Fire burn, cauldron bubble
Home to the devilishly spicy fiš-paprikaš stew, the Baranja region is fast becoming one of Croatia’s prime gastronomic destinations.
Slurping away at all these paprika-reddened juices can be a dangerously messy affair: restaurants invariably provide bibs to save diners the embarrassment of coming away with blotches all over their shirts.
Travellers frequently make the mistake of assuming that a predominantly flat landscape is a predominantly boring landscape. As if you need a horizon-splicing selection of hills to make a place worth visiting in the first place. The Croatian Baranja, which stretches to the north of Osijek, is the ideal place to come and challenge these preconceptions. A green triangle of flatland set between the Danube, the Sava River, and the Hungarian border, the Baranja presents a patchwork of bucolic villages, broad fields and unspoiled natural wilderness. Bursting with distinctive paprika-spiced recipes and increasingly excellent wines, it is fast becoming one of the country’s prime gastronomic destinations.
Spread out across the Baranja plain are a sequence of characteristically long and straggling villages, consisting largely of one-storey houses garlanded with drying red peppers. There is a significant Hungarian minority in the villages north of Osijek, and most of the road signs are bi-lingual: Hungarian national poet Sandor Petöfi appears to have more streets named after him than anyone else hereabouts.
Baranja is a major heartland of the paprika-laden cuisine that is common to Eastern Croatia and neighbouring Hungary, with dishes like čobanac, paprikaš and perkelt (hot red stews that in English-speaking countries might be grouped under the generic name of goulash) appearing on the menus of everything from fancy restaurants to roadside bistros. One of the region’s main sources of culinary wealth is the rich stock of freshwater fish provided by the Danube and Drava rivers, and it is catfish, pike perch and carp and that form the ideal ingredients for local speciality fiš paprikaš, a soupy paprika-laden stew featuring huge chunks of (usually un-boned) fish swimming around in spicy red liquid. Dishes like fiš paprikaš and its slightly thicker cousin perkelt are usually served with pasta noodles smothered in a cheese-and-bacon sauce. Slurping away at all these paprika-reddened juices can be a dangerously messy affair: restaurants invariably provide bibs to save diners the embarrassment of coming away with blotches all over their shirts.
Indeed the Baranja’s goulash repertoire is so good nowadays that culinary tourists from Hungary frequently cross the border to taste it. One of the prime gourmet destinations is Suza, east of Kneževi Vinogradi, a typical Baranja village in which locals sit on benches watching the world go by and gossiping in Hungarian, occasionally uttering a friendly ‘dobar dan’ when a stranger strolls by. At the eastern end of the village is Kovač Čarda (“Kovač’s Tavern”), an increasingly popular destination for culinary pilgrims eager to try some of the highest-regarded fiš paprikaš in Croatia. The Kovač family has a fish pond just up the road, ensuring that their fare is fresh. Kovač Čarda’s dining room walls are covered with framed prize-winning diplomas from major paprika-cooking contests, notably from Kalocsa, the red-pepper capital of southern Hungary.
The best fiš paprikaš is made with three types of fish (carp, catfish and pike) cooked together in a metal pot suspended above an open fire. Connoisseurs of fiš frequently treat the dish as a two-course meal: first, the red liquid is poured over the noodles and consumed as a soup; the scaly chunks of fish are placed on a side plate to be eaten separately as the main course. The fish is cooked complete with bones, skin, fins and a bit of the head to ensure a full taste – using bare fingers to get at the meat is a perfectly acceptable way to proceed. Fiš is usually cooked in portions for two people or more because the ingredients demand it: those who are dining alone will just have to order a two-person portion and eat as much as they can.
Both Suza and the neighbouring village of Zmajevac hug the southern slopes of the Banska kosa, a long low ridge covered with some of the most productive vineyards in Eastern Croatia. Long famed for its dry white Graševina (known elsewhere as Welschriesling), the Banska kosa is increasingly home to a new generation of boutique wineries eager to both introduce grape varieties new to the region and to increase the quality of what is already there.
The Josić winery in Zmajevac was founded in 1999 by the Osijek-based wine enthusiast Damir Josić. “I always loved the Baranja and it was an easy decision”, Josić explains. “I bought a small vineyard and a cellar, and got started.” New technology made it possible for small wineries like Josić to focus on quality production in an economically viable way. Producing good-quality Graševina, the predominant local grape variety, was Josić’s main aim. However he soon got interested in trying out imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. His cuvee Ciconia Nigra (“Black Stork”), blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, is a high-quality wine that is not too expensive, and has helped to make Josić’s name in Croatian winemaking circles. “I always thought the potential for red wine was enormous”, Josić continues. “In 2007 we made our first really successful cuvee and I immediately realized that Baranja was the ideal place for these red varieties”. The winery currently produces about 150,000 litres of wine a year – quite small in global terms but highly regarded among those who know their tipple. They also make their own aromatizirano vino or vermouth, a blend of red wine and herbs that tastes a bit like a cross between Port and Jägermeister. Josić remains keen to experiment: “Each new harvest is like a new school term. We’ve only been in this business a little over twelve years, which in wine-making terms is about equal to learning to walk.”
The Josić winery and its popular restaurant are housed in one of the surduks, or wine-storing tunnels cut into the sandy soil of the Banska kosa ridge. Passing the open hearth near the entrance to the restaurant visitors are greeted by the sight of carp being toasted on large sticks, and hunks of boar meat being roasted in metal pots placed among the embers. “Fish is the most important local ingredient” says Josić, “but poultry and game are also important. The menu is based on doing something creative with what is autochthonous and traditional.”
Another of Baranja’s hit destinations is Karanac, a typical one-street village northwest of Kneževi Vinogradi with a more generous than usual sprinkling of traditional one-storey houses. One of Karanac’s traditional farmsteads was purchased by Osijek-based tourism pioneer Denis Sklepić in 1998, who renovated it and transformed it into one of the first rural-style B&Bs in the region. Up the road from Sklepić’s place, the Baranjska kuća restaurant doesn’t just serve up some of the best in East-Croatian cuisine, but also houses a private ethnographic collection, stuffed with domestic implements and craft tools assembled over the years by the restaurant’s owner.
The fact that the Baranja has emerged as one of Croatia’s most talked-about rural destinations has not come as a total surprise to the locals, who always knew that a seductive local brand could be fashioned on the basis of local wine and food. “If someone had asked me ten years ago what tourism in the Baranja was going to look like in 2013”, then my answer would have been something like this”, Damir Josić concludes, gesturing towards his restaurant, slowly filling up with diners who have just been on a wine-tasting tour of the barrel-vaulted cellars right next door.
An earlier version of this article was first published in Osijek in Your Pocket (www.inyourpocket.com)
© Jonathan Bousfield