Ljubomir Stanišić, Jugoslaven (bez zemlje) i Portugalac (bez portugalske putovnice), velika kuharska zvijezda i vlasnik sedam restorana, krajem kolovoza i početkom rujna sa svojim kamperom u kojem je bio sa suprugom, novinarkom Monicom Franco i dvoje male djece, “jeo je kilometre” hrvatskom obalom i na kraju putovanja zaključio – Hrvatska, naša ljubav! Tako su, barem, golemim tekstom i fotografijama objavljenim u portugalskom dnevniku Expresso zaključili Ljubomir i Monica čvrsto vjerujući da će se vrlo brzo ponovo vratiti u Hrvatsku. U kojoj su, privremeno, i “usidrili” njihov crni kamper na kojem dominira golemi natpis – PAPA KMS, odnosno JEDUĆI KILOMETRE!
Ljubomir i Monica već duže vrijeme putuju iz ljubavi Europom, obilaze restorane koji su im zanimljivi, uče od majstora, stažiraju na farmama i u kuhinjama, a sve samo da ne se ne bi uljuljali u vlastitoj veličini i tako izbjegli životnu i poslovnu stagnaciju.
Ljubomir je hrvatskoj javnosti poznat po izvanrednom serijalu svojih gastro putovanja portugalskim otocima, a koji se mogao gledati na programu 24Kitchen. Njegov lisabonski restoran ‘100 Maneiras’ (Na sto načina) među najvećim je portugalskim ugostiteljskim uspješnicama. Tamo su ga upoznali i moji dragi prijatelji Rino i Zorica (Rino je, u stvari, bratić moje supruge!), a Ljubomir im se maksimalno posvetio unatoč velikom poslu. Takvu pomoć mu je trebalo uzvratiti tijekom njegova boravka u Hrvatskoj.
Sjećam se samo da me nazvao jedno jutro i gotovo očajno se požalio da mu u Korčuli lokalni trgovac u rent-a-car agenciji ne želi iznajmiti auto “zbog imena i prezimena”!!! Bila me sramota što to čujem. Zamolio sam ga da se strpi nekoliko minuta i zapitao telefonski broj toga kretena. Ne želim pisati što sam sve izgovorio i čime sam sve zaprijetio tom hrvatskom čistuncu, no vrlo brzo je pozvao Ljubomira, ispričao mu se zbog neugodnosti i ustupio mu automobil za obilazak Korčule. S Ljubomirom sam se čuo još dosta puta tijekom boravka u Hrvatskoj, ali taj incident više nikad nije spomenuo. Štoviše, od svih zemalja koje su prošli u proteklih godinu i više dana upravo su Hrvatsku zapamtili kao svoje najveće otkriće. Mljet im je zaprijetio postati najljepša razglednica u njihovim životima.
Oduševila ih konoba Mate u Pupnatu, svidio im se Frano Milina Bire, Boškinac, David Skoko, Bruno Trapan, Kumparička, paški sirevi… Ukratko, Ljubomir i Monica su svojim iskrenim tekstovima u portugalskim novinama pokazali zašto su se zaljubili u Hrvatsku.
Evo njihovih utisaka…
Croatia, our love
An unexpected meeting in Dubrovnik, a lost boat, a lunch of oysters, an island that seems straight out of the imagination, a dinner over the sea, a croatian family and a portuguese couple, the most beautiful landscape of the journey, an amazing country. We arrived to Croatia!
It took a little over half an hour inside a large ferryboat crossing the blue Adriatic and we were already in Mljet (it’s pronounced melhéte), testing the metric limits of our campervan. We were close to drag a village behind us (probably the most narrow village in the world). We managed to carry on, but it was a close shot. And, as soon as we passed it, we realized we had taken the wrong direction. Another adrenaline sip for the way…
We were looking for one of the three campsites of the island. The guides said this was the closest to the sea (which is not the same as saying the closest to the beach…). When we arrived, we had a single space available among all the spaces of that private house’s yard which they called camping. We were confused and hesitated but the time (and the lack of options) made the decision for us. Even before we could fit our seven meters car in what looked like a hall of dirt, there were already two people waving at us, smiling. They were portuguese.
We chose Mljet from among the more than one thousand islands of Croatia for being, supposedly, one of the most beautiful, peaceful and less “humanized” islands of Croatia, for having half of its surface occupied by one of the eight national parks, but also for being close to Dubrovnik. We got into Croatia through the south. We stayed in the capital for only three days. It was long enough so we could have an unexpected encounter with one of our best friends, a fish dinner at Moby Dick, one of the old town’s restaurants, and to understand that, around here, even camping is a luxury. Dubrovnik is expensive. But it’s also unique. It deserved more from us but we didn’t want anything from “civilization” – not even from a beautiful one like this…
Mljet was close, but it took us a whole day to get there. First, we lost the one o’clock ferryboat. Upset with our bad luck, we decided to enjoy the time to buy some groceries at the closest supermarket. We didn’t get there. A mirage stoped us: a hidden bay, a sea so blue that seemed painted, a beach, a camping site next to it. We got back to earth, climbed to heaven. In Prapratno, there, in that time of waiting, Mateus learned how to swim.
Before the 4 o’clock boat, we ate oysters for lunch in Ston, on a terrace facing the famous nurseries, we saw the salt pans of Dalmatia, Solana Nin, and still ran to buy the vegetables.
We’re stubborn. And, even after being warned by the portuguese in the camping (which wasn’t really a camping) that the beach nearby wasn’t really a beach nor was really that close, still, we decided to put our stubbornness (and Luca) in the backpack, took Mateus by the hand and headed down. And after not taking a bath and hardly having a chance to seat, we decided to climb back (Ljubo always carrying Luca’s ten kilograms at his back…) The reward always comes in the end and, before we were back to our dirt space, we saw the second mirage of the day.
Radulj family has a house. This house is over the sea. The sea is the Adriatic. The eldest son fishes. The youngest is a waiter and wants to be a cook. The mother takes care of the goats and the father takes care of the vegetable garden. And they all serve dinner in the house terrace, open above that deep blue. They don’t have a restaurant, they have some tables set on the terrace, a paper towel over them, for those who wish to seat and eat. We wanted to take a drink first. And then, we wanted to have dinner. And breakfast. And dinner again. Between fresh grilled fish, homemade fries and talking by the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, we even changed diapers in the living room downstairs and Ljubo almost hired a waiter…
We took the portuguese couple to the house of the croatian family. And, from there, we decided to visit the national park together. We left the Radulj family terrace with a sheet of paper torn from a notebook. A hello to the “kolega”, two lines in croatian for Ljubo to read and a “hvala” (thank you) in the end. Antun Radulj, the father, was recommending his fellows in the park to let us in without paying. And we didn’t pay. But we would have if we knew what awaited us. It was worth all the “kunas”… We explored the park by bike. Others were doing it walking or running. When we arrived to Velike Jezero (the Great Lake), the sun peeked. And the blue and green of those lakes formed by the Adriatic opened to the world. The picture was imprinted. These colors will never fade with time.
Mljet risks to be one of the most beautiful postcards of our lives. And it’s not worth describing the monumentality of the islets around seen from above, the contrast between the intense green of the vegetation and the blue from the sea, the boats that seem to hover… It seems a cliché and it can never be so. Mljet has something rare… Namely, a sand beach. It may be imported, it may not be white, they may have forbidden us to sleep there, but nothing stole the charm of Saplunara.
Mljet’s forest is considered to be the most green and protected of the adriatic coast. Over half of the island is covered by forest. The National Park, west, measures five thousand acres, has two lakes, the Great and the Small, connected to the sea by two channels. Inside the park there is a twelfth century monastery, once a refuge for artists, writers, composers…
It was at the entrance of this park, while we waited for the rain to stop, that João and Joana told us the story of their host in Zagreb. They had rented a room in the apartment of a croatian woman and, when they arrived, she was thrilled to welcome them. She was a huge fan of a portuguese tv show hosted by a yugoslav chef. “Do you know him?”, she asked them, excited. Joana and João didn’t know him. But that was in the beginning of their trip. In the end, three days before getting the plane back to Lisbon, on someone’s backyard, baptized as a “camping”, they met a certain yugoslav who drove a campervan with a portuguese license plate. He was a cook, the campervan was called “Papa Kms”. Until the next kilometers.
An island in the middle of the Adriatic is a good start. An island with sandy beaches in Croatia is a bonus. An island with some of the most famous wine producers in the country is an extra. An island with some of the best “konobas” to taste traditional food seems a dream. And an island like this with good people it’s too good to be true. Krocula is the island. And it’s true!
Zeljko Garmaz is an important gastronomic and wine critic from Croatia. He just edited an encyclopedia on wines and restaurants in Croatia. We haven’t seen the book (yet), we haven’t met the author (yet). But it was Zeljko who guided us through his country, who contacted producers, restaurants and chefs in our behalf. And it all started in Lisbon… A croatian couple visits 100 Maneiras, they wish to meet Ljubo, they drink a few cocktails, talk about a brother, they promise to get us in touch. Ljubo forgot about it, the couple didn’t. And the brother worked hard for this.
We didn’t have to think (nor search) too much in Korcula (pronounced córtchula). In this island, the largest of the over one thousand islands in Croatia, with more than 200 square kilometers, our greatest difficulty was finding a campsite. Not for the lack of options, but rather because of the excess. We found our place next to the Adriatic by chance, on the north coast. Small, discreet, no luxuries. Internet was available only by climbing to Fani’s house, “washing machines?!” (laughs). We tried one night, we stayed for six. On Tuesdays and Thursdays it was the arrival of fresh fish and vegetables, occasionally a branch of basil directly from the backyard of the camping’s owner, a fresh tomato jam, a tea to relieve Luca’s toothache after a night when our “insomnia” could be heard all over the campsite. Fani is a good person. (She’s a fan of Papa Quilómetros tv show that was being broadcasted by 24Kitchen Croatia by then).
Because of that, Ljubo didn’t stay incognito. Not in Autokamp Skorusica nor at Konoba Mate. Konoba is the generic name given to a type of traditional croatian restaurant. Family-owned, with homemade cooking. In Mate, we found all of that: a family, food made by the daughter or the mother and even a small piece of paradise served in different plates.
The mother started by greeting our “yugoslav” chef by scolding him: “Yugoslavia no longer exists”, she said even before we were able to forgive her for her wonderful goat cheese. We forgave her quickly. All it took was the cold-pressed olive oil, the bread made in the wood oven, the dalmatian ham smoked in the room next to the terrace, the fig with cheese and roses compote. We weren’t in the main dishes yet and we were already forgiving all the world’s ills. Including the man of the rent-a-car who refused to rent a car to a Stanisic coming from Serbia (and who ended up by renting it after a phone call from the croatian journalist and critic, Zeljko Garmaz).
We spent some good hours in Konoba Mate. We tasted the three color tagliatelle with wild fennel and chilli, goat cheese ravioli, macaroni with stewed meat, all made from scratch in a home kitchen. We got to know the venetian influence of croatian gastronomy and we realized how in a country made of sea, fish is rare and expensive – and increasingly scarce.
Knoba Mate is in the center of the island, in a small town called Pupnat, the smallest and one of the most ancient towns of Korcula. In Pupnatska Luka (here, Luka means “port”) you can find the bar of the cook’s brother. And with an excuse for “hello”, we ended up saying goodbye to the rest of our afternoon, lying on the rolling stones of these rugged beaches in the south coast. It was one of the 195 small bays of the island – and one of the 3 or 4 that we kept for ourselves…
Cara was near. And, in Cara (pronouced “txara”), there was a Ljubo. Not a short-named Ljubomir, but a Ljubo Kunjasic who seems to be revolutionizing the Korcula wines in particular – and a bit of the croatian “rules” in general. Ljubo met us in his home, with parents, sisters, small plates of cheese and different bottles of Posip, one of the historic grapes of Korcula. He took us to the winery, to the vineyards growing from the stone. We took him to have dinner the next day, in the capital, Korcula. Ljubo liked Ljubo – and vice versa.
Ljubo also liked Bire. Frano Milina Bire, a wine producer famous for being little consensual. Bires’ vineyards are located on the eastern tip of the island, in Lumbarda, next to the only sandy beaches. The irony is that it’s precisely because of the stone (and the sea) that Bire’s wine is special. Grk is the variety that survives to limestone – and time.
The history of Korcula’s vineyards goes back to the fourth century before Christ and resisted the comunist regime. They say Marco Polo was born here, on January 8 1254, and not in Venice. They say he fought here, he fell ill here, and, in the capital, they guard the house “where he was born”. It was also there, in that beautiful walled medieval town, that we found Stanisic’s house. It wasn’t the first. It wouldn’t be the last. Apparently, like a good friend of ours says, Stanisic must be the “Smiths” of former Yugoslavia. We better not try to find the equivalent of Ljubomir… Until the next kilometers.
Pa(yin)g to see
In an island more arid than the moon, we found a unique lamb meat, one of the best croatian sheep cheeses, the most delicious olive oil, a wine that’s been on the top places of the critics for three years, a chef who became a politician. Pag is a peculiar land. In this island on the north of Dalmatia, even Ljubo managed to fish!
In Pag, there are four times more sheep than people. Thirty thousand heads for eight thousand inhabitants. There’s a great tradition of herding here. And a special seasoning… The lambs meat is naturally salted by Bura, the wind that blows strong in the winter. Bura scrapes the surface of this island in northern Dalmatia making it dry, arid, lunar. But it also drags the Adriatic across its surface, naturally salting the fields. The milk is, therefore, seasoned. And the cheese, world famous. They call it Paški sir.
The landscape was so fascinating to Mónica as it was dull to Ljubo. Until one day. The day when we had dinner at Boskinac, a charming hotel and author restaurant, a sort of oasis with pine trees, vineyards and olive groves, in the middle of an island made of stone. Boris Suljic is the owner and chef. A wine producer. A “collector” of local cheeses. The man who, in 1987, when he was 23, opened Kalypso, the first beach club in former Yugoslavia and helped transforming Pag into Croatia’s Ibiza. The newly elected independent mayor of Novalja. Boris no longer cooks everyday the confit lamb cheeks with mashed potatoes and cinnamon that we tasted in his restaurant, but he intends to give the region’s tourism a stamp of identical quality.
With his whole life connected to the island’s tourism, he began by helping his father selling his wine from door to door. Over a decade ago, he ushered the cellar where, for three consecutive years, he produced the wine nationally awarded. A Boskinac with 75% Cabernet-Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, from 2009, almost gone: “We don’t have more bottles to sell. It can only be tasted in the restaurant”, Boris told us, in the middle of the dinner, after filling our glasses with the precious liquid. We had just devoured the wonderful Linguini with lobster and Scallops with vanilla pasta and we had even tasted other varieties of Boskinac… Even so, we were impressed by the quality of the almost extinct. (Needless to say that Ljubo, with his intense power of persuasion, managed to buy a bottle as a later reminder).
Boris also produces a high quality olive oil and also has a grazing of lambs. He mostly uses his products to cook “creative dishes with little fusion”. He only uses 3 to 5 ingredients per dish, practicing a cuisine that is, at the same time, simple and special. We ate lamb at Boskinac but the one that really impressed us was bought on a roadside restaurant, spit-roasted, tasted in a take-away scheme, in the campervan parked by the sea. The scenery has really good, but, we have to say, the lamb was even better.
We were traveling for almost seven months when we got to Pag. And, even though we were so far from the beginning, there were still some boxes in the campervan’s warehouse that were almost untouched. The bottom boxes. Deep down, at an almost metaphorical distance, we had stored Ljubo’s diving and hunting equipment.
In a campsite by the sea, a little too child-friendly, all it took was a pause and a sunny day for the boxes to come out. “I’ll go looking for bait”, Ljubo stated with some certainty (of what he wanted to do) and many doubts (about the possibility of doing it). He was gone for a couple of hours and, when he returned, he had a smile. He was coming from the center of Novalja, one of Pag’s main villages. He had visited the cheese store, Sirana Gligora, and bought half a dozen cheeses, finding all the characteristics of that milk salted by the wind. It was lunch time and, along the cobbled streets, few people circled. He rode his bike until he saw an old man sitting on the ledge of a door. He decided to ask for bait. And he had a laugh for answer. “Do you think I don’t know who you are, chef?!” In the end, the old fisherman did sell bait – and he was an attentive follower of Papa Quilómetos in 24Kitchen Croatia…
Along came the bait – and, with it, a good dose of self-love. A few hours later, so came the fish. And so, from one moment to another, the cobwebs disappeared from the boxes of the bottom and the dryness of the landscape was no longer a problem for the chef. Until the next kilometers.
Goodbye or see you soon?
Istria, specifically, and Croatia, in general, marked this trip forever. And this trip marked us for life. 30 chronicles, almost eight months on the road and a long stop. The stop of the campervan in the park of Istria in northern Croatia. And of the weekly chronicles in Revista. This is the last one. It was as good for you as it was for us?
Five campsites. Five. And not even one made the disillusionment in our faces go away. Too “all inclusive” for our taste. We had just come in Istria, northern Croatia. Plan: to park near one of the most beautiful cities in the region, Rovinj and, from here, exploring this peninsula next to Slovenia and Italy. The largest peninsula in the Adriatic is the gastro-wine stronghold of Croatia, everyone told us. We saved a week for it, but our plans were almost failing. Tired of riding from park to park, we decided to give up. We turned back, willing to not look back when we saw the campsite that saved us. We stayed. And with the outdoors, the view of Rovinj and the sea, our mood changed. We went out to dinner. The challenge was to find a restaurant.
There are hundreds of restaurants in Rovinj. But almost all of them with pictures of food at the door. We fled. We walked and walked until we found it. No illuminated signs and with fish grilling on the barbeque. It seemed a good start. We were still holding the menu when a man approached us. He knew Ljubo from somewhere, he said. It was the restaurant owner, we learned after a relatively long conversation about chef Ljubomir Stanisic and Papa Quilómetros tv show, which he watched on croatian television. His name was Vinko Persic. And he became a friend. It was Vinko who found us a safe place to leave the campervan during a long season, while we returned to Lisbon, it was him who designed us the road map of Istria, who booked us a table for Konoba Batelina, in the south, one of the restaurants that became famous thanks to Anthony Bourdain episode in Croatia.
We had dinner and lunch at Maestral, Vinko’s restaurant near the Adriatic. And we had two of the best meals of fish and seafood of the whole trip. Scallops, clams and other shells arrive at the table raw or just marinated. Just like the lobster and some fishes, such as bass. The entries were worth the trip. And what to say about the octopus and the polenta with cuttlefish stewed in red wine?… Are they worth the return? Definitely.
We made friends in Croatia. And friends took us everywhere. Vinko took us to David Skoko, the creative of Konoba Batelina, a small family restaurant by the sea. The mother and the mother-in-law are the “official” cooks, dad is the fisherman and man of the grill, but is David who makes the difference with the way he treats things like shark liver and tail, shark confit, anchovies with congo fish pâté, marinated mullet or with a sauce that accompanies some of the fish caught by the family on that same day and grilled by dad. David isn’t looking for success (even though he already is successful). He wants to make the difference. He wants to fish what others throw away. He wants to create from “poor” fish, from the “less noble” parts. And he wants to amaze. He does. He did. And people came back. (It’s impossible to have dinner without reservations).
It was David who took us to Kumparicka and introduced us to his “half crazy” friend, Ales Winckler. The “crazy man” left Slovenia and a successful job to raise goats in Istria. And, unwittingly, he became the most awarded producer of goat cheese in all Croatia. The 200 goats graze freely through 60 acres of a field full of aromatic herbs, close to the sea. The result is an unpasteurised milk with a strong flavor, partly converted into ricotta, fresh cheese, semi-hard, younger or aged, and yogurt. Six golden medals and a maximum award in a croatian competition made the crazy man – and his psychoanalyst wife – a serious cheese producer.
Zeljko Garmaz, the croatian journalist who guided us through the country, had already told us about Kumparicka. And he also told us about Bruno Trapan, the Che Guevara of istrian wines. Bruno is only 33, no family connections to agriculture and it was only in 2005 that he became professionaly dedicated to wine, but his Uroboros 2008 deserved a 90 from Robert Parker, the guru of international critics. This wine is made almost exclusively from one of the region’s traditional grapes: Malvasia. Trapan’s fingerprint is precisely that: with the potential of local grapes, like Malvasia in the whites and Teran in the reds, he defies tradition. Then, he adds it love, energy and courage. The names on the labels speak for themselves: Che, for a rosé sparkling wine, “unprecedented”, made of Teran, Rubi, in honor of his eldes daughter, Terra Mare, dedicated to the younger, Nigra Virgo Revolution, a declaration to his wife.
Bruno Trapan’s wine is his life. The seafood is David Skoko’s life. The goats are Ales Winckels’ life. The restaurant is Vinko Persic’s life. Vinko took one of his few vacation days to show us the Red Island, a clean slice of Adriatic where much blood was once shed, 15 minutes by boat from Rovinj. And it was thanks to Vinko that we visited Brjuni, the archipelago, natural park, paradise on earth where, people say, marshal Tito used to date Sophia Loren. A journey is its places. A journey is its stories. But, above all, it’s the people who make “the” journey. Until the next kilometers (who knows…).
Mónica Franco and Ljubomir Stanisic