The Ascendancy of Venice

The word gastronomy is derived from Ancient Greek gastros "stomach", and nomos "knowledge" or "law". It is the study of relationship between culture and food. It is often thought erroneously that the term gastronomy refers exclusively to the art of cooking (the so called Culinary Art), but this is only a small part of this discipline: it cannot always be said that a cook is also a gourmet (taken from Wikipedia.org).

The istrian gastronomy faithfully reflects all of the historical, geographical and climatic characteristics of this area. The tumultuous past times considerably impacted the gastronomy as well. Various traditions are interlaced in the traditional cuisine, which founds its fundaments in the nature (self-propagating plants, aromatic condiments, seasonal vegetables, sea fruits…), and influences of Franc and German feudal authorities as well as the Roman food and that of the Slavic populations which arrival started in the 7th century, were imported. Certainly the greatest impact on istrian gastronomy was done by the Venetian gastronomy, which authority lasted in these areas almost for five centuries – until the year 1797.

The Venetian cuisine was extremely creative and various, also due to the fact that condiments coming from all over the world were used. Nothing unusual for a rich State with a powerful fleet and intense worldwide commercial relations: from the Northern Europe until the Far East. Thanks to such articulated commercial relations, the stockfish from the Baltic countries and rare condiments coming from Asia were normally found on Venetian tables. There were fresh vegetables from the surrounding mouths, game from the inner lands, olive oil and wine from Istria and the scampi coming from the Kvarner bay as well. Of course, the same was in reverse. The western istrian coastal cities of that period (Koper and Poreč), by means of Venice came in touch with many new fares, the stockfish included, but they also learned to adopt the new condiments: the popper, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the cloves and others. 

Considering that, at least in the beginning of the Serenissima, the fish in Venice was stigmatized as being popular or even poor people’s food – on the ways of preparing the fish and other sea fruits, it was possible to learn from the fishermen of Chioggia. On the contrary, those were bound to the istrian fishermen who were coming from the fishermen villages like Piran, Izola, Novigrad and Rovinj. There was also an exchange of knowledge in the preparation of the zuppa (dense soup), rižoto (rice) and buzara (sauce), from one side of the Adriatic, but also in that of burned crabs, stew made of shore crabs or common limpets, to the other. Such mutual imbuing has impacted the istrian coastal gastronomy until nowadays as well.

The Richness of Simple Cuisine

Differently from the coastal villages, the inner land of Istria was not so developed, neither gastronomically speaking various. Mostly populated by agricultural population, that part of Istria was distinguished by famine rather than by wellbeing. On his own land, the peasant produced just the indispensable, and prepared the food out of the available, considering that he hasn’t got enough resources to buy it. The bread was baked with the maize flour mixed with the barley flour or with another cereal. It was baked once or at the most twice a week in a baker’s oven or in the open fire-place – under the baking lid (čripnja). The white bread was eaten very rarely, mostly for Easter or in case of disease. 

The same was with the meat. The one quarter soup (one quarter of kilo of chicken meat) or the soup made by browning flour on lard with added water with sheep or cow’s cheese grated over, were prepared to the non serious convalescents. After the parturition, to women were given njoki (dumplings made of potatoes) with lettuce sauce (goulash made of poultry). The most common dishes were: porridge (maize or barley grits) with milk, sugar or wine; maneštra (thick soup with stewed potatoes, barley and bean) and potatoes baked in their jackets. Better food was consumed during church holidays and in times of hard field-works. 

Ravioli (dumplings made of pastry filled with cheese) and njoki poured over by the šugo (sauce) made of poultry, were regularly prepared for Christmas and Easter. Fuži (thin pastry cut in cubes and folded over) were also poured over by the šugo made of poultry and brought to the mowers in the field. Almost equal to a holiday was the day of slaughtering the pig. Butt-ends remained after cutting off the meat were broiled; the soup was made out of the bones of the pork and the unfailing food that day was the polenta s trobom (with the interiors of the pork). Interesting is the fact that, in many villages such polenta is still today called polenta alla Veneziana, that says a lot about its origin.

The istrian Cuisine Today

Many dishes originated from the famine today are experiencing their reawakening. Thus the onetime alimentation of the fishermen and the peasants nowadays is considered congruent to the principles of the most modern nutritionist’s trends. An alimentation rich of (prevalently blue) fish, with the prevalence of boiled, rather then baked dishes, abundance of fruit and vegetables, self grown plants, the use of olive oil and a moderate consumption of (mostly red) wine – are the main peculiarities of the Mediterranean cuisine, otherwise of a trendy movement: the Mediterranean way of life (the Mediterranean diet).

After leaving the concept of the so called mass tourism in 1995, upon the initiative of the Tourism board and the Department for tourism of the County of Istria, a new touristic offer, equally constituted by an attractive gastronomy is created. Numerous gastronomic events dedicated to the local aliments are organized and days dedicated to the various typical istrian products are held: truffles, mushrooms, cheese and honey, sausages and ombolo (pork thick neck), snails, pilchards, asparagus, chestnuts etc. Numerous taverns (konobas) have been opened where dishes are prepared in traditional ways: by the fire-place and under the baking lid. Exclusive restaurants with ever more and more specialized offer are sprouting out. 

The Gastronomic guide of Istria is regularly published starting from 1996 with a list of the best restaurants and taverns (konobas) in Istria, upon the rating of an independent commission. The attractiveness of the istrian gastronomy was further enhanced consequently to the protection of the dried istrian ham as an autochthon product, as well as by the popularization of the other istrian gastronomic icons: the white truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico), the scampi coming from the Kvarner bay, the cheese, the honey and the olive oil in particular.

Source: The istrian encyclopedia, Franko Lukež