Successful investment bankers can do many things in their retirement – play a lot of golf, buy a racehorse, mess about in boats – but few can have achieved as much as hotelier, restaurateur and patron of the arts Michael Unsworth.
Determined to build the Croatian island of Korcula a reputation for high‑end tourism, he turned an old palace into a top-notch boutique hotel and restaurant – the Lesic Dimitri Palace – and in 2012, indulging another of his passions, launched an annual baroque music festival that chimes harmoniously with the island’s glorious medieval architecture.
The Gannet flew by in spring, during Korcula’s food and drink festival: the island boasts not just excellent restaurants, but some terrific wines (Grk and Posip, two indigenous white grape varieties, are particularly beguiling), lovely olive oils and a pasta – makaruni – traditionally made by wrapping discs of dough around knitting needles. The restaurant terrace at the hotel, overlooking crystal waters, is the perfect setting to enjoy chef Marko Gajski’s skilful ways with local produce.
And judging by Gajski’s painterly approach to plating, he has an artistic streak too. Raw red prawns – sweet, sticky, delicious – are served with their crisp, feathery, deep-fried shells; beneath, little puddles of hollandaise and tiny flecks of spring onion add savour. A joyous tangle of squid bathes in a rich pool of bottarga and sea urchin-flavoured sauce; a sizeable chunk of seabass, its skin perfectly crisp, is partnered with braised chicory and a clever assembly of pumpkin seeds, cuttlefish and Ibérico ham. A dessert of chocolate caramel features pointillist dabs of cream and orange jelly, tiny shards of preserved orange zest and a scattering of sea salt. Gajski’s food is not merely pretty, however: his palate is the equal of his palette.
Korcula is on the same latitude as southern Tuscany and the landscape – olive groves, vineyards and cypress trees – is similarly verdant. Drop by Eko Skoj, a delightful organic food shop and tasting room a few minutes’ drive from the hilly warren of lanes in Korcula Old Town, to try its homemade olive oils and grappa-based liqueurs flavoured with damask rose, fig, carob, orange and hillside herbs, then head for lunch at Konoba Mate and install yourself on the terrace.
The makaruni here is terrific, sauced with whatever is in season: almond pesto, perhaps, or fennel and cream. I had it with a simple tomato sauce and it was superb, as were gnudi made with ricotta from goats that feast on wild herbs, bitter wild greens and nutmeg, then finished with sage and brown butter. A fluffy frittata, made with smoked ham and wild asparagus, was excellent too, and the local wines flowed like water.
Korcula has a thoroughly civilised, laidback, grown-up aura about it and – in terms of food and drink – punches well above its weight: music to my ears, even without the strains of a string quartet in the background.