(Note: I first visited the Dalmatia Wine Expo in Split, Croatia two years ago in 2014. You can read my 2014 “Three Things I Learned” post HERE.)
Drinking wine could be compared to reading a book. Some books, like some wines, serve as mere entertainment, devoid of depth and enjoyed in a moment. Quickly they fade into the past without commemoration or recall.
Great books, though, capture and captivate your imagination. Glued to the page, each word enthralls…every sentence propels you deeper into the folds, eager to know what comes next…how the plot develops…what happens to the characters. The best among them may even influence and affect your life’s journey.
Late Monday night, a savage wildfire consumed large swaths of scrub pine, olive and fig trees, and vineyards on the Pelješac peninsula in Dalmatia, one of Croatia’s most renowned wine-growing regions, leaving as many as 600 hectares of rocky landscape–as well as cars and some homes–blackened and charred at the height of the tourist season.
Especially hard hit was the area around the tiny seaside hamlet, Trstenik—home of the world-famous Grgić Vina, a winery founded by legendary—and Croatian-born—Napa Valley winemaker, Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford, CA.
Sensory overload. That is how I would describe any one of my whirlwind visits to Croatia.
I mean it in a positive way. The country is simply brimming with vinous, culinary and natural delights. Gnarly old grapevines improbably clinging to sun baked seaside slopes. Nearly 1,200 islands sprinkled like seashells on the impossibly blue Adriatic. Countless villages and hamlets of seminal charm nestled in coves and on mountainsides. Fresh caught seafood and farm-to-table produce so succulent and cooked to perfection. The warm faces of family, old friends and new acquaintances (and an occasional donkey). Swoon-worthy views and secret spots where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature that – to this New York City boy – are so intimate, pure and wonderful.
And then there is the wine. Indigenous grapes, local producers. Most of it delicious and distinct. So this is what all this beauty… this land…this Croatia tastes like, you may be inspired to declare.
Located on the Pelješac peninsula along the Adriatic Sea in Dalmatia, Postup is Croatia’s second oldest geographically protected wine-growing appellation (granted in 1963), lying just northwest of its more famous sister region, Dingač.
Like Dingač, Postup is home to the Plavac Mali grape and produces bold, powerful, sometimes off-dry to slightly sweet wines such as the benchmark Postup Mare from Bura-Mrgudić.
Accessible through a dark, single-lane, 400 meter-long tunnel and curvy, mountain-hugging road (in photo), Dingač is Croatia’s oldest geographically protected wine-growing appellation – since 1961.
On the steep, southwest-facing slopes on the Pelješac peninsula, Plavac Mali grapes ripen in the blazing sun and are usually harvested between late September and early October.
Wines labeled “Dingač” may only be made from Plavac Mali grapes grown on these slopes along the Adriatic Sea. They are bold, dark wines with expressions of sun baked black fruit, cherries, dried fig and cranberries, roasted Mediterranean herb, coffee, and sometimes salty minerality.
Leading producers of Dingač wines are Bartulović, Bura, Kiridžija, Madirazza, Matuško, Miličić, Radović, Saints Hills, Skaramuča, and Vinarija Dingač.
Borak is one of two villages on the Pelješac peninsula near Dingač. The other is Potomje.
In recent years you could say that a cookbook renaissance has taken place. While catch-all cookbooks are still popular, such as the iconic Essential New York Times Cookbook, the heirloom Betty Crocker Cookbook, and the mandatory Cook Illustrated Cookbook, regional and single-subject cookbooks have become all the rage.
I guess it may have started with Julia Child’s opus called Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which made the mysteries of snobby French cuisine accessible to housewives and aspiring chefs casting about in kitchens across America and elsewhere.
Today other testaments to regional cooking abound on the shelves of bookshops and – I suppose – digital libraries. The Silver Spoon comes immediately to mind, the heavyweight tome to Italian cuisine.
But regional explorations have progressively drilled down from the macro to the micro level, as interest in cooking has mushroomed and serious-minded cooks seek out authenticity, uniqueness and novelty to set their recipes and menus apart from the common or mundane. Call it the need for terroir in pot and on plate.
Whatever you call it, at the core this trend is surely based in primal human desires for discovery, for reward, for excitement, for something safe and satisfying to eat. But it also registers at a more intellectual level and raises the banner of a movement that seems to be well underway – not just in the culinary experience but also in wine: the urge to experience a sense of place in what we consume; and a rejection of generic, industrial and chemically-farmed products that so litter supermarkets and many mainstream restaurants.
“Eat Local” is the mantra of this movement. “Sustainability”, “organic”, “artisanal”, “small batch”, “handmade” are some of the buzz words that drive the message home. The point is, to increasing numbers of people, cooking is no longer just a function that precedes eating. It is passion; it has meaning; it should be creative yet wholesome; it needs to provide enjoyment, fulfillment, and healthy nourishment; it should be respectful of tradition yet never be dull or generic; and it should showcase and celebrate seasonal ingredients and – when possible – locally-grown products.
And thus we arrive at Fire Island, where authors Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (aka, the World Wine Guys), in The Fire Island Cookbook(Atria Books), present us with 14 different menus born out of recipes acquired on their worldly journeys as food and wine writers. Each recipe strives to incorporate fresh ingredients that visitors to the Long Island, NY summer seaside hideaway would find at the local groceries, butcher shops, and fish and vegetable markets during the summer season. And each recipe comes with a sachet of secret spices: Mike and Jeff’s exceptional presentation, inspired sense of hospitality, and delightful food and wine pairing talents.
Within its colorful and appealing pages The Fire Island Cookbook offers a smorgasbord of breezy menu suggestions for an array of tastes and a variety of occasions, such as a “Noche Caliente Spanish Dinner”; “Rainy Day French Menu”; Fourth of July Pool Party”; “Mediterranean Odyssey”; “Villa in Tuscany”, to name just a few.
However, the menu that caught my attention was (of course) “Height of the Empire”, a collection of hearty recipes that hail back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The flavors here are rich yet simple, piquant and savory, rustic yet comforting. Most interestingly, while these recipes reflect the traditional cuisine of the continental, southeast Europe, the wines that Mike and Jeff pair with them are coastal, specifically from the Istria and Dalmatia regions of Croatia.
Kicking off the menu is a recipe for Panfried Quail with Kielbasa-Studded Orzo, paired with Saints HillsNevina, a blend of malvasia istriana and chardonnay from the Istria region of northern coastal Croatia.
Next is Viennese Stuffed Peppers, paired with MatoševićGrimalda red, another Istrian wine that is a blend of merlot and teran.
Crowning the feast of the Empire is Chicken Paprikash with Homemade Butter Dumplings, paired with an equally noble wine, Saints Hills Dingač, made from plavac mali grapes grown at one of Croatia’s most prestigious vineyards on the Pelješac peninsula along Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline.
Whether or not you visit one of the 1,100+ islands in Croatia or Fire Island, NY this summer, it doesn’t matter. All you need to do is open The Fire Island Cookbook and you will be transported to a breezy seaside resort where everything tastes good and it doesn’t matter if it is sunny or rainy.
And even if you are a novice cook or making the best of it in a cottage kitchen, have no worries: the book is written in such a way that you feel as though Mike and Jeff are there with you, guiding you through each step while telling stories of their travels and pouring you another glass of that delicious Croatian wine they discovered on their last trip.
Throughout its pages The Fire Island Cookbook projects practical know-how kitchen-tested experience, all peppered with a touch of romance and giddiness that only summer by the sea can inspire, and exudes the warm hospitality for which Mike and Jeff are so known and loved.
Giving it additional gravitas in a world rife with cookbooks of every ilk, The Fire Island Cookbook successfully embraces locavore philosophy while weaving in an appreciation for exotic and exquisite treats from foreign lands. And that, my friends, is a recipe for summer patio yumminess.
As they say in Croatia, “Dobar tek i zivjeli” (Good appetite and cheers!)