Echt Croatian classics

Burek, cotolette and layer cake in Zagreb

Lisa Hilton

The title of this year’s Venice Biennale is “May You Live in Interesting Times”. By the time the pavilions opened, some guerrilla artist had stuck the word “Theresa” before the caption on every poster in the city. British guests smiled thinly as this was duly pointed out at every dinner and drinks party, and resorted to the desperate tactic of discussing the art.

Safe conversational topics are slippery things in interesting times, now that even hardy perennials such as the weather and the royal family can get everyone shouting within minutes. It used to be suggested that a lady in want of a subject would ask the gentleman on her right to explain the rules of cricket, which would carry one safely to the main course. Ghosts are another excellent opener. Someone will believe in them, someone won’t, someone will have seen one, and the table can canter safely on to pudding without anyone mentioning Michael Gove.

Trieste is full of ghosts. It’s one of those curious European cities, like Gdansk or Lviv, which border the continent’s shatter zones, belonging first to one nation, then another and yet existing simultaneously as discrete loci of the imagination, haunted by generations of exiled souls. It’s magnificent, secretive, ineluctably melancholy. More particularly, there’s a top-floor Airbnb on Corso Italia which has a haunted bathroom. I know this because I ran away from it over the Easter weekend. Trieste is famous for its coffee and reckoned for its food, but on Maundy Thursday it was whipped by freezing hail and everything seemed to be shut except the Rosso Pomodoro pizza chain. Dinner was dull and (this matters) dry, but an early night is always a thrilling prospect, even if the flat was a bit chilly. And then freezing. Arctic. Even under the duvet in pyjamas and a sweater with the heat at maximum. 

Anyone over 25 knows what it is to be seized by inexplicable feelings of dread of an evening, but for once it wasn’t my own shames that were scaring the bejaysus out of me. The light in the bathroom kept switching itself on and off. Fine—dodgy electrics in an old building. Perfectly rational, had I not been too physically frightened to have a look. There was something in that bathroom, something I did not want to see, and the something was sending out an icy energy so strong that I could feel it, a barrier of frozen air around the doorway, which was between me and the exit. The Airbnb is at the top of an office building: five empty floors of huge Habsburg palazzo and no phone signal.

I left for Zagreb the second the office vacuum cleaner began its morning exorcism. Unlike Trieste, Zagreb appears to wear its history lightly. Vines still grow on the steep terraces of the old town and the queue for Good Friday confession stretched around the cathedral square, which was reassuring in my condition. Vinodol is in a converted stables complex in the lower city, a mixture of expansive imperial apartment blocks and elegant art deco. There’s an intellectual feeling to Zagreb, something to do with chessboards in the cafés and students smoking over tarry wine and looking altogether as though they might be discussing philosophy. They were at it in Vinodol’s atrium bar, where I tried a glass of sharp, pineappley graševina, made from grapes that grow on the banks of the Danube. The restaurant is a bit industrial-chic and a lot cosy Mitteleuropa, plain metal worktables and fat tiled stoves. There is a menu in English, but Vinodol’s speciality is modern Croatian classics, about which I knew precisely nothing. Instead of pretending to choose, I trusted the waitress, who suggested starting with the house version of burek.

Burek, basically a filled pastry, is now usually associated with Turkish and Middle Eastern food, but it’s an Ottoman dish, and hence found all over the Balkans, often at breakfast. It can be stuffed with anything from lamb and pine nuts to quince, but in Croatia cheese is the usual base. Here it came as a sort of round open pie, the pastry thicker than the customary filo, a very delicate shortcrust which dissolved like honeycomb around a silky ricotta flavoured with dried mint. I could have eaten ten. Next a veal chop, split and breaded, with a caper, lemon and garlic gremolata and a dish of green beans with almonds. None of it exotic or subtle, but all carefully and thoughtfully done. Most of the cottolette I’ve ordered in Italy are only fit for holding ketchup, but in Vinodol’s version the flavour of the meat bounced through the buttery breadcrumbs, the tastes coming through in layers, just like the burek. I felt great affection for the beans, too. No rebarbative al dente nonsense; they swam limply in more butter, reminding me that almonds are actually luxuries rather than dairy substitutes. I’m too ignorant to judge, but this did feel like honest food with no attempt at fashion, confidently and skilfully prepared. The sort of cooking that used to be found all over Italy and France, for which there is a very Mitteleuropa adjective, echt. Genuine, authentic and unpretentious are words found far too frequently on menus where chefs still can’t resist a twizzle of kombucha or whatever this month’s star ingredient is, but Vinodol’s offering was exactly that, very much cooking rather than cuisine and all the better for it.

Croatia-love peaked at pudding. I have no idea what to call it, but it involved more buttery pastry, vanilla and walnuts in a kind of layered cake, which sounds impossibly heavy, yet which positively sprang off the spoon, melding perfectly with the last of a Teran red from a list of predominantly Croatian wines, few of which I’d ever heard of and all of which I’m going to try. Croatia possesses some of the world’s oldest vineyards and an impressive range of monovarietal wines, few of which are well known outside the country. Scanning a list of unpronounceable names and utterly unfamiliar grape styles, imagining the surprises in store was yet another delight of Vinodol.

I don’t know if Croatian food can ever become a Thing—it’s simultaneously too eclectic and too homely, but if Vinodol is representative, it’s very, very good. Now the Hitchcock moment has passed, I’m grateful to Trieste for providing me with an infallible dinner table gambit, but for dinner itself I’d be back in Zagreb in a heartbeat.

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