“You’ve left the bloody head on!” I had to laugh this week whilst sitting with a colleague in the Old City over a coffee. He is involved in the hospitality business in Dubrovnik and it soon became clear that he has a wealth of juicy information about the tourists that visit the city. He reminded me of something, something that I have been thinking about after another conversation with a tour guide, and that is how much do tourists really want the local experience.
Pick up any holiday brochure, open any travel blog or flick to the travel section of most newspapers and I guarantee you’ll see this sentence, live the local experience! It is the “in” phrase, the fashionable piece of advice.
Long gone are the days when tourists travel to foreign lands and imitate lizards by spending two weeks soaking up the sun on the beach. No, now it is all about diving into the local culture, the local traditions, learning how the locals live and of course the local cuisine. Tourists aren’t….well they aren’t tourists anymore, now they like to describe themselves as travellers. Like Indiana Jones they cross the globe looking to discover lost civilizations and maybe uncover hidden gold.
The internet is mainly to “blame” for this new trend, well the internet and budget airlines. Now you can book your flights, hotel and excursions from your armchair and thanks to Ryanair reach a foreign land for a handful of Euros. All you need is an Indiana Jones hat and a travel guide and the world is your oyster! But there seems to be a slight problem with this trend, do people actually want it, or more importantly are they ready for it. Are they being sold something they don’t really want or need, like when we all rushed out and bought Betamax video recorders only for VHS to win the day! And the conversation I was involved in only brought home this theory.
So you want the local gastronomic experience in Dubrovnik? Ok, let’s start with the most traditional of local dishes, fish. You want to eat like a local, well firstly that means that the fish has to be fresh, not processed and coated in breadcrumbs. When it lands on your plate it will look like a fish not a dinosaur or a cartoon character. If I had a Euro for all the times I’ve beheaded a fish for family and friends in a restaurant I could pay the Croatian national debt...well not that much but you get the idea. And apparently I wasn’t alone in beheading fish; my friend across the table had had more than his fair share of chopping heads off.
A fish wouldn’t swim very far without a head! You want the local experience well this is part of it. And bones, yes just like us fish have bones, otherwise they would be jellyfish. The amount of times I’ve heard “Mummy this fish has bones in it,” coming from the next table. Probably the only other experience of fish these children have had is when the fish has been mashed up, squeezed into a block shape and covered in breadcrumbs, fish fingers. You want the local experience, well here is some news for you, in reality fish have bones but they don’t have any fingers. How many fish have you seen wearing gloves? Or playing handball? You want the local experience, well we eat fish with our fingers, and those tiny little fish well we eat them whole with the heads and we colour our risotto with squid ink. Still want the local experience?
And when we spit roast a lamb or goat we leave the head on as well. So when you sit down and see a perfectly formed lamb twisting over a fire, that’s a local experience, it might not be want you read in the guide book but that’s it. Oh, and with our fish we normally eat boiled vegetables, such as Swiss Chard, no, there is no chips, no tortilla, no processed food at all. Are you still ready for this?
Olive oil is the main seasoning, along with some rosemary, garlic and basil. You can forget any tomato sauce, chilli powder, artificial colourings and flavourings, sugar, E numbers, preservatives, additives....the list goes on and on. This is fresh fish caught on the day you are eating it a few hundred metres from where you are actually sitting. That’s the local experience, now if you still want that, and my advice is to grab it and embrace it, then we have plenty of that.