When a classic gastronomy traveller thinks about Central Istria, he/she thinks of agritourism. A pastoral setting is a combination of warm hospitality and a rich selection of local dishes cooked in the traditional way. Where else could you find an inn where granny is cooking just as her mother and grandmother did? This dining experience is unforgettable for many guests and they will most certainly put it in their top five experiences while visiting Istria.
One such place is Stara Štala, an agritourism whose name denotes what this building was before: the Old Stable. It is situated near the village of Borut, in Sandalji. The family has done garganuan job in transforming an old stone stable into a restaurant with accommodation. According to the statistics experts, it is the youngest agritourism in Istria, but only in name. It is the homestead of the family Merklin in several generations. Agritourism is bounded by specific laws in Croatia. Everything produces there must be from the estate itself, or from the diametre of some five kilometres. The same is with Stara Štala: all the things we saw and tried are from the homestead, only hard cheese comes from a neighbouring family farm Buretić. And when we asked the owners what is the main culinary trait, they simply said: we cook as we always did and eat what we usually do!
The farm household turned into agritourism always features green meadows and farm animals. Our main guide through the agritourism was Karin Merklin, the daughter of the owner. She and her grandma Ofelia care for guests in the dining room and in beautiful accommodation upstairs. Karin first took us to see the leading stars of this homestead: cows, donkeys, and rabbits. Many guests, especially those with kids, love to visit these animals, possibly as many have substantial oblivion of how they really exist. And while children point their parents to the fact that cows are essentially pink, as depicted on Milka chocolates, others become friends with two donkeys, Meri and Morena. They are wild at first, but if you give them a piece of bread they are your best friends ever – and they lick you all over. Everything is closely monitored by rabbits who run up and down their small shack. They are really cute, and their number is still not precise. The cows then try to make appearances, mostly by running up and down the narrow pathway; others just gaze away without any interest for the newcomers with the camera. Some of these beautiful creatures give delicious milk and the family makes very traditional recipes for curd and cottage cheese.
While we roam the countryside close to the barren slopes of Mt. Učka, Mrs Ofelia prepares excellent homemade dishes for us. In the kitchen next to the large dining hall dotted with wooden seats and tables, she made first a homemade vegetable soup, a refreshing start that „strengthens the soul“ as one says it here. All these vegetables come from the estate and we came just in time of picking and preparing the radicchio, healthy vegetable that keeps you going through the winter. Mr Valter and his wife Marinela, the proud owners of the agritourism, dive deep into packing the radicchio for market sale and invite us to join and feel the happiness of farmers' work. We kindly decline, stating the need to take photos of food while it is still warm. In between, we had a sip of local rakija: Stara Štala will offer you honey, chestnut, apple, and herb variety.
And what a glorious food that is! Cheese-filled ravioli are served with the beef goulash, as a very typical Istrian dish. In Stara Štala, they make five kinds of homemade dough and pasta from it: makaruni, pasutice, fuži, rafioli and njoki, as they call it in this locality. They are favourite meal for many guests and they come mostly with some meaty stew. We acknowledge their nice flavour and particularity to the Istrian diet, but especially in a colder time of the year, one should not omit other meat delicacies. We had cooked meat - pork pancetta and veal shank served with sauerkraut. The area around Borut and Cerovlje is known place for cabbage in Istria. Sausages with sauerkraut, potato halves with bacon or with cracklings are also favourite among the winter meat lovers. Sometimes, just a simple tripe with polenta would do great!
The family smokes sausages, prosciutto, and bacon. These pork specialities are great appetizers. The relatives of the aforementioned divine tastes can be found in muddy pig house nearby. When we came to greet them, they were fast asleep, snoring loudly. Bless them! Oblivious to what the future brings, they feed happily on the vegetables and foods that are much healthier than those in most supermarkets worldwide.
Do not hesitate in ordering homemade wine. Yes, we were very careful when offered the wine of the house, as the Central Istrian households that don't necessarily have winery tend to make an excellent recipe for a headache. We were even more careful when we heard it is a blend of five grape sorts! The vineyard is close, not at all on the southern side. Everything was a recipe for oenologist disaster, but the first sip of wine gave a strange feeling of something, well, good... And yes, we ordered another round later. The success story is based on the experience of Karin's uncle, who is selling the viticulture machinery and utensils: as one has to know about vineyards, his advice was instrumental in making a good and pleasant wine to drink!
Waving goodbye to the keen hosts is always followed with a sense of sweetness in the mouth. It is because of the great desserts they make. In Stara Štala you might be leaving with flavours of cukerančići, njočići, various cookies and cakes. We had the plum cake with cream, but the main point is that Karin has finished the confectionery school! Without a moment of hesitation, we would recommend this place for grandma's best cuisine, peace and tranquillity of the Istrian meadows and enchanting feeling of the Istrian village.
Sandalji 29a Borut, 52402 Cerovlje
Tel.: 0038598 920 3455, 0038598 750 731