Saturday 14 July 2007

Villa Annette in Istria, Croatia

Cowie and I returned to London on Monday having spent a blissful week in gorgeously sunny Istria. We flew by easyJet from Luton to Rijeka which is vaguely the other side of the adriatic from Venice.

We left the deluge of work and rain in London behind us and embarked on a gastronomic extravaganza in Istria. I had read in recent editions of Olive and Delicious magazines that the Istrian peninsula in Croatia is a fantastic destination for lovers of truffles, pasta, risotto, sea food, fresh zingy wines and slow food. Armed with this information and inspired by loads of amazing reviews and recommendations from friends we embarked on our quest.

Cowie, quite brilliantly, booked us into Villa Annette on the hill above Rabac with an imperious view from sunrise till sunset of the green mountains tumbling into the blue sea. It had a reputation for exceptional food, a restaurant in an olive grove and a fantastic swimming pool. Our room was enormous with a huge bed, sofa, kitchen and fantastic terrace/balcony with a sea/mountain view.

Our days were spent reading books by the beautful pool occassionally doing enough lenghts to make me think that I had burned off breakfast before embarking either on a road trip or lunch on our terrace.

The chefs at Villa Annette have carefully built up a reputation as being the best Slow Food establishment in the area with a menu heady with truffles and langoustines.

On Thursday night we dined amidst the olive grove as the sun set over the mountains and the candles started to light up the darkness. We were served by the most charming waiter who made some fantastically honest recommendations. It made us wish that all waiters in London were as up front as he was. He advised against some of the more expensive or elaborate dishes saying they weren's his favourites and instead guided us towards some of the more Istrian classics that weren't quite so fancy. His wine selection was equally impressive as he directed me towards one the cheaper bottles that he said was grown in his village.

Cowie kicked off with the most sublime dish. A delicious langoustine and truffle taglatelli with a shell fish sauce. Words can't do it justice. It was one of those dishes that will stay with me forever. For me it summed up Istria in one mouthful:


Utterly knockout as Cowie's dish was, my gnocchi with asparagus and pancetta was bloody good too. The sauce was richly flavoured with sweet, minerally aspargus with a salty meaty kick from the pancetta. The gnocchi was rich and well cooked - like sinking your teeth into a pillowy cushion of pasta.

Then came a couple of steaks. One simply grilled with some wonderful grilled vegetables. The other topped and sauced with what seemed like several thousand pounds worth of truffles! Grey and mushroomy in appearance and with a slightly overpowering taste I tucked in... ooohing and ahhing as I went. I suspect the waiter tried to avert his eyes as I couldn't help making such lude noises. Now I know what all the fuss about truffles is all about.

Unfortunately for Cowie so food was so rich the most I could do was shuffle back to our bedroom before swimming 200 lenghts before breakfast to counteract my gluttony.

Our bill with wine and service came to 65 quid. Not bad considering we certainly didn't hold back!

Our second meal at Villa Annette was equally memorable. Towards the end of the week the hotel became busier so we dined in a now full olive grove. We very meagrely ordered a fish soup to share for starter. Upon its arrival we were very pleasantly surprised. Instead of the thick Frenchy soup we were expecting we were presented with two prstine bowls of light, almost clear, langousine soup. We loved how refined and stylish it both tasted and looked. Clearly some very accomplished cooking had been involved in its creation.

Surprised and exctited by the starter we then got hit by a powercut that affected the whole Istrian peninsual. The olive grove was plunged into dramatic darkness partially lit by dancing candles. We were reassured that the kitchen was still operating and eagerly awaited our main courses.

Cowie plumped for another steak because we were on a budget and she had enjoyed the previous one so much. This time it came covered in honey coloured chanterelle mushrooms. But not just a couple. There must have been about 6! Cowie needless to say had some fairly haloucinagenic dreams that night!

I followed our waiter's recommendation and went the black ravioli with langoustine, truffles and monkfish. Whilst Cowie's steak was excellent once again I can happily report that for once Cowie got food envy... my black sea food ravioli was sensationally good. The rich filling to the pasta balanced out by perfectly cooked chunks of monkfish and langoustine in the sauce. Although I could barely see what I was eating I was blown away by the simple but powerful flavours and technical ability to construct such a fine dish.

Our stay at the Villa Annette lasted only a week but we loved every moment of it. The staff were some of the friendliest and most helpful you will ever find and the rooms and ambience were idyllic. I have never been to a hotel with a better swimming pool and can't recommend a stay here enough. It wasn't too expensive either.

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