Campfire Lamb Peka
Last summer, I had the good fortune to travel with my partner to Croatia. We spent two weeks traversing the coastline of Croatia, where, in a cinderblock cabin surrounded by olive trees outside the Istrian town of Pula, Croatia, we got a lesson in how to make Croatia’s most prized dish, peka. Peka is the name for both the bell-shaped, domed cooking vessel made of cast iron and the meal that is prepared in it. The process for making peka is ancient and involves placing the pan over a bed of glowing coal embers and scooping more embers on top of the domed lid to create an oven-like environment where meats or seafood and vegetables are slow-roasted inside.
Our teacher was Nikola of Eat Istria, and our day began at the market in Pula, where Nikola led me and my partner from stall to stall to collect ingredients. We were asked if we preferred lamb necks or veal chops. Perhaps octopus? We chose lamb, and that meant a stop at the vegetable stand for potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic to accompany.
At the cabin, we prepped the ingredients with minimal fuss, roughly cutting the carrots and onions, leaving the potatoes and garlic cloves whole, and layering them in the base of the dish with the lamb on top so the fat and juices would baste them throughout cooking. We plucked needles from a handful of rosemary sprigs snipped from the yard and doused the whole thing in white wine and a luxurious amount of extra-virgin olive oil that created a heady sauce of sorts in the bottom of the dish.
As Nikola built a campfire on the side of a stone wall, he explained that we would wait for the fire to die down and then surround the peka with the residual ashy embers. These small chunks of coal produce just the right amount of heat to slowly cook the meal over the course of an hour or two. Once the embers were ready, we carried the weighty peka from the kitchen to the bed of coals and opened some local wines to while away the afternoon, patiently awaiting our one-pot feast.
A waft of scented steam roared from the pot as Nikola lifted the dome to reveal the gloriously browned lamb necks. We peeked in and spied potatoes and carrots that were so dark in spots they were nearly burnt, but in a good way. The olive oil at the bottom was still bubbling and spitting as we gathered around the weathered wood table under a vine-covered pergola.
Many of the homes we saw in Croatia had an outdoor fireplace for live-fire cooking—a centerpiece of the home, where meals are still made and families still gather. We spent the next few hours lingering at the table, talking about life in Croatia, politics, food—and most of all, wine. The large peninsula of Istria where our meal took place makes up Croatia’s northern coast; it is known for its gastronomic riches, including some of the best wines in the country. We tasted broody reds made from indigenous grapes like Teran, Refosco, and Borgonja and complex whites made from Malvasia. These regional varieties all matched perfectly with the meal, naturally, and we found the offerings from Piquentum particularly good.
That experience inspired me to cook over a fire more often this past year. It makes me feel more connected to the elemental act of preparing food and sharing it with others, and it satisfies the soul the way no modern method can. For convenience, I’ve adapted this recipe to be prepared using a charcoal grill, as well as using your oven. But if you have the time, I encourage you to lean into tradition: build a fire, and settle in for a long, slow roast. It will be an experience neither you nor your guests will soon forget.