The first thing I learned in my encounters with Istrian cuisine is that a little olive oil and a bit of bread function as a perfect match for practically every dish. They really do! This combination of tastes impressed me so much that I started applying it on a daily basis, even when I am not in Istria. Sometimes I use it as an appetizer, and sometimes just as a tasty snack.
Cheese and prosciutto
The Istrian prosciutto is another classic. This first-rate meat specialty is an authentic Croatian product and it has become one of the most famous appetizers in Istria (and elsewhere). It is dried for up to a year in the cold bura wind, only to disappear from the plate in a second! It is usually served in combination with local types of cheese (and don’t ask me what is my favorite kind of cheese, I wouldn’t know what to answer because I love almost all of them), and seasonal vegetables such as radishes, tomatoes, peppers, green salad, etc.
Salt-packed anchovies and sardines
The salt-packed fish might be less known, and yet it is very tasty, and pilchard is my favorite. Perhaps it is because my grandfather has been making them his whole life, and from my completely biased perspective I can say he does it better than anyone. Served with capers and a bit of olive oil, I always eat them with bread, two or three pieces at most. If you haven’t yet, you must try them.
Pâtés can be made from fish (tuna!), shrimp, vegetables… But when I am in Istria, I never have to think too much about it, I always choose the truffle pâté as my appetizer. In taverns I have had a chance to try it as a spread on home-made bread, sprinkled with shavings of truffles. It is the little things that make all the difference. Come to think about it, I am happy to use every opportunity to enjoy truffle dishes. Here I also have to mention the codfish pâté. Codfish is quite aromatic in itself, but when it is prepared “in bianco”, with some garlic, olive oil, parsley and pepper, it serves as a tremendous spread.
Although the bruschetta is also served as an appetizer, when I am in Istria, I prefer to have it as a snack in the afternoon or evening, when I feel like having a tasty bite. And of course I have my favorite! Mozzarella with tomatoes, sprinkled with oregano and olive oil (dousing the bread), and some arugula. So simple, yet so tasty. And it can be so diverse… With prosciutto, tuna, salt-packed anchovies, different kinds of cheese, mushrooms, basil, peppers… Anything you want, really!
When it comes to Istrian appetizers, we should point out the carpaccio made of boškarin, the Istrian cattle used for truly exceptional specialties. Then there are numerous seafood types of carpaccios, including my favorites: anchovy, octopus, shrimp… And the one that I have not tried yet, but want to try the first chance I get: the Istrian truffle carpaccio. Carpaccio (with olive oil and arugula, for example) represents a light and fantastic entrée to the dishes to follow.
If you like seafood, and you did not choose carpaccio as your appetizer, I would recommend the salads instead. As an appetizer I prefer them without pasta or rice, just seafood with different salads, olive oil, and other ingredients such as capers, cheese shavings, herbs, and a drop or two of lemon juice. Add a few of my favorite black olives to your octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp or clams (or all of them together), and enjoy your meal! Salads go well with so many things, different vegetables and herbs, so they can easily satisfy even the most diverse tastes.
I have to admit, I have only tried this globally popular meat appetizer once, and it did not fail to impress me. As I heard on the occasion, every chef has their own recipe for the steak tartar, but what they all have in common is that no expense is spared when it comes to the ingredients and herbs, making this a very spicy dish. The impression is softened by the home-made bread it is served with, and on which you can spread some butter. Interesting combination, right?