Croatia

Island Peculiarities

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.”

It was not difficult to adapt to this climate.

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.

Emily and Reece walking Cleo through a small village, where we stopped to eat our lunch. Notice the stones used to build these old buildings, some of which are still in use.

The view of the peninsula town of Korcula, on the island of Korcula. The white stone gives the town its distinct aesthetic.

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.

Reece, Emily and I eat our lunch under a fig tree. Notice the uneven, terraced ground, and the stone walls that divide the levels. This is one of the reasons that industrialized agriculture does not work on this island. (p.s. Sorry Emily, but you had this face in most photos)

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.

A salad featuring olives and octopus, absolutely fresh and delicious!

A local vinyard. Croatian wine is delicious, and some of the liquors that they make from that wine are even better

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.

I had to end my post about Croatia with one of my favorite pictures- the beautiful Cleo, who is the color of Croatia, looking at me on our last beach visit. Reece is in the background. No more beautiful place to say goodbye!

Advertisements

Thorns in Croatia

I was lost, listless, after my visit with my mother. Where to go next, on this big continent? What soil to search out; what food to eat, what climate to sweat in?

Whenever I’ve been at a crossroads on this trip, some wayward breeze pushes me in a new direction. An American friend named Emily, who had worked on Iulia’s WWOOF farm with me in Romania, emailed me to catch up. She was in Croatia, helping a Croatian woman named Maja start work on some newly-acquired land. She told me I should come, and without hesitation, I bought my ticket. Soon, I was in a tiny apartment in Split, Croatia, with Emily, Maja, and two crazy dogs. Everything smelled like a combination of coffee and essential oils.

These wayward breezes always lead me somewhere interesting.

I arrived in Korcula from a ferry, and this was my first view of the island. Unreal!

Maja owns the beginning of an organic cosmetics empire in Croatia. She makes all of the cosmetics herself, toying with the recipes to produce what she herself would use. Her face creams, lotions, oils, soaps, and cleansers are infused with different herbs and plants. All of them contain only natural ingredients; in Maja’s words, “you can eat them. They probably won’t taste good, but you could eat them”. Her first shop is a successful establishment on the island of Korčula, selling to the hordes of mainland and yachting tourists.

I have immense respect for those who own well-run small businesses (Pom and U also come to mind). As Emily and I spent a few days helping Maja open for the summer season, I was continually surprised at how much Maja could accomplish in a day. Even when it looked impossible, she would somehow find a way to surprise everyone. In her own words, “before I opened my own business, I was a baby. Then, I had to become a witch”. When the final responsibility lies with Maja, she develops a sometimes haphazard but superhuman productivity. I loved watching her work in her store. Her success lies somewhere between her good product, and her personal ability to convince you that you’ve been searching for it your entire life.

Maja is also one of the rare types that is always looking ahead, to guarantee the health of her business. She saw an opportunity to diversify her business, and she took it. This is why Emily, an herbal expert, and I, someone who likes to dig in the dirt, were in Croatia: Maja had bought some land.

Maja and I, getting a drink in town before dinner. This woman gave me more good life advice than I know what to do with.

The plot that Maja had bought had previously been a young olive orchard. But the many “micro climates” on diverse islands like Korcula doomed the finicky olive trees, and the land was left fallow. Fallow lands grows surprises.

We planned a few things for “the land”, as we called it. First, Maja wanted to be growing her own herbs for her cosmetics. St John’s Wort and rosemary,  two of the herbs she used, were already growing wild on the land, but she wanted more focused cultivation of all of the herbs she used. Maja also wanted to grow fruits and vegetables for herself, using principles of permaculture. Finally, with the leftover space, she planned to create a “glamour camping” site. With Korčula becoming a bigger and bigger tourist destination, unique accommodation, like a camping site tucked away in the middle of the island, is a good investment. With all this in mind, I was excited to see the land and start working.

But the first time we visited the land, I couldn’t look at or think about anything but the blackberry wall. A former compost pile had given birth to a wild blackberry thicket as big as many houses, blocking a large part of the front piece of the land. They grew bigger every day it grew warmer, and we wanted to remove them as soon as possible to start bigger reshaping of the land.

Emily is walking through the center part of the land. To the left, there are piles of cut blackberries.

Emily, again, covered up and chopping blackberries. She did it in shorts- highly unadvisable, unless you have cold salt water to swim in after working.

For anyone who has never had the experience of untangling wild blackberry branches, I highly recommend it. You’ll need clothes you don’t mind being torn apart by thorns, a machete to hack through the top layers, a rake to haul away the spiny branches, and a heavy duty hoe for the extensive root system. If you have any appointments, cancel them. This will take longer than expected. Make sure you are well rested and fed, to be able to concentrate on the mess without chopping a finger off or sticking yourself in the eye with a thorn (on second thought maybe protective eyegear is also advised). And finally, only work with people you trust. When tools and long branches of thorns are being thrown around, you want to make sure you are working with good people.

A week of solid work, and many thorn-inspired curse words later, we had completed the biggest section. The first and most urgent task was finished, for now. The rest of the work could begin.

After we celebrated with an afternoon at the beach, of course.

Cleo, Maja’s dog, waits for me to come out of the water. We are at one of my favorite beaches, taking a swim break and having a picnic on the stony shore. (Photo credit: Reece)

There is something very special about helping start a farm. You know that a lot of your work is going to be seen as a milestone, as “the first _____”. And nothing could be better than watching Maja plant her first plant.

At the beginning of the season, Maja was very busy at her store, and we had the independence to set our own agenda and work hours. Clearing the invasive blackberries and generally cleaning the land took up most of our time, but with the approaching end of our time in Korčula, we wanted to finish one last project: the first garden bed.

Emily, Reece, an Australian, and I worked hard, finishing the garden bed on one of the last days. We hoed up a section of the bed, layered different organic materials and compost, and built a stone wall to enclose it. Excited to start filling the bed, we brought a few transplants to the land, and with Maja, we planted. We all took a moment to celebrate- our first plants on this land, our first attempt to farm here.

Though, undoubtedly, Maja’s land and goals will change as she moves along and learns, I still love celebrating milestones like these. They are important, to keep you motivated and looking ahead. As I watched Maja smile, her hands in the soil and probably already planning her next project, I smiled too. I felt to so lucky to be drawn here for these few weeks, to see the development of the land. I felt utterly content.

I looked down and spy a small blackberry plant, next to my sandal.

The work never finishes.

Maja, planting her first transplant in the new bed.

All of us, after we finished the first bed. We are tired but happy, content to have finished this big project. Cleo looks happiest of all.