Leaping into Croatia’s frog leg tradition

Long associated with French gastronomy, the amphibian – whether served wrapped in bacon, smothered in a mild gorgonzola sauce or deep fried – is gaining popularity with visitors.

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 architecture.

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 fresh fish.

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 this day.

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.

Fresh, 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 hand.”

Southern frogs, western frogs
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.

Practicalities
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).