What I want to tell you about is a seemingly ordinary and unimpressive fish – in fact a hidden gem of Istrian gastronomy that I discovered in a visit to Umag and Novigrad one October years ago. Ever since, my first destination when I head for these parts has to be a local tavern or restaurant.
A new star on the menu
Once upon a time overlooked for its simple exterior, the noble sole has in recent years slowly but steadily become one of the symbols of Istrian cuisine, especially in the fall. Those who recognize its worth know that it is a new star on the menus of the finest restaurants in the world, including many Istrian restaurants and taverns. So how did the sole build this kind of a reputation amongst the haute cuisine connoisseurs and other gourmets?
A culinary rhapsody
Although thin and flat, the sole is rich in meat and so delicious that you can feel the sweet surface melt in your mouth. Whether served as a cold appetizer or doused in a savory sauce, this extraordinary white fish is suitable for different combinations due to its mild taste, some of which you would not expect with fish! This is particularly obvious in Northwest Istria, whose cuisine is made up from the influences of the coastal and continental culinary traditions.
As the local gourmets have explained to me, the sole is best suited to bring together the two gastronomic worlds. Home-made ravioli with sole in a porcini mushroom sauce; sole filet in truffle sauce; risotto with pumpkin and sole; ravioli stuffed with sole in truffle cream; pljukanci and other types of Istrian pasta with sole and truffles… These are some of the examples that bring the best of both worlds of the fall Istrian cuisine, and they make for some of the best dishes I have ever tried, making it honestly difficult to choose just one to recommend to you. Inspiring as it already is for culinary spectacles, thanks to the Sole Fish Days and the numerous restaurants that take part in this manifestation, the sole motivates top chefs to make ever more imaginative creations; I have heard that some of them even prepare desserts with sole, something I definitely plan to investigate for myself this fall.
The “sole” way
After years of enjoying the restaurants around Istria, I decided to take the next step and try to prepare a sole recipe myself. Fortunately, I didn’t need to experiment too much because the sole is delicious even when prepared in the simplest of ways. Just be brave and head straight for the market! When choosing the right Istrian sole you should be careful because there are other, similar, types of flat fish, but for the most part not so tasty. If you look at the long sole on both sides, you will notice an asymmetry in the colours, with one side white, and the other in brownish shades with a greenish and grayish sheen.
Although present all year round, you will find the biggest soles in the fall and winter period when they are at their best. So what next? The advantage of the sole is that it is very simple to clean and prepare for filleting. It also does not require much time to cook, fry or grill since its tasty meat takes on a nice white colour relatively fast. The simplest sole filet, whether fried or cooked, only needs a bit of olive oil and a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice. The gastronomic experience will be completed with excellent Istrian wine and olive oil. For more complex recipes the sole can be nicely marinated, and you saw what happens when culinary experts at the Sole Fish Days let their imaginations run wild with ideas and recipes.
Sole Fish Days
I am going to Northwest Istria at the end of November, and I can already tell I am going to have a “tough time” – so little time, and so much to choose from! This time I intend to visit the Maruzza restaurant in Zambratija and enjoy the excellent food with a fantastic view. On the other hand, visiting Novigrad and Umag will make it much harder to make a choice of location in a sea of fabulous restaurants. Should we decide to drop by Savudrija, we will visit several gastronomic destinations, such as Ancora, Santa Andrea and Porto Salvore. As I write this, I simply cannot wait to try the specialties created by chefs for this year’s edition of the Sole Fish Days! And who knows, I might be brave enough to try a more challenging culinary escapade myself next time.