The ride from Šibenik east, into the coastal foothills near Skradin and Krka National Park takes me less than thirty minutes. I roll into the tiny village of Plastovo where standing outside his winery and smoking a cigarette I find Alen Bibich, the winemaker and proprietor of BIBICh Winery.
I peel off my helmet, gloves, and shades. With curious yet bewildered eyes, Alen scans me and the bike. We shake hands. “You ride that from where?” he asks.
“Šibenik,” I explain, knowing that’s not the answer he’s looking for. “All over the world,” I try to bring clarity with another vague statement. Though this is true.
I know little about Bibich Winery as Alen guides me into the tasting room, then into a small intimate dining room. I’m here at the recommendation of Luka Bokavsek, manager of the Bokeria Wine Bar in Split.
I was sipping wines in Bokeria that evening when hooligans in Split ripped off bags from my bike. Luka helped me drown the pain with a great selection of Croatian wines and a cheese and charcuterie plate. Alen made one of those wines, a red blend he calls the R6 Riserva. So at Luka’s insistence, and after a glass of the delicious R6, that I reached out and connected with Alen Bibich to learn more about him and the wines he makes from local indigenous grapes.
Inside the small dining room, Alen Bibich invites me to sit down and then pours me a glass of a dry sparkling wine made from Debit, a local indigenous varietal. Dressed in a pinkish linen shirt and casual slacks. Alen speaks with an accent, but his English is sharp, and soon I learn he posses a wealth of knowledge of things much more than wine.
Still sipping the sparkling wine, I share my story more of my story, passion, and why I am here. Then we dig into his. It’s not long before one hostess from the tasting bar brings a plate of what she calls “small bites” Delicate and colorful, they look like little pieces of art.
The hostess describes each of the half-dozen bites. I scan the wooden board glowing with the delicious treats. “For the palate” she suggests starting with the dice of watermelon with feta cheese, a hint of balsamic sandwiched between and topped with a fresh mint leaf. “Don’t neglect the mint,” she insists.
”Oh, no, I sure won’t,” agreeing with her while explaining that mint is the secret ingredient for one of the signature recipes in my book “FORKS,” the infamous fattoush salad inspired from my travels through Syria.
She returns with the next wine, Debit. I’m not yet finished with my sparkling, so I set it aside as I want to come back to it later. Debit is a white grape varietal unique to this part of Croatia.
Over the afternoon our conversation takes wild turns, as my current motorcycle journey does. I feel comfortable and at home chatting with Alen. It’s as if I’m talking to a long-lost friend who we both have much to catch up on after all these years.
After some time, I look down at my audio recorder. It’s off. Damn, the batteries have died, but I’m not worried. The food and the conversation are unforgettable, and the connection is sincere and honest. I turn the recorder back on. After more time passes, it stops again. The batteries are failing. No worries, Alen finds fresh ones in his office.
“I start my day with Debit,” Alen confides. He tells me there’s no such thing as breakfast in Dalmatia—on the coast. Instead, the family gets together in the mid-morning for marenda.
Though a dictionary translation might call marenda brunch, it is much more. Marenda is a tradition in Dalmatia that stems back to the communist period, and before where large cooperatives would serve workers a single dish meal sometime between 9:30 and 11:30. While that era is long gone, today it’s not just a meal, it is a social time and served not only in homes but also the ubiquitous kanobas found in every town along the coast
Today marenda is as much as a social get together as it is a meal. “Always we have marenda with a spoon,” says Alen. It’s like a hearty stew, and as Alen admits, “always with Debit,” referring the white wine, we’re drinking now. “Debit defines this part of Croatia,” he insists.
This is the first time I’ve tasted or even heard of Debit. It’s a wild white grape that unless tamed grows uncontrollably and yields a massive amount of grapes per each vine. During communist time everyone made wine from Debit grapes. “Everyone in Dalmatia has a vineyard,” he explains. When the vines are let to grow wild, the resulting wine is watery, weak, and uninteresting. Over the years, Alen has perfected the viticulture and the vinification. Today, I would argue, Debit not only defines this part of Croatia but also the passion inside the walls and out in the vineyards of Bibich Winery.
“Marenda is important, it’s the base,” Alen maintains, “for Debit.”
The people of Dalmatia have been growing and drinking wine made from Debit for thousands of years. He tells me it’s called Debit because when Napoleon invaded and occupied the region in the early 19th century, the emperor sent his soldiers to collect tax from those living anywhere in the vast territory of that empire. The people living here did not have much money, so the soldiers accepted wine as payment—or a debit—toward the taxes due.
Though a winemaker, Alen isn’t shy when talking about food. “I’m a food encyclopedia,” he asserts after correctly answering my query on the origin of the Caesar Salad (Tijuana). “Today, we use herbs to add flavor, spice or aroma to a dish,” Alen expounds while reflecting on the history and use of herbs by older generations. “Back then they used herbs for specific purposes, often for digestion, or medicinal.”
The more we chat, I notice Alen’s penchant for history. We’ve yet to get geeky about the wine. Yet I realize with the Debit in my glass, we need not talk about it, we need to enjoy it. Yet, with the seductive small bites sitting on the board in front of me, we appreciate and talk about the food. Bibich and the team here go out of their way to create an integrated gastronomical and wine experience—with lessons and learning thrown in for fun. We’ll get to the wine soon enough.
With another sip of Debit, Alen describes more about each bite. There is a homemade salted muffin filled with seasonal vegetables, a small glass with smoked yogurt topped with a garlic foam and a fennel flower. Then there are prawns in a marinade of olive oil, several kinds of pepper and paprika and served in a sour sauce.
Delicately placed on a small spoon, he tells me are eggs and bacon, which sit next to a little bite of delicate zucchinis topped with a cherry tomato and a touch of needle cabbage. I take another sip of Debit as Alen continues. “These very fresh quail eggs seasoned with black Hawaiian salt, and here you have a homemade pie topped with dill cream and sweet pepper.”
More herbs. At home in California, I explain to Alen, I have a modest herb garden. For me, as a nomadic traveler, this is easier to maintain than a full vegetable garden.
We drift back to our conversation about the difference between older generations, who were perhaps not as culinary inclined as they were smart about feeding their families and keeping them healthy.
“Today we are a bit crazy,” he says, referring to the use of herbs and microgreens to shift flavors, “but these herbs are all for something. These herbs have—and had a purpose to the older people.”
He tells me that in the past, they used oregano for better digestion, basil to keep you calm, and mint for refreshing and cheering you up. “It makes you a better person,” he says. Then he explains why marjoram is good in stews or especially with beans. “It helps break down the beans, making them easier on your stomach.” And perhaps, it probably calms down the intestines, too!
“The older generation was smarter, cooking for health and digestion.”
I lift my camera and look at Alen, ask him to smile. He’s looking at his smartphone. “I don’t smile,” I’m looking at my bank accounts. He points to the food. “Please try! Feta, so sour, salty and sweet all in one. Enjoy the experience.”
Everything in front of me is delicate, worthy of photographs and prepared with love. After snapping a few photos, I dig in and try the watermelon feta combo. The hostess is right, this is a perfect palate cleanser and so clean and fresh.
For a moment, I focus on the Debit. The wine is aromatic and fresh showing hints of green apple and quince with a touch of nuttiness. On the palate, it’s light-bodied, smooth, and unfolds with layers of citrus, and yes, herbs. It’s crisp and lovely.
Alen’s phone rings, he excuses himself. He talks to his father.
“Wild boar ate our cabernet grapes,” he tells me. “We expected this because we are harvesting late.” The Bibich cabernet vineyard is remote, and it’s the only vineyard on that hillside. Therefore, it’s the only fruit and attracts the boar. He doesn’t seem fazed and instead tells me about the prawns in sour sauce I’m about to taste.
“In the old days when there were no refrigerators, we would preserve the fish. Sardines, anchovies, mackerel, or a kind of bluefish. ‘Sour’ is what we call the manner and how we preserved it.” Not unlike pickling, they would first fry the fish in oil and then jar it with the oil while adding spices and herbs. Then, they would place it in a dark place and eat it whenever.
He points to the bite I’m just about to taste. “This is more elevated, prawns in sour. We add lots of garlic, herbs and more paprika. We keep it crispy.”
The flavors unfold in my mouth with a crunch of crisp and a punch of garlic, all coating my palate with a hint of savory and sour. Well balanced and a good pairing with the Bibich Debit we’re still tasting. Alex describes how the Venetians and Italians influenced much of the cuisine on the Dalmatian coast.
“We were not occupied by Venice,” Alen leans toward me, looks into my eyes making sure I don’t miss his point, “we were an essential part of Venice, they were here for 495 years. It’s in our cooking.”
Our conversation dips into geography, history and like the flavors of the food, unfolds into politics—but all very balanced.
“The Krka river divides the world,” he explains referring to the river, though barely fifty miles long that winds its way through the mountains feeds numerous waterfalls and shares its name with the famous national park nearby.
“In this part of Croatia, along the Dalmatian coast, over 3,000 years ago, long before the Romans, one side of the river lived the Liburni, a large Illyrian tribe. And the Delmatae, another Illyrian tribe lived on the other side of the river. When the Romans came, they took everything. Then in the middle ages, we had the Ottoman Empire, then the Venetians, Austrians, Italians, Yugoslavia, then this part gets tricky. We have been influenced by all, but we are still Dalmatian.”
The hostess pours our next wine, another while, but this called Ps “Pissssss” Alen ensures I get the correct pronunciation. It’s an abbreviation for the Pinot Sivi grape, It’s like a Croatian pinot grigio. Given some five-hundred years of Venetian influence, it might be. With very low acidity and one-hundred percent fermented and stored in stainless steel. It’s bright, slightly floral, clean and surprisingly has much more body and viscosity than the Debit.
“Here, taste this crostini,” Alen points to the bite with the courgettes—zucchini—topped with a cherry tomato and what he calls ‘needle cabbage.’ It’s a lovely pairing, clean and fresh like the wine.
I came here for the wine, but I’m overwhelmed by the food, these small bites. It’s an unexpected treat. I snap more pictures. The mastermind behind these bites is Alen’s wife, Chef Vesna, which means Goddess of Spring in Slavic languages. Renowned all over the world for her culinary skills, Vesna attracts aspiring chefs from everywhere who come here to watch, train, and learn from her.
With each bite I taste, I resolve that there is no question that if Vesna brought her creative expression of flavors, plating, and presentation and her own style of molecular gastronomy anywhere in the world, it would top lists of best food and restaurants. I feel lucky to be here with Alen and sampling such delicate tastes.
We need more wine. But Alen reminds me I’m on two wheels and that I should take this into account as he pours me another glass.
“You need to drink just 75% of normal, not 175%,” he laughs and tells me I’ll have a short ride to Zadar and suggests I take the back roads, no the highway. “You will see very interesting small villages.” Not only does Alen speak my language with food and wine, he understands the impulses of a somewhat nomadic overland explorer.
Relaxed, confident, and passionate, Alen continues to lead me on a journey through his wines and his wife’s delicate and flavorful food. Several times, he excuses himself, walks to French doors that open to a large patio and lights a cigarette. Just outside these doors is an elegant stone paved patio which serves as an alfresco dining experience on warm summer nights. It also leads to the winery building. He holds his hand with the cigarette outside while leaning inside to continue our conversation.
The hostess pours the next wine, the R5 Reserva, a blend of three local white grapes, Pošip, Debit, and Maraština with two international varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris—twenty percent of each.
Bibich takes a different approach to blending the grapes for the R5. Each of the five grape varietals is harvested and macerated separately. It’s as if he’s making five different single varietal wines. He ages each wine one year in French oak barrique barrels. He then blends the wines in big barrels and ages the R5 for one more year before bottling and release.
The wine is crisp, elegant, and smooth as silk, yet packs a bold punch showing solid structure and weight. Alen tells me it’s a natural wine. He uses natural yeasts and introduces nothing to the blend. While there are sulfates in the wine, Alen insists the levels are so low they cannot be measured. Though the R5 includes a blend of 5 grapes, Alen asserts he doesn’t use this logic on all of his labels where he uses a number with letters.
“Please Allan, have the eggs and bacon with this wine,” he points to the small spoon filled with what looks like some sort of pasta in a light cream sauce.
“We have three names for this which we usually serve as a plate, but for you today it’s another small bite to taste,” Alen explains. “We have three names for this,” I sense a smile as he reveals the creative wordplay.
- Bacon and eggs
- Pasta no pasta
- No carbs Carbonera
I am surprised when he tells me there is no pasta. The creamy white texture is egg whites, and they toss these with pancetta (i.e., bacon) and dry cured pork cheeks. The savory flavor from the pork combined with the silky texture of the egg whites coats my palate while the mild acidity of and weightiness of R5 Reserva perfectly balances the bite.
“Wow,” that’s amazing. It is eggs and bacon on a mini spoon. “Yummy!”
As I’m about to taste the quail eggs with black Hawaiian salt, Alen tells me the quail belong to his son Filip. Every day they lay twenty eggs, usually food for his son. But he is studying at college in Zagreb, so it’s Alen’s job to feed the quail and collects the eggs each morning. They are very healthy quail he says, they only eat fruit and grass. “Watermelons,” Alen says, “the quail like watermelon.”
Mostly, the food the family eats and serves here in the winery restaurant comes from the family farm or local area. Alen tells me it’s like what the Italians call zero kilometer cooking. Everything comes from sources less than a kilometer. On the Bibich farm, they have about two-hundred sheep, fifty pigs, turkeys and now quail.
“My uncle lives here with us,” explains Alen, “he’s very old, and never married. So he takes care of the animals. He treats it like his business. And this is good because he needs to go to work every day and do something. That’s his life. This is a good thing because if you’re are sitting on the couch, you are dead.”
Another uncle also lives with them. Both from his mom’s side of the family and who have lived on this property for generations. More elderly, his other uncle has difficulty moving around, walking. But he loves to cook. “He’s a great chef,” Alen tells me, “also never married.” Every day the uncle prepares meals for the family and those that work at the winery and restaurant. Like his brother, this is his job, and he does it every day except Sunday.
“On Sundays, I make lunch for all of us,” Alen’s culinary passion comes out. “Every Sunday mother, father, and sister with all her children come to visit.” So on this day, my uncle is free. He doesn’t cook. He dresses in a suit, and at twelve-thirty I serve lunch, and he’s a guest.
Alen is reflective and philosophical as he talks about family.
“When you have a huge family, everyone must be happy. It doesn’t matter; I’m the boss and owner of the business, in the family, we are all equal. If it’s business, then it’s business. But in the family, our daily life, we are equal. Everybody must be happy and worth something. If you are not working, you are dead.”
Alen understands that if people don’t feel valued, as if they’re contributing, they have no self-worth. “And if they have no self-worth they go into depression, have health problems, and visit doctors.”
“We don’t have doctors,” he tells me referring to his family philosophy. “I haven’t been to a doctor on any hospital in thirty years.”
I ask him, “Not for a check-up or anything?”
“Nothing. Because I am drinking Debit every day. Three liters. At least. To be normal. And then you don’t need a doctor because you have more amortization, you are not drunk, you are amortized.”
“And I’m eating the garlic oil for the blood pressure. I don’t have any problems.”
Alen gets up to have another cigarette. “Just sit down and enjoy,” he tells me as he steps onto the patio.
I look at the pack of cigarettes on the table. The largest graphic on the package is a warning label with big bold letters on a white background, the same as all cigarette packs in the European Union. European law requires that health warnings cover at least 65% of the front and back of a cigarette package. Here on one side, in Croatian, reads uљenje ubijayet, which translates to “smoking kills.” On the other side, with white and red letters on a black background below a graphic picture of a man on a hospital operating table, it reads, also in Croatian, “Smoking causes heart attacks.”
After his revelation he hasn’t seen a doctor in thirty years, I ask him how many cigarettes he smokes a day, he smiles and tells me “as much as I want.”
He tells me about the brother of his grandfather, who the family also calls grandfather. His nickname was Svet or saint. Alen describes how Svet chain-smoked, “He smoked every day, all day, and only needed one match.”
Svet grew his own tobacco, and with one cigarette between his lips, he would roll another one in his hands. The tobacco was all natural, grown without chemicals.
One sunny winter morning when Alen and Svet were talking and drinking coffee, his grandfather turns to him and says, “Tomorrow I will die.” He was ninety-nine years old. “Everybody I used to know has died,” he reasons after Alen asks him why. “So, I will die tomorrow, tomorrow afternoon.”
The next day he laid out his suit, money for the funeral, and then he drank two or three rakija and lay in bed and died later.
Reflecting on his grandfather’s life, Alen muses out loud. “He lived. And how good is it to live that long?” His grandfather would wake up in the morning and smoke. He would drink a couple glasses of bevanda, which is a drink made in a glass of half wine and half water. At lunch he’d have more and maybe a rakija, still smoking, and a glass of rakija before bed.
“He saw it all. A few wars. He had a few tragedies. Poverty. Everything was happening in this part of the world. He never went to the doctor. No health insurance. No pension. Never worked for a company. He lived in his own village doing what he knows. Just living with agriculture, fishing for trout in the Krka river.”
He makes the point that all of this work was to live, not to sell anything. He had no machines and to work the fields, he used his hands and had only had horses.
“Imagine that kind of life.”
Alen’s family have lived in this part of Dalmatia for over five-hundred years. But it hasn’t always been easy. When speaking of the conflicts that have raged this region for millennia and more, he expresses a distaste for national labels. “We are not Croatians, Italians, Serbians, Hungarians, or whoever,” he speaks of the influence the nation-states have had over the region. “This is how we live, this is where we live, this is who we are. We are Dalmatian.” He tells me that though her wife was born in Slovenia, “she has lived here over twenty-five years—she is more Dalmatian than me,” he admits, referring to choosing to live here—a way of life.
“This is why it’s so tricky,” he tells me while trying to explain the notion of Dalmatia and Dalmatians. “My ancestors were part of the Dalmatae tribes, so I have my roots deeply in Dalmatia. This is not my nationality because it’s not a nationality.”
“We’re inlanders here. We are truly Dalmataes. We are much more than a state. Sure, I’m Croatian, but if you are Croatian, you cannot be anything else. But here we are truly Dalmataes. You can only become Dalmatian if you live here for some time. You can be Italian Dalmatian, Orthodox Dalmatian, Jewish Dalmatian, Albanian Dalmatian, Muslim Dalmatian.” He tells me Dalmatian is more a state of mind, a way of life.
Alen cannot hide his disgust when talking about the wars that crippled and in some ways defined this region for more than a century. Everyone wanted to kill us Italians, Germans, Serbians, and Croatians.
Like his neighbors, his family lived through first Yugoslavia, under a monarchy ushered in after World War I, then under Tito and the new socialist Yugoslavia, The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. “The war was stupid for us,” he laments. They recruited his grandfather to the Croatian Army, fighting in World War II for an independent Croatian State. But they lost.
The state appropriated some family land, but because he didn’t fight with Tito’s partisan resistance, they blacklisted him from local cooperatives. So his grandfather did what he knew best: planting vineyards and making wine.
Alen interrupts his story and points to the last small bite on the platter. “Here, try this muffin, we need to bring something else.” With a nice outer crust and the moist vegetable filling, it’s a perfect bit to soak up some of the wine we’ve tasted so far.
His grandfather, Peter, made good wine, but the government forbids anyone to bottle wine under private labels. So he made bulk wine. The wine was good, and Peter soon had a reputation throughout the region—and the republic. But like during prohibition in the states, he had to bootleg the wine. Selling it in large barrels of two-hundred liters, late at night he would take the barrels aboard trains and bring it to customers in Zagreb, Belgrade and throughout the republic.
“He did this for nearly forty years,” describing what his grandfather had to do to earn a living in the former Yugoslavia, from the early fifties until the beginning of the Balkan Wars of the nineties. By the eighties, it got easier when they could sell wine in this winery. They still couldn’t bottle the wine. They offered it only as bulk wine, ten or twenty-liter jugs. “Peter was very, very famous in these parts.”
Charismatic and with a knack for story-telling, Alen interrupts his own story to introduce the next wine. “This is very special,” he tells me, “this is one of the most famous Croatian wines,” he’s proud and excited to pour me a glass while explaining it’s like a cult wine—and very expensive.
“Debit again, but completely different,” he pours a glass of the 2016 Lucica, one-hundred percent debit made with grapes from a single nearly seventy-year-old vineyard here in Plastov. The vines in the legendary vineyard are dry farmed and head pruned, gnarly. He tells me the grape clusters are small tight bunches, exquisite and almost waxy.
“My great grandfather planted this vineyard it’s our oldest and is just one hectare.” Winemakers typically get about ten-thousand liters from a hectare vineyard planted with usually high-yielding Debit vines. But Bibich produces just 1,800 bottles from this vineyard. Plus, he doesn’t make a Lucica every year—only during the best vintages. This is what makes it so rare and sought after.
Sadly, 2016 will be the last vintage of Lucica for some time. Because the vines are so old, he must replant. Alen explains he must do this not for himself, but for his children, so they can reap future harvests and continue the tradition. He will keep the original rootstock and graft new debit vines on it.
I bring the glass to my nose. Wow. It’s the most aromatic of all the wines we’ve tried so far. Pale yellow-gold, in color while on the nose floral notes dominate over a core of citrus and wet stone. Alen harvests whole clusters and ferments them in new French oak barrels for nearly two years—never racking the wine. He lets them sit and thus the Lucica develops its character on its own, without intervention.
On the palate, the wine is viscous, complex, and mouth coating. It’s crisp and reveals more citrus and sweet apple. As I take another sip, swirl the wine, and bring back to my nose to take in those seductive aromatics, I’m struck by the wine lover’s curse—there are only so many bottles from each vintage. But here, this is the last vintage for many years to come.
A large group is now milling about in the tasting room. The air bristles with energy as I focus on the Lucica in my glass and coating my palate. The hostess brings another platter of food. Good god, this plate is more beautiful than the last. Forget food porn, this is art food. I want to grab my camera, but I’ve still got Debit on my mind. Alen explains.
“This is the signature of Vesna, always black and white. All black. All white.” In front of me are a half-dozen bites of artfully prepared dishes made from of local ingredients—again, zero kilometer.
“As a kid,” Alen explains, when we came home from school we would ask mum ‘what’s for dinner?’ It was always sepia, sepia (cuttlefish). Cuttlefish with risotto, fried cuttlefish, baked cuttlefish, or boiled cuttlefish. Always cuttlefish. Every day, so boring.” So Vesna’s idea was to create new dishes from cuttlefish that celebrate local food, but offer a new take on the boring food we had as kids.”
It’s difficult to describe the beauty and flavor of Vesna’s immaculate creations, so check out the pictures and let your mouth water. Not everything on the plate is made from cuttlefish, but Vesna’s inspiration comes from traditional local dishes.
Alen explains, “first we have a cracker made of cuttlefish and herbs with garlic cream and cuttlefish haze. Then we have sea bream fried with carob flour with a puree of cuttlefish and caviar. Next is a cone made from cuttlefish with cuttlefish cream inside. Here we have a sage leaf carbonized, burnt. And this is pork skin, Marymount or chicharron, with cuttlefish. And this is a roll is of smoked chicken inside and a cuttlefish pastry on the outside topped with horseradish cream and black cumin. Have fun!”
I’m lost for words as I fumble removing the lens cap from my camera. “This is off the charts,” I default to a colloquial cliché.
“We are a bit crazy,” Alen says.
“With food,” I agree.
“And wine,” Alen adds. “These dishes are very famous here for Vesna, this is very special!”
This expression of cuttlefish, Alen tells me, is something Vesna hasn’t prepared in several years, but she wanted to make it for me.
“It’s too beautiful to eat,” I stare at the platter.
“Just eat,” Alen tells me, “start with the sage leaf.”
Alen pours the next wine, a light red made from Lasin, yet another grape varietal I don’t know.
“Lasin is a very unusual wine for this area,” Alen explains. “Grown here for years, it almost disappeared.” The wine is susceptible to disease and is finicky. It typically produces low yields, so during the communist period old people pulled the vines and replanted the vineyards with higher yielding grapes. “During Yugoslavia period,” Alen explains, “people wanted quantity, not quality.”
He tells me that along with a few other winemakers, they are working to revitalize Lasin. If not for their efforts, this grape may have disappeared. Today, young winemakers in Croatia are embracing and experimenting with Lasin.
Alen refers to Lasin, which translates to “the sin,” as Dalmatian Pinot Noir. It’s light in color, like a Pinot Noir, but shows good structure on the palate. With silky smooth tannins, my glass of Lasin reveals ripe raspberry fruit along with rustic flavors of tobacco and earth. Alen asserts that this is very hard to find in Dalmatia, only a few villages grow the grape.
I try the next bite of black and white art, the sea bream. Alen tells me they cook the cuttlefish and potatoes sous vide for twenty-four hours at seventy-two degrees. And because cuttlefish does not have caviar, Vesna creates her own from the ink of the cuttlefish. “Lots of work for such a small bite.”
The gastronomy scene in this part of Croatia is growing, and Alen Bibich has been part of the landscape for many years. A chef that worked with him opened Konoba
Though the portfolio of wines I’ve been tasting all day has exceeded all expectations, I cannot resist asking Alen if he ever cooks other than for the family on Sundays. He loves talking about food, but when can we find him in the kitchen? This triggers another Bibich philosophical treatise.
“I always cook,” Alen tells me. “Any kind of cooking or preparing something is good for men,” Alen tells me he often cooks for his wife because she spends all day in the kitchen cooking professionally for their customers, she forgets to eat. Though he confides that between his brunch-like merenda and dinner, he doesn’t eat much. He never eats lunch, only drinks wine.
“When we cook, we are doing something normal for mankind. Whether you make a smoothie, or if it’s just a dip, you are still doing something creative and making something. This makes you happier—you are making something with your own hands.”
The more we talk, the more I learn that Alen’s life, like mine and his wife’s, has evolved. As he has grown and recognized his passions, he chooses to do what he likes, and he certainly loves what he does. However, like his father, Alen’s professional life began as a professor of literature and Croatian and Slavic language. He used to write too.
“I’m not writing anymore,” he tells me. “I used to write poems; no more.”
He explains that when he was younger, the world around him was deep and dark in the world of politics and nations. “I was always hungry and driven to express the world around me, about countries, about the pressure and what the political environment was doing to us.”
“Then I decided to live different,” again waxing philosophically, “so I don’t care about the politics, the need to say something. Instead, I will live with my friends, enjoy and drink Debit with my friends and the people around me.
His tone changes and speaks as if he’s addressing the state or government, “And who are you? What can you do to me? I need to pay my tax, so I pay my tax. Just leave me. Don’t pressure me. And today that’s how I live, I pay tax, loads of tax.”
“Come on, Allan, have the chicken,” he points to the next beautiful expression of black and white on my plate. “Chicken cuttlefish pastry, with horseradish cream and black cumin. Black cumin for your health.”
The next wine is a blend of three grapes, the R6 Riserva. It’s also the wine that inspired me to seek Alen and connect with him. Different from the R5 white blend, the R6 is a field blend from a vineyard planted with equal parts Lasin, Plavina, and Babic, all grape varietals unique and local to this part of Croatia. They are also not so distant relatives of American Zinfandel or Italian Primitivo. They harvest the entire vineyard on the same day and collect and co-ferment all the grapes together.
“This is a very traditional wine from this area. It’s the Mediterranean,” he tells me, referring to the fact that every winemaking region along the Mediterranean products a rustic blend like this. Bibich produces about 150,000 bottles of this wine with every vintage. More than half of it is exported to over fifty countries all over the world. It’s the most widely exported Croatian wine and the largest production wine at Bibich.
The wine is ruby red in color, and on the nose dark and fruity with spice and hints of herbs de Provence. Though it’s the same wine I had in Split, it tastes even better here when I’m sipping at the source with the man who makes it.
Our conversation drifts back to memories of the war and another reason why he stopped writing. He prefers to remember what’s truly important and memorable. These memories are “those that seem freshest in your mind, he tells, these are the most important.”
Tragically, he lost so many memories during that war. Forced from his home by the warring armies, he had less than five minutes to evacuate and go to a refugee camp. Leaving behind all his personal items, photo albums, writings, books, and more, he has resolved that though he lost those physical representations of his life and memories, the most important memories are those that live on in your mind.
He and Vesna have two children, Filip who is in college in Zagreb, and a daughter, Karla, now sixteen. They’ve raised Karla in modern times of technology. Her life, from birth until she turned fourteen, all documented in digital photographs. In another unforeseen tragic event after a hard drive crash a couple years ago he lost all of them. Vesna took it hard and was hard on Alen for not having a backup. He admits he should have, but has also resolved to remember what’s important. “I remember Karla when she was two, four. It’s less complicated for me. I remember.”
Before I can finish the last cuttlefish bite, the wildly unique and tasty cone, Alen pours me a taste of Babic, a single varietal wine from one of the three grapes used in the R6 blend. If I didn’t know the wine, I might guess it was a cabernet-franc dominated Bordeaux-style blend. But it isn’t. Silky texture with bold, dark red fruits, it could be the best red Croatian wine I’ve tasted to date.
I broach the subject of defining an identity for the Croatian wine business, referring to how Malbec helped put the wines of Argentina on shelves worldwide, and how Shiraz did the same for Australia, and to a degree, how Chianti did for Italy many years ago, and arguably, Tempranillo for Spain. Alen pontificates and sees more impossibilities than possibilities, referring to an effort some years ago by the Croatian Chamber of Commerce to make Plavac Mali, Gasvina, and Malvasia the defining grapes of Croatian viticulture. Instead, Alen suggests looking at it differently.
“Why not make Croatia about living the life: sing, drink, dance, and make good food?” He suggests this speaking specifically about Dalmatian hosts. It doesn’t take much to convince me. This is precisely what I’ve experienced as traveled north from Dubrovnik to here near Skradin and KRKA National Park. Just read my previous posts from the past two weeks.
Just as I’m reflecting on his idea, the hostess brings another dish of bites. First, there’s a classic crostini, but what gives me a second glance is the olive stuffed with cheese and topped with fried barley. Alen explains there are four cheese stages stuffed inside the olive—all Paski Sir sheep cheese made exclusives from the Paška Ovca sheep and only found on the Croatian island of Pag—and all made to explode in your mouth in one bite.
There’s more, including chicken pate and white caviar made from cold milk with anchovies and olives, homemade salami, olive, figs and a unique risotto ball with twenty-four-carat edible gold.
I admit Alen is right. They are a bit crazy here at BIBICh with both food and wine.
My next glass is the 2013 Sangreal Merlot. With aromas of dark fruit, spice, and plum the wine is evocative. The color is very dark, almost black. It’s rich, fruity and with tons of extraction, while on the palate gobs of fruit unfold along with flavors of chocolate and a hint of soy. This is no wimpy merlot. I thought nothing else could top the Babic, but the Merlot stands shoulder to shoulder.
Bibich makes three wines under the Sangreal name, this Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Shiraz. Alen confesses that the Merlot is his favorite. The meaning of Sangreal, like the wine and food at Bibich, is multilayered and complex. “There are no simple things,” he tells me. One layer is Sangreal is the quest for perfection.” He admits to always being on a journey as we all are on a quest and searching—for truth. In Christianity perhaps that search for the holy grail, the truth, is not in a box or container at all. It could be that the truth is Jesus married and fathered a son and that bloodline just might be traced; but where? Then again, Sangreal also means “royal blood,” and truth, like wine, flows right here—especially as Alen pours me another little taste of the Sangreal Merlot.
It’s a great play on or trick of words, but it’s also an extraordinary expression of Merlot. I take another sip. Each vintage, Bibich makes about 10,000 bottles of this Merlot. He excuses himself and steps outside for a cigarette.
Alen’s phone rings when he steps back inside. His good friend and the most renowned chef in Croatia will stop by. He will pick up a truckload of Shiraz grapes Alen has set aside for him. Sure enough, a few moments later, Boba or Vjeko Basic, the celebrated chef of Konoba Boba on nearby Morter Island is in the dining room with us. Together they discuss their business before joining me at the table.
“Last but not least is a single wine, from a single vineyard named Bas de Bas,” Alen explains that the name comes from the no longer used Dalmatae language and translates to “underground.” All the grapes come from the Bas de Bas vineyard, a six-hectare plot close to the village where he grew up. Half of the vineyard is planted with red varietals, ninety percent Syrah, five percent Merlot and five percent of Plavina. Surrounded by limestone karst, and abandoned for many years, Alen rescued and now tends to the vineyard choosing to craft his flagship wine from the Syrah and Merlot vines planted here.
The Bas de Bas is a true Croatian cult wine, Alen tells me. It’s also one of the most expensive wines in the country, clocking in at about one-hundred euros. It’s aged twenty-four months i new French oak barrels. Alen insists, however, that as we drink the wine, we do not discuss its aromas, color, or flavors. Instead, he says “with every drop you take, you are getting much smarter and stronger.”
Chef Boba tells me this is important because I need to be stronger so I can ride the motorcycle through another eighty countries. The wine is dark, rich, and though it clocks in at nearly 15% in alcohol, it is well-balanced, complex and just a treat. I yielded to his wish and therefore have no further notes on the wine except that to say, I want a few bottles for my cellar.
Curious about Konoba Boba, I learn that the chef’s restaurant sits on the small island of Murter, about 45 kilometers from Bibich. Gault &
Specializing in fresh seafood, Kanoboa Boba is open all year, save a few weeks for holiday in December and January. This is surprising because many of the tourist jaunts on the Croatian coast shut down for the winter. Even better, the island is accessible by crossing a bridge—no ferry required.
The tasting room at Bibich is now packed. The noise level has jumped many decibels. So Boba and I follow Alen who has stepped outside for another cigarette. He tells me that there are even more wines, but for now, we have ended on a high note, the Bas de Bas.
Alen fills his glass with more sparkling wine. It looks like a sparkling rose. But no, he is using the same glass he used with the red wines. He calls this a table blend. Intrigued, I ask him if he makes a rose. “You have to come back he tells me, teasing me with talk of more good wine. “I will walk you through some very special wines, but this is our first meeting.”
“Next time, he tells me he has many more treasures, the rose is just one. “Glass of rose and more glasses of red, big red wines.”
“Really?” I wonder what could compare to the wines I’ve already tried.
As we sip wine and finish the small bites, we discuss one of the biggest challenges facing Croatia, and Croatian business: the loss of educated young people who emigrate to other EU countries.
“This is especially hard for restaurants, a big problem,” Alen notes as Chef Boba nods.
“The good people go away. To Germany, Ireland, the United States, Philadelphia, wherever. It’s an exodus of human capital.” When Alen was twenty-two years old, just after the war, he took over winemaking and began to build what BIBICh Winery is now. Today, however, the good twenty-year-olds look for higher paying and more challenging jobs outside Croatia. This is the problem and also why you find young people from all over the world coming to work in Croatia during the tourist season.
It’s time I stop drinking wine, so I switch to water and hydrate. Alen knowns everyone in the wine business, even in Slovenia. So he offers a few suggestions of people I should meet when I make my way there in the next two weeks.
After about an hour, I pack up my bike and snap a few photos of Alen and Vesna together. I feel I’ve made friends forever. There’s no question Alen and Bibich and the fantastic restaurant led by Vesna are hugely successful. To think I may have missed this opportunity if it hadn’t been for my chance connection with Luka in Split. This is a good reason why I travel with no itinerary and leave myself open to opportunity and possibilities.
Bibich is the real thing, and Alen and Vesna are a truly dynamic duo who have been and continue to lead positive change in the viticultural and culinary scene here in Croatia. I look forward to watching — and tasting—what’s next.
After a long goodbye and promises to meet again, I leave Bibich Winery and the village of Plastovo in my rearview and head to Zadar.