One of the most popular meals in Croatia’s Dalmatia region is peka, a blend of vegetables and meat drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with herbs, and then baked to perfection under a bell-like dome, or ispod čripnje. You’ll see it listed on menus throughout the region, and if you are lucky enough to be invited into the home of a Dalmatian family, it’s likely that you’ll feast upon it for dinner. It is traditional for Dalmatians to cook peka in their fireplaces at home. Many Croatian families, especially those in the countryside, even have a special oven outdoors for cooking.
During our seven-week sojourn in the delightful seaside town of Trogir, we stayed in a holiday apartment above the Pizzeria Mirkec, which many locals regularly referred to as “the best pizzeria in town.”
Whenever we left our second-floor studio apartment, our olfactory glands were hit with a blend of mouth-watering aromas emanating from the pizzeria. Since I am a gluten-free diner, I did not get to feast upon the pizza or pasta (which my husband, Shawn, still raves about) but one afternoon we did get to enjoy the peka. Since it was a relatively quiet spring day, the staff even showed us how to put together a mouth-watering peka. Lucky for me, it was naturally gluten-free too.
First, Anita washed and sliced a brilliant mélange of vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onions, and zucchini, arranging them in a flat, round tray. Then, she massaged the chicken, lamb and veal with olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley and bay leaves, adding them to the vegetable mixture. She garnished the dish with sprigs of fresh rosemary – the ubiquitous Mediterranean herb that is planted in seemingly every Croatian homeowner’s garden. I’m envious that they can grow it year-round!
With the Pizzeria Mirkec’s wood-burning fire already glowing, and churning out the pizzas that are so beloved with Trogir locals, Anita and the pizzeria’s co-owner, Ivan, carefully placed the peka tray into the oven. Then, they topped the dish with the cripnja, a bell-like lid. Adorning the front of the oven’s chimney was Trogir’s ancient symbol – the Greek Kairos. In Greek mythology, Kairos serves as a reminder to seize life’s fleeting moments – those opportunities when something special can happen.
While we waited for the peka to bake, we enjoyed glasses of red Babić wine, which co-owner Ivan made himself, and talked to the staff about what it is about peka that they like so much.
Their responses had an air of confident brevity.
Ante, one of many staff members whom we’d come to enjoy talking to during those weeks simply said, “It is the most special Dalmatian food.”
Mirko added that peka is the “number one home-cooked meal.”
They explained that though peka is often made in cast-iron dishes today, it was traditionally cooked in earthenware dishes.
Throughout the cooking process, as if heeding the Kairos’ message from overhead, Anita and Mirko checked on the peka, ensuring that it was moist enough. About three quarters of the way through the baking process, Anita and Ivan stirred the meat and added some white wine. Within 15 minutes, we were ushered to Pizzeria Mirkec’s seaside tables, in the shadow of great palm trees. We were eager to taste the hearty Dalmatian dish.
Neither Shawn nor I did much talking initially, because we wanted to savor the incredible flavors and the peka’s exquisitely-tender texture. The dish was wisely paired with a salad (sliced cabbage, beets, cucumber and lettuce) and pita-like bread. It was utterly fantastic. I found myself so relaxed afterwards, after enjoying fantastic food, special wine and Dalmatian sunshine, that I returned to our studio apartment and took a power nap. Talk about comfort food!
If you find yourself in Dalmatia, I encourage you to try peka, and if you’ll be in Trogir, do stop by the Pizzeria Mirkec. If you want to eat peka, be sure to give them two to three hours’ notice, or touch base with them the day before to place your order.
For those of you with a culinary sense of adventure, a basic recipe for peka follows. Shawn also crafted a fun how-to video for making peka, which is included below.
Dobar tek! (Enjoy your meal.)