Paparazzi, military history and ancient wines
in Slavonia Croatia

Fiona Maclean explores the food and the rich history of this relatively undiscovered region

The Fort at Slavonski Brod

The Fort at Slavonski Brod

fis paprikas - Slavonski Brod

Fis paprikas - Slavonski Brod

Fis Paprikas - Slavonski Brod - cooked

Fis Paprikas - Slavonski Brod - cooked

Carp - Slavonia

Carp - Slavonia

Tambura construction - Slavonski Brod - Slavonia

Tambura construction - Slavonski Brod - Slavonia

church - Osijek

Church - Osijek

Church of St Michael Osijek Slavonia

Church of St Michael Osijek Slavonia

Horse and Cart - near Osijek

Horse and Cart - near Osijek

The Baranje Slavonia

The Baranje Slavonia

Ethno Village - Slavonia

Ethno Village - Slavonia

Ethno Village - Blacksmiths - Slavonia

Ethno Village - Blacksmiths - Slavonia

Ethno Village - Living Room - Slavonia

Ethno Village - Living Room - Slavonia

Restaurant - Ethno Village - Slavonia

Restaurant - Ethno Village - Slavonia

Traditional Rural Homes - Slavonia

Traditional Rural Homes - Slavonia

Battle of Batina Monument - Slavonia

Battle of Batina Monument - Slavonia

Monument Batina - Slavonia

Monument Batina - Slavonia

Monastery Kujevo Slavonia

Monastery Kujevo Slavonia

Podolian Cattle Slavonia

Podolian Cattle Slavonia

Barrels - Kutjevo- Slavonia

Barrels - Kutjevo- Slavonia

I arrived in Slavonski Brod to be greeted by the Mayor, a crowd of local paparazzi and various representatives from the local office of the Tourist Board. On the path leading up to the pizza restaurant requisitioned for the event, a huge cauldron filled to the brim with fragrant bubbling stew was cooking over a small gas burner. We were running a little late and everyone was waiting for us. ‘It’s nearly ready’ the chef told us anxiously. Apparently you know exactly when your fis paprikas is cooked because the fish rises to the top. We sat down to eat – bowls of steaming, paprika spiced carp, catfish and pike served with flat noodles and soft bread. Very delicious it was too.

Bordered by three major rivers, the Drava, Sava and Danube it is perhaps inevitable that food in Slavonia is dominated in this way by fresh-water fish. And, Slavonski Brod itself is home to the ultimate celebration of fis, an annual festival where over a hundred local chefs and enthusiasts compete to show-case their own version of fis paprikas on the banks of the River Sava.

Outside I was shown the old fort. Built in the first half of the 18th century, it dates back to when Croatia was under Austro-Hungarian rule. My hosts told me that, occupied by the Yugoslavian army during the Home War (1991-97), like the town itself, it had been partly destroyed. Restoration is under way and buildings are being transformed into museums to celebrate the history and culture of Croatia. The Tambura museum is filled with every possible variation of this uniquely Eastern European instrument, the music resonating through the old rooms. There’s an instrument being constructed there and the curator is something of an expert, a performer himself in an award winning Tambura band. More rooms are set aside to depict how the fort might have been used during Austro-Hungarian rule, including a prison and torture chamber and a pharmacy.

It was, as it turned out, a typical example of an Austro-Hungarian fort built just outside the main town. At Osijek, unusually, the fort is part of the Old Town itself and one time military buildings have now been transformed into bars, museums and a University. Having spent the night in the ultra- modern Hotel Osijek, I felt as if I’d been transported back in time and to another land when a few hours later I found sipping coffee the next morning in what looked to me like a traditional Austrian or Hungarian town square in the heart of the Old Town. At one time the largest City in Croatia, Osijek has been an important trading centre from as early as 5,000 BC and was populated by the Romans, who built a stone bridge over the Drava and an extensive wooden bridge across the swamp-land. Captured and partly destroyed by the Ottoman Empire in 1526, the town was quickly rebuilt as an important military centre. Then, liberated from the Turks in 1687 the city developed as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Osijek is on the edge of the Baranje, an agricultural area on the Eastern side of Croatia, bordering Serbia and Hungary. Important for a wide range of crops including vineyards first planted by the Romans, as well as apples, cherries, walnuts and hazelnuts, it’s sometimes called the bread basket of Croatia. The whole area was first developed in the 18th century when Eugene of Savoy was given an estate in the region. He masterminded draining the swamps and clearing the forest to create a fertile agricultural area. But of course there’s a lot more to see and do. Those interested in wetland wildlife will be pleased to know that the old swamp-land is preserved in a large nature reserve, Kopacki Rit, one of the most important inland wetlands in Europe. With around 260 species of birds nesting in the area and more visiting on migration it’s an ornithologist’s haven, and there are a multitude of fish and wildlife including deer, wild boars and pine martens living in the reserve.

How much farming methods contribute to the wildlife I am in no way qualified to say but there is plenty of evidence of tradition in this colourful region. We visited a wonderful organic farm, where traditional farming methods have been used for the last thirty years. Our trip around the farm was by horse and cart pulled by a mother and son pair of Lipizzaner horses, she a snowy white, the young colt still black, though showing flecks of his adult silvery white coat. We covered acres of fields filled with sunflowers and hazelnut trees as well as apple orchards that were providing a luxury home for a small herd of traditional Podolian cattle, normally semi wild beasts that live in the forest.

Then on to Karanac, an ‘ethno village’, where the traditions and culture of the region are preserved at Baranjska Kuca in small huts to the back of the restaurant. You’ll find a cobblers shop, a windmill and even a traditional Baranja living room with colourful crocheted throw and wood burning oven. It was inevitable in a setting that pays such a tribute to the heritage of the region that the food served in the restaurant itself would be authentic; in our case we arrived to find a golden carp half cooking, half smoking to the side of a wood fire and we started our meal with ‘scrap’ (something like pork scratchings) and plum brandy.

Apart from wildlife, agriculture and some fine Austro-Hungarian architecture, the area is famous for its wines. Grasevina, the local white wine grape is something like a cross between a Riesling and a Chardonnay. Cellars range from small, boutique operations like that at Josic where 20 acres produces the Gold medal winning Ciconia Nigra Red as well as Grasevina, through to Belje with over 650 hectares of vines. Part of the Agrokor group, we learnt that this ancient cellar, built in the 16th Century by Prince Eugene of Savoy, had much of its store of old wines (14,000 bottles from a total of 20,000) stolen during the home war. We also visited Kutjevo, in the Pozega ‘golden’ valley, home to the oldest cellar in Croatia. The cellar was built by Cistercian monks, from the French Burgundy who came to Kutjevo to found their abbey and then, in 1232, built a wine cellar and started growing wine.

Although this was ostensibly a trip to explore the gastronomy of the region, any visitor cannot escape the significance of the area in terms of historical military positioning. The unique geography of the area, bounded by three great rivers that form a natural border, has put the region at the heart of military conflict for centuries. From the fortress towns of Osijek and Slavonski Brod through to the striking Batina Battle Monument overlooking the Danube on the borders of Hungary and Serbia, commemorating the Second World War Battle of Batina in 1944 which despite resulting in the death of nearly 1,300 Russian soldiers gained a victory for the Allied forces of the Yugoslavian Partisans and Russians against the Germans. And, the area is still peppered with evidence of the Home War; villages with alternate buildings still burnt out and towns where houses and office buildings are pock marked with shells and bullet holes.

Slavonia is an area of Croatia that deserves better recognition. A unique cultural heritage and architecture with Roman and Ottoman foundations lacing the ornate Austro-Hungarian buildings, together with a significant role in European military history make it a fascinating region to explore. Fortresses, walled cities, Austro-Hungarian churches and monasteries and neo-gothic cathedrals are interspersed with rural villages lined with traditional straw and mud single storey houses. Needless to say the food and wine in this largely agricultural area is excellent. Don’t go with an expectation of anything ‘nouvelle’, this is authentic, unspoilt country food served by people who have a passion and respect for the land that produced it.

For more information on what to see and do in Croatia, please visit www.croatia.hr

For my visit to Slavonia I stayed at Hotel Osijek which costs from £77 based on two people sharing a classic double room with breakfast. For more information or to book, please see here…

I travelled with Easy Jet. One-way flights from London Gatwick to Zagreb cost from £32.99. For more information or to book, please visit www.easyjet.com

This article first appeared on www.aboutmygeneration.com

 

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