Monday, April 9, 2012

Scampi on the Adriatic Sea

Framed by gray-green mountains and dotted with arid ocher-colored islands, the Kvarner Gulf is one of the most starkly beautiful stretches of the Croatian Adriatic coastline. Its gin-clear seas yield an astounding variety of fish and crustaceans, although it is the famously succulent Kvarner scampi that occupy center stage in the local cuisine.

Bread or polenta plus a glass of crisp Vrbnička Žlahtina are the perfect accompaniments  to Kvarner scampi.
The Kvarner Gulf has been an essential stop-off for well-heeled visitors since the late 19th century, when Austrian dukes and duchesses descended on the region’s coastal towns to enjoy the mild winters.
 A sense of the belle époque still lives on in resorts like Opatija, where palm-fringed promenades are set against a backdrop of Art Nouveau hotels and vacation villas. A rather different atmosphere, however, prevails on islands such as Cres and Lošinj, where stone-built fishing villages huddle beside rocky coves, the neighboring scrubby maquis shrubland singing with cicadas. The vibrant city of Rijeka is the fulcrum around which the life of the Gulf revolves: a busy ferry and fishing port whose central market fills daily with the beckoning glisten of fresh fish, octopus, and squid. Indeed, it is this diverse array Left Boats in harbor on Lošinj Island, Croatia of seafood that most characterizes the local diet. One culinary treasure particularly associated with the Gulf is the Kvarner scampi, a succulent crustacean that is highly valued on restaurant tables throughout Croatia.

The local scampi are Mediterranean cousins of the large prawn known as the Norway lobster. Blessed with a silty seabed perfect for burrowing, the Kvarner is one of the few parts of the Mediterranean where the scampi flourish in large numbers. In northern European countries, the fleshy tails of the scampi are frequently removed and fried in bread crumbs, although here in Croatia the creature is served whole and unpeeled and is eaten with the fingers – prying open the shells and scooping out the white meat is all part of the ritual. Indeed, locals who have grown up eating scampi will suck the shells dry and then bite open the animal’s pincers in the hope of finding a final sliver of succulent flesh.
One recipe on almost every local restaurant menu, a culinary classic here and indeed all down Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, is skampi na buzari – a simple but sensuous combination of scampi, garlic, tomato, and white wine. Eating the sauce-covered scampi is a fantastically messy process – so don’t refuse your waiter’s offer of a bib, unless you want a Dalmatianstyle polka-dot pattern all over your favorite shirt.
The Best Places to Eat Scampi
Plavi Podrum 
Located on the northern fringes of Opatija, the fishing village of Volosko is something of a Croatian gastronomic Shangri-La, featuring several restaurants that regularly make the best-of lists of local food critics. Plavi Podrum, nestling on the curve of Volosko’s boat-packed inner harbor, occupies a particular niche, marrying the best of local seafood with a modern European sense of culinary invention.
 Kvarner-caught fish and crustaceans form the backbone of the menu: seafood risottos, grilled squid, and scampi in all its varieties keep the locals coming back in droves. Other main courses are more experimental, mixing fish and meat flavors or making subtle use of Asian spices. Local ingredients, however, reign supreme, with wild asparagus and pungent Istrian truffles featuring heavily in season and a variety of Croatian olive oils arranged on the tables. The owner is one of Croatia’s leading sommeliers, so if advice on the country’s most intriguing wines is what you’re after, this is emphatically the right place. The classy, starched-napkin interior is ideal for a formal meal, while the outdoor terrace, with its views of stone houses and fishing boats, has an altogether more romantic appeal.
 Ulica Frana Supila 12, Volosko; open noon– midnight daily;
Also in the Kvarner Gulf

The road southwest from Opatija passes through the quaint seaside town of Lovran, where the Najade Restaurant (+385 51 291 866; expensive) serves up fresh scampi, squid, and fish dishes on a large sea-facing terrace. It’s well worth venturing across the water to Lošinj, too, where the Bora Bar (; expensive), overlooking Rovenska harbor, offers local scampi either na buzari or in a Grand Marnier sauce, alongside a range of homemade pastas.
 Also in Croatia
 Of the many seafood restaurants in the capital, Zagreb, Gašpar (; expensive) offers an across-the-board selection of Adriatic treats, including a particularly good buzari. Gašpar’s sister-restaurant Baltazar, in the same courtyard, is the place to sample the central Croatian repertoire of hearty grilled meats.
 Around the World
Skampi na buzari is known all over the Adriatic, but is more difficult to find farther afield. In Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, there is seafood aplenty: Most (; expensive) serves up scampi and other fresh crustaceans in a riverside setting right opposite the city’s colonnaded fish market.
 Croatian Wines
 Although not widely known as a wine-producing area, the Kvarner Gulf is home to one of Croatia’s most highly regarded dry whites, Vrbnička Žlahtina, from the island of Krk. An indigenous Adriatic grape, Žlahtina (from the Slavic word meaning “noble”) is cultivated almost exclusively in a green vale near the port of Vrbnik, one of the few fertile areas on what is otherwise an arid and unforgiving collection of islands. Vrbnik itself is a picturesque town built on a high cliff and is the perfect place to sample the crisp, dry Vrbnička Žlahtina wine; it has a fresh, young bouquet and is the perfect accompaniment to local specialties, such as homemade pasta, lamb, sheep cheese, and prosciutto, as well as the delicious Gulf seafood.
Three Days on the Kvarner Gulf
The oldest resort on the Gulf, genteel Opatija offers plenty in the way of accommodations, culinary culture, and café life. Islands such as Cres and Lošinj, with their stone-built fishing villages and maquiscovered hills, offer more in the way of offbeat relaxed atmosphere.
DAY ONE :Stroll Opatija’s palm-fringed seaside path, the Lungomare, which winds its way around a series of rocky bays and gravel beaches. Strike out to the former fishing village of Volosko, and southward toward Lovran, a town filled with picturesque Art Nouveau villas.
DAY TWO : Explore Rijeka, the Gulf’s one real metropolis, enjoying an espresso at one of the cafés lining the central Korzo, or browsing the stands at the bustling market. Take a trip to the hilltop suburb of Trsat, site of a ridge-top fortress, for spectacular maritime views.
 DAY THREE : Take the ferry to the conjoined islands of Cres and Lošinj (often called “the island of flowers”), where ridges of sheep pasture or Mediterranean maquis loom above sleepy fishing ports.
 International flights arrive at Zagreb Airport, a 112-mile (180-km) drive to the Kvarner’s main city, Rijeka. Buses run from Zagreb’s bus station to all of the Gulf’s main settlements.
 Pjacal (inexpensive) is a restful family-run B&B in Veli Lošinj.
 Palace-Bellevue (moderate) is a belle-époque hotel with fine high-ceilinged rooms in the center of Opatija.
 Draga di Lovrana (moderate) offers creature comforts and superb views in a hillside mansion high above Opatija and Lovran.
 Nikole Tesle 2, Opatija;

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