The hunters of the Neretva Delta had enjoyed a
fortunate night. Before me, about six dozen freshly skinned frogs, shiny and
headless, sat in a large bowl on the kitchen counter of family-owned Konoba Vrilo,
a restaurant in the town of Prud, near the delta’s edge in southern Croatia.
The special of the day was frog and eel brudet,
a rich, chunky stew seasoned with bay leaves and hot peppers. The delta was my first
stop on what would be a weeklong exploration of the frog fare of Croatia.
While frog has long been associated with French
gastronomy, it is gaining in popularity for visitors to Croatia, just a few
countries east of France on the Mediterranean. Konoba Vrilo, one of several
Neretva Delta restaurants specialising in serving frog from the surrounding
swamps and rivers, has long been popular with holidaymaking Croatians, aided by
its fortunate location. The delta lies on the route between two of southeastern
Europe’s most visited cities, Dubrovnik and Mostar, the former with its intact
city walls and the latter, in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, rich in Ottoman
Zoran Turajlic, co-founder of the tour company Vacation in Dubrovnik and a long time fan of the delta’s cuisine, makes stops along the
same Dubrovnik-Mostar route, introducing many of his foreign guests to frog
dishes along the way. “I must eat with my guests,” he insisted as he sat across
from me at Konoba Vrilo, matching my appetite frog for frog. The soft meat,
lower in both fat and cholesterol than chicken, resembles rabbit with notes of
An unsettled history
There are conflicting accounts on the origins
of Croatia’s tradition of gourmandising frog. In 1774, travel writer Alberto
Fortis voyaged from Padua across the Adriatic Sea to what is now Croatia’s southern
Dalmatian region, writing that the locals “would rather die of hunger than eat
a frog”. Two years later, however, local ethnographer Ivan Lovrić sought to
correct Fortis’ sensationalised account by stating that many true Dalmatians,
“without any necessity, for some time have begun to eat frogs”. By 1893, Jakov
Čudina, the notary public of the Dalmatian city of Split, noted that frog was
one of the treasured meats of inland Dalmatia, alongside a bounty including
venison, pigeon, and freshwater fish – a varied local diet that persists to
Picking up where Lovrić and Čudina left off, Stipe
Taslak, the son of Konoba Vrilo’s chef, brought out a mound of sweet polenta to
accompany our brudet and its pleasant, long finish of red pepper heat. He also presented
a carafe of žilavka, a citrusy white
wine from the vineyards over the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina, just a few
hundred meters away. The old culinary maxim of “what grows together goes
together” well describes the Neretva Delta’s cuisine.
local, and wild
According to Taslak, an enterprising local
recently attempted to farm raise frogs instead of hunting them in the delta. The
man dug a pool and fashioned a net to enclose the nursery, but his project
failed because, for reasons unknown to Taslak, the frogs were not reproducing
enough to keep the project going. To this day, all frogs on Neretva Delta
restaurant menus have been caught one by one.
He then provided me with an impromptu hunting
lesson. The most important tool is a flashlight, which they refer to as a lamp.
“They hunt with the lamp at the night,” Taslak said. “The frog thinks it’s the
sun, and she goes up [in the water] and she’s blind, and you grab it with your
Following Croatia’s culinary tradition of
eating locally, the frogs are rarely shipped to restaurants outside the delta.
Fortunately, however, Croatia is home to another epicentre of frog-loving
cuisine: the Gorski Kotar region, the country’s rugged
western highlands that rise up behind the port city of Rijeka, 450km northwest
of the Neretva Delta. Gorski Kotar is known as “the green heart of Croatia”
owing to its mountainous woodlands, hiking trails, waterfalls and caves. Taking
advantage of such a bountiful environment, the restaurants of Gorski Kotar
specialise in game dishes – deer, bear and wild boar from the forest and frogs and
fish from the lakes and rivers.
“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