In planning our trip to Croatia, there was minimal planning. :-/ As a project manager, I plan all day long. So I just want to go with the flow when I'm done at the office. It is an unfortunate side effect of planning for a living. Sometimes it works out better than others. For example, it works really well if you are travelling with a planning rock star, not so much when you are responsible for making stuff happen. Luckily, Stace had all the planning on lock for the Prague leg, and it was fabulous! (You can read about how we ate our way through Prague here) For this leg of the trip, I really wanted to take a wine tour and traditional peka cooking class in Croatia's Peljesac Peninsula.
I knew that the number one thing I wanted to do in Croatia was take a cooking class. I have very little exposure to Croatian cuisine and I felt it was important to learn more about it during our time there. Exploring not just the food, but the food culture, is my favorite thing to do in every new country. I truly believe that food helps you experience another culture. In true form, I dilly dallied about scheduling a cooking class or wine tour for the Croatia leg of the trip. When I finally got around looking about a week and a half before our trip, all the classes were booked up! We could always just explore the various restaurants and shops, but I was really bummed! I wanted to learn Peka!
Luckily, at the last-minute there was a cancellation and we were able to squeeze into a private cooking class and wine tour! It turns out that waiting until the last-minute can work out splendidly! Seriously, we got the most perfect class we could have asked for. It ended up being a private wine tour and cooking class by Vinarija Bartulovic's wine-maker Mario.
Mario is a small batch family wine maker who doubles as our tour guide. The private tour took us from Old Town Dubrovnik up the coast of Dalmatia to the Peljesac Peninsula. Most of our Croatian trip was spent in Old Town Dubrovnik, which was lovely! But getting out of the city and into less touristy areas was just what we needed.
We cruised the winding roads along the coast headed north in Mario's personal car as he told us about Croatian history, cuisine, culture and the evolution of wine-making. The story intertwined personal journey, his country's war-torn past and its impact to their food and wine-making traditions. As we came to find out, war and politics very much shaped the Dalmatian food and wine story.
Dalmatia Wine Tour
Our first stop on the peninsula was the winery called Grgic Vina nestled right along the coast. Croatian-born Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and his family founded the winery in 1996. As the story goes, Mike moved to California in his youth and used his native country's traditional wine-making skills to improve the wine scene in the US, and was very successful. Eventually, he decided to bring that back what he'd learned int the US to Croatia to help modernize wine making in is home country.
Mainly due to political pressures, wine makers were using traditional methods until this time. The land is rough here and the grapes are planted on steep cliffs. Wine makers repel on ropes to scale the vineyards' steep cliffs and hand-pick their grapes into burlap bags.
Those burlap sacks full of grapes would then be carried back to the vineyard by donkey. Since the donkeys sway as the walk, the grapes would begin to mash inside the burlap bags, letting the tannins seep into the juice/ This made it impossible to make white wine. Back at the vineyard, they'd use the 200+ year old wine press to further mash the grapes. Things have changed quite a bit since then, and it was great to see the winery of the guy who modernized Croatian's wine industry.
Traditional Dalmatian Cooking Class
Next we started the cooking class! We cooked at Mario's vineyard, located up the road from Grgic Vina in the small village of Prizdrina. The village is populated by himself, his wife and kids, his sister, and her family. Mario's Father passed down the wine business after serving in the war, and now he and his family run the winery. His sister helps with the cooking classes and he makes the wine. Everyone chips in to support the many events they have going on at the winery at any one time, including wine tasting tours, bike tours, bed and breakfast guests or people like us on guided tours. They've maintained portions of the traditional winery, including the indoor fire pit built into the kitchen. This fire pit enables them to cook the traditional Peka.
What is Peka?
Peka is basically cooking large delicious meals using a special lid in these open flame ovens. First, you heat up the coals to make the bottom of the fireplace warm. Then you sweep away the coals and place the dish of uncooked food atop the warmed fireplace. Finally, you cover it with the Peka which is then covered with warm coals to evenly heat the food. This last step creates an oven inside the Peka lid. We cooked pork loin, mixed vegetables and potatoes using the traditional Peka.
The Bartovic Wines
As the food cooked we toured the vineyards and another winery before returning to taste Mario's Bartuvic wines with dinner. The Bartuvic Winery, or Vinarija Bartulovic, make a beautiful rose as well as three reds. I equally loved the Plavac Mali (branded Bartul) and the deeper richer Dingac. Bartul is a wine I could have every day with dinner or catching up with friends. The Dingac is excellent for heavy and rich foods like red meat and chocolate cake. Who doesn't love a red wine that pairs perfectly with chocolate cake?!
Dalmatian Konoba - The Peka Feast
We ate and drank in the winery's on site Dalmatian konoba. The food was indescribably fresh and delicious. Part of this was because everything was local and unprocessed. He bartered for fresh sardines from the fisherman in exchange for wine. A nearby family traded cheese they'd made from scratch from their own personal dairy cow for some wine. They grew the vegetables in their own organic garden on the winery grounds. The only thing he purchased was wheat for the homemade bread, but that too came from a local mill that milled only locally grown grains. The food was so fresh and delicious, it was beyond words. And what really got me was the naturally gluten free chocolate almond cake at the end... it paired perfectly with the Dingac.
He bartered for fresh sardines from the fisherman in exchange for wine. A nearby family traded cheese they'd made from scratch from their own personal dairy cow for some wine.
How to Contact Mario
Contact Mario at Bartulovic Winery if you are going to Croatia and have time to visit the Peljesac Peninsula. He is the best tour guide and host and his food and wine are absolutely amazing. They also host guests in their extra cabins and offer bike tours. Being guests in their village, I really felt the pull of slow living. He made our trip and I imagine he'll make yours as well.