(Photo: Mirjana Zugec Pavičić) (Photo: Mirjana Zugec Pavičić)

Although we may be inclined to say that the dishes prepared over the holidays are traditionally Croatian, in those precious moments it doesn’t matter where that culinary heritage originated from; whether that be Illyrian, Austro-Hungarian, Italian, French or Turkish.

Today, Croatian cuisine can be divided into several regions: Istria, Dalmatia, Dubrovnik-Neretva, Lika, Zagorje, Međimurje, the Drava River basin, and Slavonia.

All of the aforementioned regions have distinct culinary traditions that are sometimes not so well-known in other parts of the country. At the same time, it’s not unusual to encounter regional dishes in other areas of the country but with their own local variations.

Beginning on Christmas Eve, through Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and all the way to the Epiphany, there are distinct traditional dishes served on tables throughout Croatia that are hard to resist; especially when for the most part they reach our plates for only these precious few days during the year.

During the holidays, in Hrvatsko Zagorje, Međimurje, the Drava River basin, and Slavonia, a simple dough is prepared which is made from flour, water, salt, and, in some cases, an egg.

‘Mlinci’ from Zagorje is the latest Croatian product to be protected at the EU level. In June 2019, the European Commission announced that ‘Zagorski mlinci’ became Croatia’s 23rd product added to the EU’s register of Protected Geographical Indications (PGI).

‘Zagorski mlinci’ are made from fine wheat flour, water, and salt, and are combined to produce a thin sheet of dough, which is rolled out and stretched by hand until it is no thicker than 2.5 mm. The sheet of dough is then cut into rectangles, baked twice on metal baking sheets and then left to dry. Before they are eaten, ‘Zagorski mlinci’ are broken into smaller pieces by hand and cooked in boiling water. They are then rinsed and flavoured with hot roast drippings before being served.

The Association of Zagorje Traditions has been working for years to promote the culinary heritage of their region, namely ‘Zagorski mlinci’ and ‘Zagorski štrukli’ - a dish made of dough and various types of filling which can be either boiled or baked.

“The Association of Zagorje Traditions has existed since 2012. For the past seven years, members have been working hard to protect traditional Zagorje products,” explains association president Matija Guli.

The association has succeeded in protecting both ‘Zagorski mlinci’ and ‘Zagorski štrukli’, explains Guli. “‘Zagorski mlinci’ have the mark of Protected Geographical Indications at the EU level, while, for now, ‘Zagorski štrukli’ are only protected nationally.”

The association works to promote these products at various events and fairs, and by talking to customers and presenting the region’s unique traditions. Protected products are defined by distinct specifications, that is, documentation that describes how the products are manufactured and what tools and ingredients are used.

“Certified members of our association must pass the rigorous certification process every year,” said Guli. “We have an independent body that monitors production according to the specifications of how our grandparents used to do it. And while it is clear that such techniques cannot be completely replicated by today's production methods, the association wants to ensure that the main elements, like hand-worked dough and baking the product on metal baking trays on wood-burning stoves, is preserved.”

And, of course, everything has to be homemade: the cheese, cream, and free-range eggs. These specifications are vital, he says, because, in this way, the people who buy these protected products know exactly what goes into making the product and receive the guarantee that they have purchased something truly traditional.

Unfortunately, there are always cases where non-protected products are placed under the guise of protected products. The easiest way for customers to distinguish between them, says Guli, is that only protected products can be called ‘Zagorski mlinci’ and bear the EU’s recognizable yellow and blue Protected Geographical Indications seal. “At the same time, consumers will easily recognize the distinction when they taste the product and appreciate the quality of the ingredients and the unique manufacturing process.”

‘Zagorski štrukli’ are also an important part of the holidays. This salty or sweet dessert is essentially a pastry filled with cheese, pumpkin or apples; while the village of Ljubeščica in Varaždin County uses potatoes mixed with ground walnuts.

Krapina-Zagorje County, the Zagorje Development Agency, and ‘Tradicija Zagorja’ - an association for the preservation and promotion of traditional Zagorje products - cooperate with and assist producers throughout the region.

Ivona Horvat, a member of the Association of Zagorje traditions, explains that her company produces ‘Zagorski štrukli’ according to strict specifications. And while she incorporates some modern production methods, she believes that her product is the closest in taste and appearance to traditional ‘Zagorski štrukli’. “Everyone from our region recognizes them as an authentic original product as well as those who taste them for the first time,” said Horvat.

“All the ingredients we use, including cheese, cream, and eggs, we get from local producers. In this way, we support local producers and farmers, while at the same time, providing our ‘Zagorski štrukli’ with the heart and soul of Zagorje,” she explained.

Apart from the ingredients, it is important that the dough is made by hand; a skill that is passed down from generation to generation in Zagorje. The dough is kneaded and spread thinly so as to give the impression of puff pastry. Making the dough in this way requires a lot of experience and knowledge, concluded Horvat.