Catch of the Day
In a quiet fishing village in northern Croatia, a young chef is creating some of the most simple, divine fish dishes in Istria. He’s doing so in a small, modest tavern, cooking alongside his mother and mother-in-law, using the fish his father catches, and bringing the dishes to the tables himself. Sounds picture perfect to me. Sort of like the streets of Burano, with their labyrinth of clean, cobblestoned streets, houses and boats splashed with a rainbow of vibrant colors. After leaving Venice and that charming island, I headed to Istria, the northernmost region in Croatia, about a 3 hour drive away. Some of you may recall a few highlights I shared last year, like my favorite port town Rovinj, zoo-like Brioni islands and a chocolate soufflé I have recreated here many times in Zürich. It worked out nicely that the chef’s chocolate of choice was Lindt – not too difficult to find here in Switzerland!
Having lunch at Batelina in Banjole (near Pula) was definitely another highlight. I spent 3 or 4 hours shuffling back and forth from the table to the kitchen to chat with David Skoko and follow his every move. I watched his mother Ada busy at work in the kitchen too, my lack of Croatian preventing me from asking her 101 questions. Those questions then went to Ingrid, his mother-in-law who spoke perfect English and had me laughing between questions, photographs and tastes. I crept outside to watch his father too, Danilo, revered as one of the best fishermen in Istria, who was cleaning the fish and crabs he had just caught a few hours earlier.
In a simple kitchen that wouldn’t be out of place in a Manhattan apartment for its limited size, the three of them worked together in perfect unison. David used his favorite Japanese Shun Lee knives to slice raw fish, then simply dress it with olive oil and salt. “To do anything with the freshest catch other than serving it raw would be a shame,” he explained to me. He prepared the shrimp in the same manner, raw, delicately lined up on a dish, with a good pour of Istrian olive oil (below left). The local oil was also used to marinate anchovies, to dress the mackerel and to cook the bonito (tuna). Scallops, smaller than their French equivalent, were grilled and placed back in their shells in a small pool of warm oil (below right). I watched Aleksandar, a local seated next to me, pick up the shell like that of an oyster, and drink the oil. Croatians appreciate their oil. Monkfish liver was seared and served alongside a sweet red onion marmalade (below, bottom left). Fish goulash, made with squid and spider crab was served with polenta molded in scallop shells for an excellent presentation (below, bottom right).
The day’s menu is created only once Danilo returns from fishing. Croatian restaurant laws require a written menu, but they don’t actually use it at Batelina. All you need to do is ask what Danilo caught that morning and you know you’ll be tasting the very freshest fish possible, like that crab, only available January to May. The one he showed me, below right, was clearly a female with its orange eggs. Apparently they turn black once the season is over. Danilo steamed the crabs in a big pot with just an inch of water. I could have eaten that all day; only problem is, if you fall in love with a dish, it may not be available for another 5 to 10 days. All depends on the day’s catch. And I did fall in love with many a dish there, including the handmade tagliatelle with crab meat and eggs. And the conger eel mousse. Oh, and the sardines fried with onions and white wine…
Difficult to say whether the simplicity and explosion of flavor in the crab above made it my favorite dish of the meal; I’m leaning towards David’s preparation of the red mullet. Small filets were rolled up and dipped in sesame seeds on one side. That side was placed on a super hot griddle and quickly seared. The other side remained raw, making for an extraordinary mix of textures and temperatures. Set atop a wild radicchio cream sauce, with a touch of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the dish was masterful in its simplicity and sophistication.
After all of the above dishes, there was still the main course to come. I watched Ingrid prepare the monkfish, not a very attractive fish I have to say, hence the absence of photo. I told her she and David have the most wonderful job to work together as a family – and eat all of this extraordinary fish all the time. At that, she jumped up at me, “No! You know what we eat – mortadella (Italian pork sausage) and bread. We ate fish all the time when we first opened, but are now tired of it. It’s like people who work in a chocolate factory. If you did, you wouldn’t…” I’m not sure what she meant by that, as if I wouldn’t eat chocolate in that case. She clearly didn’t know who she was talking to !!
Speaking of which… you must be wondering what was for dessert? Ricotta cake, chocolate almond cake, mascarpone with figs in red wine, and last but not least, a creation of David’s we can all try to recreate in our own homes… his mini chocolate cakes with (Vodnjan) olive oil and chili (recipe below). As you may know, I keep away from spice, but the chili here doesn’t really affect the tongue; it simply warms the throat. David let me know if you have 4 or 5 though, the feeling will in fact last for 10 to 15 minutes. Who’s willing to try?
David Skoko’s Chocolate Chili Nibbles
2 red chili peppers, medium
10 1/2 oz (300 grams) dark chocolate*, chopped
10 1/2 tbsp (150 grams) butter
2 large eggs
1/3 cup (40 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp (10 grams) cornstarch
1 tsp (4 grams) baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp (15-20 grams) cocoa powder
1/2 cup (1 dl) olive oil
Preheat the oven to 340 degrees Fahrenheit (170 degrees Celsius). Slice open the chili peppers and remove the seeds. Finely chop and put in a saucepan with the chocolate and butter. Melt together. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and gradually stir them into the melted chocolate mixture. Then slowly add the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. Add the cocoa powder and olive oil to the mixture, until you have a smooth, thick consistency (like pudding). Pour batter into a mini muffin tin and bake for approximately 10 minutes. Remove from oven and serve warm. Sprinkle generously with olive oil and chocolate sauce.
* David uses 75% Lindt chocolate