CHEF IVAN & HIS FIRE DEN
Ahh the Adrian, arriving in Croatia never felt so good! After a few weeks of cold in Scandinavia we are back in the climate that our blood is accustomed to!! The blue sea, the whitewashed stone buildings, the white pebbled beaches, the fig and olive trees, and the hedges of rosemary and lavender make us feel at home. We rent bikes and spend the day riding throughout mountains of olive groves, natural produce and vineyards in the Northwestern part Brač Island. Gastronomically, the island is most famous for it’s cheese, olives, and lamb. After 5 hours of bike riding, we reach the village of Donji Humac, which is known around the island for it’s spit roasted lamb. Upon arriving in Donji Humac, we lock our bikes and walk up the hill towards the village church in search for a local to ask for a dining recommendation. The church is locked and the small town is empty as everyone is trying to escape the mid-summer day sun.
We encounter a purple fig tree with perfectly ripe figs and our bellies are rumbling. As we discuss the ethics of picking public fruit, an elderly woman appears next to us. We ask her in simple English if we can eat the figs. In response, she plucks one off the tree, opens it in half and hands one piece to each of us. Do as the Romans do (Our ethic dilemma solved See Table VII, Rule 10 ). The purple figs are luscious and juicy so I make sure to pocket a few for our bike trip home.
To our good fortune this grandmother speaks Croatian and Spanish. I ask her in Spanish where we can find the best lamb and she advises us to go to the family owned restaurant, Konoba Kopačina, where her Brother plays accordion on afternoon summer nights. After a delicious snack of figs we follow the grandmother’s directions down the back steps of Konoba Kopacina, which is perched atop a hill overlooking the mountain lush with olive trees and free range sheep.
Upon entering the outdoor lobby, we are greeted by a rustic outdoor chimney and grilling area. We tell Nino, the host, that we are in search for an authentic Brač lamb roast. He immediately sit us down, tells us we don’t need menus, and guides us through our options as he smiles and says, “It does not get more local than this!” We decide on Brač Lamb Ribs, Donji Humac Potatoes, Tripe Soup and salad all Domaci (homemade). Being a friendly host, he asks what we are doing in Brač so we tell him about Made with Love. Two seconds later, he returns, with a young, brawny, Croatian man, carrying an entire lamb on a spit. The man introduces himself as Chef Ivan and enthusiastically says, “follow me, I make my lamb with Love.”
We follow him back to his fire den where we spend the next hour learning about the island’s lamb and the art of managing a fire den. There is only one way to cook lamb on the island of Brač (pronounced “bra-tch”) and that is over a smoldering fire built from the timber of the Brač Oak Trees. Just like the wood itself, the lambs are signature to Brač, as they range free on the hills and valleys and only eat the natural herbs of the island.
“The smoke from the wood mixes with more than 80 natural herbs of the island which the lamb has grazed upon to create a rich and distinctive combination of flavor’” says Ivan. He raises the lamb by the long, metal rod and attaches the ends of the rod to his mechanical rotating contraption. The lamb begins to rotate centimeters from the flickering, red embers of the dying fire. Powered by a little motor, the spit moves via a series of chains and gear wheels. Ivan stands back, wipes his sweaty brow, and inspects his craftsmanship with satisfaction. He turns towards us with a broad smile, his face red from the heat and labor.
Konoba Kopačina is a family-run, traditional tavern that offers it's guests an authentic home cooked meal in a picturesque and cozy environment. The tavern was established in 2000 by the Jugović family with the motto: "you will be welcomed as an old friend, not a stranger." They are true to their word, from Papa and Mama Jugović to Ivan as well! Ivan is proud to be the next heir to the culinary throne. After graduating culinary school and learning the tricks of the trade from his family, he has become his dad's right hand man, managing the fire den.
Ivan begins to prepare the potatoes. He cuts each in half, adds sea salt and places them on the hot stones next to the fire and covers them with the cast iron Peka dome. “The best potatoes are the small, young ones and this is my favorite way to cook and eat them. You know that the potatoes have been roasted to perfection, once the sea salt turns brown.” says Ivan.
The fire is his friend. Moving in a clockwise direction, Ivan manages his clay stone cooking, his grill placed over embers, and his two spit rotisserie. He explains to me the various meats he is cooking and how the taste is different from each. He admits that he loves the crispiness and quickness of the meal cooked on the grill, the flavor of that cooked on a spit, but his favorite is on the clay stones, Peka style;
“By cooking on the stones in a covered cast iron pot and placing hot embers on top, you can roast the lamb without allowing the flavors to escape in the air. It still amazes me how different each method makes the meat taste,”
He smiles with excitement. At this point, Nino calls us back to our table and serves us two steaming bowls of tripe soup. I have never tried tripe before, mainly because the thought of eating offal is foreign to me. I am amazed by the delicious flavors of the creamy, tomato based soup and the tagliatelle-like texture of the tripe. After finishing the hearty soup, we immediately return to the fire den.
Our ribs are sweating, indicating they are cooked throughout. “We must be careful not to cook the ribs too much or they will lose all the flavor,” says Ivan. Ivan adds a few more embers under the lamb to increase the heat, so the ribs become crispy just before serving. After a few minutes, the ribs turn golden brown. Ivan grabs the heavy spit like a toothpick and uses his tongs to place the meat on our plate in a heart shaped design.
The sun shines brightly over the mountains in the distance and onto our table as we bite into our crispy but ever so juicy ribs…ahhh perfection! With the right meat, no sauce is necessary. The steaming potatoes taste sweet and smoky and the seasalt crunches as you bite into them. Potatoes ala Peka beat any french fry, baked or roasted potatoes, we have ever tried. We spend the next fifteen minutes in pure bliss. Finishing off our plates, we are so happy to have pushed through the 20 miles of biking through the olive orchards and oak wood mountains to reach Ivan and his fire den.
As we are about to leave, Ivan’s father arrives bearing a spit, decorated with meat upon meat of various colors and shapes. It is Brač vitalac; a unique delicacy of offal (liver, heart, lungs) draped in lamb's sheath and then wrapped in intestine, slow roasted over a bed of hot coals.
As one of the cooks, holds the spit, Ivan’s father trims the lamb offal so that it is more equally spherical in shape. He takes lamb sheath and hangs it over the offal as if he were hanging a blanket on a clothesline to dry. Next he ties the cleaned white intestines around the lamb sheath to keep it in place. He then moves back and forth along the spit with the intestines in hand tightly wrapping the intestines around the offal as the cook spins the spit.
The meal is being prepared for their weekly Thursday night party with a live accordionist. We really want to stay to be able to try the famous Brač vitalac, but it is getting dark and we have to ride another 7 km back to Supetar. We thank Ivan and his father for their time and promise to stay in touch. As we hop on our bikes and descend the hill into the sunset, we can hear the accordion play an old tune. Recipe Hunting in Croatia is going to be fun!
Side Note: We ended up returning to the restaurant and trying the vitalac...it's one of those bucket list dishes. Crispy, juicy, and mouth-wateringly delicious!