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August 06, 2015

Visit Istria: Croatia's Culinary Capital

Travel with me to Istria, the charming Croatian peninsula that’s home to peaceful, beautiful fishing towns, ancient villages and world-class cuisine and wines.

Istria, the large peninsula at the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea, is Croatia’s heart of gastronomy. A springtime visit left me with indelibly vivid images of a world coming alive. Novigrad, a fishing village on the Adriatic coast, is scenic, historic and a good spot for fresh seafood. Colorful buildings brighten the town here, a common sight throughout Istria.

For a dose of culture, head inland to the charming hilltop village of Groznjan, where artists, galleries and studios abound. The stone streets and buildings hark back to a different time, but the juxtaposition of modern art makes for new discoveries.

Given Istria’s historic ties to Roman and Venetian rule, much of its cuisine is similar to the more familiar fare of Italy. Buzet is Croatia’s city of truffles. Close to Buzet, in the village of Paladini, I went on a truffle hunt at the Karlic Tartufi estate, where highly trained dogs led the search for the coveted black and white treasures. Black truffle season is year round, but white truffle season runs only September through December. Karlic also produces truffle products; the scrambled eggs with black truffles I had there was a breakfast of champions I won’t soon forget.

Heading north, off the beaten track, is the excellent, tiny, family-run restaurant Toklarija, which focuses on farm-to-table cuisine. Make sure to book here for lunch. It’s quite exquisite.

In the town of Livade, Ipsa is just one example of the many outstanding olive oil producers from Croatia. Ipsa’s oils are especially piquant, spotlighting the region’s distinct terroir.

On the way back toward the coast, in the town of Momjan, Kozlovic winery is a must-visit for both its hybrid of old and modern facilities and selection of exceptional Malvasias.

My favorite meal was at Stari Podrum, a casual, homestyle family restaurant. Every dish simply hit the spot, from the soup and steak salad to the outstanding pastas.

En route to Umag, this religiously adorned road sign caught my attention. It was both quaint and heartwarming — a perfect analog for most of my experiences in Istria. On a sunny day, Venice is visible across the sea. The Kempinski Hotel Adriatic near Umag is the perfect setting in which to play a round of golf and indulge in a meal.

Farther south, in the town of Golas, visiting San Tommaso Winery was one of the best treats. We foraged for wild asparagus in the morning and then cooked our spoils with eggs and risotto for lunch — the perfect pairing for the wines.

Back on the coast, the city of Rovinj, an active fishing port, is a popular tourist resort. Head into town to enjoy the small shops that fill up the cobblestone streets and walk up to the baroque church of St. Euphemia, the tallest point in the city that once was an island, to enjoy an incredible sunset view.