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'Home-grown' shellfish

By Jennifer BaljkoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 2006



DUBROVNIK, CROATIA

Dubrovnik may be the pearl of the Croatian coastline, but for a seafood feast that will make you lick your lips, you'll have to leave the old city's fortress walls and follow the locals up the Adriatic.

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That's what the gray-haired man, doing double-duty as a cash register attendant and IT support guru at Dubrovnik's trendy Netcafé Internet spot, told me as I finished up my caj (tea) and clicked out of e-mail.

"If you were taking your family out to dinner, and they were craving seafood, where would you go?" I asked, jumping between Croatian and English phrases. Really, I was begging.

I had spent a few days under the romantic spell of the medieval city. I had eaten in tourist-style restaurants with menus in German, Italian, and English – the languages of most visitors walking down the cobblestone streets.

Now I wanted to taste the authentic fare I knew must exist somewhere in the area.

Being Croatian-American and having a family tree filled with fishermen, I was craving fresh-from-the-sea morsels such as mussels, oysters, cuttlefish, and octopus, all drizzled with locally produced olive oil.

"Well," the man mumbled, hesitating, not completely sure he wanted to share his secret. "I would go to Ston or Mali Ston. They have the best seafood."

I shouldn't have been surprised by the answer.Driving down to Dubrovnik from the central coast, I remembered seeing black floats and old wooden poles – markers for mussel and oyster farms – bouncing among the gentle waves of the Kanal Mali Ston. That's the slip of water that separates the mainland and the short isthmus that leads to the Peljesac peninsula.

At roadside kiosks, burly men and middle-aged women stood next to signs advertising shellfish by the kilo. And a distant memory had buzzed in my head – an old friend telling me about Ston's history and culinary claim to fame.

But somehow, the telltale symbols of a potentially savory meal flew right by as I sped along the curving highway.

"Yes, go to Ston or Mali Ston," the man said, with a wink this time, certain that I would find what I was seeking and more.

About an hour's drive north of Dubrovnik, Ston and Mali Ston offer the classic view of Mediterranean life: Fishing boats bob in the harbor. Red clay tiles top whitewashed houses. Thick, twisted grapevines dot the landscape, and the green-silver leaves of centuries-old olive trees seem to twinkle in the warm sun.

The two villages, situated a few miles from each other, have played a prominent role in the region's history, with their importance dating back to the Middle Ages.

Their names, for instance, are derived from the colossal wall that snaked around the nearby hills and was used to protect the northernmost region of the Republic of Dubrovnik.

Constructed in 1333, the fortification, still intact in some places, stretched about 3-1/2 miles, making it the longest in Europe at the time and – according to locals who love to brag about it – the second longest in the world, after the Great Wall of China.

From the walls above Ston, views open out to the massive salt pans below. Officially recognized since the late 1200s, when a "salt office" was created to monitor the lucrative business, Ston remains one of Croatia's main salt-production hubs. Its current harvesting techniques reflect practices used eight centuries ago.

"Ston is one of the oldest producers of salt in Croatia," said Svetan Pejic, director of the Solana Ston salt mill, as he shuffled some papers around a table in the back of Villa Koruna restaurant.

"The sea here is the best, and the salt from here is the best," he explained, reiterating a belief that Ston salt is among the purest in the Mediterranean.

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