Delicious History: Zinfandel Wine & Octopus Peka in Kaštela, Croatia
As our friend’s car propelled us up the jagged slopes of Kozjak Mountain in Croatia’s Dalmatia region, we struggled to steady our cameras enough to document the increasingly-magnificent view. Simultaneously fearing for the health of my friend’s tires which risked being ruptured on the rocky dirt road, I marveled at the panorama along this stretch of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. In the late-afternoon sunlight, the Adriatic Sea twinkled, and despite technically being wintertime, it called us to take a plunge. The limestone hills overlooking seaside Split and Kaštela wore a blend of foliage. Some trees sported withering, rust-colored leaves from the past season, and others prematurely exhibited pastel blooms and berries. As our Croatian friends had been telling us for weeks, the winter had been unusually warm, raising concern that the flora would be adversely impacted should another cold snap roll in. Given that so many locals dabble in the Mediterranean tradition of winemaking and olive oil production, this did not come as a surprise.
On these hills overlooking Croatia’s Dalmatia region, we’d come to continue our search for Zinfandel’s genetic roots along with winemaker Anton Kovač and wine enthusiast and entrepreneur, Srđan Mitrović. A year earlier when we’d met the duo on a wine tour, they’d regaled us with tales of the hunt for Zinfandel’s roots, tossing out names like Crljenak Kaštelanski (the Zinfandel grape’s Croatian name) and Mike Grgich. They had also piqued our curiosity when they pointed to a church off in the distance which once contained records that attested to Zinfandel having been grown in the area for at least 1,000 years. We wanted very much to visit that little church upon spotting it, but time did not allow during our first visit. On this day, we fulfilled our vow to return.
Once we’d started exploring the area on foot and arrived at the church, Srđan and Anton told us about the history of the area.
“In the 9th Century, the village of Putalj and the Saint George Church were built here. Over time, the boundary between the Venetian and Ottoman Empires crossed through here. In the 15th century, fearing for their security, the residents abandoned the area and moved closer to the sea, settling in present-day Kaštel Sućurac,” Anton explained.
Though he’d been to the picturesque spot many times, Anton still exuded enthusiasm during our maiden visit – perhaps not surprising since Anton’s winery, Putalj, acquired its name from the church, along with its logo of St. George slaying a dragon.
During our three months in Split, we’d have several weekend meet-ups with Anton at his Kaštel Sućurac winery, trying his fantastic wine straight from the barrels and tanks, and savoring a bottle while enjoying one of Dalmatia’s signature dishes known as peka. Though initially apprehensive about trying an octopus version of this dish, which is famously cooked under a bell-like lid in a wood-burning fire, I was rewarded for my culinary sense of adventure. Like all the vegetables cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection under the bell, the octopus was tender and buttery-flavored.
As we enjoyed that meal, we chatted about Anton’s passions, namely winemaking and even olive oil-production but also klapa, a kind of a cappella singing that’s incredibly popular in Dalmatia.
“I started singing when I was born,” Anton joked, as we swirled our glasses of garnet-colored Zinfandel. “Along with seven other men from my town we have klapa practice twice a week.”
With the subject inevitably turning to wine, I asked Anton how long his family had been making wine.
Anton mentioned that his grandfather had immigrated to California for a time, eventually recognizing that some of the same types of grapes as he’d known in Croatia were being grown across the ocean.
“He had a good wine business during prohibition times, but eventually returned to Croatia. My family has worked with wine for several generations, and I studied it, but no one can teach you like your experience. Experience is the best teacher.”
Croatian islands mingle in the Adriatic Sea.
Winemaker Anton Kovač (far right), Shawn, and friend and wine enthusiast Srđan Mitrović pause on Kozjak Mountain, just before we begin our descent toward the tiny Church of St. George. Documents inside the church confirm that Zinfandel had been grown in the area for at least 1,000 years.
The Church of St. George (Sv. Jurga) overlooks the Split metropolitan area and the town of Kaštel Sućurac, which is situated along the Adriatic Sea. Kaštel Sućurac is one of seven settlements that cropped up around castles. Collectively today, the seven towns are referred to as Kaštela. In past centuries, the diminutive church overlooked a village named Putalj. Putalj was later abandoned and its residents moved closer to the sea, building present-day Kaštel Sućurac.
Using his vineyard clippers, Anton chivalrously snips off a branch for me to use as a hiking stick to traverse the rugged terrain.
Remnants of stone terraces. Fear of the encroaching Ottoman Empire caused these vineyards to be abandoned more than 500 years ago.
The church was closed during our visit, but peeking through a peep hole in the wooden door, we were able to see the altar and gold-tinted artwork depicting the church’s namesake, St. George, slaying a dragon. Anton drew inspiration from this image of St. George and incorporated it into his wine label’s design. His Putalj Winery is also named after the village whose residents this little church once served.
Spring blooms and berries, and plaques on the church making note that the church was built by Mislav of Croatia, a 9th-Century duke.
Kozjak Mountain’s rugged terrain contrasted by ethereal clouds.
Remnants of the original 9th Century church structure were incorporated into the newer church’s construction.
With the exception of a flock of goats and their shepherd passing by, all was quiet at our perch overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
With the winter sun soon beginning its slumber, we head back to the cars so that we can descend via the rugged roads before darkness sets in.
A parting sunset view from the mountain before we return to sea level.
At Anton’s home we enjoyed two types of Dalmatian cheese from the hinterland (one made from aged cows’ milk and another made with sheep milk) and an impressive flight of wine. On the right is a glass of Anton’s Zinfandel Rosé.
The peka before being popped into the wood-burning fire under a bell-like dome. Anton included octopus, known as hobotnica in Croatian, as well as sliced tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, peppers and copious amounts of olive oil.
Anton readies the fire so that the burning wood can be placed over the bell to cook the peka.
Anton mentioned that peka is one of his favorite dishes and that he and his family usually have it twice a month. “I see history in the fire while making it,” he said.
Anton brushes aside the embers as he prepares to remove the lid and unveil the peka.
Anton shows off the dish of Octopus Peka, amidst walls adorned with paintings of Dalmatian maritime scenes.
I had to keep my fellow diners’ forks away long enough to capture this shot of the peka before it landed on their plates. :)
Anton pours ruby-red glasses of Crljenak Kaštelanski (Zinfandel) to taste directly from the fermentation tanks.
Temperature controls in Anton’s fermentation room.
Our Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
- To schedule an individual or customized excursion like this one, touch base with Anton and the Art of Wine.
- 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, guests 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 Croatian holiday? 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.