WWOOF

Family is Sweeter Than Honey

I came to the monastery for the honey.

Well, ok, I came for many different reasons. But the prospect of fresh, sticky honey sweetened and sealed the deal.

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The oldest, most established monasteries in Romania are hundreds of years old and can house up to 500 nuns and monks. They spend most of their time preparing celebrations, hosting guests, and playing large public roles.

However, the younger monasteries, established after the communist era in the last 25 years, function differently. These monasteries are smaller; for example, only 14 nuns live at Fardea Monastery. In addition, because new monasteries do not have ancient, cultivated land and established property and resources, they need to provide more for themselves. To do so, many of these young monasteries in Romania start small businesses.

When I ask for some examples of these businesses, I am surprised at the diversity- there are monasteries that make vinegar, rugs, herbal products, traditional clothes, soap, candles, and numerous food products, to name a few. Many monasteries function like workshops, producing a craft, in addition to all religious activities.

Here in the Fardea Monastery, besides manufacturing religious icons and clothes, they produce another beautiful product: buzzing bees.

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One day, while picking tomatoes in the greenhouse, a bee gets trapped under my skirt and stings me. The lunch bell rings soon after, and when I sit on the bench, I wince.

“Maica Siluana, a bee stung me on the butt today.”

“Ah! You are lucky. It’s good for the health.” She tries to keep her smile under wraps but soon cracks into laughter. Later, I am offered sweet honey on fresh bread, to ease the pain.

The nuns keep over 250 hives of bees. They harvest different types of honey over the season, like linden, acacia, and forest honey, as well as pollen, propolis, royal jelly, honeycomb caps, bee bread, and other bee products. I’ve been lucky enough to taste many of their products, and they are extraordinary.

I’m not the only one who has noticed. The monastery had a contact in England, who distributed these products to different natural food stores. But after the acacia and forest honey won major awards at the Great Taste awards, other stores started to be interested in selling- notably, Harrods of London, one of England’s upscale department stores. While I am at the monastery, we send off the first shipment of product samples.

Thanks to a wonderfully talented Hungarian graphic designer who is also a volunteer here, the honey has been elegantly branded and packaged. Every time I eat some of this honey, slathered on bread or in my morning coffee, I think: Londoners don’t know what they’re in for.

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Working with the bees is overseen by two nuns, and they do almost all of the specialized work themselves, keeping a close eye on the bees. Watching over 250 hives is an enormous task, and they are busy year round. There is no honey harvest while I am here, but I do stay busy helping package the final product.

While sticking labels onto jars one afternoon, I tell Father Moses how much I’ve enjoyed eating the honey here. I ask him if I can buy some to take home.

He’s incredulous. “Corinne, do you have brothers or sisters?”

“What?” I ask, “umm… yes, I do.”

“And if you came to their house and ate something, would they ask you to pay?!” Father breaks into a smile. “Of course you can have honey. But don’t ask to pay for it- it is our gift to you.”

I smile back, and accept their gift of sweet, sticky gold. I came for the honey, and I found family amongst the bees.

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Busy as the Nuns

Chomping down watermelon after a lunch at the monastery, I cautiously eye the honeybees that linger around my plate. They are visiting our table, searching for sustenance to take back to their hives. The nuns keep a few hundred hives of honeybees (more on that in another post). With this summer abundance, the bees are everywhere, preparing for the cold winter.

As the bees do at the monastery, so do we. The nuns grow most of their own food, and during the summer months, they keep busy juicing, pickling, drying, pureeing, freezing, and preserving it. Feeding fourteen or more people, year round, requires much work and planning. I’m not sure who is busier- the nuns or the bees.

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Most mornings, we harvest whatever vegetable is most ripe. This region’s summer heat wave has finally been broken with days of steady rain, and every vegetable seems to be reaching its peak production. We pick tomatoes, eggplant, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers in enormous amounts, each harvest bigger than the last. Other nuns pick forest herbs and flowers, destined for tea. Plums and grapes are beautifully ripe, and even the apples are ready for the table.

The afternoons and evenings are spent processing most of our harvest, to keep it for winter. We pickle green tomatoes and small peppers, lining up the jars on shelves. Trays of roasted eggplant are peeled and packed into sterilized freezer bags. The hundreds of kilos of tomatoes are juiced and mostly distilled into concentrated products, like spicy ketchup or tomato paste. Beans are cleaned, blanched, and frozen. Slowly, our wheelbarrows and crates full of fresh produce disappear into jars, bags, and bottles that can be stored for the upcoming months.

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“How do you say ‘zacusca’ in English?” Maria, a Romanian volunteer, asks me.

Before I can respond, Maica Irina interrupts with her answer: “Zacusca.”

She’s right. There is no English translation for one of my favorite Romanian foods. Zacusca, basically meaning snack in various Slavic languages, is essentially a vegetable spread. Its exact contents vary, but most families use finely chopped and blended eggplant, peppers, onions, and tomato paste. This mix is slowly roasted for hours before being canned. Made at the end of the summer harvest, it is kept over the winter, usually eaten on bread. It has a taste that reminds me of summer’s bounty, with roasted, smoky, rich flavors that only deepen over the winter.

Having tasted zacusca for the first time when I was Romania in March, I was incredibly excited to be back in the summer, to learn how to make it. The other two volunteers, Maria and Teresa, and I spent one rainy, long Friday preparing it with the zacusca expert, Maica Irina.

Like most delicious dishes, zacusca takes an immense amount of work. Even having harvested and roasted all the ingredients in advance, we still spend the entire day cleaning and processing and stewing them. The peppers need to be peeled and de-seeded. The eggplant is peeled and washed and made into a paste. And all the onions need to be peeled, cut, and cried over.

I stare, mouth agape, as Maica Irina finely chops buckets of onions faster than any chef I know, while still keeping an eye on the cows trying to enter the kitchen. We are making large quantities of zacusca, measuring ingredients in kilos and liters. Having made this vegetable spread since she was young, Maica Irina can practically peel a pepper with her eyes closed. And her hands behind her back.

I am humbled by how quickly and efficiently the women cut, clean, and process these vegetables. I cannot even compare with their deft hands and experienced movements. They work longer days than I do, sending me to take breaks while they continue. If I look tired, a nun will suddenly appear with coffee, hot chocolate, or fruit to give me energy.

I try to be as helpful as possible, learning what I can, and not being in the way. Nuns are busy. There is a lot of work to do.

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Late in the evening, with the zacusca finally finished and packed into glass jars, we breathe a satisfied sigh. The last little bit of hot zacusca is spread and shared on slices of bread, and I enjoy the fresh fruits of our labor.

Every day, we take some of the summer’s bounty, and save it for winter. It’s a lot of labor, but, like the worker bees, these nuns keep moving. I’m starting to see new truth in the old saying, “keeping busy as bees”.

And I’d like to propose a new phrase: “keeping as busy as the nuns who keep bees.”

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Celebrations and Feasts

I spot the two nuns through the packed crowd on the train platform, and after brief introductions, we head towards the car. I’m a little nervous, wondering what these Romanian sisters will be like. Maica (Sister) Antonia and Maica Demetria quickly put me at ease, joking, laughing, and asking me questions as we speed through the Romanian countryside.

The rolling hills, forest, and fields of corn and sunflowers makes me think of the last time I was in Transylvania, in March. I am happy to be back, watching familiar images whip quickly past my window. My first lesson: being a nun does not stop Maica Antonia from driving like a getaway driver.

“So…” I ask, tightening my seatbelt, “What kind of work are you doing at the monastery right now?”

Maica Antonia and Maica Demetria look at each other knowingly and burst out laughing.

“We are preparing for a special event. It is… a lot of work. You will see.” Maica Antonia says, ending with a mischievous smile. “We are happy you are here to help us.”

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

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I am spending a month at the Fardea Monastery, located 100 kilometers from Timisiora, in northwestern Romania. This Christian Orthodox monastery was founded in 2001. It is home to fourteen nuns, the church father, some workers from the village, and other Romanians who spend parts of the year at the monastery.

This monastery also welcomes women from around the world to stay and work with them, which is unique in Romania. We help them with the enormous amount of work that goes into running a monastery. Without prior knowledge, I had arrived just in time to help the monastery prepare for their biggest celebration of the year. August 15th is the feast for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and this is the holiday with which this monastery is associated. On this day, the bishop, regional priests, and busloads of local worshippers will arrive for a 16 hour service. And at the end of it, we’ll feed them all.

There is a lot of work to do, indeed.

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The weeks before the celebration, we are kept busy tidying the grounds, cleaning buildings, moving furniture, and arranging rooms. The monastery is thoroughly polished and shined, inside and out. But the few days before the 15th of August, there is only one large task left: cooking the food.

Preparing food in large quantities is an enormous logistical task. Feeding hundreds of people requires careful planning, large pots, and many hands. Luckily, the nuns are experts, experienced with these types of feasts. The menu is already worked out in advance, and all we have left to do is to face the mountains of uncut, unwashed, unprepared food.

Gutting a hundred kilos of fish with two of the nuns, I keep thinking of the summer I worked in a catering kitchen in Wisconsin. It was the first time I thought about food in terms of weight. Instead of talking about the number, or cups, of potatoes, suddenly you are measuring what you need in terms of fifty kilo bags.

We spend the days peeling potatoes, de-scaling fish, and picking through beans. The kitchens are full, people coming in and out, jokes being passed back and forth. The nuns are busy before I wake up and continue after I go to my room to sleep. I am, obviously, not responsible for any of the logistics, but I feed off of the tangible energy in the air: the stress, and excitement, that a big holiday brings.

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Finally, the 15th of August arrives. A stage has been built outside, near the monastery’s church, as the church itself is not big enough for this special service. Threatening rain clouds menace us in the afternoon, but they clear up by evening, bringing in a refreshing breeze. The buses arrive and unload locals from the surrounding regions, families and friends convening and reuniting. The service starts on Friday evening and will continue through the night, until Saturday afternoon. Those who can will fast during the entire service, and I join them.

I do not follow all of the service, despite the English explanations from helpful friends. But I sit, stand, and kneel in the grass, mesmerized by the beautiful singing of the church fathers and the nuns. Later in the night, everyone holds candles, and the cool evening air brings us energy. Some people nap on blankets, drifting in and out of the prayers.

I eventually retire to my room, falling asleep to the sounds of the continuing service. I dream of candle flames and the sound of bells.

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The next morning, I attend part of the service again, but I soon make my way to the kitchen to help the nuns with the final preparations for the lunchtime feast. We set the tables, and I help to carefully carry full pots and plates from the kitchen.

We soon run out of space to put new dishes on the tables. There are the Romanian classics: bread, onions, cabbage, and of course, ciorba, the Romanian sour soup. Heaping plates of sarmale, steamed stuffed cabbage leaves, line the center of each table. We add two different types of stuffed and roasted fish, different cheeses, olives, tomatoes, creamy fish eggs, and buttery mashed potatoes. The tables groan under the weight, but there is dessert too- piles of juicy Romanian grapes, plums, and pears, cookies, and finally, layered cake.

When the service ends, sometime around 1pm, the benches and chairs are filled, and we feast. Relieved of my responsibilities, I watch as the nuns continue to work, making sure there is enough food in front of everyone. Of course, with all their careful planning, there is an abundance of everything, and we all enjoy the end of the celebration by stuffing our stomachs.

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There is a beautiful, tired air that descends after a holiday. Saturday night was quiet at the monastery, the nuns taking naps that, for some, lasted until Sunday morning. I found myself at ease, and grateful to be here.

As I helped wash and dry a truly enormous amount of dishes, I reflected on the holiday. We put so much effort into a single celebration, preparing for weeks for one single day. And yet, afterwards, I felt nothing but contentedness, a great exhale from the nuns. One of my favorite parts of a holiday is the release after it is finished, when the work and celebration are over. This is when you can pause, see the arc of the seasons, mark the passage of time. It is when you can reflect on the holiday, and why we celebrate these traditions to begin with.

But as I stared at the mountain of plates and silverware, my stomach full and happy, I admitted to myself the true reason I love to celebrate these holidays: people never seem to come together without someone suggesting that there be food.

 

(Note: out of a general respect for the nuns’ privacy and their services, I limit my photos of the monastery and the activities there, so they will rarely include people besides myself.)

Dining in the Vercors

Out of breath after a steep ascent upward, I pause and stare up at Annick as she beckons from the mountain path above. “Come on!” she tells me. “Come look at the cows!”

I do as she says, continuing the climb up, up, up the steep mountain side. The faint ringing of bells grows louder and louder, until I reach the top of the crest. There, looking over an enormous valley in the Vercors, I spot the cows. The herd is far below us, but their bells echo up the stone mountainside. They graze near a small but solid house, made of stone and plaster.

“Who lives there?” I ask.

“A shephard,” Annick answers.  “You can tell because there’s no road that leads to the house.” She’s right. I stare at the house, wondering what it must be like to wake up to the sounds of cows’ bells and a view over the Alps.

Claire, Annick’s friend, joins us at the hill’s crest. I ask another question.

“Think their cow milk is used to make the Vercors blue cheese?”

“Oh definitely. And we’ll be eating that tonight, on our pizza!”

I smile as we continue on, Annick and Claire outpacing me. I’ve returned back to the Alps for a brief stay with my former hosts, who are starting to feel like family. This visit to the Vercors, a range of mountains close to Grenoble, has been one of the highlights of my trip.

Queen of the Vercors cows looks over her domain…

An afternoon rain cut short our hike and created a layer of fog throughout the valley. We explored the small surrounding villages instead. The Vercors are an old Catholic region, with crosses crowning hills and crossroads.

Camping sites in France have one major difference from those in the United States: in France, you can order fresh bread in the morning, and it will be delivered to you. Instead of soggy, stale Wonderbread packed into cartons, we eat fresh baguettes and croissants for breakfast. Although I love the simplicity of camping cuisine, I must admit that this morning luxury of fresh baked bread is much appreciated.

We eat well during our four day trip, packing a light lunch to eat in the mountains and preparing a healthy dinner in the evenings. One evening, we visit the camping site restaurant, where the three of us share well-earned pizzas. My favorite was aptly named “The Vercors”, topped with specialties from the region: ravioles, bleu du Vercors-Sassenge cheese, and lardon, or diced bacon. What a perfect meal after a day climbing up and down those steep mountain peaks.

Annick and Claire walk ahead of me, as I take a moment to admire the surrounding view.

Roadside milk, pumped fresh from the cow every day at 6pm.

The final evening, I try what I’ve been waiting for, since I was in the Rhone-Alpes last month: ice cream, à la Chartreuse. With a scoop of chocolate ice cream, la Chartreuse flavor is strong and tasty. I debate ordering the small shot of la Chartreuse to pour over the ice cream, but I choose to enjoy the flavors alone instead. We drink more Chartreuse later, snuggled near the campfire.

I sigh contentedly when I’m finished. The Alps have left me feeling absolutely full: mountain views, mountain air, and mountain food.

The view from the top of Col Vert- 1800m (almost 6000 ft). The world’s best view for a lunchtime picnic!!

Au Revoir!

One of my last days in the Rhône-Alpes countryside, I talked with Annick about how school lunches usually work, in the USA. Annick is a nanny for a few local children, taking them to her house for a healthy lunch during the school day, and keeping them for a few hours after school. She asked me if it was similar in the United States.

I said that in the US, leaving the school for lunch is rare. More commonly, students buy a hot lunch at school. Or, in my case, I took a “sack lunch”, or “paper bag lunch ” to school– a paper sack with a sandwich, fruit, snacks, etc. Sometimes, parents will also include little notes in the paper bag lunch, wishing their children a good day, or a reminder how much they love them.

Annick found this idea very cute, but at the time, I thought nothing of it. Three days later, the morning I left for Paris, I heard her announce: “I will prepare you a paper bag lunch!”

I gratefully took it, eating the contents throughout the day. She had made the perfect paper bag lunch. And, in the end, in the bottom of the sack, I found a note:

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I am lucky, to find family wherever I go.

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A tous mes amis francophone, qui peut être sont en train de se servir de Google translate-

J’écris un petit note en français pour vous remercier. Vous étiez tous profs patients et sympas, et j’avais de la chance de vous connaître. Si vous passez aux États Unis, vous êtes toujours bienvenue chez moi. A bientôt, j’espère!

Short Summer Stays

If you love food, the summer is full of celebrations. Each week, there is something new to look forward to. In Wisconsin, I love watching the season pass, tracking when the raspberries are at their sweetest, or how many weeks I can count on fresh peaches. I count the summer weeks by what fruit is most ripe.

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Fresh wild strawberries, found on a walk in the woods. Luckily, with the rain earlier that morning, they were fresh and washed.

Now, here in France, I am less familiar with the timing of the season, but I enjoy celebrating the cycle nevertheless. During my stay with Thierry and Annick, there are a few things in particular that are in peak season. The wild strawberries and raspberries are bountiful, and I harvest them nearly every day. Elderflowers are also blooming, and Annick and I use them to make a pétillant, a naturally fermented drink.

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Annick takes a picture of me, as we work to shake loose the blooms of the elderflowers.

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The elderflowers, combined with lemon and sugar, sit in the sun. Natural yeasts in the air will ferment the infusion, and after a few weeks in the cellar, the pétillant will be ready to drink!

And why not celebrate? I savor these summer fruits, made all the sweeter by their short stay.

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Wild strawberries stained my hands red all week. I didn't mind.

Bread in the Oven or the Fire?

I confuse a lot of French words. Gare and guerre (train station and war, respectively) tends to be a perennial hilarious mixup (“excuse me sir, is the war this way? I need to catch a train”). I still remember the Polish man who told me that he will never be able to keep straight the difference between chicken and kitchen, and I empathize. Anyone who has learned another language can recount numerous embarrassing stories about misunderstandings and errors. It’s part of the learning process.

It also inevitably makes my life full of surprises, as I usually only understand around 85% of what is going on at any given time.

One day, Annick, my French host, kept mentioning that we were going to make what I thought I heard as “pain au four”, or bread in the oven. “Well of course!” I thought, “why is she specifying? Where else would we make bread?”

It was only later, when she showed me the recipe, that I understood my mistake: not pain au four, but pain au feu- bread over the fire. Suddenly, I became much more excited.

The dough, ready to cook over the fire on the branches.

Annick and Thierry, my WWOOF hosts in France, are always up to something. Whether it’s hosting the village open-air cinema, or tromping through the woods to find elderflowers, they stay busy with different projects. Annick has recently been toying around with cooking over an open fire, and she has perfected the pain au feu.

We started with a simple dough, and let it rise. I wrapped the dough around a branch and slowly and attentively roasted it. Next to me, the children that Annick watches after school roasted their breads, and I woefully tried to prevent their sticks from dropping into the fire.

Annick, wrapping the fresh dough around the stick.

Eventually, we all had cooked pain au feu, with various levels of charred bits. We gleefully ate the bread with a bit of cheese and chocolate, enjoying the smokey flavor and crisp outside.

Though I’ve always had a high respect for French bread, I’ve now grown even more respect. Even regular bread, cooked in the oven, won’t be enough for me anymore- I’ve discovered pain au feu.

I, amused, guard the kid’s bread, when they lose their patience with cooking and start to play instead.

and finally, the bread is done! The outside is a beautiful crust, but the inside is still soft dough. Perfect with a piece of chocolate.

Searching Out the Specialties

Upon arriving in Grenoble, a college friend, Patrick, informed me of two Rhone-Alpes specialties that I must try. The first is the la tartiflette, which features the specialty regional cheese, and secondly, la Chartreuse, which is a strong liquor specially made by monks with a secret blend of herbs. However, as the weekend flew by, full of activities and parties, I never found an opportunity to search out these specialties.

After the weekend, I headed to the countryside, to do WWOOFing work with a family near Lyon. And there, by the second day, I had not only made and tasted la tartiflette, but I had also drunk la Chartreuse. La vie est belle, à la campagne.

La tartiflette is made with reblochon cheese, a famous type of cheese from the Alps. The name comes from the French word “reblocher”, which basically means to re-milk a cow. The origin legend claims that cow farmers, back when they had to pay tax on the amount of milk their cows produced, would purposefully only partially milk their cows. Then, after their product was accounted for and taxed, they would return to their cows for a second milking. The second milk has a much higher fat content, and it is with this creamy milk that they made the strong reblochon. The cheese has a strong nutty flavor, one that you can smell from a mile away.

La tartiflette is a type of gratin, made with potatoes, onions, and chunks of pork fat. All these are cooked together, in a pan, until well browned. Then, they are combined in a casserole dish, and the round of reblochon cheese is added on top. These ingredients combine in the oven to become a gooey, oozing, beautiful mess of a dish.

It is most popular in the winter in the Alps, after you’ve finished skiing and tromping in the snow all day. We, however, ate it at the end of a hot summer day. As my Portuguese friend Catarina would say, after eating la tartiflette, you can’t do anything but roll away from the table. This is comfort food, the meal that leaves you satisfied and wanting a nap.

La tartiflette, in its cheesy glory. The original round form of the reblochon can still be seen on top, cut into four pieces.

La Chartreuse is the liquor of the Alps, with a long and eventful history. Made by monks since the 1600s, even during periods of their exile, it has become world famous. There is even officially a color, chartreuse, which lies somewhere between yellow and green.

The most famous type of Chartreuse, the strong green liquor, is made from reportedly 130 different herbs, and is the “secret elixir for a long life”. Today, only two monks know the exact blend at one time, and they prepare the herbs for each batch. In typical AOC fashion, it is rumored that the two monks never see each other, in case some natural disaster should kill them both at the same time.

The flavor of la Chartreuse is strong and herbal, staying in your throat and warming your bones. I drink it the second night with Annick and Thierry, and I feel as if I am tasting the elixir of the Alps.

La Chartreuse verte, at 55 percent alcohol. Don’t worry, we didn’t start out the evening with a full bottle.

Though it can be a bit overdone to always focus on the “regional specialty”, I find something very beautiful in searching it out. First of all, I truly enjoy how even if people may be embarrassed or roll their eyes when they tell me about their “specialty”, every single person I ask gladly joins me in sharing a plate. Familiar food is still good food.

I also find that, over a shared plate, people will frequently share memories about the dish. Stories about holidays, family, or attempts to cook pass back and forth. There is something in a familiar taste that elicits some sense of home, a sort of comfort hidden in the sauce.

Cuisines are becoming more global, influenced by styles from around the world. I love that I can see Thai influences in French cooking, or eat a damn good baguette in Tokyo. But these regional specialties, too, add diversity and resilience to a globalized food network. Great cuisines, like French and Japanese for example, celebrate their local products, encouraging local pride and continuation.

But for me, I search out these regional specialties for a different reason. In a time when cuisine becomes more and more global, these regional specialties tie us to a place. They help bring us together; they help us remember. When we make and celebrate a special dish, we are acknowledging the long tradition we come from, and creating our place in it. These dishes give us a sense of belonging, if only for a meal.

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!

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.