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A taste of Istria, Croatia with author Paola Bacchia

Author Paola Bacchia explores the rich flavours and traditions of the Croatian region.

View over Rovinj from church of St. Euphemia, Istria, Croatia.

Photograph by GettyImages
By Paola Bacchia
Published 5 Dec 2021, 06:08 GMT, Updated 9 Dec 2021, 16:23 GMT

At the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea, Istria is placed like a keystone in the folding hills and valleys where Italy, Slovenia, Austria and Croatia meet. Rows of vines and olive trees grow in fields of red earth at the foot of towns built from pale Istrian stone, and the scent of pine and salt mingle where the forests greet the coast. 

My father and his family were Italian-Istrians, part of the large population who left Istria after the Second World War, when most of the peninsula was ceded to Yugoslavia. My parents migrated to Australia in 1950, together with other displaced Europeans who were offered free passage in exchange for work. Once in Australia, they formed a community of Istriani, gathering in their newly built homes, by the beach and at picnics, playing card games, drinking homemade wine and sharing the food that connected them to their homeland.

Paola Bacchia, the author of Istria, Recipes and stories from the hidden heart of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia.

Photograph by Gabriella Favretto

The food I grew up with reflected the cultures that for millennia flourished side by side. Istria has Roman ruins, Hapsburg edifices and Venetian lions carved into the facades of buildings in its west-coast towns. Istria’s story is my family’s story: my grandfather, Matteo, was born in Istria when it was part of Austria, lived in Istria when it was Italy and left it when it was Yugoslavia. The town of his birth is now in Croatia.

In Istrian kitchens, Venetian seafood stews sit alongside hearty, Hungarian-style goulash; ravioli with ricotta is followed by Balkan flame-grilled meats, and all are accompanied by the vegetables that grow in abundance in the region and desserts that wouldn’t look entirely out of place in a Viennese coffeeshop. 

Istria, Recipes and stories from the hidden heart of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia is published by Smith Street Books, £26.

Crumbed flathead, one of a number of fish used in Istrian cuisine.

Photograph by Paola Bacchia

Three recipes to try from the book

1. Pljukanci
This dense and slightly chewy hand-rolled pasta is spindle-shaped: fat in the middle and tapered at either end. Pljukanci is traditionally served with braised oxtail or chicken ragu, but is just as delicious in a buttery sauce with prawns, mushrooms or asparagus. 

2. Jota 
When Alpine winds blow down the west coast of Istria, you’ll find people warming themselves with a bowl of jota: a comforting soup thick with beans and potatoes, flavoured with a ham hock or cured pork sausage, and balanced with the acidity of sauerkraut.

3. Palacinke 
In Istrian homes, you’ll find these thin crepes spread with jam or lemon juice and sprinkled with sugar. But on restaurant dessert menus, they’re filled with cherries or blackberries, then rolled up or folded and served warm, doused in a fruit reduction and topped with ice cream. 

Top tip

Istrian truffles can be found around the hilltop town of Motovun and are as good as those in Italy or France. Serve shaved on pasta, gnocchi or eggs.

Published in the January/February 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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