Milina, a former chef at LD, serves simple but sublime dishes including home-made macaroni tossed with cream and fresh-picked wild fennel. Also try her home-produced prosciutto. This culinary outpost of an organic farm lies 10 kilometres west of Korčula.
(Tel: (00385) 20 717109 or visit konobamate.hr)
LD Terrace Elegant dining and an expert sommelier on hand. A sophisticated interior offers a view from on high when the weather is too inclement to dine al fresco overlooking the sea wall. Don Pavla Poše 1-6
(Tel: (00385) 20 715560 or visit lesic-dimitri.com)
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Korčula De La Ville Built in 1912, this hotel retained only its elegant facade
and superb sea views when it underwent refurbishment in 2015. Centrally located
and now stylishly contemporary with enviable views of Korčula’s romantic harbour.
Obala dr Franje, Tudmana 5
Hotel Korsal This family-friendly residence has brought modern minimalism
to Korčula, along with views over the working harbour. Not super luxe but only
a couple of minutes walk from the grand staircase leading into the old city.
Šetalište Frana Krsinića 80
(Tel: (00385) 20 715722 or visit hotel-korsal.com)
Lešić Dimitri Palace This Relais & Châteaux property comprises a
collection of beautifully furnished town houses marching up the steps
from the sea to form a series of ‘residences’ – self-contained suites
that share a living room and deck.
Don Pavla Poše 1-6
(Tel: (00385) 20 715560 or visit lesic-dimitri.com)
Pension Marinka Simple rooms and self-catering apartments set within lovely gardens surrounding the Bire winery. Marinka’s picturesque setting is close to the beach at Lumbarda.
(Tel: (00385) 98 344712 or visit bire.hr/en)
Brodet Fish and shellfish cooked in
broth – a local take on bouillabaisse.
Crostele Deep-fried pastry strips coated
with icing sugar and served alongside
home-made candied lemon peel.
Cukarin Traditional celebration cookies
made with ammonia as well as the
usual flour-sugar-butter mixture.
Pašticada Slow-cooked lamb marinated overnight in red wine and cooked with plums.
Peka Bell-shaped lid under which octopus
or lamb are stewed very slowly with seasonings
in a wood fire – the Korčulan version of a tagine.
Pogača Korčula’s take on pizza has a focaccia base and a topping of thinly sliced grilled vegetables, topped with local sheep’s
cheese melted in a wood-fired oven.
WHAT NOT TO MISS
Frano Milina Bire This picturesque winery by the sea makes several fine
wines including the island AOC Grk and cheese made from its own goats,
charcuterie and salted anchovies. Visitors received by appointment
Cathedral Treasury The 15th-century cathedral has a fine
collection of icons, ecclesiastical silverware and religious art.
Cukarin Savour a sweet hit of traditional almond cookies flavoured with
home-made orange jam, or chocolate cakes stuffed with walnut paste,
at this much-loved bakery. Open mornings only except in high season.
Ulica Hrvatske Bratske Zajednice
(Tel: (00385) 20 711055 or visit cukarin.hr)
Eko Škoj A treasure trove of oils, vinegars and liqueurs flavoured with rose petals, figs and herbs, marmalade and candied peel made by owner Diana Marović on the family farm.
Korčula Town Museum Located opposite St. Mark’s Cathedral,
this 16th-century palace tells the story of the island over three floors.
The Moreška Recalling ancient battles between Christians and Muslims,
the sword dance is performed every Thursday throughout the summer
season, and Mondays in July and August, by elaborately costumed dancers.
‘Culinary traditions remain undented by time, thanks to an army of island elders who have
devoted their lives to safeguarding ancient recipes they would not dream of allowing to become extinct.’
‘Self-taught Matko flours and fries the small super-fresh fish and sprinkles them with salt before giving them a fragrant herb bath.’
‘Diana Marović returned to restore her grandmother’s olive groves. Now she makes not
only olive oil but also vinegars, flavoured with hand-foraged herbs and rose petals.’
‘One of the island’s finest dishes was LD’s house-made macaroni garnished with grey mullet roe but Biba’s barely cooked omelette of wild asparagus, home-made prosciutto and pecorino, shivering in the breeze gave it a run for its money.’