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Food and Wine in the Baranja:
The Baranja is an agricultural area on the far East of Croatia, bordering Serbia and Hungary. The region produces a wide range of crops including apples, cherries, walnuts and hazelnuts. And of course, where there are hills there are vineyards. The first vineyards in the Baranja were planted by the Romans and it’s believed that even the name Baranja originates from the Hugarian words for wine (bor) and mother (anya).
The revival of the area came in the eighteenth century, when Eugene of Savoy was given a large estate in the Baranje by Leopold the First. He masterminded the development of the area, draining the swamps and clearing forest to create a fertile region. Some of the old swampland does remain in the form of a large wetland nature reserve, Kopački Rit, a sanctury for wildlife. We were hoping to visit, but sadly the area was badly flooded, closed to the public and we met with a police blockade.
Setting off from Osijek our first stop was to meet Goran Gusak at his 20 hectare organic farm. The land hasn’t been chemically treated now for thirty years, although Goran took the venture over much more recently in an escape from Osijek. He’s built the farmhouse and set up the farm to produce a whole range of traditional produce as well as rearing free range black pigs, goats, cattle the odd rabbit or fifty and more.
The farmhouse was filled with local school children learning about organic farming and generally enjoying a day out in the country. Would we like to take a trip around the farm by horse and cart? Well why not?
Another time I’ll bring a cushion! But it was an excellent way to see around the farm. The driver told us that the horses pulling the cart were mother and son. Both Lippizzaner, the black son was just old enough to have started to turn white (we learnt that Lippizzaner are born with a black coat, which turns white when they are around seven years old).
We also found a small group of traditional podolian cattle living an idyllic life in the apple orchard rather than having to forage in the forest.
Back at the farmhouse, we visited some of the animals, including these black piglets who seem to have decided that their lunch was of no interest at all and should be left to the visiting hen. And we took a look at the wonderful home that Goran built. Everything possible was made from local material. A wonderful place to visit, I left with an assortment of local produce including a jar of Croatia’s only organic honey.
We headed off for the Josic Cellar which Darko described as the ‘largest of the small vineyards in the area’ – between 20 and 27 hectares of vineyards. Josic produces mostly Grasavina and is an award winning vineyard, including holding a gold medal from Decanter for their Ciconia Nigra red wine.
I’m still trying to find a little more about the origin of Grasavina, which to me was almost like a cross between Chardonnay and Reisling. In this area of Croatia it is the dominant grape and there are various theories about the origin of the grape, none of which seem to be proven.
Established after the home war, on existing vineyards, the current owners at Josic have also built a welcoming restaurant that serves excellent local traditional food.
We enjoyed our lunch of carpaccio of duck
Followed by an amazing platter of barbecued meats. Darko was at pains to explain that kebabs were quintessentially Croatian food. And, of course, given the Ottoman heritage, that is really not suprising.
On our way to the Belje Cellar we stopped off at the Batina Battle Monument. The Second World War Battle of Batina in 1944 resulted in the death of nearly 1,300 Russian soldiers, but victory for the Allied forces of the Yugoslavian Partisans and Russians against the Germans.
The monument towers over the landscape and from this point we could see across the Danube to Serbia and Hungary. And the extent of the flooding in the area which had prevented us visiting Kopački Rit was obvious.
On to Belje, one of the largest producers of wine in Croatia with 650 hectares of vines, and part of an even larger business, The Agrokor Group, which is is the largest private company in Croatia. But they’ve kept an intimate feeling to the tasting rooms and cellar which was originally built in the 16th century as a prison.
Conversion to wine cellars happened in 1697. We were told that Belje had over 20,000 bottles of wines stored here and in their other cellar in 1991, but much of this was stolen during the Home War and when they could return to the Cellars there was just 6,000 bottles left, the oldest of which dates back to 1949.
We tasted a wide range of their wines including the premium and Goldberg wines. By this stage I’d developed something of a taste for Grasavina! Although Belje itself is a relatively new organisation, the vineyards have existed for thousands of years with the foundation for Bejle as it exists today, established by Price Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736).
From Belje we went on to Karanac, described on the scheduley as an ‘ethno village’. Dinner, in the restaurant of Baranjska Kuca was to be a traditional meal from the area. The place was quite magical and felt like stepping into the home of a private and rather eccentric historian.
A large garden with small buildings display some of the collections. You’ll find a cobbler, a mill room a traditional living room and a whole host of other ‘life as it was’ displays.
Back in the restaurant the owner’s eclectic collections continued, with old photos, agricultural tools, china and lace on display. And, on the open wood fire, our carp was gently cooking. Darko explained that this method produced a fish that was part smoked part roasted.
We started with Scrap and (in my case) a plum brandy. I have to say I’m never going to be the greatest fan of Scrap, which is very similar to pork scratchings, although perhaps a little more delicate in texture. But the home made plum brandy worked well as an accompaniment.
Then on to the Carp, as delicious as it looked with a very subtle smoky flavour complementing the flaky fresh water fish.
We also tried a little Kulen – although in honesty I wasn’t in need of anything more to eat at this stage. An utterly delicious paprika laced, smoked pork sausage, this was completely different to my preconception. Softer than most smoked sausages, but not to the point of being spreadable, it melts as you bite into it. And, the way it is slow smoked, seems to result in a very light and low fat meat.
I’m so glad that the food and wine lived up to my expectations. For the most part it wasn’t Michelin star style cookery, but the basic quality of food was excellent and fruit and vegetables had the kind of flavours I remember from my childhood.
I have developed a real taste for Grasavina, which is light, fragrant and delicate without being insipid. And, if I could recreate one dish at home It would be the smoked carp. Unlikely, but who knows, perhaps there’s a way to make something similar with a firepit and some freshwater fish.
With thanks to the Tourist Board of Croatia for hosting me on this trip
For more information on what to see and do in Croatia, please visit www.croatia.hr.
I stayed at Hotel Osijek which costs from £77 based on two people sharing a classic double room with breakfast. For more information or to book, please see here
I travelled with Easy Jet. One-way flights from London Gatwick to Zagreb cost from £32.99. For more information or to book, please visit www.easyjet.com