How to buy high-quality meat in Croatia
With its small-scale farmers, local butchers, and fresh food markets, you can still buy excellent meat in Croatia. And, because Croatians still know what good meat tastes like, it’s not hard to find it: just ask the locals or follow the queues in your fresh food market.
To recognize high-quality meat, you must know what is good and what is poor, and here is where we jump in. Once you find your perfect piece, you can prepare some local meals and enjoy the flavors Croatia has to offer.
In this post, we cover:
- Why eat meat in Croatia
- Where to buy meat
- Tips on buying meat
- Famous meat products
- Famous meat dishes
- Famous Croatian breeds
The facts are these…
Tips on buying high-quality meat in Croatia
About the meat quality in Croatia
Croatians still have the benefits of a largely functioning traditional farming community where quality is strictly controlled. According to figures for 2021 released by Marija Vučković, the Minister of Agriculture, 70% of beef, 60% of pork, and 90% of poultry are of local origin. And, she says, Croatians putting meat on the market behave responsibly.
Croatia has strict laws to protect its culinary legacy, especially from the kind of pollution (nitrates, hormones, and other additives) found in products where laws are less strict. According to the above-mentioned 2021 figures, only three of the 202 meat samples taken were non-compliant. Only two out of 140 samples were over the legal limit of nitrates. And the amount of chicken tested with hormones present was below 1%.
Hormones are banned, and their use is controlled by the State inspectorate. According to the Food Additives Act called Zakon o prehrambenim aditivima, aromama i prehrambenim enzimima, additives can only be used in meat intended for processing. Those using it on meat intended for fresh consumption pay high fines.
The majority of Croatians reject GMO products, and Croatia has stricter GMO laws than the EU standard. Here, any product with more than 0,9% GMO must be labeled as a GMO product. This is less than the 1% standard in Europe. Those importing GMO products must get government approval. GMO crops are banned, and sowing GMO seeds is banned.
However, meat products produced from GMO animals can be imported and need not be labeled. Animal feed, produced from genetically modified soybeans or corn, can also be sold in Croatia. So, you still need to be vigilant if you reject GMO products.
Treasuring native Croatian breeds
Croatia treasures and protects its culinary heritage, which includes native animal breeds. These breeds thrive in Croatia’s climate and produce top-quality meat, on which many of Croatia’s traditional recipes are based. Learn more about Croatia’s famous breeds in this section.
Although some breeds are endangered, there are official programs to revive and protect them. So, for example, the Agencija za ruralni razvoj (Agency of Rural Development) for Istria has programs to revive the Boškarin cow, which is believed to have been brought here from the Eurasian Steppes during the clashes between the Romans and Atilla the Hun in the 5th century. The agency is also involved in reviving native Istrian sheep, such as the Pamenka, which have been weakened through cross-breeding.
Native breeds are adapted to Croatia’s climate and continue to produce high-quality meat and milk when vegetation dies back. For example, the boškarin builds bulk during lush seasons. This has ecological advantages. In addition, grazers keep the natural vegetation cropped. This creates ideal soil conditions for herbs. (Today, abandoned Croatian meadows are filled with scrub and trees, which drop leaves and create soil that is too humus-rich for herbs.) And, of course, herbs eaten by free-range farm animals ensure gourmet quality meat.
No mass animal farming
Croatians are not (yet) subjected to the bad quality meat that we have in Germany or other EU countries, which are dominated by large-scale industrial farms and meat processing plants. These monopolies compete not on quality but on price. With all the cost benefits of mass production, they have forced traditional butchers and small-scale farmers out of business.
Because the animals are massed into tiny spaces, they are stressed and produce poor-quality meat. They are also given antibiotics to prevent disease, hormones to make them grow faster, and artificial feed. It’s a mess!
Then there are the tricks the meat processing industry uses. You can’t even trust “bio” labels because the powerful meat lobbies influence laws, which make it easy to claim something is bio when, strictly speaking, it is not. This is why so many, including me, don’t eat meat in Germany – out of protest.
It remains to see how long it takes for these industrial meat and feed monopolies to find a way into the Croatian market. All the more reason to enjoy Croatia’s meat paradise while it lasts!
#1 Directly from the farmer
If you are lucky, you live in a rural area where you can buy great meat from a neighbor. Maybe they are cattle breeders or have a few animals they slaughter once or twice a year. Or, maybe your village (like mine) is still visited by local farmers who sell domaće (homemade or home-produced) milk, olive oil, cheese, apple vinegar, fresh ground flour, pickles, potatoes, eggs, and, if you are lucky, meat.
For four years, I have been buying all these things except meat from a charming young Istrian called Martina. I only recently discovered that she occasionally offers meat. But she can only take limited orders, so this information won’t be voluntarily offered. Ask!
I call butchers “local heroes” because they stand for high standards of quality and professionalism. My favorite is Moreno Burulčić, who has been running his butchery in a small Istrian supermarket in Labin for 22 years. He says the quality of the meat he sells has remained the same since then. He only buys from farmers certified as producing A1 quality.
I ask him if his clients are deserting him for cheaper meat in the new supermarkets flooding Croatia. “Why would they?” a woman standing next to me asks. “This is fresh”. And indeed, it is. So much so that I leave with a bag of domaća kokoš (chicken), yellow as corn, and tender junica (baby beef) for soup.
Like most small butchers, Burulčić buys only from Croatian small-scale farmers. The furthest the meat comes from is north of Zagreb, where he gets Simonntel steaks, a specialty in that region. Huge chunks of almost black meat. I can tell you that these steaks have turned many of my flexitarian visitors into carnivores!
[Read: How to order steak in Croatia]
Burulčić makes his own sausages, ćevapčići, and hamburger patties, and a cured pork similar to the protected Dalmatinska pečenica. He sells dried meats and salamis, mostly locally produced, but some from larger producers. Otherwise, he deals directly with farmers, with hardly a packaged product entering his shop.
The chicken legs (around 800 grams), together with the 400 grams of soup meat, cost just over 7 euro. Can’t really complain, can I? Meat at Moreno is seldom over 10 euro a kilo unless you are looking at the Simenntal steaks (around 12,50 euro a kilo).
#3 Fresh food markets
The obvious place for meat is in a fresh food market. But there is a trick. When I first bought meat in a fresh market, I noticed there were two butchers next to each other. One had a long queue, so I did what was normal for me – I went to the one with no queue. I have since learned to follow the crowds – this is where the good stuff lies. (By the way, this is less true in summer, when the markets are crowded with tourists.)
But perhaps the best advice is to ask your local Croatian friends and contacts.
#4 Small stores
You may be surprised by tiny stores — that small supplier in a tiny village or tucked away in the back streets of a bigger town. They, too, will have a loyal clientele who demand good quality meat. Right now, my neighbor is shopping for both of us at just such a shop, where he gets really good chicken and, sometimes, baby beef.
Some supermarkets have excellent butchers. The locals will always know which those are.
Supermarkets in tourist areas will offer better quality meat during winter when the tourists are gone. Then, they are supplying locals, and often, you might find meat supplied by a local butcher. I avoid these kinds of supermarkets in the tourist season.
Observe your big supermarket chains (local and global) in summer and winter. One of the biggest Croatian chain supermarkets in my local town has meat that no locals buy. In summer, he stands behind his counter and has customers – tourists. In winter, he does not even bother to stand outside because nobody is waiting to buy. The meat from this same vendor can be bought packaged in the fridge section — and mostly, it is over the “best-before” date.
Tiny tip: always check this date if you buy packaged meat!
#6 Online and organic stores
You can also buy organic chicken and turkey from the Purex chain, which has stores mostly in Zagreb and Split. You can view Purex stores here. They sell organic and uncontaminated chicken and turkey.
Here are a few important tips you should be aware of when buying meat in Croatia:
- Fresh pork from healthy pigs is almost as red as veal. It is not the anemic white of industrially farmed pork you find in most EU supermarkets.
- Yellow corn-fed chickens are the best. Look out for signs of domaće (home-produced), which means you are buying home-bred chickens.
- If necessary, ask to have the fat cut away: Bez masti molim. (Without fat, please.)
- If you are making soup, ask for bones. Your butcher may throw in some for free. However, you will pay for marrow bones, which are a delicacy – not only for Osso Buco but also for roasting.
- If you want something that is not on display, for example, a whole chicken, a leg of lamb, or marrow bones, ask your butcher. It may be in the storeroom, or you might need to order it.
Now, turn your knowledge into gourmet meals! Here are some of Croatia’s most famous meat dishes and products.
Delicious Croatian products made of dried, smoked, or, in other ways, processed meat are:
- Čvarci, also known as ocvirki, like pieces of pork crackling
- Dalmatinska panceta, a preserved and cured pork resembling bacon
- Drniški, Istarski or Krčki pršut, regionally produced prosciutto
- Kulen, pork sausages
- Tlačenica, also known as švargl, presvuršt, or prezvuršt, a pressed pork sausage made from pork parts in aspic (including meat, tongue, head, heart, skin, and cheeks)
Some of Croatia’s best-rated meat dishes are:
- Čobanac, a slow-cooked stew – view a recipe here
- Dalmatinska pašticada, a marinated beef stew – view a recipe here
- Istarski ombolo i kobasice s kiselim kupusom, cured pork loin – view a recipe here
- Janjetina ispod peke, a lamb dish cooked under a dome called a peka – view a recipe here
- Janjetina s ražnja, whole lamb roasted on a spit – view a recipe here
- Kotlovina, a mixed meat and sausages dish – view a recipe here
- Odojak na ražnju, suckling pig roasted on a spit – view a recipe here
- Punjena paprika, paprika stuffed with ground meat and rice – view a recipe here
- Purica s mlincima, roast turkey with mlinci (a cross between unleavened bread and homemade pasta) – view a recipe here
- Sarma, ground meat wrapped in cabbage leaves – view a recipe here
Several famous Croatian animal breeds are regarded as part of the country’s agricultural and culinary heritage. They are often rare breeds and are regarded as an important genetic resource for their hardiness. They are also of ecological and economic value. Farmers often receive funding from the state to protect and preserve these species.
The most famous Croatian beef-producing cattle are:
- Istarski boškarin (Istrian Boškarin)
- Slavonska simentalka (Slavonian Simmental)
- Slavonsko-srijemski podolac (Slavonian-Syrmian Podolian)
Croatia has large numbers of hardy, good breeds and hybrids. Sadly, some rare breeds have either disappeared or are greatly endangered, including the indigenous pig breeds from Turopolje and the Black Slavonian Pfeiffer pig. But mutton in Croatia is generally top quality and includes improved breeds from Istria, Cres, Pag, and the Dubrovnik region.
There are some attempts to revive some native species, such as the Istrian Pamenka.
Boškarin from Istria
These magnificent grey beasts with their large horns were traditionally used as draft animals both in the field as well as for transportation. They weigh between 550 (a cow) and 1.000 kilograms (an ox or bull), and it is hard to imagine that their flesh can be tender.
In the 1960s, there were around 60.000 boškarin in Istria. In the 1990s, after new breeds were introduced to increase agricultural efficiency, pure breeds almost disappeared. Today, in a Federation of Istrian Cattle Breeders program, they are being rebred, with still a small but growing population.
The tough-looking Boškarin is now regarded as a gourmet delicacy and can be found on the menu of many good Croatian restaurants.
Simmental from Slavonia
Actually, simentalka is a Swiss cow – named after the Simmental Valley in Switzerland. A beautiful beast with reddish and white markings, it is bred for both milk and meat. As mentioned in my section on butchers, a Simmental steak is a gourmet treat.
Podolac from Slavonia-Syrmia
Originally from the steppe regions of Russia, this long-horned dark grey beast has been, since the early 20th century, the dominant breed in the region of Baranja, Srem, Slavonia, and from Drava to Virovitica.
View our other food posts
- 5 Croatian words to use when you enjoy and don’t enjoy the food
- 10 Croatian words to describe the texture of food
- A local’s guide to buying food at Croatia’s farmer’s market
- Croatian farms and food suppliers with online ordering and home delivery
- GMO (genetically modified organisms) in Croatia
- How to buy flour in Croatia
- How to buy quality products in Croatia and avoid bad ones
- Where to buy healthy, organic, and natural food
Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.