“There is no love sincerer than food.” And my love for Croatia and the Dalmatian coast is firmly entrenched in this sincere love of the homestyle, generous, seasonal cuisine that this area is renown for.
On the Dalmatian coast, the food influences are decidedly Mediterranean, due to the heavy historical influences of the Romans and Greeks. Plenty of olive oil, capers, cured meats, local cheese, grilled vegetables, and pizza, pizza, pizza!!! I was even told more than once that Croatian pizza is better than Italian pizza… A statement that I let linger as opposed to getting into an argument!
What is not arguable is that there is one Croatian dish that stands out to most foreigners who visit this new/old country. A dish that, even if you cannot for the life remember the name of it, you simply describe how it looked cooking in the open air wood fired oven, you describe the ingredients and flavours, how the meat fell off the bone, and anyone who has been to this part of the world will know immediately which dish you are so enthusiastically referring to! There is no other dish like Isopod Peka.
This traditional Dalmatian dish is cooked in the outdoor kitchen (crna kuhinja or black kitchen) that most Dalmatian island restaurants have, and many homes as well. This is the kitchen where the messier food prep is done, where a large stone open fire is the central focal point. It is also a great place to socialise as the chef works his magic. The wood fired aroma that these outdoor kitchens give off creates such homely, relaxed atmosphere, perfect for kicking back with a bottle of local red wine as your peka cooks! (Hot tip: Ask your host where the wine comes from. It is highly likely that he/she will tell you very proudly that it comes from his/her family’s vines or from the island that he/she hails as home. And there is always a good story involved!)
Essentially a slow cooked dish that is baked in the open fire, peka is easy to assemble. Meat and vegetables are put into a large flat pot or tray, and the pot is covered and cooked. At least that’s the short version! Getting the mix of ingredients right is where the skill lies. And the mix differs from island to island, village to village, family to family. As is with most Dalmatian home cooking, the meat and vegetables tend to reflect what is available seasonally and what is fresh. The meat component can be anything, from veal to octopus, pork to cuttlefish. The vegetables are also determined by what is in season and locally available, courgette (zucchini!), onion, garlic, carrots, capsicum (peppers)… And potatoes. You simply cannot forget the potatoes. It is often said by the local people that peka must be made with love and patience, as this is what makes it so most waveringly delicious. Nothing to do with the seemingly instinctive use of local herbs (rosemary grows wild EVERYWHERE and is incredibly pungent and fresh!), olive oils and wines to complement the flavours of the meat and vegetables!
The defining feature of cooking peka is the črpnja, the special shaped lid that you put over the pot of food. The unique bell shape of this lid allows it to fully cover the pot full of food. The English term for peka, “Under the Bell” is derived directly from this particular piece of equipment. Some črpnja even allow you to cover the top of the lid in hot embers. Then, the peka cooks for at least 3 hours, until the meat falls apart and the potatoes melt in your mouth.
Although these days, peka is more often made in cast iron dishes, traditionally it was a dish that was cooked in earthenware. The kind of meal that all the family would come over to share, and in Dalmatia they still do! The kind of meal that I revel in, with a table stacked with fresh bread, bottles of local olive oil (so green it seems as if the plant is still very much in the oil!) and vinegar, maybe a salad or two of beets, onions, cabbage and cucumber. And the peka as the crowing glory.
All of the guests that we hosted during the summer of 2016 all agreed that peka was an epic part of Croatian cuisine that they are glad they had the chance to try. And we cannot wait to head back and explore more of the Dalmatian cuisine that we miss so much. There is still SO MUCH left to explore!