As well as reflecting the historic influences that have moulded Zagreb over the centuries, one of the most popular features of the capital of Hrvatska (Croatia) for food-lovers is its joyful and abundant Christmas menu. The long-awaited Christmas lunch is much more substantial than the Christmas Eve dinner, which is in theory fairly frugal. Whether you wake up on Christmas morning still feeling hungry after the traditional fish dishes served the night before or ready to indulge even more, it’s important to celebrate every stage of the run-up to Christmas.
Planting grains of wheat in a pot over several days during Advent (4-13 December) is an important ritual, as is visiting Dolac market where, surrounded by twinkling festive lights, you can eat pecenka (pork roasted on a spit) accompanied by a glass of mulled wine and followed by sweet cinnamon pastries.
In restaurants and private houses, however, the aromas and flavours of a Zagreb Christmas are symbolised first and foremost by the soft crispy flavours of purica s mlincima – roast turkey served with a side dish of mlinci (a thin flatbread seasoned with the turkey fat).
This dish takes the tastebuds on a culinary voyage around the capital: to enjoy the dish at its best, local chefs recommend buying a turkey reared in the Zagorje and fed on sweet chestnuts and walnuts. The turkey should be stuffed with cornbread, apples, celery, chicken liver and parsley and then cooked slowly on a bed of home-made lard. Gastronomic tradition dictates that the dish should be accompanied by sarma (stew with cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice) and sometimes with raisin and lemon fritters, grain and vegetable salads and other delicious roast meats such as goose or duck.
In some families, Christmas lunch often includes roast suckling pig served with a crunchy “French” salad (what we would call Russian salad). If you venture outside of Zagreb, other renowned festive recipes include pašticada (braised beef in a sweet and sour sauce) with gnocchi in Dalmatia, duck stuffed with buckwheat in Međimurje, and pork cooked with cabbage in Lika.
As in the rest of the country, Zagreb’s smorgasbord of Christmas dishes is enhanced by the romantic setting in which they are served, where tables are adorned with candles and hand-decorated honey biscuits, and traditions are to the fore. One of these traditions is observed during dinner on Christmas Eve, when delicious fresh fish from Croatia’s long coastline takes centre stage. Typical Badnjak (Christmas Eve) recipes prepared in the capital and elsewhere around the country include fiš-paprikaš (fish soup with red pepper and carp), brudet (stew of several types of fish), bakalar na bijelo (cod and potatoes), and pasutice (pasta cut into small squares) with salted sardines.
Hero image: Dolce con frutta secca ©xMarshall iStock