Croatian pantry is much more than a list of essential cooking ingredients. Of course, we’ll cover that too. But, let’s begin with the pantry as a specific space in a household.
To do this, we’ll travel a few decades into the past. More specifically, to the time before the dawn of modern, open-plan kitchens.
You see, our grandparents built houses that focused on food. And not only on eating food but on wisely making it last throughout the year.
This involved lots of fermenting, preserving and storing so the food supplies could last to the next harvest. Most of these techniques relied on controlled conditions: cool temperature and darkness. And the pantry provided both.
Traditional vs. modern pantry
No matter how equipped they are, most modern kitchens can’t store food for a long time. Even those with superbly organized pantry shelves cannot match the traditional setup.
In the old days, a big, sit-in kitchen was the heart and soul of the house. A pantry was close enough to be easily accessed but far enough to stay cool. It was never heated. And with just a small window, it was easy to stay dark but also airy.
Such design reflected our ancestors’ relationships with food. They produced most of it themselves, and just enough to keep one family going. This is why they had to find a way to store it well.
In today’s world, most of us don’t produce our food. We buy it, and we do this daily. There are days when we don’t even cook.
This lifestyle change affected the architecture of our homes. There is less and less need for a pantry. And our sleek, open-plan kitchen serves us just fine.
Recreating a traditional Croatian pantry
If you’re a food enthusiast, you might want to have an old-style pantry at home.
Maybe you make your own jams or ferment vegetables from your garden. Your friends might have gifted you home-cured sausages. Or you bought extra virgin olive oil in bulk. And how about that sack of potatoes that you hope to last over the winter?
All of this requires good storage. A cool, dark airy room: a pantry. If your house doesn’t have a dedicated space, you can recreate these conditions in a cellar too. Just make sure it’s not damp.
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Vegetable pantry essentials
Even when we don’t grow our vegetables, many Croatians buy in bulk. Think cabbage, potatoes, onions, and other root vegetables, such as carrots and beetroot. These goodies can last a few months stored in a cool, dark pantry. The trick is to cover them with a blanket to stop them from sprouting.
If you grow a garden, you can even store sturdy endive lettuce for winter by wrapping the heads in thin paper.
Garlic and chilli peppers store best when dried first. You probably saw those beautiful braids of garlic heads sold at farmers’ markets. If you have a pantry, get the whole braid and store it for a few months.
Now on to fermentation. The best-known Croatian ferment is sauerkraut. We make heads of pickled cabbage for sarma and shredded cabbage for all other dishes.
Sauerkraut is a naturally fermented cabbage. This means that over a few weeks (depending on how warm the autumn is), cabbage will turn sour just from added salt. After the desired taste is achieved, sauerkraut needs a cool storage to keep a steady level of acidity. Hence the pantry.
Cucumbers can also be naturally fermented in brine. But once they are sour enough, they must be stored in a cool place.
Pickled peppers are another favourite but they are usually pickled with vinegar.
Finally, Croatians preserve peppers and aubergines in the form of ajvar (a relish). We also love making passata (tomato juice) when ripe juicy tomatoes are in season.
Fruit pantry essentials
The most common ways to preserve fruit are drying or cooking them into a jam. Figs and prunes can last through the winter if properly sun-dried. Add bay leaves in between the figs to repel insects and store them in your pantry.
Not fruit per se, but mushrooms store well when dried too. When we pick loads of porcini mushrooms, we love to sun-dry them for later. Once rehydrated, they are one of the most aromatic ingredients you can cook with.
All throughout the summer, we cook jams and marmalades with fruits in season. Once the jars are closed, they keep best in the pantry.
Some fruits make gorgeous cordials, such as sour cherries, blackberries and raspberries. Elderflower belongs to the same group too! But these same berries are the star fruit of our liqueurs too. Think višnjevac (sour cherry liqueur)!
If you don’t care for cordials or alcohol, you can pit and freeze sour cherries and use them in desserts. My favourite, of course, is the Croatian sour cherry strudel.
And now a word on apples.
Good quality apples will keep until winter in your pantry. They will stay crunchy and juicy if you wrap them individually in paper. An old Croatian custom is to gift a loved one a red apple for Christmas.
Once the new year arrives, apples will wrinkle up. But even so, they are great in compotes and strudels.
Storing oils, lard and nuts
Two plant-based oils that we cherish most in Croatia are those made from olives and pumpkin seeds. Both are extra virgin mono-saturated oils that need to be kept in dark bottles in a cool place. So, if you buy them in bulk, your pantry is a great place for storage.
Cooking with lard has a long tradition in Croatia. Families who rear their own pigs produce large quantities. In such cases, lard is stored in a metal bucket and used little by little throughout the winter.
Northwestern Croatia keeps an ancient recipe for preserving meat in lard. This is called meso z tiblice (meat from a bucket). Pork is first roasted and then dunked into lard. Sausages and other cuts of pork could ‘survive’ for 6 months with the last bits eaten during the next year’s harvest.
Walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds can easily go rancid. To avoid this, our grandparents shelled smaller amounts at the time. To last through the winter, nuts require dry airy space. If your pantry is damp, you need to store them in a freezer.
Cured meats staples in your pantry
In early December there is an abundance of smoked and dry-cured meat. Most Croatian families love to handle their pancetta, speck and prosciutto at home.
Dry-curing requires an attic and the otherwise dreaded draught. If you travel through Croatia at that time of the year, you’ll notice sausages and slabs of speck hanging by the attic window. There will be another window on the opposite side creating a constant wind current.
But what do you do with this hefty amount of meat? Nowadays people store it in the fridge or freezer. In the past, however, dry-cured produce was also kept in the pantry.
The essential step was to wrap it in an absorbent cloth to avoid mould development.
Ingredients in your kitchen cabinets
It takes a lot more ingredients to stock up a typical Croatian kitchen. But these can go in your kitchen cabinets. They are not sensitive to light or heat.
Here we have essential spices, such as sweet and hot red paprika (ground), and dry Dalmatian herbs. If you fancy baking, you need yeast, baking powder, and the so-called vanilla sugar as a bare minimum.
Next come various types of flour: cake, bread, semolina and corn flour as well as corn starch.
If you wish, you can include Vegeta. I don’t because I like to make my own vegetable stock and keep things as natural as possible.
Rakija is the number one must. This fruit-based spirit is used for just about everything. To greet the guests, celebrate a special occasion, disinfect wounds, take down fever, cook and bake.
Rakija can keep in the kitchen but if you’re a wine lover, store your bottles in the pantry.
Now you’re ready to cook like a Croat. And what better way to begin than to try out my ultimate Croatian cookbook.
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