Astonishing Ston: Croatia's foodie centre has a centuries-old history
Think of Croatia and the film trailer would roll something like this – moody shots of Zagreb's galleries and cafes, a close-up of Dubrovnik's ancient walls and Game of Thrones locations, and finally, a slow pan across the islands and beaches of the Dalmatian Coast.
But for lovers of food, the Peljesac Peninsula, an easy 60-minute drive north of Dubrovnik, plays the lead role. Since Roman times the region has been known for robust wines grown on the craggy hillsides and brassy oysters plucked from its azure waters. Even Austrian emperor Franz Josef is said to have shipped cases of oysters to Vienna from here.
Feeling like royalty ourselves, we take our seats at the waterfront Kapetanova Kuca (Captain's House) restaurant in the small village of Mali Ston, culinary cousin to neighbouring Ston. Together, these two villages guard the finger-like isthmus that connects the Peljesac Peninsula with the mainland. So strategic are they that in 1333 a fortified city wall was built between the two to protect the peninsula's salt pans, said, at the time, to be more valuable than gold.
Strategic and as stunning as a film set: craggy limestone cliffs, ancient towers, turquoise waters, higgledy-piggledy houses and robust fishermen, who love nothing more than a chat or a joke.
"Eat as many raw oysters as you can," says our waiter, with a well rehearsed wink. "But only if you want a large family."
The oysters – known as Ostrea edulis, or European flat oysters – are served three ways; fresh, fried and grilled. It is said they are some of the tastiest in the world due to the unique nutrient blend that naturally occurs in Mali Ston Bay.
As I let oyster after oyster slide into my mouth, each one delivering a resounding zap of the ocean, I toy with the idea of never leaving, of staying here in this pretty, waterside village.
Next is a fish pâté taster, served on a scallop shell and dressed with caviar and shrimp, followed by a black cuttlefish risotto, considered a local delicacy and served family-style from a large clamshell. Dessert is another local favourite – Ston makaruli – a cake made from pasta, eggs, walnuts and cream, all washed down with a robust white wine from the peninsula.
To ease our bulging belts we head to Ston, stopping for a tour of the salt works before tackling the "Great Wall", a 5.5 kilometre trek taking in forts, towers and bastions. Like a mini-me version of its Chinese equivalent, the wall is steep in parts, but the scent of orange blossoms and the views over the terracotta rooftops to the sea channel make it worth the effort.
In need of some fortification ourselves, we head further along the peninsula, pausing to buy dimpled oranges and herbal brandies before stopping at Milos winery. One of 15 family-run vineyards on the peninsula, the Milos family has been producing wines from the indigenous plavac mali grape for more than 100 years.
"We specialise in organic wines," winemaker Ivan Milos says. "Not as a marketing ploy, but to make great wines with the true essence of the place." Typical of the young, on-trend winemakers of the region, Milos sports a beard as impressive as his five-year degree in viticulture from Zagreb University.
"Even though we've been growing wines here for centuries, the years of communism held us behind the rest of the world," he says. "But look out, it's all about to change."
We taste a deep and rich Plavac 2012 and an elegant Stagnum Rose 2015, before finishing with dessert wine, so stickily good I buy two bottles. I also buy some olive oil, produced, not only from Milos' trees, but also from the best olive trees across the entire village.
Afterwards, we pile into Milos' four-wheel-drive for a tour of his vineyards, not an official tour, just something he offers interested visitors. And that in a nutshell is the beauty of the Peljesac; laid-back, low-key tourism set against a backdrop of Croatia's most stunning landscapes and finest producers.
The sun is low in the sky as our vehicle grinds up the steep mountainside, so steep in places that during harvest grape pickers need to be attached to chains. Pausing at a lookout, I switch my camera to movie mode, panning from the craggy rocks to the lime-green vines to the blue Adriatic twinkling in the distance, content to have found a scene far from the tourist trail.