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.

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.”

– Anton Kovač

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 near Split
Croatian islands mingle in the Adriatic Sea.
Winemaker Kozjak Mountain
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.
Kozjak Split Croatia
Shawn and me.
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.
Split Croatia Winemaker Putalj
Using his vineyard clippers, Anton chivalrously snips off a branch for me to use as a hiking stick to traverse the rugged terrain.
Kastela Rocky Terrain Kozjak
Shawn negotiates the rocky terrain (left) and large boulders (right).
Kozjak Mountain Putalj Wall Remants
Remnants of stone terraces. Fear of the encroaching Ottoman Empire caused these vineyards to be abandoned more than 500 years ago.
Kozjak Mountain Kastela Croatia
The Adriatic Sea and Split off in the distance.
Sv Jurga Church Kastela Croatia
The Church of St. George.
Sv Jurga Church Putalj Kastela Croatia
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.
Sv Jurga Church Putalj Kastela Croatia
Spring blooms and berries, and plaques on the church making note that the church was built by Mislav of Croatia, a 9th-Century duke.
Putalj St. George Kastela Sucurac Croatia
Shawn, Srđan, and Anton.
Kozjak Mountain Split Croatia
Kozjak Mountain’s rugged terrain contrasted by ethereal clouds.
Putalj St. George Church Kastela Sucurac Croatia
Remnants of the original 9th Century church structure were incorporated into the newer church’s construction.
Kozjak Split Mountain Goat Croatia
With the exception of a flock of goats and their shepherd passing by, all was quiet at our perch overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
Kastela Putalj St. George Church Kozjak
Shawn stands in front of the tiny church (left) and sunset views (right).
Putalj St. George Church Kastela Croatia

Kozjak Mountain Split Croatia Putalj
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.
Kozjak Mountain Croatia Adriatic Sunset
A parting sunset view from the mountain before we return to sea level.
Croatian Cheese and Zinfandel Rosé Wine
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.
Octopus Peka Croatia
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.
Making Fire for Octopus Peka
Anton readies the fire so that the burning wood can be placed over the bell to cook the peka.
Octopus peka hobotnica
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.
Octopus peka hobotnica in fire
Anton brushes aside the embers as he prepares to remove the lid and unveil the peka.
Octopus Peka in Fire

Octopus Peka Croatia

Anton Kovacs Kastela winemaker Peka
Anton shows off the dish of Octopus Peka, amidst walls adorned with paintings of Dalmatian maritime scenes.
Octopus Peka Croatia
I had to keep my fellow diners’ forks away long enough to capture this shot of the peka before it landed on their plates. :)
Crljenak Kastelanski Zinfandel Wine
Anton pours ruby-red glasses of Crljenak Kaštelanski (Zinfandel) to taste directly from the fermentation tanks.
Split Wine Tasting Croatia

Split Wine Tasting Putalj Winery
Anton, me, and Shawn.
Wine Fermentation Room Temperature
Temperature controls in Anton’s fermentation room.
Anton Kovac Kastela winemaker
Split Wine Tasting Croatia Putalj Winery

Our Video of This Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • 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? My Croatia guide offers more details, including a round-up of all my posts from Croatia.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. My husband, Shawn, created the video.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

18 thoughts on “Delicious History: Zinfandel Wine & Octopus Peka in Kaštela, Croatia

  1. Oh, the octopus looks so tasteeeeeeeee :D Had some last night on Good Friday but it wasn’t that good although the octopus salad I made was fingerlicking good : Happy and Blessed Easter, Tricia to you and your loved ones and to all who visit your blog!

    1. Greetings Ina, is that an Easter weekend tradition for you, or which dishes are customary in Croatia for Easter?

      Thank you for the holiday greetings. Sending warm Easter wishes to you and your family as well! :) Sretan Uskrs!

  2. Your posts are pure magic…the opening photo was tremendous, what an incredible environment. An great video/voice, although I was expecting a little a cappella/klapa from you as well…especially with the wine :-) Have a great weekend.

    1. Randall, “pure magic” – such flattering words. I’m humbled. Mother Nature had a hand in making this scenery look as utterly fantastic as it is though. :) I agree that those mountains (part of the Dinaric Alps) in the opening scene are dramatic, especially during the golden hour when their rugged beauty is highlighted. When we went to Italy’s Adriatic Coast a few weeks ago, we noted that the landscape is much flatter than Croatia’s coastline.

      As for the klapa, I have heard that there are female singers in Croatia; perhaps I can join a troupe when we next return. I did take voice lessons as a child, but my voice instructor would cringe now. :) Wish you a happy weekend as well – do you have any photography sessions planned?

  3. You had me at three things: the scenery, the fresh cheese, and the fresh octupus! I already have a healthy appetite for food and scenery. Thanks for writing about this beautiful place in Croatia!

    1. Henry, we’ve been to this stunning spot twice, and each time as I soaked up its beauty, I couldn’t help but think that I hope that the slopes won’t be developed someday. Growing indigenous grapes there could be fitting and aesthetically-pleasing, though – just no high-rise structures.

    1. Darlene, I was initially concerned about what the texture would be like, but after cooking for nearly two hours, the octopus was tender and perfect. Fitting that on this chilly winter day, we warmed ourselves by the open fire, while enjoying great food, wine, and conversation.

    1. Peri, agreed! There’s something about al fresco dining that makes even the simplest meal extraordinary. On this particular afternoon, the weather on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast unfortunately didn’t cooperate for an outside dining experience, but with a glass of wine in hand and a warm fire in the room, we had a wonderful afternoon.

      On a side note, your tempting Indian recipes remind me once again to share the tales from our Indian cooking class in Kerala. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. :)

      1. One of the best parts of weather is it makes you live in the moment, glad you made the most of it:)

        Look forward to reading about the cooking class in Kerela, what fun!

  4. That is very interesting. I never heard of cooking a meal by making a fire above it until now. That’s cool! Going into a winery and tasting wine from the tanks is a very interesting thing to do. I did that once on the North Fork of Long Island. It was very interesting and educational.

    1. Gerard, I agree that it’s a dramatic cooking technique. The first time we saw it was elsewhere in Croatia when another friend cooked a similar dish in a massive fireplace that looked like it belonged in a Renaissance-era home. With its tender texture, peka’s the perfect dish for a chilly afternoon, something that we’re experiencing in Germany today. :)

      Do you recall what types of wine you sampled directly from the tanks on Long Island?

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