Enjoying Croatia’s Oysters and Estuaries
Lim Bay, Istria: Enjoying Croatia’s Oysters and Estuaries
By Darrin DuFord
“We are not really part of the Slow Food Movement,” Marko Maras, the owner of the Restaurant Fjord on Croatia’s Lim Bay, told my wife and me from across the table.
At first, the statement seemed odd coming from someone who sources oysters from the brackish waters just in front of his restaurant, but then he added, “Buying local is the normal way we are doing things for thirty, forty years.”
Lim Bay is an estuary cut dramatically into Istria, a northern Adriatic peninsula that provides a bounty including truffles, cheese, wine, edible snails, and seafood.
Even the restaurant’s olive oil, which Marko had encouraged us to use as a sparse condiment over the oysters just served to us, did not have to travel too far. Marko had purchased it from Dobravac, a farm just a few miles away. “It’s expensive. But I know the guy who is doing that. That’s important to me. I know it’s normal people.”
Oysters have been cultivated in Lim Bay since the Roman times. But they have yet to receive the attention of the famed Bélon oysters of France, even though both are the same species, ostrea edulis. Perhaps this lack of recognition is because the Lim Bay oysters are their biggest in March, a time of year when Istria is rainy and cool, keeping away most tourists until the summer months.
My wife and I had decided to pay little attention to the March rains pattering outside our windows and instead gawked at the lasciviously large oysters before us. Each creature was as big as a drink coaster. I have never believed any lines about oysters—or any other foods—being aphrodisiacs, and I would often dismiss such chatter as marketing fluff. But after seeing the Lim Bay oysters, each showing off its rippled, shiny puffiness, I reconsidered the idea.
In addition to olive oil, Marko recommended a little lemon juice and freshly cracked black pepper atop each oyster. I found myself gently chewing each creature as if I were eating a juicy piece of fruit.
Lim Bay is a short ten-mile drive from Rovinj, a coastal city whose compact, medieval maze of pedestrian-only cobblestone streets and arched passageways are dotted with restaurants that benefit from their nearness to the estuary by serving fresh oysters daily.
But for seafood fans like us, there is nothing like eating at the source. And we were not alone. Near us were thirty white-haired but spring-footed Istrians who had taken a bus from Porec, a town twelve miles to the north.
They were dancing and spinning to a live band that sounded like a sped-up Neil Diamond, but in Croatian. Since they had finished plates of local Istrian seafood, including grilled branzino, orata, and raw oysters, who knows what all that close dancing might lead to.
How the baby oysters grow up
The species, also known as the European flat oyster, has suffered several blights in the past century, reducing its production and increasing its demand. But a more constant problem for oyster farmers is the natural variances in water temperature that result in inconsistent yields from year to year.
I wanted to discover more about the labor required to cultivate these esteemed oysters, so the following week, I traveled to Mali Ston, a town on an inlet near the southeastern tip of Croatia, 300 miles southeast of Istria. Mali Ston and its sister town of Ston are joined by the second longest defensive wall in the world (3.3 miles), placing a distant second to China’s Great Wall. It was completed in the 15th century to protect salt pans that kept the nearby city of Dubrovnik financially afloat.
Today, most of the area’s salt production has given way to vineyards and mollusk farms boasting such high quality that a protective wall could still come in handy. I met with Zoran Turajlic, co-founder of the tour company Vacation In Dubrovnik, who drove me to his favorite oyster farm, owned by the Maskaric family for three generations.
As we followed the highway etched into a limestone slope typical of southern Dalmatian terrain, there were no signs for the farm. Only an outdoor sorting machine, a festooning of plastic nets hanging from a gnarled tree, and a weathered wooden table announced the purpose of a one-story concrete building down at the water’s edge.
Rows of wooden racks peeked out just above the water level, each bowing beam holding ropes that dangled into the gentle rippling of the estuary. Two dozen oysters had been cemented to each rope, where they would live out their lives diligently filtering the estuary’s water until they are large enough to harvest.
Zoran is a native of Dubrovnik, less than one hour’s drive away, and has been enjoying Ston’s oysters for decades. “For oysters, the water must be clean, clean, clean,” Zoran said as he pointed to the racks. “There must be no hotels nearby.” Since oysters feed by filtering water, pollution can affect their reproduction rates, and can cause them to concentrate whatever toxins or pathogens are present. Every fifteen days, the government samples and tests the water.
Before the oysters grow on ropes, they grow inside nets. Zoran referred to the oyster larvae, naturally swimming around in the estuary, as baby oysters. “The baby oysters come to the net,” he said, while fluttering his fingers in the air. “Sometimes, one part of the net prevents the oysters from growing. They have to cut it.”
After six months, when the oysters have outgrown the net, they are removed and cemented to the ropes, one by one, where they will spend a year and a half. The larger, rope-bound oysters are also safer from sea breams, one of their natural predators. But the ropes still must be examined regularly. “The family must always check the ropes for dead oysters. One dead oyster can kill others.”
A small forest in the sea
Zoran stuck a gaff into the water just off the dock and lifted up a crate of oysters that the family had harvested from the ropes an hour earlier. He held one of the creatures up, its shell blanketed in a layer of greenness, testament to the oyster’s role as a home for a variety of underwater diversity.
A few stubbly stalks of plants poked out as if they were part of the creature’s camouflage. “There’s lots of sea stuff growing on it,” he said. “It’s a small forest.” The oysters for sale to Dubrovnik restaurants would first pass through a sorting machine, which included a spinning mechanism that cleaned the shells. But the oysters he would serve me were straight from the water, their shell forests included.
“I made lots of scars learning this,” Zoran remarked as he showed me how he shucks oysters without protecting his hand with a towel. “Americans, they open here,” he said, gesturing with the shucking knife at the hinge. But he stuck the knife into the flatter end, which seemed to provide less leverage. “Americans, probably they are not stronger,” he joked.
Zoran seems to have acquired a competitive streak from having played water polo, a popular sport in Dubrovnik, when he was younger. Croatia won the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, but unfortunately for Zoran, oyster shucking is not yet an Olympic sport.
To slurp or not to slurp?
As a light, passing rain misted under the corrugated roof, I noticed that while the Mali Ston oysters were of the same species as in Lim Bay, the Mali Ston mollusks reflected peculiarities of their own microclimate. In the winter, the Adriatic Sea is warmer around Mali Ston than around Istria. The oysters were not as meaty and chewy, instead offering a slippery tenderness that delivered a fresh mouthful of the essence of the Adriatic. “At Lim Bay, you use the teeth. Here, we slurp them,” Zoran said.
Oyster farmers had chosen Mali Ston as a location for oyster cultivation thanks to the limestone mountains on both sides that slope sharply into the estuary as if a gigantic plow had parted and shaped the land, forming a brackish body of water that produces sweet-tasting mollusks. But I’m sure the town’s proximity to Dubrovnik has something to do with it.
With its intact medieval walls (fully restored after being damaged during the war with the Serbian-led Yugoslav Army two decades ago), Dubrovnik is the most-visited city on Croatia’s coast and has dozens of restaurants that require fresh oysters daily to satisfy the appetites of tourists.
Shipping the oysters farther than Dubrovnik can be tricky, as oysters must be fresh. Zoran addressed the culinary reality unequivocally: “After two days, garbage.”
To accompany the oysters, he poured me a glass of amber-colored wine from a plastic jug. I could not find a label because the libation was made by the Maskaric’s neighbors in their basement.
In the tradition in which I had partaken in other parts of Croatia’s coastline, one procures such wines by bringing one’s own bottle and filling it up from right from the tank, usually while catching up on town gossip. The wine, made from the rukatac grape, offered butterscotch notes, a delightful complement to the acid of the lemon wedge and the mild saltiness of the oysters.
As I lifted the last oyster to my mouth, careful to avoid spilling the juice from the shell, a man in a blue jumpsuit emerged from the house while wrestling with a live eel.
A breeze from the bay tossed around his shock of white hair. It was Luko Maskaric, who, at seventy-seven years old, was still maintaining the farm daily. His morning tasks completed, he was getting ready to butcher the eel to make a lunch of fish brudet, a thick, traditional Dalmatian stew spiced with hot pepper.
Luko and his family sample the oysters every day. “Only French oysters can compare,” Luko said. I asked him about the challenges he faced as an oyster farmer. “It doesn’t matter what kind of weather you have each day. You still have to go out in the boat.” And the environment periodically provides much more damning challenges. He said that in the last three years, there were not enough oyster larvae, and then calmly added, “It’s just natural.”
While nature thrusts peculiarity and unpredictability upon oyster farmers, those same circumstances create a variety of oysters that appeal to slurpers, chewers, or anyone who yearns to try an underrated gastronomic specialty of Croatia.
Oystering in Croatia
There are currently no direct flights from North America to Croatia. For North American departures, Air France and Delta connect in Paris, Lufthansa connects in either Munich or Frankfurt, and British Airways connects in London.
Private apartment rentals in Rovinj are generally more affordable than hotel rooms, especially in the old town. Rovinj-Apartments.com/ lists a decent choice of apartments in a variety of price ranges, while Booking.com has a separate category for Rovinj apartment rentals and includes reviews.
Vacation in Dubrovnik offers personalized tours to Mali Ston, the wineries of the Peljesac Peninsula, the Neretva Delta, and the city of Mostar (over the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Zoran Turajlic is an excellent guide who is knowledgeable on the history and gastronomy of Croatia’s Dalmatian region.
Darrin DuFord’s debut book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. He has written articles for GoNOMAD, BBC Travel, The San Francisco Chronicle, Transitions Abroad, Perceptive Travel, and Gastronomica, among others. Read his latest ruminations on travel and food on his blog,OmnivorousTraveler.wordpress.com.