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.

In Istria, Hunting For The World’s Most Delicious And Smelliest Treat

The rotund man standing before me on the dirt path was wearing olive-green military fatigues and held a sharp, bladed object in his thick, oversized right hand. He looked unhappy to see me. I was late. His hands – pudgy and exaggerated – seemed like the result of an unlikely sculpting partnership between Michelangelo and Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Standing beside him were two dogs, Jackie and Duna.

Ivica Kalcic, 56 years old, looked like he had become what he has dedicated his life to: a pasty version of a giant bulbous white truffle. “Let’s go,” he said, wasting no time. He unleashed the dogs and they darted up the path into the leafy, dark forest.

I was in Istria, exploring the less trammeled interior of this peninsula in northwestern Croatia, and had signed up for a short truffle hunt. Along with Alba in northern Italy, Istria is what the Caspian is to caviar or Mexico is to the mustache: a foodie goldmine, hiding nuggets of earthen deliciousness so expensive that to cherish them might be asking for the guillotine in some future revolution. It was black truffle season and Ivica, 56, has been traipsing through this forest nearly every day for the last 40 years (white truffles, the season of which is in the autumn, are the pricier kin to darker-hued subterranean fungus).

Though Alba may get more attention for its buried, edible fungus treasures, it was in Istria where, in 1999, the largest white truffle ever was discovered. The three-pound truffle, valued at $5,000, was found by local truffle hunter Giancarlo Zigante and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Zigante soon after opened a mini-chain of truffle shops as well as an eponymous eatery just up the road from where I was traipsing with Ivica and his dogs.

I doubted such a prize would be found today but soon enough, Jackie, the more experienced of the two hounds, was digging up dirt. Ivica waddled over, pulled the dog away, and began hacking at the earth with his pick. A few seconds later, he held up the prize: a golf-ball sized black truffle, which he says will fetch him about thirty dollars. A few minutes later, Jackie was digging up another. And another. And another. So much that I wondered if they had been planted for my benefit.

Whatever the case, Ivica, doesn’t have to go very far for his paycheck. Just up the road in the village of Livade and in the shadow of the majestic medieval hill town, Motovun, is Giancarlo’s restaurant, Zigante Tartufi. A few hours later, I was sitting at a table in the front room, scoping out the menu. If whatever dish you order doesn’t already have truffles in it, the waiter will be by in a second to grate some on. Even my ice cream had truffles in it. “We go through two kilos on a busy day,” he told me, as he was grating some on to my shrimp-stuffed ravioli. The food at Zigante was good but risked appearing gimmicky, like an all-garlic restaurant. It’s hard to blame them. After all, this is truffle heaven. A minute later, the waiter set on my table something that looked like a plaster cast of someone’s brain. It was a rendering of the world’s largest truffle.
Afterward, I felt like a walking, breathing truffle myself. So much so that when I got back to my hotel, a dog walked by and I wondered if it was going to lurch for me. Surely truffles were oozing from my pores. It gave me a long look and kept on trotting up the street.