One of the basic truths you have to learn about Croats, but also Balkan people in general, is that we cannot imagine meals without bread (in Croatian: kruh). On average, a person in Croatia buys 200 g of baked goods every day. It is 40% more than average of the EU. Alongside milk, it’s the most often-consumed food product in Croatian households.
Croatian Bakeries – the lure of carbs at every corner
This great love is reflected in the number of bakeries (in Croatian: pekare) we have. They are everywhere. Although you can also buy bread in every supermarket, bakeries have a special place in Croatian culture. They are as common as small neighbourhood groceries shops. They aren’t anything like cafes, bistros or diners. In most cases, there are no tables and seats to have your meal comfortably. But you need a breakfast to go? Bakeries offer both coffee and pastries to go. Need something more substantial for your lunch break at work or school?
Bakeries will provide you with sandwiches (in Croatian: sendvič), pizza cuts or bureks. Feel like eating something sweet after a long day at work? Bakeries have cakes as well! Maybe you are just thirsty? Bakeries offer even soft drinks and dairy products. We shop there so often that you can even get pre-paid cards for your favourite bakery.
There are three main types of bakeries – big chains present in the whole country, small local bakeries and artisanal/craft bakeries. Although big chains have been spreading in recent years, small local independent bakeries are still iconic. Their baked goods have remained unchanged for decades – puffy white bread, huge sandwich buns, soft salty pretzels, pizza with very thick dough and bureks that taste like childhood. Or a late night out.
Slanac by Dergez Bakery
Artisan bakeries are very rare. If you eat baked goods a few times a day, not just occasionally as a special treat, organic sourdough bread or buttery baguettes baked with love simply do not fit into a budget. Also, to us, bread isn’t supposed to be the centrepiece of a meal. It’s there just to allow you enjoy greasy pork crackling or rich lamb stew. In a way, we perceive it more as a utensil than food.
The repertoire of Croatian bakeries
Statistics show that Croatians most often buy ‘semi-white’ bread (polubijeli) and white bread – 70% of all sold bread is one of these two types. Since ‘semi-white’ bread can confuse foreigners, it might be useful to explain what is actually is. It ’s bread made of white flour that has been enriched with a bit of bran. In other words, it is made of what in English would be called ‘bread flour’. Other available types, although much less eaten, are corn bread, rye bread and recently, potato dough bread. However, the more exciting part of the offer is pastries. Even though they are not artisanal and handmade, the alluring combination of fat, sugar and crispiness conceals this and makes them affordable.
In recent years, it seems that big chains have been competing over the number of new flavours and shapes they are going to introduce. Instead of traditional cheese, meat or potato burek (filo dough pastries), now you can find ones with Mexican filling or even chocolate. There is bacon and bubbly cheese everywhere. Since you can get wonderful croissants for less than one euro and sandwiches made with Parma ham and cheese from Pag for less than two, Croatian bakeries are also the place that all tourists on a budget should keep in mind.
Two sides of stale bread
But what happens if we overzealously (or anxiously) buy too much bread? Croatians still mostly believe that food (and especially bread) must not be wasted. Since cheap mass- produced bread that we mostly eat usually isn’t very tasty after a day or two, there are a few popular dishes we make to use it up.
By Croatian tragedies
Humorous Croatian ”tragedy” – in recent years Croatian bakeries have started selling a huge variety of different types of bread, which often results with people being overwhelmed by choice when simply wanting to buy a standard bread. It says ”Give me whichever. That one is fine, it really isn’t important…”, while in the smaller font different types of bread are stated.
Savoury French toast (Pohani kruh) / from the private album of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCro teacher
The most popular one is probably our version of French toast. First of all, it is always savoury and simple. It is just bread dipped into a mixture of eggs, a bit of milk and salt, and then fried in a pan. We call it pohani kruh (fried bread).
It can also be eaten as a sweet breakfast if you drop pieces of stale bread into a bowl of milk or white coffee (milk with a tiny bit of coffee). Popara is another traditional recipe you can make. For this dish, you mix pieces of stale bread with cottage cheese or sour cream, to which you can add paprika, sauteed onion or garlic.
Popara by Manda Pavelić
However, the biggest problem with Croatian bread isn’t just that families waste it, but procedures that complicate the donation of unsold bread to those in need. Every day, 117,800 loaves of bread are thrown away. It is 40 million euros wasted in a year. Considering how many old people can be seen combing through trash cans in search of recyclable bottles to sell in order to pay for their food (in Croatian: hrana), it really is a shameful side of the Croatian bread story.
Days of bread – teaching new generations to appreciate bread
Days of Bread (Dani kruha) in Rivarela Elementary School
Even though Croatian bread consumption has its darker side, how important it is to us is witnessed by the Croatian version of Thanksgiving Day, officially called Days of Bread – days of giving thanks for the produce of the land (Dani kruha – dani zahvalnosti za plodove zemlje). It is celebrated on October 17th in schools and kindergartens by educating children about bread, cereal and other agricultural plants in their part of the country and teaching them to be grateful for the food they are blessed enough to have. On this day parents and teachers bring homemade baked goods, raw grains and plants, old objects used on farms, family recipes and photos and traditional crockery and tablecloths. Schools and kindergartens are decorated, children help make bread in schools, bakers and farmers speak about their jobs, and children go on day trips to bakeries to see how bread is industrially made.
Insta_lela’s bread for Days of bread in her children’s kindergarten
So why do we love bread so much? If we leave grimmer, social and historical issues aside, the answer might be it helps us eat the food we truly love. Fatty meat and cold cuts, sausages, bacon, prosciutto, hearty stews, rich sauces, barbecue and fish in olive oil (in Croatian: maslinovo ulje) present the culinary heaven for us. You really can’t eat those without bread. As you probably know, dipping bread in juices (umakanje kruha) is the best part of the meal.
Do you eat more bread when you visit Croatia? Perhaps with some olive oil?
Bread and catfish stew in Slavonija (perfect for dipping) / from the private album of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCro teacher
Featured image (on top): Bread by Dergez Bakery