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Sunday 20/11/2011 at 17:11 |

Herbs and Spices most commonly used in Dalmatian cookery

by Katija ZivkovicHerbs and Spices most commonly used in Dalmatian cookery

Mediterranean cuisine is well known for using plenty of olive oil and lots of herbs and spices in food preparation. Unique combinations of specific herbs and spices in cooking distinguishes Croatian regions gastronomically; while continental Croatia eats spicier and slightly heavier food, Dalmatians eat lighter using plenty of aromatic herbs to season their meal. Being from Dubrovnik, I am accustomed to using aromatic and seasoning herbs each day when preparing something to eat for my family, as is probably every other person in Dalmatia who practices cooking on a daily basis.

Most common Dalmatian spices, which can always be found in the kitchens or gardens of Dalmatian passionate cooks, are: Basil, Bay, Dill, Marjoram, Mint, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Capers, Mild Chili peppers and Garlic. Besides these which are almost all typically Mediterranean, I use dried sweet pepper powder for certain eats such as meat or vegetables, especially potatoes.

Basil is probably one of the most well-known Mediterranean herbs and it’s especially easy to grow both in a garden or container. It’s a one year plant with sweet tender leaves, a very distinctive smell and it can be used raw in salads, pizzas and sandwiches, cooked in sauces, soups or dips, and dried for just about anything.  It pairs awesomely with tomatoes and Mozzarella, a so called Caprese salad, dressed with olive oil and a few drops of Aceto balsamico. And yes it’s Italian, but it would be a shame not to mention it just because the origins are not Croatian.

Another herb I cannot manage without is Bay. It does not only grow in the Mediterranean for I have seen it in my friend’s garden in England, but I believe we use it the most for cooking. There is no marinade, sauce or stew in which I don’t put Bay leaves in. They are hard leaves that give incredibly specific aroma to the food with somewhat piquant and pungent flavour.  Apart from being used in cooking, Bay is used widely in decorative purposes, especially in Dubrovnik in the period of festivities when the streets are all decorated with bay arks. It’s also used as a food decoration.

One other very interesting and very aromatic herb we use occasionally is Dill. I say we use it occasionally because it gets added only to specific recipes that can handle a total take-over by Dill’s specific taste. I only put it in a few dishes such as cold Cucumber and yogurt soup, Peas stew, Stuffed artichokes etc. If you want to go more East-Mediterranean it can be put into fish and chicken dishes as well.

One of my favourites is Marjoram. When I was a child my grandmother used to make oatmeal with Marjoram; to this day it is my favourite breakfast on cold winter mornings. This herb has a beautiful scent, even if you don’t use it in cooking, having it in a pot or in a garden will not disappoint you. It’s usually used for meat dishes and paired with tomatoes. I use it a lot more. Actually, I use it every time I feel like using it, whether I’m making red meat, poultry, fish, stew, sauce or whatever. You simply cannot go wrong with Marjoram.

Of course it’s impossible to skip Mint when talking about Dalmatian herbs. I usually grow both Mint and Pepper Mint in my garden. To be honest, I don’t use it in cooking that much because my family loves mint syrup in the summer so much, that I use all I grow to make it. But sometimes it gives a nice aroma to some vegetables or salads, also it gives a special cooling flavour to yogurt dishes and of course it makes a delicious ice tea or any other iced drink such as popular Mojito.

Parsley is probably the most commonly used herb in Dalmatian cooking. I think there isn’t a meal we make that you cannot add chopped fresh parsley to. Whether it’s a soup, a stew, a sauce, grilled meat or fish, salad…I mean anything! My favourite option is definitely salad because when consumed raw you can taste its full strong flavour the best. And it’s also the healthiest way of having it. People also use it often as a food decoration, although in our home it’s always a food never a decoration.

A number 2 herb of all times in Dalmatia is Rosemary. I simply love it. We have loads of it in our garden and I want more, can’t ever get enough of Rosemary. It’s mostly used when roasting and baking meat, fish or veggies. It’s essential when marinating food, also it’s sometimes used in soups, especially fish soup, it can be added to herbal teas, and it’s flowers make a beautiful decoration to food, especially cakes; I love to sprinkle cheesecake with fresh rosemary flowers because they have an inviting sweet flavour and their colour simply looks beautiful on a white cake.

Native to Northern Mediterranean, Sage is well known for its soft velvety leaves with a strong distinctive flavour. It’s mostly used with meat dishes. There is a beautiful recipe with veal, fried with prosciutto and sage and I once tried making it without adding sage, but it’s not nearly as good. My favourite option with sage is tea; it gives an amazing aroma, cleans your entire body with each sip. I like to compare sage tea with fresh air on the top of a mountain. Absolutely amazing!

Thyme is a well-known herb with a strong earthly flavour, very common in the preparation of meat and poultry dishes. I use it, well not on a daily basis, but almost. Whether I’m baking, roasting or grilling I always put Thyme on food or in marinades for meat. I also love to use it in stews and in tomato sauces. It of course makes a great tea. Well, almost every Mediterranean herb used for cooking is also good as a tea.

I grow Chillies because my husband loves them! They are a milder version of South American flaming peppers but their sharpness should not be taken easily because although they are easier to consume, the oils in Mediterranean chillies are very strong and can cause serious irritation. Besides the fact that I simply love the way they look when I dry them in my kitchen, I use them in salads and when preparing meat or veggies. A small amount of chilli powder can be added to soups and salsas, or even in stews. I don’t use them that often now because of the children, but every once in a while I grab one and play with it. Where I simply can`t manage without them is when making aromatic olive oil for salads and grill.



When I want to add a special taste to my salads or sauces I use Capers. Capers are a fruit that grows out of the blossom of a wild grown Mediterranean bush found mostly in uninhabited areas, growing out of the walls and rocks.  They have to be handpicked and kept in salt and vinegar for a while to reach the piquant flavor before use otherwise they will appear tasteless. You can use them in salads, pate’s or when preparing fish or meat. In Dalmatia we traditionally eat them with salted anchovies but I personally have them with whatever if I feel like eating Capers. Even in a sandwich. But be careful with how many you use because they have a really strong taste so it’s sometimes good to keep them in pure water for a few minutes before you start cooking with them.

And last but not least, Garlic. Actually this isn’t a last spice because I have barely scratched the surface with this list, but if I was to name them all and write about them, this blog post would be so long that I’m afraid not many people would read it through the end. I’ll definitely write about other herbs and spices on another occasion, until than I hope these major ones will bring Dalmatian cuisine closer to you. So back on track with Garlic. And I literally mean it. If you consume Garlic on a daily basis your health is certain to improve greatly. It’s one of the healthiest ingredients one can use in cooking a so called natural antibiotic, and in my opinion it’s among the most tasteful ones. The taste is a bit strong and sharp and if you eat it raw you’re doomed to chase everyone around you away with your breath. Sold in strings on green markets, Dalmatian Garlic is a highly appreciated herb that in the Dalmatian cookery probably holds a number 1 place of the most used ingredients. We put it, but really put it in just about anything; soups, dips, sauces, stews, on grill, on roasts or bakes. We have it raw, cooked, grilled, fried or baked, you name it.

So, I hope this long yet somehow short text will help you learn more about most common Dalmatian herb and spices and how to use them. Be brave when cooking; that always works for me.

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