Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Spring in Zagreb: Dolac Market
Its been a dreary and lingering winter in Budapest, which is up in the top reaches of the Carpathian basin, so when spring won't come to us, we have to go to spring. That means down south, and that means Da Balkans. It was Aron's 15th birthday this week, and so to celebrate we headed down south. Zagreb, capital city of Croatia, doesn't care what the temeperature is. If the calendar says it is spring, than the whole city can be found outside sitting in outdoor cafes. (Or sitting in the hostel with pizza and Battlestar Galactica reruns on Dad's laptop.)One drawback to visiting Zagreb has always been the lack of inexpensive lodgings. The old Communist era Youth Hotel is undergoing reconstruction, so we chose one of the newer Youth hostels, the Mali Mrak. The last year has seen a bunch of hostels opening, and the Mali Mrak offered a spartan double room and a cosy living room. Since we were arriving after 11 pm, they even ordered a pizza, which was waiting for us on arival. That's the kind of service you expect at a five star hotel, not a hostel. Ahhhh... Croatia!Aron is always up for something new, so it was off top the Dolac Market for lunch. There is a row of cheap good food stands just below the market that offer burek, fried fish, squid, cevapi, and whatever a Croat could possibly want for lunch. Aron went with ribice, small sardines coated in corn meal and fried. He was not yet up to the Japanese method of eating them whole, bones and all, but did pretty well for a 15 year old. These babies were probably swimming in the Adriatic seven hours earlier and tasted fresh and clean. It helps that the Fish market is only 50 meters away.One of Croatia's big economic draws is tourism, especially to the Adriatic coast, and that means fish. Whole fish, however, are not cheap. The popular skarpina, or scorpionfish, below are 199 Kuna a kilo, whole. That is around USD $42 a pound. Double that if you are having them baked and served on a plate in a restaurant.Next to the skarpina are brancin (sea bass) for 100 Kuna a kilo, and giltheaded bream for 129 KN a kilo. The sad truth is that the Adriatic is getting fished out, and demand far exceeds supply for finned fish. The majority are sold to hotels and pricier restaurants. Most Croats settle for smaller fish such as sardines, or squid or octopus, which go for about $10 a kilo.Interestingly, Croatia has some of the best trout waters in Europe, especially in the mountainous zones near Bosnia. These farmed trout are from the Gacka river, one of Europe's best wild trout waters. The Gacka is one of the many Croatian and Bosnian rivers that actually benefited from the war era in the 1990s. Since so many rivers were mined to prevent troop movements in the valleys, they were neither stocked nor fished for over a decade, and wild trout bred unimpeded. Today you can fly fish on the Gacka and other streams, but there are still a lot of areas which still need to be cleared of mines.The Dolac Market is the main central marletplace for Zagreb's downtown. The upper level is a farmer's market, while below is a butcher and grocery market indoors. Just behind the market is the Zagreb Cathedral.The big difference between Croatian markets and what you can get in Hungary or anywhere's north of here is the preponderance of green vegtables. We simply cannot get greens in Hungary. Croats - particularly Dalmatians - eat a lot of swiss chard (blitva) and rucola.Croatian cuisine is deliciously schizoprenic. There is the Pannonian and Slavonian style of cooking, which is close to Hungarian and Central European cuisine with its use of lard, paprika, and beans. Then there is the Dalmatian diet, which is about as Mediterranean as it comes. Greens, fish, and olive oil. Croatian olive oil is some of the thickest and most distinctive I have tasted - these plastic bottles of oil come from small Dalmatian producers, and you can actually taste the salt sea flavor from olive groves located out on the Adriatic islands.Another Dalmatian creation is prsut, ham dried in the dry air of the mountains above the Adriatic. Like its Italian namesake, procisutto, it is slice in almost transluscent slices and eaten as an appetizer.Of course.... if you like something a bit more prosaic and down to earth, there are always sheep balls.We left the sheep balls for others and had a field day with the burek. If you think of Greek spinach pie, then cross it with lasagna, remove the spinach, and serve it fresh and hot you have burek. We can now get burek in Budapest, but the Burek stand at the Dolac market is a busy place, and all the burek comes hot from the oven. You have a choice of cheese burek or meat (lamb) burek. Burek is pretty much the same all over the Balkans - it is directly taken from Turkish culture and doesn't need much improvement. Bulgarain banitsa, perhaps, is the one burek style that I never took a great liking to - usually dry and miserly, and while Turkish burek will always be the apex of Ottoman phyllo-pastrydom in my heart, the Croats do damn good job on it as well.Aron agrees. He sat down to his plate of cheese burek and went into the kind of trance only a 15 year old can have on discovering something halfway between lasagna and pizza... crusty, noodle-y, meaty, cheesey, all at once. We had to order two servings. Best birthday cake ever.