It might not have the rep of nearby Hvar or Brač, but Korčula is fast establishing itself as a magnet for gourmet travellers, thanks to a crack team of producers, chefs and restaurateurs who are putting this stunning Croatian islet firmly on the foodie mapFeatured February 17 Words by Anthea Gerrie / Photography Ulf Svane
Apart from the gleam of silver and gold fins and scales, punctuated with the odd cluster of shells, Korčula's fish market has little of the picturesque bustle that attracts tourists to other such gatherings across the Med. Each morning, the serious business of filleting and gutting takes place in a spartan, white-tiled room, inconspicuously perched beneath a sea wall built by the Venetians, and it's a process that happens with little ceremony.
So, imagine people's surprise when the distinctive, white-haired thatch of Bernie Ecclestone was spotted there recently, scrutinising the wrasse, shrimp and gilthead bream that are landed daily on these island shores. Presumably, he was there because he likes a good bite and the billionaire Formula 1 supremo is not alone.
Suspended between Split to the north and Dubrovnik to the south off Croatia's Dalmatian coast, Korčula is most famous for its golden, stone architecture, associations with Marco Polo and the swashbuckling Moreška sword dance, but now visitors are also arriving for the gastronomy, which until recently was a well-kept secret. From sweet local lamb and sun-blessed vegetables to wild, aromatic herbs not found elsewhere, the region is a hotbed of fabulous produce that a growing number of local food heroes are taking full advantage of. Indeed, if there's a better reason to visit, we're yet to find it…
"It takes a kilo of rose petals to make one tiny flask of liqueur"
Putting roses to culinary use was a forgotten art on Korčula, until Diana Marović started dreaming up ideas for reviving products made from local flowers and herbs while she was living in the Croatian capital, Zagreb. Not that she's an outsider: when her grandmother died, Diana returned to the island of her youth to tend the family olive groves, and experiment with vinegars and liqueurs flavoured with rose petals and other flora growing wild on the property.
“I spent years researching the old traditional recipes, which are very labour intensive,” she says. “It takes a kilo of rose petals to make one tiny flask of liqueur.” Decanted into lovely bottles, these products are sold, along with fine olive oil, at Eko Skoj, a romantically pretty little shop Marović opened on Korčula's palm-lined promenade, bordering the harbour where locals fish for sea urchins for their lunch. Diana is there most days, except at the peak of orange-harvesting season, when she's at her orchard 3.2km out of town, making marmalade and candied peel from her homegrown bounty. ekoskoj.com
"I knew working with these creatures would be my life's work."
An island as rich in flowers and herbs as Korčula ought to be a magnet for honeymakers, yet this natural sweetener was barely seen on the island until Vlaho Komparak returned from the mainland with a mission to make it happen.
“It seemed crazy that, given how well endowed our land is with flowers and aromatic herbs, honey production was negligible - the province of just a few hobbyists who only made enough for their own use,” says the tousle-haired agronomist with a degree in organic farming.
He got up close and personal with bees for the first time in 2010, during his studies at the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Zagreb. “It was love at first sight,” he laughs. “I immediately knew working with these tiny creatures would be my life's work.”
He currently sells out his production - two tonnes and growing every year - and is planning to expand from 138 to 200 hives, which he keeps on the hilltop field behind his island home.
“I think that will be the maximum I can control to maintain a high-quality product, but I'm planning to acquaint tourists with the secret life of bees next year by expanding into agritourism,” he says. “Korčula is still relatively undiscovered, in spite of having the most beautiful and special aromas in the Adriatic, and introducing people to those wild scents makes a great starting point.”
"When there's a celebration the cry just goes up: 'Call Smiljana!'"
It was while working for the Red Cross during the Balkan conflict that Smiljana Matijaca decided to open a cake shop. For decades, the grandmother had been saving ancient recipes, many of which were being forgotten because of their difficulty. She was inspired by the trouble around her to try to give a little love back to the local community.
“I was already the person called on to bake whenever there was an island celebration,” she says, “because no one else knew how to make our cakes and cookies in the old way.”
By the time she opens up the doors of Cukarin, in Korčula's town centre each morning, she's already been working for hours, peeling oranges and lemons, skinning almonds and grinding walnuts for traditional pastries, like the one her bakery is named after. “It's a task to make cukarin properly, because it demands ammonia,” she reveals of these little pretzel-shaped biscuits, traditionally dunked in sweet local wine. “Many people don't want to get involved with such a pungent ingredient, but if you don't use it, you don't have an authentic product. Perhaps that's why other island women have given up making cukarin; now, the cry just goes up: ‘Call Smiljana!'. cukarin.hr
"No octopus tastes as good as Korčula's"
“take your octopus from the boat and freeze it.” It's perhaps not the advice you'd expect from a chef surrounded by some of the Adriatic's freshest seafood, but Frano Gavranić insists a spell in the chiller is the starting point for Korčula's most spectacular dish: peka od hobotnicev (pan-baked octopus). He should know. Since he took over the kitchen of Konoba Komin 11 years ago, he's made the dish his USP, cooking it over a wood fire in a pan of potatoes, carrots, garlic and wine, which is covered with the peka, the bell-shaped lid of the dish's title.
“My mother and grandmother cooked lamb and veal this way,” says the fortysomething, who came late to the professional kitchen. He was a waiter until marriage to the owner of a small hotel in Germany 20 years ago emboldened him to cook for their guests. Marriage over, he returned to his native island and waited tables until he was able to take the helm at Komin. It was instinct which first made him freeze the octopus. “I have cooked them from everywhere and none taste as good as Korčula's, I think because the water here is saltier. I found freezing them before cooking was the secret to keeping them tender.”
"Being a cook is never easy - especially when it's for 1,000 people"
While you can eat Mediterranean food all over Korčula, strangely you won't find the island's two great specialities on most menus. Pogaca and pašticada are typically the preserve of home cooks, but Liljana and Marko Duhovic have made it their mission to share this traditional cuisine with visitors to the beach resort of Lumbarda, 10 minutes' drive from town.
Konoba Maslina is the perfect place for lunch and a cookery lesson, as Liljana reveals how her pogaca, a local take on pizza, is prepared, flattening out a focaccia base on which she sets sliced courgettes and aubergines before topping with sheep's cheese. Pašticada, a beef stew, takes more prep. “We marinate it overnight in wine, before simmering with the small plums found on this island,” says her husband, Marko.
The pair opened their restaurant in 2001, before which Liljana cooked in the island's hotels and a nursing home. It's there that she realised her true love of cooking. “Being a cook is never easy and especially not for a mother of young children preparing 1,000 hotel meals a day, but I managed. When I switched to cooking in a nursing home, I found my true reward in seeing those I cooked for take as much pleasure from my food as I found in preparing it.”
If the focaccia pie is too much? “Start with its little sister, a pogacica,” she says of the puffed dough pillows which make a fine precursor to dinner.