Gourmet

Hidden Dalmatia: Unique in Croatia - the Fantastic Food of the Cetina River

By 9 September 2020
Food of the Cetina River
Food of the Cetina River Marc Rowlands

Wednesday, 9 September 2020 – The cuisine of Omiš and its surroundings is unique in Croatia. This rich, varied and distinct menu is gifted by the wild food of the Cetina river

Fresh fish and scallops, octopus and squid, washed down with beautiful wines made within 50 kilometres of your shaded seat. Lunch and dinner on the Adriatic coast can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to the Croatian sea. But, truth be told, these feasts are much the same in any decent restaurant on the Mediterranean.

There's nothing uniquely Croatian about this food – even the side of blitva that usually accompanies is served in Italy, Herzegovina, Bosnia and southern Serbia. The menu is so uniform because the land is so uniform, and so is the sea.

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Diners flick through menus filled with food of the Cetina river or wait for meals beneath the stars in the Old Town, a typical summertime scene in the Dalmatian town of Omiš © Marc Rowlands

But, the Dalmatian town of Omiš and its surrounding settlements are different. The traditional diet here is not reliant solely on that same sea. Because here, the largest Croatian river that flows into the Adriatic emerges. And the food of the Cetina river region is unique and varied as a result, a gift of both freshwater and salt.

Here we take a look at the singular food of the Cetina river and its surroundings.

Prawn

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Kocka, freshly caught from the estuary of the Cetina river in Omiš © Ivan Puljiz

Known around Omiš as kocka, this prawn only really likes to live in the estuaries of rivers. They thrive better at the mouth of the Cetina river than anywhere else in Croatia and can be found only 20 or 30 metres deep, feeding where the fresh water mixes with the sea. The conditions around the Cetina river are so perfect that they can reach 15 to 20 centimetres in length, but they are still quite rare. And they are delicious. As they attain such a size, it's best to cook them whole, creating a spectacular theatre when served.

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Kocka in Omiš. Its size allows spectacular theatre when this food of the Cetina river is served © Marc Rowlands

To eat, remove the head, then crush the body sideways so the shell breaks - this makes it easier to remove the meat. Save the head til last – squeeze and suck the insides, it's the best-tasting part by far. If you're a little too squeamish to do that, you should probably order something else. You can also find these prawn near the mouth of the Neretva river, near Dubrovnik. Those from there are usually reserved for the finest dining tables around the city and are sold at a hefty price, often under the name gambor or škamp. You can sample this delicacy at a much more reasonable price in Omiš. Translation of some seafood names from Croatian into English is persistently problematic. In English, these are often known as Langoustines (which is actually a French word, although a similar word is also used in Spanish, the root being Latin).

Shrimp

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Shrimp served in Omiš alongside a fantastic white wine of the kujundžuša variety, from nearby Imotski© Marc Rowlands

This is the more typical shrimp and in Croatia is called kozica. Compared to the kocka, this one likes to live very deep - closer to 100 metres down. They are found in such waters all through the Adriatic. Being much more common and smaller in size, they can be prepared in many different ways. It is common to see them impaled on a wooden stick and grilled atop a barbeque. Their meat is a popular ingredient in risottos, where extra flavour is added by using a stock made from their shells. When this meal is made, it's usual for it to be served with several whole shrimp served on top as a beautiful, tell-tale decoration. Other common serving methods are pasta dishes and soups or stews. Rare on restaurant menus, but in some Croatian homes their meat is minced and used to make balls or dumplings which are deep-fried. If the home cook knows what they are doing – and, in Croatia, they usually do – these are a real treat.

Sea bass

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Wild sea bass from Omiš, perhaps the greatest food of the Cetina river © Ivan Puljiz

Alongside sea bream (orada), sea bass is one of the most common premium fish to appear on the menus of restaurants by the Croatian shore. One good reason for this is that these fish are successfully farmed in Croatia, in huge cages dotted along the coast. Farmed Croatian sea bass is delicious when fresh, although it loses much of its appeal when cooked from frozen. But, wild sea bass is really something else entirely. Known as brancin in Croatia but referred to as lubin in Omiš, these fish are super predators and the wild versions can have a rich and varied diet. You can taste the difference in the meat. Wild brancin can also grow considerably bigger than the farmed version – monster-sized brancin are a huge prize for hunting divers, shot by speargun. They are very fast and quite the challenge to bag. The abundance of rich food gifted by the Cetina river makes the sea around Omiš the perfect place for wild brancin. Although, they don't just stay in the sea here. Sea bass love to hunt swimming against the tide and even the mighty force of the Cetina's flow is no obstacle to them - brancin here have been known to travel as far as 8 kilometres inland while hunting and can comfortably stay in the river for several months.

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Brancin, the tastiest food of the Cetina river, is best served grilled and in Dalmatia usually comes with a side of blitva and potato © Croatian National tourist Board

Strong in flavour, sea bass can take the addition of spices well - Asian spices such as ginger, garlic, lemongrass and coriander work well. But, if you're lucky enough to come across wild brancin from around Omiš, you really shouldn't mess around with it too much. You'll only detract from the flavour of what might be the best-tasting fish in the Mediterranean. Innovation is all well and good, but there's a reason why some recipes and serving methods are long-held traditions – because they are the best. In Dalmatia, brancin is usually seasoned only with olive oil, salt and with finely chopped garlic inserted in the emptied stomach cavity. It is then cooked in the oven.

Meagre

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A meagre, not dissimilar to sea bass, is known by many names in English. In Croatia it's widely known as hama, in Omiš it's called krb  © 지훈 정

In English, the meagre has many names including croaker, shade-fish, kir, salmon-bass and stone bass. Though the latter two are quite fitting - the fish sometimes looks not unlike a sea bass – so rare is this fish around any English-speaking nations, all but the keenest fishermen will have not heard any of them. The name corvina is also used in Spain.

A resident of all the eastern Atlantic, the fish live in river estuaries and don't like motor engines. In Croatia it's widely known as hama, in Omiš it's called krb. They range in size from 50 centimetres to two metres in length and upwards of 50 kilograms. It is delicious and in-the-know fishermen determined to catch them, sneak up on the fish using only oars or sails. The fish can be grilled or served in brudet, buzara or in another white stew known locally as gregada.

Eels

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Fried eels, a food of the Cetina river © mogens petersen

The Cetina river is not the only place in Croatia from which eels are taken for food. Further south in Dalmatia, several villages around the Neretva Delta are more famous for using eels and frogs in their cuisine. But, the eels of the Cetina are different. They are traditionally hunted using a fork, although these days some catch them using tube nets. They hide under rocks and in the shadows at the bottom of the river. Experienced hunters who still use the fork know the likely places to look and which stones to move to check for eels. Although they have been part of the European diet for a long time, many mysteries about the creature remain.

For instance, it is not exactly known for how long they live in the wild – captive eels have been known to live for up to 80 years, one was even recorded to have reached 155 years. It is widely held that all European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, a section of the western Atlantic ocean. From the Cetina river, that's a distance of over 6000 kilometres. After spawning, the adult simply dies and their larvae drift back towards Europe over the course of 300 days. They metamorphosize in order to enter their new freshwater homes, swim upstream to become elvers and grow into eels. With no parent to guide them, nobody really knows how they reach the rivers they inhabit.

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Brudet made with jegulja (the Croatian word for eel). Eels are a distinct food of the Cetina river and are here served with the river itself as a backdrop © Kaštil Slanica

The big challenge when preparing eel is to remove the smell and the taste of the earth, which comes from the mud in which they like to live. Unlike the Neretva river, the Cetina maintains a single course into the sea. It simply moves too fast for any amount of mud to accumulate. The eels of the Cetina, therefore, do not live in mud, but on rocks. This gives them an unusually pure and clean taste and enables them to be cooked in several different ways. Cetina is the only place in Croatia - perhaps even the only place in Europe - where you can eat eels prepared on the grill. When they are cooked in this way, the flavour is unadulterated. It tastes not unlike sea bass. Connoisseurs suggest you discard the skin – it's edible, but is not easily digested. You can find Cetin eels speared and then roasted on a stick, like a mini version of the classic razanj of lamb or pig. Otherwise, they are common in stews. Cetina eels are so free of the taste of earth they can be made into buzara which, in Omiš, is a white stew, usually containing white wine. They are classically found in a heartier, more spiced stew, brudet, which is always red in colour from the tomato used.

Frogs

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Deep-fried frogs legs, a popular food of the Cetina river. Frog is known as žaba in Croatian © Kaštil Slanica

The frogs who live in the area of the Cetina river have been here for longer than the Croats. Or the Illyrians, for that matter. In fact, frogs have inhabited the earth for a minimum of 250 million years. They have probably been eaten by humans since the dawn of man. British people are a bit squeamish about eating frogs. They like to laugh at the French because their southerly neighbours snack on these amphibians. Indeed, so popular are frogs with the French that, alongside neighbouring Belgium, they import no less than 5000 tonnes of farmed frog meat each year from Indonesia, where they are also popular. Frogs are enjoyed as part of the diet in America, China, Vietnam and Thailand. And Croatia. But, the ones you see on restaurant menus around Omiš are not farmed. They are just another wild food of the Cetina river.

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Food of the Cetina river: deep-fried frog, served here on a decorative pastry boat called a gajet © Kaštil Slanica

Cetina's frogs are hunted at night. A flashlight is used to find them. These days, it is common for the light to be worn on the head, on a hat, leaving both hands free. The eyes of the frog emerge brightly from the darkness as the light catches them. They sit transfixed by the glare, completely still. The hunter then simply picks them up. Frog hunting season is in the spring and autumn. Springtime is when the frogs reproduce. The hunters leave the pregnant females. In summertime, the young frogs are too small. September and October is the main period in which they're caught. Like eels, frog meat can end up in local versions of brudet and buzara. You can grill or barbecue them and much more than just the legs are eaten when they are prepared in this way. Deep-fried in a light batter, drizzled with fresh lemon juice is probably the favourite method of serving in Croatia, just as it is in France and Belgium.

Snails

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Roasted snail shells found in archaeological excavations prove than man has eaten snails since prehistoric times. The Romans were really big on the and the farming of snails - Heliciculture - is considered a Roman invention. That industry is today a global one It doesn't much affect the traditional consumption in Croatia, though. Here, people go out to collect them immediately after it has rained. They simply walk around and pick them. They are caught in the spring and summer. They are caught in the spring and summer when they're roaming around feeding. They stop to feed around mid-June when their mating season starts. All snails are hermaphrodites – they carry both male and female sex organs. A snail which undertook a male role in one season may very well assume a female role the next. A favourite way of serving this food of the Cetina river area is to fry them with the leaves of wild shallots and with eggs. A more rustic method is simply to throw the snails into the burning embers of a fire. They are soon cooked, retrieved and the snails removed from the hot shells with a cocktail stick.

On these links you can read the other features in our Hidden Dalmatia series:

Drniš - Drniški Pršut and Meštrović Roots

Soparnik - 100% Authentic Croatian Food

Baško Polje - Forgotten Paradise of Yugoslavia Holidays

Incredible and Mysterious 10 Rajcica Wells near Klis

Wild Rides on the Cetina River

To try the foods of the Cetina river, Total Croatia News recommends visiting Konoba Restoran Ćaća (Ul. Josipa Pupačića 1), by the river in the centre of Omiš, Restoran Puljiz (Knezova Kačića 21) in the centre of the Old Town of Omiš, Restaurant Knez, which is part of the Hotel Villa Dvor (Mosorska cesta 13) in the centre of Omiš and Restoran Kaštil Slanica, which is located around three kilometres up the Cetina from Omiš and can be reached by boat. Some of the foods specified are seasonal. We advise anyone wishing to order any of these dishes to book at least one day in advance

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Restaurant Puljiz in Omiš © Marc Rowlands

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