First the bad news: Croatia is no longer a best-kept secret. But, the good news is that it if you’re a lover of Tuscany, you’re going to fall head-over-heels for northern Croatia. I find Croatia’s Istrian peninsula (which borders Italy) has a Tuscan feel reminiscent of the Tuscany I found during my first visit in the mid-1970’s…before this spectacular countryside became the darling poster-child of all of Italy. Much of the Tuscany I loved is no longer. Istria, however, catapults me back to the Tuscan countryside of 40 years ago with its jaw-dropping rolling hills dotted with castles, boutique wineries, artisanal olive oil producers, and a flourishing foodie scene---all with significantly fewer tourists and surrounded by a blow-your-mind coastline of epoch beauty.
Like Tuscany, Istria has a long tradition of wine-making. Similarly to Tuscany, it focused for years on quantity rather than quality. In Italy, the change came in the 1980’s as the Tuscans began experimenting with international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and adopting stringent quality control practices. In Croatia, the quality initiatives didn’t begin until post-communism in the 1990’s, when a wave of young Croatian winemakers began pushing the envelope. Applying the latest wine technology, hiring well-known international wine consultants and reducing their yields, the Croats started winning international awards paralleling what the Tuscans had done earlier.
The same can be said for olive oil, another staple of Tuscany. The Istrian peninsula has always depended on olive oil for its cuisine, but, like its Tuscan counterpart following World War II, the quality could have been better. In the last 20 years, >145 olive oil producers have sprung up in Croatia’s Istria…most of them small-scale, but all focused on the best extra-virgin oil.
Croatia’s breathtaking seaside is not the only added bonus when compared to Tuscany. The Istrian peninsula has a magic gastronomic bullet that Tuscany does not---the much coveted white truffle. Referred to as “white diamonds” in the culinary world, white truffles do not grow in Tuscany (black truffles, which are present in Tuscany, are much inferior to the white).
Now that the secret is out, I hope that you can join us on our trip to this special part of Croatia before the hordes of tourists change it like they’ve changed my beloved Tuscany. Check it out at http://www.wineknowstravel.com/.