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A culinary tour through Croatia

BY JOHN BLANCHETTE Modified: August 27, 2012 at 11:22 am •  Published: August 27, 2012

When English writer Geoffrey Chaucer described April as the welcomed month, ending the drought of March and bringing forth spring flowers and new growth, he might have been talking about Croatia.

When I visited the skies had opened up, bathing the land in much-needed rain and returning nature's bounty. Lilacs, narcissus, crocus daffodils and budding fruit trees were lending fragrance to the air.

The farmlands were sprouting and the glorious nightingales were celebrating the new season of hope and expectation. At any time of year, this is a destination worth a visit.

It has been 17 years since the fighting in the War of Independence ended, but scars are still visible amidst the new blooming economy and the return of tourism. Bullet-riddled homes and buildings pepper the landscape, even in Zagreb, the country's capital.

Some are left as reminders, others have been repaired or are in the process of healing, and still others have been abandoned and are fading slowly into the landscape. More than 12,000 Croatians died in the conflict and 40,000 were wounded.

Croatia is about the size of West Virginia and shaped something like a turkey wing, with the Adriatic's Dalmatian Coast pointing down toward Dubrovnik at the feather tip and Zagreb lying just east of the crook in the wing.

The country lies across from Italy, bordered to the north clockwise by Slovenia, Hungary and Serbia. Tucked under the wing is Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro shares a slip of land on the Adriatic. The country is 87 percent Catholic, and English is widely spoken.

I was there to explore the continentally influenced central and eastern regions. This is the breadbasket of the nation, formed between the Danube and Sava rivers, which flood the farmlands on a regular basis, leaving nutrient-rich deposits that over the years have created a deep, rich black topsoil in the Slavonia plain.

It grows amazing produce from potatoes to tomatoes, grains to fruits, greens and grasses for animals who graze in the meadows. Delicious cheeses are a result. It's also where the oil deposits are located.

The proximity to the Adriatic provides an abundance of seafood, and the love of pork produces some delicious hard sausages, especially the spicy kulen, which is ubiquitous and hangs from rafters throughout the country. The local farmers markets are filled with produce from these fertile fields.

Nearly a million people live in the capital and surrounding area, one-fourth of the country's population. The nation has the most dynamic economy of any of the post-Yugoslavia countries and is slated to join the European Union in 2013.

Among its more noted accomplishments, Croatia quarried the stone used to build the White House in the United States. The tie (cravat) was invented here along with the fountain pen and the mechanical pencil, and the country's greatest scientist was Thomas Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla, who has streets dedicated to him all over the country.

Zagreb is a sophisticated city with ornate buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. There are several major museums, a symphony hall and an opera house along with broad squares and avenues. Myriad coffeehouses, cafes and pastry shops offer their wares, and the city is made more beautiful by statuary, an arboretum and manicured parks that make up "the green horseshoe," which spreads in an arch around the city.

I had arrived during the Annual Wine Gourmet Weekend, so thousands jammed the venues over the three-day event, which featured hundreds of vineyards. These sophisticated growers make world-class wine, especially the whites.

It is also here that the Zinfandel grape had its origin. It was brought to Italy's southern boot region of Pulia and then transported to America in the mid 1800s, when emigrating Italian winemakers settled in California. It was a secondary grape that never reached its full potential in Europe but was perfected in America.

Croatian-born winemaker Mike Grgich was one of the winemakers to put America on the map in 1976 at an infamous tasting in Paris, when his Napa white from Chateaux Montelena and Stag Leap's red beat the French in a blind tasting. George Taber, who covered the tasting for The Associated Press and chronicled it in "Judgment of Paris," which became the basis for the movie "Bottleshock," was also in town for the weekend.

My favorite Croatian wine is Grasevina, similar to a dry Riesling, and the beers are Pan, Karlovacko and Osjecko. Croatians are the 15th leading consumers of beer per capita. I had my share at the Bulldog pub in Zagreb. I also enjoyed the fruit brandies, called "Sljivovica."

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