Is it possible for comfort food to deserve the status of a national treasure? I’m about to find out. Tour guide and food expert Karmela Karlovic and I are seated within the courtyard of La Struk, a Zagreb restaurant devoted to strukli – a dish so venerated that it’s a hallowed entry in the Register of Cultural Property of the Republic of Croatia.
While we wait, my tastebuds tingling in anticipation, Karlovic runs me through the basics of strukli using a handy diagram depicting its preparation (she is nothing if not organised). First you take filo pastry and roll it very thin. Then you cover the dough with a filling made of beaten eggs and svjezi cheese, a delicate soft cow’s cheese. Roll it up, cover it with sour cream, cut it into smaller pieces using a ceramic plate (not a knife), then bake until golden brown.
Just jotting that down has made me hungry, even more so as I’m surrounded by strukli admirers in the attractive surrounds of the restaurant’s courtyard, with its picturesque stone wall and shady trees. Though to tell the truth, my fellow diners are rebels of a sort – as La Struk daringly ventures beyond classic strukli to produce modern variants containing ingredients such as walnut, honey, apple, roasted capsicum, and even (gasp) truffle paste.
Rules are made to be broken, I guess, and the good folk of Zagreb have yet to bear down on La Struk with torches and pitchforks, demanding an end to such experiments. Still, I’m looking forward to tasting the simple traditional version and seeing what all the fuss is about.
More of that later. While strukli is one of the high points of the Zagreb food tour regularly led by Karlovic, I’ve discovered much more about Zagreb’s cuisine than just this baked cheesy icon.
“We welcome outside influences but adapt them to our local ingredients,” she said as we began the tour at Quahwah, specialist coffee roasters who turn out a great Turkish-style brew. Though Croatia was long part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus in the orbit of Viennese coffee houses, this style of coffee earlier drifted across the border from the Ottoman Empire.
Then it’s off into a gorgeous 19th-century atrium known at the Oktogon to learn about Croatian cheeses at Gligora. This family-owned business sells cheese produced on the island of Pag, where a salty sea mist imbues the sage eaten by the sheep, flavouring their milk and the resulting cheese. We taste this, along with a selection of cow’s cheeses, and they’re all flavoursome and distinctive.
A visit to the Dolac market is another high point. Opened in the centre of Zagreb in 1930, it has both an indoor section for deli foods and an outdoor area selling fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s an added interest to the items Karlovic points to as we walk past its stalls – including mlinci, lasagne-like sheets made from flour, water and eggs – as we’ll be eating some of them later for lunch at Stari Fijaker, a classic old restaurant with bowtie-wearing waiters.