There’s something very distinct about the taste of food when it’s eaten outside. A simple ham and cheese sandwich with some potato chips enjoyed with salty hands on the deck of a boat. A baguette with some cheese and prosciutto consumed during a long hike. And our personal favorite – anything cooked over a fire.
One of the things that drew me to Romano’s AirBnB was the fact that it had a fire pit. As soon as I showed Mike the listing, we agreed we needed to make use of this amazing option for our meal planning.
After getting a better sense of the fresh food options during the first couple of days, we decided to make use of the fire pit on our last night on Vis. We wanted to soak up as much of Vis’ tranquility as possible before our departure from the island. This would ultimately become the epic experience known to us as the Vis Fish Day (VFD).
The night prior to the VFD, Romano invited us for a drink at his home – one of our favorite experiences while on Vis. He warmly and gregariously welcomed us into his living room and poured us each a drink from a dark wine bottle labeled “POISON!”…wait, what?? He explained that he added this label so that his father-in-law wouldn’t drink up his cherished and limited supply of homemade liquor…clever! (Assuming that’s true. If not, welp, it’s been a great ride!). While we sipped the very sweet but delicious poison, we discussed geography and US politics (at the time we had a very different prediction vs. the now current state of affairs), his family life on the island, Croatian history, and his path toward owning his construction business and Airbnb listing.
Mike mentioned to Romano that we’d like to cook over the fire pit back at the house, and asked where on the island we should buy fish. Apparently a fish market does technically exist, but fresh fish regularly does not make it to the actual market. Instead, locals know to wait at the docks for fishing boats to return from the previous night’s jaunt and buy directly from the fishermen. Much of the fish that does make it to the actual market has been picked over, and is then up-charged for tourists like us. He told us that we should wake up very early, head down to the docks in Komiža, wait until we see a boat that looks like it’s coming in with a catch, and approach the fishermen directly. Sounded simple enough?
The next morning, we awoke before sunrise, scrambled to get dressed and have some coffee, and headed out for Komiža. On the way, we ran into Romano coming by to tell us that he had heard through the grapevine that no fresh fish would be coming into Komiža that morning. Instead, we should still try going to Vis’ town center with the same approach.
With very little idea of what or who we were actually looking for, we parked in the center of town. Trying to look as casual as possible (and thus looking totally suspicious / shady / lost) we wandered up and down the docks looking for a fishing boat that might sell us the goods. After ten minutes of meandering, we concluded that we were either too late or too early. So, may as well get some more coffee.
On our way over to a café on the waterfront, we noticed an older gentleman weighing fish in the back of his car. I nudged Mike and motioned for him to approach the man, having no idea whether he was actually selling fish, what the protocol is for buying fish off of strange men standing in a parking lot, if this was perhaps an undercover cop from the environmental police here to bust some tourists for illegal procurement of contraband fish, or if this guy even spoke English.
Mike (confidently?) walked up to the man, observed the scary, ugly, spiny orange-and-red fish in his basket, and asked if they were for sale. The man looked us up and down, considered the question for a second, and then said “Yes. But you buy all three. 18 kuna.” (18 kuna is a little under $3). Mike looked at me, looked at the man, back at me, deciding whether he was supposed to bargain or not. Romano had not given us any guidance on this part of the exchange. We decided three bucks must not be a total rip off for three fish, even if small to medium in sized, ignoring the question of whether these were in fact edible or if they were actually intended for acupuncture. We handed over the money. As the man was wrapping up the fish, he pointed to the many spines and said, “Poison. Careful when cleaning.” Um, okay. Live and learn, right?!
Feeling successful (sort of), we ventured over for that cup of coffee, and sat by the water while we connected to the wifi to figure out (a) what type of fish we bought and (b) if we got swindled. Amazingly, googling “scary red spikey fish” worked (there are others out there like us!) and we learned that we were going to be cooking scorpion fish.
Right before we headed back to the car, I noticed a boat entering the harbor with a trail of seagulls following its wake. Wondering whether they had any additional fish we could look at and add to the VFD menu, we sauntered back over to the docks. This boat was clearly more of an actual fishing operation, and we waited in line behind several old Croatian ladies buying their daily purchase.
When it was our turn, the captain could tell by our appearance that we required English, and told us that they only had mackerel left. We looked at each other and decided that this could work, in case the scorpion fish-of-death did not. They looked pretty small so we asked for five to be bagged up. Only 10 kuna! (So maybe we did get ripped off on the scorpion fish.)
On the drive home, I reminded Mike that Romano had suggested we find some wild lemons and herbs in the woods just before heading back to our cove in Villa Travna. We spotted a tree full of ginormous lemons (we’re talking grapefruit-sized!) and picked a few. We completed our forage with some fresh rosemary and sage, which grows everywhere in great abundance on Vis.
Romano had also advised us to clean the fish directly in the ocean so that the tide would take away the blood and guts, and so that the salt water would naturally clean and season the fish before cooking. When we arrived back at the house, Mike carefully snipped off as many of the poisonous spines as possible. Then, we (Mike) put on our (his) swimsuits on and we (he) hopped into the water so that we (Mike) could clean the fish [MC Ed. Note: yeah, I don’t recall there being much “we” going on here, unless you count Marshmallow trying to eat my dinner).
After gutting and cleaning all the fish, we lined the inside of the fish with thin lemon slices and placed these (along with some backup chicken breasts) in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary and sage.
Mike built up a fire and we cracked open a bottle (or several) of Croatian wine. While allowing the fish to thoroughly marinate and for the fire to produce a hot base of coals, we listened to the waves lapping on the shore and observed the seemingly innumerable bright stars filling the dark night sky above us, reflecting on the amazing experience of the week.
“HEY GUYS!” Romano came strolling out of the dark into the firelight, swinging by to check in. We updated him on how we had followed his instructions to clean the fish and showed him what we had bought. His eyes went wide immediately when he saw the scorpion fish, and he asked how we had prepared this. His relief was clearly visible when we explained how Mike had carefully trimmed the spines, and he confirmed what we had read that cooking the fish should neutralize any remaining toxins. Satisfied that we were all set with our dinner preparations, he left us as we set about actually grilling the fish, chicken, and vegetables.
This. Meal. Was. Unreal.
The scorpion fish and mackerel were incredibly tender and mixed the fresh taste of the sea with the local olive oil, lemon and herbs, further enhanced by roasting over the open fire. Mike was on cloud nine, thrilled with how well the meal had turned out and basking in the primal glory of preparing the fish and cooking over an open fire in such beautiful natural surroundings.
This scene and experience have become firmly etched in his mind as one of “those” episodes of sensory overload that stay with you forever. He continued to rave about this experience for days on end afterwards, and the VFD has more or less become the narrative of his future life when he eventually retires from his corporate emailing career.
Often times, cooking and food prep can become overcomplicated by exotic ingredients and fancy or expensive techniques. The VFD was a reminder that this need not be the case – sometimes less is more, and a simple preparation with just a few basic, fresh ingredients can produce amazing results.
Furthermore, as evidenced by this trip, we’re big fans of using food as a way to explore a new culture, particularly by obtaining and preparing the food ourselves. This experience with the fresh and simple preparation of Croatian fish, based on guidance from the locals we met along the way, was truly a highlight of the trip. It emphasized the amazing way of life that can be experienced in this beautiful Dalmatian region of Croatia. So next time you travel, consider going back to basics and seeking out your own “home” cooked local culinary experience!
Fish Over an Open Fire
Prep Time: 30 minutes (+1 hour to marinate fish while heating coals in the fire)
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total: 1 hour
Servings: Depends on what type of fish you’re cooking – ex. 2 mackerel per person, 1.5 scorpion fish per person
- Fresh fish (we bought mackerel and scorpion fish, but this recipe can really be applied to most fish, cooking times and cleaning process will just vary slightly)
- Olive oil
- Garlic (chopped)
- Lemon (wedges and juice)
- Fresh herbs such as rosemary and sage
- Salt & Pepper
Serve with: Assorted seasonal, local vegetables. We used squash and zucchini/courgette.
- Scissors (if trimming any fins)
- Large baking dish, such as a Pyrex, or large bowl – for marinating
- Cutting board
- Aluminum foil
- Metal grille to place over fire
- If necessary, clean and prepare the fish by removing the guts. If not already done for you, there are lots of YouTube videos about how to do this! If the fish has scales (like the scorpion fish) you’ll want to scrape these off with a knife or scissors blade, and then remove the head just behind the gills. The mackerel can be left intact (once gutted) as it doesn’t need to be descaled and will be cooked whole.
- For the mackerel, line the inside with thinly sliced lemons.
- Place the fish in a marinade of olive oil, chopped garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and herbs (we used rosemary and sage). Leave these to marinate for at least an hour. Marinate sliced vegetables as well.
- If cooking over an open fire, build up your fire to produce hot coals/embers. Move hot coals over to one side, over which you’ll grill your food. Keep the fire on the side to continue producing more coals.
- If grilling veggies, wrap the veggies in aluminum foil and put them over the coals as these may take longer than the fish.
- Place the whole mackerel on your grill surface over the coals. The scorpion fish can be opened up and laid flat with the inner flesh facing downward to the coals. Leave for a few minutes and flip.
- Continue grilling until the flesh is white and cooked through.
- Remove fish and vegetables from heat, plate and serve. Enjoy with local wine!