One of the best things to experience abroad, for many travellers, is the local cuisine. If you’ve ever been to Dubrovnik or Split, you may have heard of ‘peka’, a traditional Dalmatian technique for preparing meat or fish on an open fireplace, under a bell shaped, cast-iron lid covered in glowing embers.
You can prepare a peka dish with almost any type of meat or fish, except beef, as it doesn’t get tender enough ‘under the bell’. Veal is by far the best, and easiest, type of meat to choose (chicken and turkey are also great options) and if you decide to go for fish or sea food, octopus is another popular favourite.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re planning to cook a peka dish, or if you want to try a peka dish in a restaurant, is the amount of time it takes to prepare. From start to finish, it takes about two hours to put this delicious meal on the table. So if you want to try peka in a restaurant, ask them well in advance. Pick the restaurant carefully, ask locals for advice, and if you can, choose a ‘konoba’ (a traditional tavern) for the best experience.
If you want to prepare a peka dish yourself, start by creating a large fire on an open fireplace. It’s best to use a combination of fire wood (beech, oak) and branches (olive, grapevine). You’ll need lots of hot, glowing embers, so make sure you gather plenty of wood.
It will take about an hour to get the embers you need to cover the peka. Once you have enough embers, you can place the tray and bell on top to preheat. After about five minutes, they will be hot and you can start filling the tray with your ingredients.
Make sure you use a shallow tray (max. 3 cm deep) so that it can’t hold on to too much moisture (you don’t want to boil the meat).
You’ll need about 1kg of veal for four people. Ask your butcher to select the best veal for you, and make sure that he adds some ribs, for extra flavor.
- 1kg of veal
- Some pork fat
- A couple of potatoes (the amount will depend on the size of your tray)
- 1 large onion
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- Sunflower oil
- Olive oil
- White wine
- Vegeta (Croatian seasoning made from dried vegetables)
- Optional: other vegetables, such as carrot, tomato, paprika, drained eggplant or zucchini)
Place a tablespoon of fat, a tablespoon of sunflower oil and half a tablespoon of olive oil on the tray.
Season the meat with pepper, salt and vegeta and add it to the tray. Surround the meat with pieces of potato and onion (you can cut any average size potato, onion or vegetable into four pieces). Add the garlic and the bay leaves. You can add vegetables as well (add less potatoes in that case).
Place the tray back on the embers as soon as possible, so that it doesn’t get a chance to cool down.
You need to keep about half of the embers under the tray, the rest will go on top of the bell. If your peka bell has a ring, you can use it to stop the embers from sliding down.
Keep an eye on the embers for the next 30 minutes, and keep a small fire burning on the side, so you can add more embers in case you need more heat. Carefully remove the lid after 30 minutes and turn the meat. If you think that there is too much moisture in the tray, remove some with a spoon.
Add two tablespoons of white wine to the remaining moisture in the tray. Let it warm up for a moment and then pour some of the moisture over the meat with a spoon.
Put the bell back and add extra embers if needed. Now you need to wait approximately another 30 minutes. If you are not sure if the meat is cooking well, you can have an occasional peek inside, but this affects the temperature so keep it to a minimum. After about an hour in total, your peka dish should be ready. Serve with fresh bread, salad and a glass of lovely Croatian wine.
With special thanks to Danica Knežević from Šibenik for sharing her recipe with us.