Leaping into Croatia’s frog leg tradition
“To Croats, frog is not something strange or odd,” said Aleksandar Peša, co-founder of the Rijeka-based gastronomic tour company Taste of Adriatic. “But it is not an everyday dish.” Overlooked by waves of fir-covered mountains and toothy limestone outcroppings, I drove with Peša and his partner Vedran Obućina up to Delnice, the largest town in Gorski Kotar, and the location of Hotel Risnjak. In its rustic, 90-year-old dining room, I dined on frogs three ways: wrapped in bacon, smothered in a mild gorgonzola sauce, and deep fried – the last being the most popular preparation of frog in Gorski Kotar. The Risnjak served more than just the legs – the frogs arrived with their torsos, making the entree appear as a plate full of little pairs of high-waisted pants (there is very little meat on the torso, however). A glass of babić, a dry red from northern Dalmatia, played well with the bacon-wrapped offering, while a crisp malvazija, a white from the nearby Istrian peninsula and a variety grown in the area since before Roman times, paired delightfully with the latter two.
Every fourth weekend in April, Gorski Kotar celebrates the frog’s role in their cuisine with Žabarska Noć, or Frog Night, which features a frog-jumping contest. After each contestant’s frog is placed in the centre of a platform painted with measured concentric circles, the contestant attempts to make the amphibian jump the farthest without touching it. Making funny faces at the frog is allowed and encouraged.
“My husband could not believe that I was carrying a frog in my hands,” said Silvija Sobol, one of Hotel Risnjak’s managers. Win or lose, all the amphibious competitors are pardoned from becoming the night’s dinner special. For visitors looking for a less hands-on experience, the Muzej Žaba (Frog Museum), in the town of Lokve, 5km southwest of Delnice, has a vivarium with live frogs, educational exhibits covering the frog’s life from egg to tadpole to adult, and samples of the Gorski Kotar drink known as Žablje krvi, which translates to frog’s blood (an amphibian-free liqueur made from blueberries).
Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is 120km northeast of Delnice and more than 500km north of the Neretva Delta. But the capital, having absorbed Croatians from every region of the country, has also absorbed their culinary influences. Homesick Dalmatians and curious travellers alike can enjoy a taste of the delta at Konoba Didov San, a restaurant serving Dalmatian-style dishes in Gornji Grad (Upper Town). I concluded my Croatian frog tour here with grilled frogs wrapped in house-made prosciutto, the dish’s porcine element adding a salty luxuriousness to the amphibians. For an all-Dalmatian meal, opt for a bottle of plavac mali, a close relative to zinfandel from southern Dalmatia. Due to the small number of tables in Didov San’s cosy dining room, partitioned by arched, brick-lined thresholds, reservations are recommended. (Didov San’s other Zagreb location, in the neighbourhood of Kazerica, is larger and has the same menu and decor).
Frog may not yet be challenging such Croatian culinary classics as gulaš (a favourite since Croatia’s years as part of Austria-Hungary) and char-grilled branzino, but from the hands of a Croatian chef you can experience flavour as wild as it gets without having to bring your own torch.
Taste of Adriatic offers day- and multi-day gastronomic excursions in Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, Gorski Kotar and Lika. Vacation in Dubrovnik offers custom-made tours to destinations such as Split, Hvar and Mostar (including an optional stop in the Neretva Delta for lunch).