Fresh Delights: A Cooking Class in Split, Croatia
Jakša Bedalov’s earliest winemaking memory was when he was just five years old. Tasked with cleaning his family’s fermentation room near the coastal Croatian city of Split, Jakša remembers his father pushing him so that he could squeeze into the small space. It was a challenging feat since he was a broad-shouldered child.
“It was like being in the womb all over again,” he jokingly recalled during our recent cooking class in Kaštel Kambelovac, just minutes from Split.
The experience of being squished into a contorted position must not have been too traumatic, since today, winemaking is one of Jakša’s great loves. Another passion is creating traditional Croatian cuisine. More specifically, dishes from Jakša’s native Dalmatia. Dalmatia is a region of Croatia extending along the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea.
Before we started preparing the day’s three dishes, our friend Jakša elaborated upon his cooking philosophy.
“As I get older, I revert to creating childhood dishes that I was once afraid of. When you’re young, you run away from broad beans, but today they’re one of my favorite ingredients,” Jakša explained through our friend and translator Srđan Mitrović. Srđan runs the Art of Wine, and has certainly been keeping us busy with things to do in Split these past weeks!
With travelers on restricted diets participating in Jakša’s and Srđan’s culinary experiences, Jakša also found that creativity and versatility were important traits for a recipe developer to possess. For our informal class that day, Jakša had designed a menu around my gluten-free dietary restrictions, and ‘selectarian’ meat preferences (I only eat seafood and poultry.)
Upon arrival, he greeted us with shots of Rakija (Croatia’s Grappa or brandy), coffee, and freshly-baked gluten-free bread made with corn and buckwheat flour. We immediately found the bread to be quite tempting; it was lucky I didn’t ruin my appetite before we even got started on eating the main courses!
When I asked Jakša about his favorite dishes, his facial expressions become immediately impassioned.
“I have ten favorite dishes – everything from Beef Pašticada, to dishes with lamb, broad beans, cabbage, and aged sheep’s milk cheese. They’re all divine!”
The common thread that weaves Dalmatian dishes together, Srđan explained, is Jakša’s use of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“Jakša has an Old World Mediterranean, simple cooking philosophy,” Srđan explained as we began our time in the kitchen. “The philosophy of Old World Mediterranean cooking focuses upon using fresh ingredients, whereas the New World philosophy is all about the chef.”
“Having vision is the key, since each ingredient has its own story,” Jakša added.
As Jakša pulled out red peppers from his arsenal of fresh produce, Srđan continued.
“Croatia’s Dalmatian dishes are light and simple, letting the main ingredients shine. You must start with good, quality ingredients, and that’s why we cook with what’s in season. Jakša’s veggies and spices are certified organic – they’re grown locally and in his garden.”
While swirling glasses of Maraština in the kitchen, I become increasingly curious about Jakša’s family history of winemaking.
I learned that Jakša’s family has been growing grapes for hundreds of years, with records showing that his ancestors have lived in the area for at least 800. Jakša explained that Kaštel Kambelovac and the surrounding towns used to be a wilderness, with Split’s Old Town as the only sizeable city nearby.
Eventually, we plated our carefully-prepared cuisine and took it into Jakša’s dining room, where we savored the delicious meal Jakša so patiently helped us create. We would remain there until the early evening hours, taking our cue from the melted-down candles that it was time to go. It was a fantastic day that gets me hungry just thinking about it!
Below, you’ll find our menu, as well as a recipe for Jakša’s incredible Zinfandel Risotto. If you try the recipe, I’d love to hear what you think.
Jakša’s cooking epitomizes the Slow Food movement, which aims to preserve local food traditions and raise awareness of the food people eat. In today’s fast-paced world, do you think this is do-able? If so, how do you incorporate such practices into your lifestyle?
As they say here in Croatia, Dobar tek – bon appétit!
Flight of Wine:
- Bedalov 2011 Maraština, 13.3% alcohol content. (Similar to Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc.)
- Bedalov 2012 Tribus, 14.2% alcohol content. (A blend of Zinfandel (Crljenak Kaštelanski), Plavac Mali and Dobričić.)
- Buckwheat & Corn Flour Bread
- Grilled Squid & Vegetable Salad: A vibrant-colored blend of cherry tomatoes, red peppers, corn, broad beans, chickpeas, and grilled squid drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.
- Zinfandel Risotto: Arborio rice slowly cooked with a blend of parsley and garlic, vegetable stock, and of course, Zinfandel wine. (Recipe at the bottom of this post.)
- Cuttlefish & Broad Beans: Broad beans and cuttlefish combined with a base of red onions, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and olive oil. Cuttlefish ink is added at end of cooking for aesthetic purposes, and to give the dish a bit of a salty kick.
We’ve found that most social engagements in Dalmatia commence with a shot of Rakija, which is similar to Grappa or brandy. In the restaurant’s entryway, Jakša showcases varieties he has made himself, ranging from pomegranate, to walnut, fig, tangerine and mulberry. A new batch of rakija is typically made just before the New Year.
Our friend and host for the afternoon, Jakša Bedalov. Jakša is a true Renaissance man. He is a culinary master and winemaker, and even makes his own olive oil. Whether developing recipes for vegetarians, gluten-free diners, or carnivores, Jakša believes in using the freshest ingredients possible. He specializes in recreating the traditional Dalmatian dishes that his grandparents would have made.
Sporting our aprons, Shawn, Srđan and I set off to create an afternoon feast comprised of three Dalmatian dishes: Vegetable & Squid Salad; Zinfandel Risotto; and Cuttlefish & Broad Beans.
As we diced and stirred our dishes in the kitchen, we also swirled and sipped glasses of Jakša’s own Maraština wine. Jakša is not only a winemaker, but he also makes his own olive oil, which you can see on the left. On the right, three important components of Dalmatian cooking: sea salt, parsley and garlic.
Jakša gets mischievous while slicing the red peppers for the Vegetable & Squid Salad.
While the cherry tomatoes are lightly sautéd, Jakša demonstrates how to massage the squid with copious amounts of his own olive oil prior to sautéing it.
Jakša’s homemade gluten-free bread, made with buckwheat and corn flour. We couldn’t resist nibbling it as we prepared our lunch dishes.
Caught in the act! Shawn tried to sneak back to the kitchen unnoticed, but I caught him with a square of Jakša’s bread in hand.
Next, we set to work making the Zinfandel Risotto. Instead of using rigid measurements, Jakša approximates amounts. Here, he adds in one fistful of rice per diner. On the right, he prepares the vegetable stock, which will be slowly stirred into the rice, to create a risotto with perfect consistency.
Srđan presents the finished Zinfandel Risotto. The aroma emanating from it was tantalizing, but we would have to wait until our last course was prepared to savor it.
Živjeli (Cheers!) Taking a break to sample the wine and practice our Croatian.
Jakša prepares the Cuttlefish & Broad Bean dish, our third course. The cuttlefish ink (on the right) is extracted in advance. Srđan explained that it lends a subtle salty flavor to a dish, but that it’s primarily added for aesthetic reasons.
The cuttlefish ink – the finishing touch – is added to the pan before Jakša plates the Cuttlefish & Broad Beans.
Now that the third course is complete, it’s just about lunchtime! The bay leaves are just about to be removed from this Cuttlefish & Broad Beans dish as we count the seconds until it’s time to feast.
Srđan hams it up for the camera, borrowing a medal that Jakša has won for his winemaking.
A 2011 bottle of Maraština wine from the Bedalov Winery graces a table dressed in Jakša’s trademark green and white checkered tablecloths. As Srđan explained, Maraština is an Old World varietal that’s similar to a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc. In Croatia, it’s grown from coastal Zadar in the north to Dubrovnik in the south. This bottle’s alcohol content was 13.3%
The first course: Vegetable & Squid Salad. It was studded with cherry tomatoes, red peppers, corn, broad beans, chick peas and grilled squid. The light sauce was made with lemon juice and olive oil.
Srđan and Jakša evaluate the wine. Behind them hang winemaking awards that Jakša has won, as well as a sepia-toned image of him hanging out at his vineyards 400 meters above the Adriatic Sea.
The second course: Zinfandel Risotto, garnished with a slice of red pepper and a grape leaf. Aside from its fantastic taste, what made it special was knowing that it was created using Jakša’s own Zinfandel, in a city where Zinfandel has been grown for more than 1,000 years.
The third course: Cuttlefish & Broad Beans, one of Split’s most traditional recipes. It consisted of a base of red onions, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and olive oil, coupled with broad beans and cuttlefish. Jakša has several friends that are fishermen; they drop off their catch at Jakša’s restaurant around six in the morning.
Srđan pours a glass of 2012 Tribus, a blend containing Zinfandel, Dobričić and Plavac Mali. This particular bottle had 14.2% alcohol content.
Toasting to a fun and memorable day.
Our Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
Jaksa’s Zinfandel Risotto
- 4 fistfuls Arborio rice (Jakša recommends that you use 1 fistful of rice per person)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely diced
- 2 large red onions (the reddest you can find), finely diced
- 1 handful parsley, finely diced
- 400 milliliters (about 2 cups) un-oaked, fresh Zinfandel. (You want a lighter Zinfandel, so use a newer vintage. Jakša recommends that you try to cook with a vintage that matches the current year.)
- ¾ of a liter stock (about 3.5 cups)
- pat of butter
- olive oil for sautéing
- salt & pepper to taste
- Sauté onions in olive oil.
- When the onion starts to turn yellow, add the parsley and garlic. Then add rice. Add more olive oil as needed.
- Sear the rice with the onion, garlic and parsley mixture for 2-3 minutes.
- On the side, heat ¾ liter vegetable stock.
- After you’ve seared the rice for a few minutes, pour in the Zinfandel. Stir. When the rice soaks up the Zinfandel, put in a small portion of the stock, little by little, while constantly stirring. Whenever the rice soaks up the liquid pour in more stock, then stir continuously. After 10-15 min, test the rice. It should be al dente or firm, about 2/3 of the way cooked. Turn off the heat, and remove risotto. Add a pat of butter to the risotto. Cover and let stand for 5-10 minutes. You can also add some Parmesan cheese during this step.
- Use salt & pepper to taste.
- Garnish. Jakša garnished our dishes with a piece of red pepper and one grape leaf.
- Pair with Zinfandel, preferably from the Bedalov Winery. :)
- You’re probably thinking that we’re lucky to count Srđan and Jakša among our circle of Croatian friends, and we are! If you’ll be in the Split area and also want to learn about Croatian food and wine, get in touch with them through the Art of Wine. When coordinating a cooking class or culinary experience, be sure to give them at least one day’s notice so they can source the freshest ingredients. Since I only eat gluten-free foods, and I’m a ‘selectarian’ meat eater, they customized our class to be naturally gluten free. They’ll also tailor experiences to meet the needs of vegetarians, vegans, extreme carnivores, etc.
- Shawn and I have spent two winters in Split, finding accommodation in apartments that would be packed during the summer months, but are practically empty during winter. During our first 2.5 months there, we stayed at the lovely Kaleta Apartments (affiliate link), which are located within Diocletian’s Palace. Our studio apartment (called the ‘Diocletian’s Suite’) featured much character, including Roman brickwork embedded into our wall, and overhead views of Split’s Old Town streets. Owners Novica and Negri were thoughtful citizen ambassadors too. Two years later, we returned to Split, staying in the charming Varoš neighborhood, which is known for its quirky stone homes sporting hunter-green shutters and flower boxes. For those 2 months, we stayed in quaint studio apartments at the Guesthouse F (affiliate link). We especially enjoyed our tiny terrace and the kindness of our hosts, Anja and Miro. One of Guesthouse F’s apartments was originally a horseshoe maker’s workshop, which previously belonged to Anja’s grandfather. Shawn and I dubbed it the ‘horseshoe cottage’.
- If you’ll be staying in Split for a few days, you might be interested in the Split Card, which gives you free entry to certain museums and galleries, and reduced rates to others. Back in 2014, people staying in Split for 3 days or more could pick up the Split Card for free, but as of 2016, there is a fee to purchase the card. The link above details the current cost, as well as the participating museums and businesses.
- Would you like more ideas as you plan your vacation in Croatia? This link contains an index of all my posts from Croatia.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. My husband, Shawn, created the video.