Though I have been traveling for a while, I have not yet forgotten my home, my natural habitat- the flat, corn-filled plains of the American Midwest. As my travels continue on, and the end of my trip is in my sight, I think about home often.
It is harder to be further away from my home climate than the Adriatic island of Korčula, with white stony beaches and rolling hills filled with olive groves. Yet by my second visit to a stunning beach, I found myself thinking, “well, ok, I could get used to this.”
Korčula is one of a string of islands along the Dalmatian coast, with a long and eventful history. For thousands of years, a series of peoples, from the Illyrians to the Romans to the Byzantines, then to Slavic peoples and Venetian rulers and others in between, called the island home. Today, as part of Croatia, the relatively densely populated island is an increasingly busy hub along the Dalmatian coast.
The long habitation on the island is obvious. One of the most visible old technologies is the dry stone walls that line many roads and form hillside terraces all over the island. These stones have been dug up from the island’s topsoil for thousands of years, and they serve a dual purpose. Firstly, the farmers needed to remove the stones from the soil to grow their crops. And secondly, the walls that form terraced fields help keep the invaluable island topsoil from washing into the sea. The same rock was used to build old houses and sheds.
Korčula is rocky. The beaches are covered with white rock, coarse limestone and dolomite, instead of fine sand. All over Maja’s land, this rock sticks out of the earth, and at certain points the top soil is only a few inches deep. The formation of the island has even made fresh water reservoirs historically unreliable, and sea water intrusion into aquifers remains a threat today. Until fresh water started being pumped in from the mainland in the late 20th century, water was difficult to use for agriculture. Even today, little of the farmland on Korcula is irrigated.
All of these factors affect Korčula’s agriculture. When I think about my own home, the “breadbasket” of the United States, it becomes more and more apparent how well suited it is for massive industrialized agriculture. With relatively thick top soil, flat prairie land, a low population density, and an abundance of fresh water, the soil was fertile for the miles and miles of intensive grain and corn farming that spread today.
On an island like Korčula, that sort of industrialized agriculture is simply not possible. The landscape will not allow it. Small plots of land are broken up by rocky outcrops, and most of the land contains various sized boulders. Small, old villages are scattered throughout the farmland. And an island ecosystem is no place for intensive crop production; the topsoil does not regenerate as fast. Instead, small commercial farms are kept small, and the crops grown remain limited.
These environmental factors, among the certainly complicated cultural and political systems, influence the type of agriculture found on Korčula today. As I try to make sense of what I find in my own home, and what I find elsewhere, the history of these systems becomes more important to me. Nothing, especially food, exists in a vacuum.
Cuisine, everywhere, is inextricably linked to its environment, but island cuisine is even more particular. In the times before hourly ferries and cheap island supermarkets, most people ate almost entirely what was available on this 280 square kilometer (110 square mile) stretch of land.
This meant that Korčula’s cuisine has relied on a few staples that are still very present on the island today. Fish and other seafood, of course, was the main protein. Without enough room for big animals like cows or pigs, the only common domesticated mammal was a donkey, which was used for transport.
Grapes and olives grew all over the island, but the farmers today will tell you that there are many microclimates on the island that are difficult to guess. Some plot will grow the best white wine grapes you’ve ever tasted, and half a kilometer away the grapes will fail. Nonetheless, wine making and olives remain integral to the island. These plants grow well in the rocky soil.
One day, Maja asked us if we wanted to eat the classic comfort food of Korčula, like her grandparents used to eat. The dish is a mix of semi mashed potatoes, a sort of chard, and olive oil and salt. Though it could not be simpler, it also could not be more delicious. It shares the appeal of macaroni and cheese for many Americans- it is warm, filling, and you want to cuddle up and take a nap after eating it. This dish is also made entirely with ingredients from the island: the potatoes are grown and stored, the chard is foraged, and the olive oil is pressed from the olive crop. Comfort food, à la Korčula island.
The last night on the island, we celebrate the birthday of Reece, one of the other workers. This celebration involves a beautiful fish dinner and too many glasses of a fennel based liquor, but the night was certainly memorable. We shared grilled fish, steamed and fried vegetables, and olives and local cheese. Nothing could have been a more appropriate goodbye, and nothing could have been more like the island of Korčula: good food, good liquor, and good company, all overlooking the beautiful sea.