I was beginning to enjoy the company of creepy heads staring at me. It was late on a March morning in Koper, Slovenia, and I had just noticed a carved face of a soldier, wearing a tight-fitting, eggshell-style military helmet and a moustache laced with cobwebs, observing my movements from a threshold’s keystone.
I didn’t know to which army he’d belonged—Austrian, Venetian, or some other transient power. And the street, stubby and bent, didn’t seem the most important of the port city.
But his silent message was clear. He no longer served as a tribute to power. He was a warning to others. You may briefly seize the Istrian peninsula, but after your reign ends, all those carved heads you left craning from thresholds will appear as trophies, mounted in Istria’s well-stocked collection of past rulers and occupiers who didn’t see their own demise coming.
There are, however, more savoury remnants of each era that still linger on the dinner plates of the peninsula. If you look at a map of Istria, preferably one without the current squiggles of international borders dividing it up (it is shared by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy), you’ll see a peninsula poking down in the shape of a pig hoof, as if the landlocked, livestock-heavy bulk of Central Europe were attempting to reach for a piece of coastline by jabbing a leg into the Adriatic Sea.
For over a century, that is what the Austrian Empire, and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had done, starting in the early 1800s. Istria has also fallen under the rule of republics expanding their control of the Adriatic—Italy and the Republic of Venice. All of this political horse-swapping has produced an unlikely mixture of Mediterranean and Central European cuisine, a place where grilled branzino and octopus end up on the same menus as goulash.
After spending several weeks in Croatia’s portion of Istria and elsewhere in Croatia, I’d decided heighten the experience of Istria’s gastronomic peculiarities by visiting each of the three international slices of the tiny but strategic peninsula in the same day, and having a taste of each.
Having begun the day in the Slovenian slice, I was making ample progress prepping my appetite with a morning walk around the tight medieval layout of Koper. On the street guarded by Sergeant Cobweb, overhanging rows of second stories burdened their supporting beams, the timbers as cracked and bleached as driftwood. I noticed a plaque inscribed in Latin, complete with Vs for Us, under a window.
But such a marker of antiquity had nothing on Koper’s more recent events. This compact city on the ankle of the pig hoof has fallen under the administration of five different recognised political entities in the past hundred years: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, the short-lived Free Territory of Trieste (more on that little-known but doomed entity later), Yugoslavia, and finally the independent country of Slovenia. The street signs, mounted on stucco walls of corner houses, reflect how the city has pared down its official languages to just two, Slovenian and Italian.
Students from the city’s two universities were beginning to crowd the streets, looking for an early lunch. On a street barely wide enough to accommodate protruding store signs, I followed a group of students—the women in tight jeans, the men in baggy low-risers—down an alleyway to reach Pizzeria Atrij. They peppered their chatter with “Ja, ja,” a more Austrian-sounding affirmation than the usual South Slavic “da.” History is all about layers, and the table next to mine provided a literal example when two students squirted ketchup all over their margherita pizzas as if they were making kindergarten art projects.
I was tempted to indulge a perverse thrill by ordering a heavy goulash while sitting just one hundred metres from the Adriatic Sea. But I decided on a seafood pizza (without ketchup, making me a purist, I suppose). I quickly noticed that the pie was a dead ringer for one I had the week before in Rovinj, a coastal Croatian town forty miles to the south, on the bottom of the Istrian pig hoof. The pie wore the same ring of black charring around its crust, and was topped with the same arrangement of olives, baby shrimp, mussels, and rolls of imitation crab meat. It arrived uncut, just like the Rovinj offering. Different country, same peninsula, same pie. I had even unintentionally paired both with house wines made from the same grape, malvasia, a dry white grape variety grown across the peninsula.
A few blocks away, I entered a store selling local food products on uncrowded, carefully arranged shelves that celebrated each item: bags of spelt, bottles of organic wine, rectangular bottles of olive oil. I recalled following rolls of hills lined with grapevines and other crops on the bus ride into town, so I asked the shop assistant, a student who had already finished her classes for the day, where the olive oil was made.
“It’s made right here in Istria,” she said, her blue eyes briefly remaining on me, as if to ensure that I’d digested the thought. I was expecting she’d say it was made right here in the land around Koper, or right here along the Slovenian Riviera. No: it was made right here in Istria. As if the olive crop owes allegiance to the peninsula, not to a nation.
A few open-mouthed faces—mascarons, as the architects call them—looked on from a weathered marble shield hanging off a building on Plaza Tito, the city’s central square. Mascarons are found lurking on buildings in many cities from Paris to New York, but the Austrian architects of the nineteenth century were particularly fond of them. By some accounts, mascarons were originally integrated onto façades to scare off questionable spirits from entering the building. This batch of mascarons, however, appeared as if they were struggling to pronounce the words on the bilingual sign that declared TITOV TRG / PIAZZA TITO in Slovenian and Italian.
The city’s bilingual street signage reminded me that Istria is an overlapping seam between romance and Slavic languages, the former with its flowing vowels, the latter with a keen economy in their use. In front of me, a few older women, each carrying grocery bags, were talking to each other in hushed Italian. I imagined how difficult the Slovenian language must be for Italians to speak. Pršut for prosciutto; smrt for death. Slovenes seem to consider the letter R a vowel in the same way that Ronald Reagan considered ketchup a vegetable. (The bottle-shaking duo in the pizzeria may have been on to something after all.)
Several bakeries specializing in bureks, or baked pastries filled with meat, cheese, or spinach, lined another pedestrianised street heading towards the waterfront. Finding its origins in the Ottoman Empire—one of the few area empires that never had its turn controlling Slovenia, save a few brief incursions—the burek began entering Slovenia from Croatia when both were part of Yugoslavia. The lowly but savoury burek has penetrated where the Ottomans themselves could not.
And the burek knows how to hold its territory. When Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, further dividing the Istrian peninsula from two countries to its current three, drivers entering Slovenia from Croatia encountered billboards declaring GOODBYE BUREK, the billboards attempting to nail down the identity of the newly independent nation. The anti-burek partisans gave up; the billboards came down. The burek won.
Despite its compact size, the port of Koper claims a considerable portion of Slovenia’s scant 25 miles of coastline. Thus, the northward bus ride to Trieste, just over the border in Italy, felt more like a municipal route than an international one. The border was…wait, what border? Both Slovenia and Italy are part of the Schengen area, so the bus did not bother stopping at the border, wherever it was. Most likely, it was where the highway signs began to carry only Italian wording, despite an estimated 100,000 Slovenes still calling northeastern Italy home.
The last bilingual sign had read TRIESTE / TRST. Slovenia did not even offer the Italian city the courtesy of a single vowel. An unintended linguistic tit for tat.
Italy’s slice of Istria may be small—less than four percent of the peninsula—but Trieste is Istria’s largest city, home to over 200,000. The previous week, when I had been travelling between smaller Croatian towns on the peninsula, I had seen billboards advertising an upcoming Green Day concert in Trieste, a city that, for Istrian Croatians, requires crossing two international borders yet can be reached in under an hour. At various times, Trieste has either been considered part of Istria or just outside it. But geographically, Trieste straddles the crook where the peninsula begins protruding from Europe, the city’s port being the highest dewclaw hanging off the ankle of the pig hoof.
Pondering these porcine matters, I stepped into Buffet da Pepi, one of several restaurants in the city serving what is referred to as Triestine cuisine, a pork-oriented experience that, at first taste, seems to have materialised from a kitchen in Vienna. Meat from the pig head; slices of cotechino, a soft, rich sausage; cured ham; a dollop of mustard that had been scooped up from a three-gallon earthenware bucket; a pile of freshly-grated horseradish: all were arranged on a pig-shaped plate in a restaurant founded in 1897, when Trieste was still Austro-Hungary’s main port. Back when Austria and Hungary still had coastlines.
The bread roll resembled a light, airy, pretzel that begged to be dipped in mustard. But the most memorable occupant of the plate was the krainer, a tender, Austrian-influenced, kielbasa-like Slovenian sausage that protested my fork prod with a tight jet of squirting juice. I’d imagine that serving Slovene sausages in Trieste could have been a dicey practice just 70 years ago during Mussolini’s Italianization of Istria, when the peninsula’s Slovenes and Croats were not allowed to speak their own languages. The krainer in Trieste seemed to draw from the same incorrigible gastronomic energy source as the burek in Slovenia.
The beverages served as amiable cultural liaisons: in one hand, I drank from a glass of terrano, an easy-drinking, Istrian red known as teran in Slovenia and Croatia; in the other, a mug of pale Dreher beer, a brew owing its creation to an Austrian who began brewing beer in Trieste well over a century ago. Meanwhile, I found the kitsch wood panelling surrounding me oddly comforting, smudging up the timeline.
The waiter had used a word for horseradish that was unfamiliar to me. After I finished the plate, I walked to the counter and approached the meat man, who was dressed in a white, wide-collared shirt with a relaxed cut somewhere between that of a butcher’s and a butler’s. He stood behind a tray of meat, tongues and sausages and hams glistening, each lasciviously stacked atop one another. When I asked him for the Italian word for horseradish, he paused from slicing a cotechino on a juice-pooled cutting board. His eyes were shy, as if he were unaccustomed to the attention. “We call it kren. But the rest of Italy calls it rafano.”
He wrote down KREN (TRIESTE) in my notepad in neat block letters, so I would know its spelling. I reflected that I had accompanied my late lunch with a condiment of Austrian origins with Slavic-based name (hren is the word in Croatian), served to me by a waiter whose first language was Italian—in other words, I had partaken in an unmistakably Istrian experience.
More curiously, he had also written the additional translation for horseradish as RAFANO (ITALY), inadvertently implying that Italy is some other political entity. One might expect to encounter such ambiguous nomenclature when dining at the cultural seams. But I began to acquire the feeling that Istria just may be all seam and no country.
When I re-entered the sidewalk, the mascarons were ready for me. The neoclassical designs of nineteenth century architects, representing the last era of the Habsburg reign, lined the walkable grid of the lower city. The architects were Austrian, Italian, and Hungarian, but their shared penchant for personalized façades created a tireless audience of bodiless heads—thick-bearded grinners, chubby babies, anthropomorphic lions (a nod to Venice’s mascot-like symbol), smugly smirking women whose curls never succumb to the ravages of the rain, solemn young ladies appearing bored with nonstop Vespa traffic.
They had watched as Trieste bounced from country to country in the past century. In 1947, after World War II, the United Nations Security Council recognized that Istria’s history had created a potentially dangerous tangle of ethnicities and languages, so they decided to create the Free Territory of Trieste, an independent country consisting of the western half of Istria and lands north of Trieste, to keep Italy and Yugoslavia from fighting over it. The two countries eventually divided the short-lived territory seven years later without a fuss, leaving mixed populations on both sides.
I kept walking south and entered the arresting vastness of a square almost the size of two football fields, disputably the largest in Europe. The plaza, recently renamed by Italy as the Piazza Unità d'Italia, or the Plaza of United Italy, stands to remind visitors (and perhaps locals?) to which country the city currently belongs. A seated boy playing an accordion at the plaza’s corner swayed slowly to a relaxed tempo, his head down. But as I walked to the centre of the square, I could no longer hear a single note, the gargantuan scale of the square completely swallowing up his performance. The Adriatic Sea bordered one side, making the square seem even larger. Well-manicured Austrian edifices lined the remaining three, one bearing nautical-themed mascarons bristling with fin-like ears and shell-shaped beards. They stared at nothing in particular, as if they were savouring a long-running private joke among them: “Hey, what country is this?” Shell Beard asks Fin Ear. A one-line joke consisting of a question and no answer.
I bought a linzer tort, the classic Austrian cookie with concentrated fruit peering from the middle, at the nearby Buffet Kaffeehaus Romi. The counterwoman told me in perfect, confident English that the café was eighty years old, which would place its opening during Mussolini’s Italianization of Trieste. The dictator’s blackshirts must have overlooked the café serving Austrian specialties in the years before the two countries became allies, and perhaps snuck in bites of the sweet treats when their superiors weren’t looking.
Past the Chinese-owned discount stores, the posters for an upcoming rare record show, the rows of parked Vespas, and a hastily-painted swastika (with a line and circle painted over it in a different colour), I approached the bus station, where I saw a sign for Slovenia mounted on the same post holding signs for other parts of Trieste. As if Slovenia is just another neighbourhood of the city.
I had limited myself to just one linzer tort, as I still anticipated offerings from one more international slice of the peninsula. In just over an hour on a bus to Croatia (briefly passing through Slovenia and her frozen waves of snow-draped mountains), I departed at a lonely bus stop on a hill rising sharply above the Adriatic Sea. I was near the town of Rukavac—at the bend where Istria’s eastern coast, the top of the pig’s toes, begins to protrude from Southern Europe—where I rendezvoused with a boxy, 23-year old Yugo. The vehicle, a Yugoslavian-made subcompact briefly sold in the United States (I still remember the jingles from the commercials: “Buy yourself a little freedom! Only $3,990!”), served as the transportation of Vedran Obućina and Aleksandar Peša, owners of the tour company Taste of Adriatic. Both were thin, dressed in jeans, and scarcely older than the Yugo.
Having long since surrendered its brilliance to the bottomless gluttony of the Mediterranean sun, the car had been left with the colour of a pale tomato. The nameplate on the rear read FIAT, the Italian automobile company whose designs served as the basis for the Yugo. I asked Aleksandar, who was hunched up in the driver’s seat, “How do you know the car is really a Yugo?”
He shifted to a lower gear and answered, “When you hear the engine, you will know.” He pressed on the gas to climb up a road snaking through the hills rising from the Adriatic Sea, and the belaboured whirling noise reminded me of the way my parents’ tube-powered, 1960s-era Hammond M3 organ wheezed when attempting to start up. I found this piece of ex-Yugoslavian industry to be a fitting touch for a personal tour. They drive a modern van for larger groups. Those guests miss out.
They were taking me to Agroturizam Manjon, Croatia’s first snail farm, and the first facility equipped to process snails for gastronomy. Just yards away from the snail pens stood their restaurant, occupying one floor of a thick-walled building built in 1888. The three owners, Alma Cvjetković, her daughter Angela, and Angela’s husband Hrvoje, greeted us with chilled shot glasses of homemade rakija, or brandy. It seemed every tavern in Croatia made its own rakija, as if it were a disgrace to purchase a bottle from a store.
Hrvoje cultivated a black, bushy goatee that stretched with his frequent smirks and accompanied his bouncy, mischievous eyebrows. When I asked about the tradition of serving rakija, he answered with a popular quip: “We say, ‘Nokia connecting people, rakija correcting people.’”
He also pointed out that Croatians “bake” rakija; they don’t “make” rakija, even though ovens have no role in the recipe. Rakija is common in all parts of Croatia, but in Istria, the variety distilled (sorry, baked) from grapes is referred to by its Italian name, grappa, nodding to Italy’s time on the peninsula. Grape, sour cherry, herbs—I don’t recall which flavour had been passed to me first. I would eventually sip down several—always dry, never bitter—over the coming hours.
We all sat together at a long table. Since the restaurant was closed to the public that night, and since the family was always quick with a story and a refill of my wine glass, the experience felt more like a dinner party. As I started into the vol au vent, a puff pastry filled with tender snail meat mixed with garlic, butter, parsley, and cognac, Angela narrated how, by raising and serving snails, their farm is reviving what they refer to as a nearly forgotten food. To trace the snail’s history on the plates of Istria, one has to travel back further than the Austrians and Venetians, back to the Roman Empire. “As a Roman, you would eat a live raw snail just pulled out of its shell if you have intestinal problems,” Angela said between sips of teran. Her youthful, porcelain skin had yet to show signs of fatigue normally accompanying the relentless schedule of an entrepreneur. “They would also put a live snail on baby’s eyes to make him see better.”
And so it began—one of the owners would disappear from the table to prepare the upcoming course while the rest of us drank glass for glass, excepting Aleksander, our designated driver. Andrej, Taste of Adriatic’s photographer, had filled out the Yugo on the drive up and was busy adding his clicking shutter to the dining room’s ringing percussion of silverware meeting china. The next course, the bacon-wrapped snails, demonstrated a modern versatility of the snail. Manjon’s mollusks offered the texture of a Portobello mushroom with the added body and saltiness of cured pork, not bad for a creature better known as a Mediterranean garden pest.
Agroturizam Manjon’s penchant for reviving and expanding traditional Istrian dishes involved more than simply snails, as evident with their homemade pasta with a cream of red radicchio, pancetta, and sheep cheese. Soon, a metallic tureen appeared, from which Angela ladled out a purple broth into a glass cup already occupied by a piece of grilled bread with stripes of char. “This is Istrian soup,” said Angela. “You have to do it by yourself,” she added, referring to the act of ladling the broth into one’s own cup, “like it once was.” The broth, which the toast eagerly soaked up, consisted of lightly warmed red wine, sugar, some olive oil, and black pepper: basic leftover items any household in Istria would have, even in tough times. And that’s the idea.
“Do I drink it or eat it?” I asked.
Alma, at the end of the table, answered swiftly. “Both!”
The bowl piled with sausages and sauerkraut could have materialised from the hinterlands of Central Europe. But the sausages, filled in the kitchen behind me—in a house just a couple miles from the Adriatic—contained the evening’s next appearance of snails. I would have not guessed that forty percent of the sausages consisted of snail, the rest being pork, Istrian teran, and spices such as cinnamon. Even the sauerkraut, usually little more than an unexciting, gas-inducing, staple of Central European cuisine, had been prepared from a surprisingly pink heirloom cabbage variety grown nearby. “It pinches your tongue a bit. It’s a bit spicy.”
“I didn’t know cabbage had such a story,” I said.
“In Croatia, everything has a story,” said Vedran, a food and travel writer, “and a good one.”
Perhaps the most notable of all histories belonged to a timid, half-pound creature, known in Croatian as puh, featured in the last savoury course. Puh is known in English as the edible dormouse. Despite belonging to the often-maligned rodent order, the dormouse claims a culinary history beginning in the same era as the snail. The tiny creatures appealed to the palates of Romans with such regularity that the Romans built wide, terracotta amphorae—each with an inner spiral ramp like a mini Guggenheim museum—to comfortably house their prey and plump them up in their final weeks. Hrvoje placed the bowl of dormouse goulash in front of me and said, “It’s got little bones inside. Grab it with your hands. You can be yourself.”
I wondered what the Hungarians, originators of the thick tomato and paprika-based stew, would think if confronted with a goulash featuring a rodent instead of beef. Each piece of meat, about the size of a small chicken thigh, was half a dormouse, and sat bashfully in a coating of chunky, spicy stew. It yielded a nutty taste, evidence of the dormouse’s preferred munchies.
“They eat all walnuts you have. They eat everything,” said Angela. But they are not necessarily considered pests. “We call them the good spirit of the trees. They live in the trees, but during the winter, they hibernate in tunnels underground. They can be really fat and adorable, but I eat them anyway.”
Angela’s family is not the only one that favours the flavour of dormouse. In the mountains to the north, including those over the border in Slovenia, trappers, some still in their teens, build their own traps and capture as many of the creatures as they can when dormice are the plumpest: right before the end of autumn. “How does a trapper attract dormice?” I asked the table, to no one in particular.
“Dormice like rakija,” Vedran said with a nod.
“You make a trap,” Angela added, “and you use a small plate filled with rakija. It smells so good, and they get drunk, and they get trapped.”
I’m glad I wasn’t a dormouse, or I’d surely end up passed out skid-row-style—with Xs for eyes—inside some clever teenager’s homemade trap while a goulash was slowly and ominously simmering nearby.
Hrvoje had just angled his laptop towards the table so we could better absorb the oompah beats of Gustafi, an Istrian-based band whose music, like the peninsula’s cuisine, claims a jumble of influences. In Gustafi’s case, the melodic and percussive stew offers up an unexpectedly pleasant concoction of Balkan, Mexican, bluegrass banjo, and a few drops of indie electronica. I had picked up the band’s latest album, Kanibalkanska, a frolicsome pun on the words Balkan and cannibal, the previous week when I was browsing a music kiosk in the city of Pula, the southernmost city of the peninsula, where stacks of Gustafi’s backlist occupied an unavoidably copious portion of the store’s shelf space. Since then, the band’s lively rhythms have provided a soundtrack to my exploration of Istria. “Gustafi, that’s good pub music,” Andrej offered while snapping the dormouse goulash from a variety of angles.
Angela placed a spiral of pastry with a dark filling in front of me and announced, “This is carski presnac. It was a sweet that wasn’t made for 100 years in this region, and we found it in an almanac, written when the imperial Austro-Hungarian family came to this region. This region was their summer resort, and this is what they ate.”
“It’s royal food,” Vedran added. “Do you know Emperor Franz Josef? Now you feel like him.”
“You just have to grow your beard a little,” Hrvoje added, his eyebrows up again.
The carski presnac was not overly sweet, its soft fig and nut filling humming with a hint of cinnamon. Fit for a king? With each bite, I imagined what kind of sculptures bearing my head’s likeness might be hung off of miscellaneous Istrian keystones. I don’t fancy creeping out pedestrians for centuries, but if the sculptors felt obliged, I wouldn’t mind a reproduction including my favourite woven hat from Panama atop my head. At least it would keep the pigeon crap off my nose. Yes, I’d be a benevolent king of Istria, so long as I never catch a subject squirting ketchup over his pizza. Fortunately, the carski presnac’s royal effect stopped well short of giving me a sudden urge to sleep with my cousins.
As for the rest of the peninsula’s leaders present and past, their gastronomic legacies have been breeding vigorously, spawning glorious bastards. My exploration of Istria was a trip to an interactive museum not aimed to preserve, but to create. A museum you can eat. One that reappears the next day, never the same twice.
Darrin DuFord is a seed saver, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medallist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.