Last May, my cousin and I, along with our college-age daughters, took a trip to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Croatia was not on any of our bucket lists, but it should be on yours: it features good weather, rich history, beaches, delicious fresh fish and pastries and gorgeous walled cities, including a few where Game of Thrones is filmed. Along the way I learned about Croatian Jewish history and food, too.
Our trip began in Split, a charming old port city. Our Jewish walking tour included the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Diocletian Palace. The palace was built by a Roman emperor at the turn of the fourth century AD. Jews settled there in the seventh century after they were forced to flee the nearby city of Salona.
At the end of the 15th century, following the Inquisition, Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled in Split. A Portuguese Jew build the first port, and Jews were active in the vibrant trading life of the Dalmatian Coast.
Our guide, Lea Altarac, a local Jew whose father manages the synagogue, pointed out menorahs carved into the stone bricks around the palace that indicated areas where Jews likely lived and worked. The synagogue was built in 1510 and is the third-oldest active synagogue in Europe. The small community gathers there every Friday night.
In the 1700s, the Venetians ordered all of Split’s Jews to live in one area. The Zidovski Prolaz, or “Jewish passage,” is a small street in the northwestern part of the Diocletian’s Palace. We saw four-inch-long troughs carved in several stone doorposts, marking where mezuzahs were once placed.
Seventy-five percent of the country’s prewar Jewish community perished during the Holocaust. My friend Dora Klayman, who lives in Chevy Chase, was born in Zagreb. During World War II, Dora was a young child visiting her grandparents in Ludbreg, 100 kilometers north of Zagreb, when her family was deported and killed. Only she and her brother survived the war.
After Split, we sailed to the island of Hvar, which has fortress overlooking the city and is surrounded by tiny islands on all sides. A highlight was dinner at Konoba Menego, a traditional restaurant. After bread stuffed with tomatoes and anchovies, we enjoyed sea bass cooked with swiss chard and potatoes and a side of barley and roasted vegetables. Dessert was dried figs soaked in brandy, fresh goat cheese drizzled with honey and an orange and carob cake.
Dubrovnik is a must for anyone who loves walled cities, medieval architecture and wandering. Even the throngs of tourists slowly walking the city ramparts did not detract from the beauty of the city and rugged coastline. Our Jewish walking tour included the old synagogue and museum.
The first Jews in Dubrovnik were doctors who settled there in the late 13th century. More Jews came after the Spanish expulsion, and Jews thrived off and on, depending on the politics of the time. The Old Synagogue in Dubrovnik is considered the oldest Sephardic synagogue still in use and the second-oldest synagogue in Europe.
Dora visits Croatia often, especially to enjoy pastries she remembers from her youth. Her favorite are the knedle s sljivama, plum dumplings. They are made with potato dough and filled with the small purple plums and sugar. After they are boiled, they are rolled in buttered breadcrumbs and cinnamon. Many of Dora’s other favorite “Croatian” desserts, besides apple strudel, namely napoleons and floating islands, are French in origin.
When I asked Dora about Jewish Croatian food, she recalled eating matzah balls on Passover in Ludbreg, but that they were not rolled into balls. Instead, clumps of matzah ball batter was dropped into the soup. On holidays, Jewish Croatians eat the same Ashkenazi food many of us grew up with. Dora remembers gefilte fish, but also “Yiddishe fish” in which steaks of freshwater fish are simmered in a gefilte-style broth. She emphasized that Croatians only ate gefilte and Yiddishe fish with homemade mayonnaise, never with horseradish.
Along the drive from Split to Dubrovnik we stopped in Ston, known for salt works and oysters and which also has the longest stone wall in Europe. We walked up the wall to see the view. The wall extends down to the port town of Mali Ston, where we ate at Kapetanova Kuca. We enjoyed a fish soup made of white fish, but the highlight was dessert.
Having caught a glimpse of a giant cake in a glass case, I was determined to know what was inside. A pastry dough filled with sweet noodles (think of it as strudel filled with kugel), the impressive-looking Ston Cake is prepared for weddings and other celebrations, and it certainly feeds a lot of people. After one bite, I knew that I was making this dessert for Rosh Hashanah.