Eating ‘Trash Fish’ In Croatia And Testing The ‘Bourdain Bump’

I wasn’t necessarily in Croatia to find an aphrodisiac. But there I was standing on the Adriatic shore just outside of Rovinj on the Istrian peninsula with some local conspiracy theorist/café owner staring at a pile of twigs in the palm of his hand. “Here, eat it,” he said. “It’s good for, you know, the sex.” And then, as I chewed the bitter weed that he’d just pulled from the ground, he began a long tirade about how multi-national banks are controlling our thoughts.

After a little research I realized I was eating rock samphire, also known as sea fennel. It is mentioned as an aphrodisiac on websites – and, as we all know, everything we read on the Internet is true. (The site I looked at also lists bananas, sea snails, garlic and Champagne for “the sex.”)

I swallowed the motar, as samphire is called in Croatian, and wished I were back at Batalina instead. Located in the town of Banjole, Batelina is run by David Skoko and his two parents. David has quickly risen to fame in Croatia, thanks to his appearance on the popular Croatian TV show Master Chef.

When I first arrived at Batalina that afternoon, I immediately recognized Skoko from another TV show: “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.” On it, Skoko and Bourdain cruised around the Adriatic waters pulling up all manner of sea creatures and plopping them in a cooler. Later they ate those creatures, which is Batalina’s specialty: not just raw and seared fish but the types of fish and parts of the fish often discarded – what Bourdain called “trash,” the stuff that comes up in the net after all the good stuff has been fished. Basically, the seafood fishermen would keep for themselves.

Case in point: I sat on the terrace sipping local wine as Skoko brought out a procession of plates to my table: conger eel mouse, angler fish liver, shark confit, grilled shark belly, grilled grey mullet in a dandelion emulsion. I ate well while I was in Istria but this was the best meal I’d had in a long time.

Eating raw or partially raw fish is a sort of new phenomenon in Istria, sort of because, as Skuko told me during one of his trips out of the kitchen, “Raw or freshly caught fish – not frozen – was always eaten in the home. Never in restaurants.”

A fourth generation fisherman, Skoko goes out to sea every day and cooks up that evening whatever he pulls out of his net. Starfish? Yes. Shark? Yep? Squid? You bet.

Batalina isn’t the only restaurant in Istria serving up fresh, sometimes raw fish. In the last few years, a small handful of restaurants have put it on their menus, including Marina (which does straight up sashimi like dishes) and Damir e Ornela, both in Novigrad.

And have visits increased since he and Batelina were featured on No Reservations? A Bourdain Bump? “Not really,” he said. “At least not until it airs on European TV, which it is scheduled to do in a couple months. Then we might see an increase in business.”

That would be a real aphrodisiac.