Born in Rijeka in Istria, Daniela Kramaric not only became the first woman sommelier in Croatia, but also its best in 2001 and 2002. In 2002 she was also chosen the best sommelier for Central and Eastern Europe. Then she stopped competing to be the sommelier and manager of the restaurant “Plavi Podrum” in Volosko, a picturesque fishing village just outside Opatija, which her father had bought some thirteen years ago. During a press trip to Zagreb and Istria organized by the Croatian National Tourist Organization and the local tourist board of Opatija, Epicurean-Traveler.com’s Rome Bureau Chief interviewed Daniela after a splendid lunch which was accompanied by her selection of wines.
The menu went as follows: A welcome aperitif of a local spumante from the nearby Istrian island of Krk called Frajona made from a local grape called Zlahtina. First course of three tastes: warm octopus salad with baby beans and baby corn seasoned with “motar,” basil, celery and “Leccino” from Ipša Istrian olive oil, Adriatic tuna sea-ham with Merlot sorbet and warm baby scampi on a bed of “rucola” salad with orange and champignon slices and pine-nuts with Campari-orange foam, and a couple of St. Jacques shells on a reduction of apples together with monk fish covered with black truffles and coffee powder. With the tuna Daniel chose another local wine: Malvazija Istrska 2008 from the Moreno Coronica winery; and with the scallops a Sauvignon 2007 from the Zdjelarevic winery in Slavonia. The two main courses: grilled fillet of turbot on a crème of squash with coriander and fried tortellini stuffed with sea bass, both accompanied by Zlatan Pošip 2008 from the Plenkovic winery on the Dalmatian island of Korcula. Dessert: Chocolate Mousse (Lindt Equador 80%), on a cream of caramel and fried tortellini with sheep ricotta, raisins, red salt from the Himalaya and Buza di Meloto olive oil accompanied by a sweet Prosek from the Dalmatian island of Hvar.
What are your first memories of wine?
DK: As I told you, I was “born” in a restaurant. My father actually bought a restaurant called “Mali Raj” which means “little paradise” the day I was born, February 7, 1969. It doesn’t exist anymore but he’s owned “Amphora” also here in Volosko for as long as I can remember. He was the chef. My mother worked there too, but never in the kitchen. When I was about twenty, I’m 41 now, I went on a wine search with my friends to the small village of Požega in Slovania, a region in continental Croatia, to the producer Ivan Enjingi, the first Croatian private wine producer. He is the great-grandson of Koloman Enjingi who planted the family’s first vineyard in 1890. I will never forget the bouquet of Enjingi’s Traminac Mirisavi.
What are your first memories of food?
DK: Fresh red mullets that my father bought at the local fish market. He came home and said: “These were caught and bought especially for you. You have to eat them.” I was about three or four. Mullets have a special taste, different from other fish. I still love them.
So why and how did you decide to become a sommelier instead of a chef?
DK: During summers as a teenager when I helped out at Amphora, I worked at the bar so to become a sommelier was a logical choice. I’ve never been a chef, but, first at Amphora and now at “Plavi Podrum” which means “Blue Cellar” in Croatian, I work in the kitchen when we create a new dish. Otherwise they are always eight in the kitchen. We have four chefs, all from Croatia. One, Lidja Karajkovic, has been working with us since the day we opened. We are never closed. All together the staff is 18 people.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
DK: I have a younger sister. She’s thirteen years younger than me but she’s a dentist at the University in Rijeka.
DK: My daughter, who is 21, is studying economics. She might come to work here. My husband, who’s an architect, works here now.
photo by Lucy Gordan
How do you divide your duties here at Plavi Podrum?
DK: Plavi Podrum is 99% a seafood restaurant. We buy everything on a daily basis. I buy the all wines, fish, shellfish, and fresh produce or fruits and vegetables. He buys everything else and does all the paperwork that needs to be done.
Where did you study to become a sommelier?
DK: I studied in Croatia. I have a diploma from the Croatian Sommelier Association, which is now based in Pula. When I studied its headquarters were in Zagreb. However, I’ve always traveled quite a lot, particularly to Italy and France. But it’s a continuous work-in-progress really. The best preparation is to travel and to keep traveling to keep up with the new products and trends. I don’t import wines but I’ve written about wine for about the past 15 years. Now I have a weekly wine column in the Croatian daily newspaper Novi List. This helps me a lot to stay informed and be in touch with wine producers all over the world.
I read that you also studied in the States?
DK: Yes, in 2002 I won a Cochran Scholarship offered by the USDA to study hotel and restaurant management for a month. I went to Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, the Napa Valley, and New York. It was a dream.
What professional experiences did you have outside Croatia?
DK: I represented Croatia at European and World Championships for sommeliers. I was chosen the Best Croatian Sommelier in 2001 and 2002. In 2002 I was also elected the Best Sommelier of Central and Eastern Europe. After that I stopped competing.
DK: Thirteen years ago my parents bought Plavi Podrum. It has been mine for the past four years so I have much more work than I did ten years ago. Amphora and Plavi Podrum are separate restaurants but the original recipes are my father’s. Our aim is to serve local dishes with local ingredients and flavors but to present them on the plate in an innovative way.
What are the essential qualities for being a top chef or a top sommelier?
DK: For both professions you must have this vocation, this passion. It’s a lot of work, though. It’s not just a talent. You must be tenacious, aspire to be the best. You have to accept that every day you start from zero. It doesn’t matter that you’ve cooked a thousand dishes or tasted a thousand wines, but especially for a new guest it’s the first dish you’ve cooked for him or her. For a returning guest it may be a new dish that he or she is trying. The same is true for wines. Each experience is a new challenge. You must have “fire in the belly.” You must work hard every day. You cannot afford to lose that passion and self-discipline. A top chef and a top sommelier never stops learning. Think of all the new wines from all over the world that have recently appeared on the market. During the past ten years cooking methods and food presentation have evolved dramatically. You have to stay informed. You have to learn all these novelties and teach them to your staff which has to grow together with you.
Restaurant magazine has rated Plavi Podrum one of the best 100 restaurants in the world?
DK: Yes, we’re rated number 81, which for us is an enormous success.
Before coming to Croatia and while here, I heard that Plavi Podrum is also considered one of the ten best restaurants in Croatia, which are the others?
DK: I don’t know of any list. My own favorites are “Marcellino” in Zagreb and “Valsabbion” in Pula. Then come “Gill’s” in Dubrovnik, “Takenoko” in Zagreb, “Draga di Lovrana” in Lovran and “Kukuriku” in Kastav.
Other chefs and sommeliers you admire?
DK: Chefs: Heinz Beck at “La Pergola” in Rome, Massimiliano Aljamo at “Le Calandre” in Rubano near Padua, Nadia Santini and family at “Dal Pescatore” in Canneto sull’Oglio between Cremona and Mantua in Lombardy, Gionata Bignotti at “La Rucola” in Sirmione on Lake Garda especially his foie gras, and Basque Martin Barasategui outside San Sebastián in Spain. Sommeliers: Enrico Bernardo. I also love to participate in wine trips organized by the Slovenian wine critic Tomaz Sršen.
Who are your guests?
DK: Many types. In the summertime we have a lot of tourists: Italians, Slovenians, Germans, and Austrians. Some only come for the day especially to eat here. In the off-season many businessmen come especially for lunch and in the evening younger people give private parties.
Up to now we have talked about Daniela Kramaric the sommelier, but my readers and I would like to know more about you as a person. For example, what’s your favorite wine?
DK: No, because I love and I mean really love and enjoy so many many wines. I promise I’m not saying this for diplomatic reasons. It may sound funny but my favorite wine depends on what I’m eating, the occasion, the people I’m with, my mood, the weather, the time of the year, so many different factors…
A wine you don’t like?
Your favorite food?
DK: Raw shrimps.
Your favorite color?
DK: Turuqoise like the sweater you’re wearing. I think that turquoise is my color, but not just to wear it.
What zodiac sign are you?
Your favorite flower?
Chefs are known for their collections of fancy watches, fast cars and motorcycles. Do you have a collection?
DK: I’m a woman so I have collections of shoes and handbags, but, of course, of wine. Really.
Where do you like to go on vacation?
DK: Any place tropical to relax, although I travel mostly for professional reasons, for food and wine reasons. I have to go places where you can eat and drink well. Otherwise I don’t have time.
Why did you choose to be a sommelier and not a chef?
DK: As I told you before, after my parents bought this restaurant I helped out at the bar. Clients began to ask me questions about Croatian wines and for me it was very annoying not to know all the answers. I had to be more knowledgeable than our guests. That was the first reason. Then when I started to study, I realized that there were so many things about wines that I did not know. The world of wine is so fascinating. It never ends; it never stops; it never sleeps. All the time all around the world something is happening. There are always new techniques, new books. In this business time is on your side. Experience is very important, but at first you have to write everything down, all the tastings, all the different wines to be able to buy them for Plavi Podrum and to compare them later.
When you have experience you almost always like the same wines, but you also know why you like it and don’t like another. I like love Croatian wines for their diversity and their local grape varieties that are practically unknown outside Croatia because the quantity is so small, too small to export. They should invite more buyers and distributors to come here to taste them. The balance between local foods and local wines is intact. We must preserve this high quality of our basic ingredients.
If you had not become a sommelier, what profession would you have chosen instead?
DK: I studied languages — German and Italian, and I love people. I would have liked to be an interpreter. Being in contact with people is also very important in our business.
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Lucy Gordan is an award-winnning travel writer and cultural journalist living in Rome, where she is Epicurean-Traveler.com’s Bureau Chief. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.lucygordan.com.