War and genocide and the aftermath. Famine. Disease. Death. In a former life, harrowing images filled the lens of internationally renowned photographer Mario Romulić. But thankfully, we’re now far from such scenes.
In fact, at OPG Čudesna šuma – Mario Romulić’s home and family farm – we’re pretty much far from everything. One other eco-farm is his only neighbour. Well, unless you count the llamas the Romulić family keep out back. Occasionally, through the rich green of surrounding trees, you see birds flying above the branches. Probably they’re toing and froing from Kopački rit. The nearby Nature Park is less than a kilometre from OPG Čudesna šuma. Famously, the wetlands are home to over 250 species of birds. They are also the reason why Mario Romulić is here.
Kopački rit Nature Park © Kopački rit Nature Park.
“Back then, I was very occupied with Kopački rit,” remembers Mario of the time, 21 years ago, when he moved to what is now OPG Čudesna šuma. “I was working as a cameraman for people like Reuters, all over the world. The assignments would last 7-10 days and I’d be in places like Afghanistan, Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Bosnia. It was often quite dangerous. For the next 20 days, I would spend a lot of time in Kopački rit, trying to calm my nerves. It was something like a cure after seeing all these horrible scenes. Eventually, instead of travelling every day from my home in Osijek to Kopački rit, I decided to try and find something close by. And this is what I found.”
Just as this beautiful, natural landscape in Bilje, Baranja once served as a peaceful getaway for Mario Romulić, his OPG Čudesna šuma today does the same for others. Because, after dreaming for two decades of turning this blissful plot and homestead into a forest farm and eco-village, Mario Romulić is finally turning that vision into a reality.
The impossibly pretty OPG Čudesna near Kopački rit Nature Park, Bilje Municipality, Baranja © OPG Čudesna šuma.
“Because of my job – first, travelling all around the world, then travelling Croatia – I did not even have much time to think about it, let alone do it,” says Mario. “But, then Corona came. Finally, I found myself at home. At last, I had time to work on my dream.”
OPG Čudesna šuma in the Month of Baranja Cooking (Mjesec baranjske kuhinje)
A group of 30 or so are Mario’s guests today at OPG Čudesna šuma. They’re here for a presentation of speciality cooking. It’s the grand finale of the Month of Baranja Cooking (Mjesec baranjske kuhinje).
Over previous weeks, OPGs from all across the region have welcomed guests to try goulash, soups, stews, perklet and other traditional foods of the area. While visiting, they’ve been embraced by the beautiful landscape of Baranja. Not only have they discovered how this delightful, distinct cuisine tastes, but also they’ve learned exactly how it’s prepared. However, they’ve evidently saved the best for last. On the menu today, river fish inventively cooked, accompanied by a riotous rainbow of seasonal vegetables.
Seasonal vegetables of Baranja in springtime at the Month of Baranja Cooking (Mjesec baranjske kuhinje) © OPG Čudesna šuma.
It’s a beautifully sunny day, right at the start of May. It depends on your preference, but looking across this happy vista in the glorious sunshine, it’s difficult to imagine this not being the perfect time to be in Baranja. Young children are raised to chest height by their parents so they can meet Mario’s free-roaming llamas face-to-face. The children’s faces flit between surprise, curiosity and delight. The llamas return their stare. They’re used to welcoming new guests.
Meeting the Romulić family llamas at OPG Čudesna šuma © Turistička zajednica Općine Bilje – Kopački rit.
Partially shaded by trees, the smiling adult guests sit casually on wooden benches around a central, outdoor cooking area. Several open fires display a range of traditional cooking methods. Steam rises from a cast-iron stove suspended over one. Beneath the vapours, you can make out the dish is fish paprikash. It’s unmistakable because of the deeply red coloured bubbles, a result of generous amounts of paprika.
Guests enjoy a warm springtime day at OPG Čudesna šuma during the Month of Baranja Cooking (Mjesec baranjske kuhinje), as fish paprikas cooks over an open fire © OPG Čudesna šuma.
A huge bag of this paprika sits propped up, close by. It’s from another organic OPG, just a kilometre or so from here. The colour is vivid, impossibly red, unrecognisable from anything store-bought. At the next fire, pike impaled on wooden sticks are placed far enough from the flickering flames so they cook slowly and do not burn.
Pike impaled on sticks, cooking by an open fire at OPG Čudesna šuma @ Marc Rowlands.
In the outdoor kitchen, Mario Romulić’s co-chefs prepare an unending supply of fish dishes and vegetables. Carp, catfish, trout, bream. There’s a bounty of fresh asparagus. It’s that time of year. With the restraint of experience, they’ve cooked it perfectly. After the crunch of the bite, the flavour explodes. They’re seasoned simply – delicious olive oil and sea salt.
Seasonal asparagus, perfectly cooked, served with smoked river fish © Marc Rowlands.
A group of peers – accomplished chefs from Osijek-Baranja restaurants – peak over the shoulders of Romulić’s co-chefs. They’re admiring the inventive techniques employed. Although, being chefs, they can’t help themselves. They end up briefly forgetting their families in order to help out.
Mario Romulić, the host with the most
Mario Romulić © Turistička zajednica Općine Bilje – Kopački rit.
After all the guests arrive, Mario Romulić holds court. Cheerily he welcomes us all to OPG Čudesna šuma and the event. Without question, the success of rural, village tourism depends on the personalities of the hosts. It’s no good plonking a group of visitors in a pretty place and throwing some food in front of them. We’ve all seen trees, grass and food before. Rural tourism is not just about the place, it’s about the experience, the ambience. And, especially, it’s about the people.
Hands down, the OPGs of Slavonia and Baranja are the best in Croatia at this. The folks here are famous for their friendliness, warm welcome and big personalities. And, Mario Romulić has one of the biggest of them all.
In the research for this reportage, looking back at archive pictures of Mario Romulić is startling. During his years spent as an international photographer, he himself has been photographed many times – on assignment in distant countries, at the opening of exhibitions that have showcased his celebrated work. In most, there’s an intensity to his stare. It’s sometimes difficult to look at. He looks like a man who has tales you never want to hear, like a man who has seen too much.
(L- R) OPG Čudesna šuma co-chef at the event Mihael Tomić, renowned Osijek chef Ivan Đukić currently of Osijek’s Lipov Hlad and a happy Mario Romulić © Turistička zajednica Općine Bilje – Kopački rit.
By comparison, the Mario Romulić that welcomes us at OPG Čudesna šuma today is unrecognisable. Sure, there’s a little more grey to his long hair and beard but, otherwise, he looks incredibly healthy and happy. The intense stare is gone, replaced by a warm, wide smile that shows across his entire face. Even in early May, he has a darkened skin tone, the telltale signs of a man who spends much of the day outdoors. Romulić’s enthusiasm for his guests and the event is palpable. After his sincere welcome, this enthusiasm is immediately transferred to each of his guests.
Mrs Romulić ensures everyone’s glass is overflowing with wine or juice. One of Mario’s teenage sons helps out with the food, while the other is taking photographs of the event. Well, someone has to do the photography now that dad wants to be a chef and host! Mario himself is engulfed in smoke. Among the other duties he’s assumed today, Mario is tending a smoker. Without a doubt, this is the most revelatory cooking method we meet today.
Mario Romulić tends to smoked river fish, a revelatory gastronomic experience at OPG Čudesna šuma © Marc Rowlands.
Smoked fish of Slavonia and Baranja at OPG Čudesna šuma
An American-style smoker, loaded with river fish. TOP TIP: A great way to stop fish sticking to the grill of your barbecue or smoker is to place them on top of a layer of lemon slices © OPG Čudesna šuma.
“We do have smoked fish here, but not in this way,” he says. “This is more like an American grill. I never heard of anyone trying Baranja cooking like this. Actually, I never heard of anyone nearby who has a smoker like this. The first time I tried stuka (pike) in the smoker, that was unbelievable. It’s incomparable, really special.”
Exquisite presentation of river fish by the enthusiastic team of OPG Čudesna šuma © Turistička zajednica Općine Bilje – Kopački rit.
“In Slavonia and Baranja, there are just a few ways we usually cook our river fish – carp on sticks, fish paprikash, perklet and fried fish. So, we tried something new, to expand the palette. For instance, almost nobody eats Babuška (a type of carp). They feed it instead to their pigs. It costs 5 kuna a kilo! But, if you cook it in this completely natural way, it’s delicious.”
More river fish, cooked by the team of OPG Čudesna šuma © Turistička zajednica Općine Bilje – Kopački rit.
He’s not wrong. Today’s mountain of different smoked fish is the talk on most of the adult lips. The rich flavours surprise. Compliments and returns for second helpings ensue. Mario stands to one side, happily watching as his smoked fish secret escapes. In the future, he plans similar events based on other regional foods – Black Slavonian pig, wild meats like deer or boar. Eventually, in the seven hectares of land he owns here, he would like to expand OPG Čudesna šuma as an eco-village, with beds for visitors, a natural swimming pool and then surround it with a food forest. Big plans. It looks as though the camera may stay more permanently in the hands of his son. Because it’s difficult to imagine Mario Romulić leaving his happy place and the realisation of his long-held dream.
Mario Romulić in his happy place, with a friend © OPG Čudesna šuma.
Both the author and Total Croatia News would like to thank the following for their invaluable help in creating this article: Ivana Jurić and the Tourist Board of Osijek-Baranja County, OPG Čudesna šuma, Mario Romulić and family, Renata Forjan and Turistička zajednica Općine Bilje – Kopački rit and Domagoj Butković of expert travel guides to Slavonia and Baranja, Kulen travel.