Of Oxen and Olives

05 Dec 2013

“Beco, ooooh Beco. Good Beco!” As our little tractor makes its sputtering way through the tangle of thistles and brambles, the otherwise-silent Polje plain is flooded with the still-warm sun of the dying summer. On the horizon, a long white strip of chalky pebbles gives way to the shimmering glitter of the Adriatic, barely rippled by a puff of the bora wind.

Our attention, however, is quickly captured by the imposing physicality of the bull who is calmly grazing just a few steps away from us. Surrounded by a small harem of cows and calves, with his muscular 1,200 kilos, Beco is a proud, awe-inspiring example of the giant Istrian ox, or boscarin, native to the Istrian peninsula and once commonly found as far away as Friuli.

“We brought Beco to Unije in 2011, along with five cows and five calves. These last two years have convinced us that the gamble of bringing this extraordinary animal back to the island will pay off.” As he speaks, Robert Nikolic confidently strokes the massive head of the bull, who has approached the trailer, curious, in search of a tasty treat.

Robert’s face is broad, his expression jovial, his eyes shining like the Adriatic. After years spent as a deep-sea captain and skipper, Robert decided some time ago to return to his island. Today he is a representative of the local administration, but also the guiding spirit behind Slow Food in Unije (mailto: [email protected]), the westernmost island of the Cres-Lošinj archipelago, the natural gateway to the Kvarner Gulf, lying opposite the southernmost point of the Istrian peninsula.

That the island has been inhabited since at least the Bronze Age is clear from the presence of mysterious “uroboros,” arcane stone carvings showing a serpent eating its tail, a symbol of the cyclical nature of things. Though rich in charm, Unije lacks many resources, with little fresh water and no safe natural harbor. Although surrounded by the sea, for centuries its inhabitants were mostly farmers, thanks to the fertile Polje plain and the calcareous hills terraced for the cultivation of olive trees.

The boscarin used to be indispensable, not only as providers of milk and meat, but also as the main method of working the fields. “There are countless legends about the intelligence and hardiness of these animals. Some farmers swore they had oxen so wise that they could even wink on command,” says Robert with a smile.

The reintroduction of the boscarin after long decades of absence from the island is at the heart of Robert’s strategy, aimed at sustainably reviving the resources that Unije has always offered to its inhabitants. “For their farming to be self-sustaining, we need around 30 animals. With the production of hay, essential for the hottest, driest months, we have already closed the productive cycle. And perhaps we’ll soon get a cowherd from Pozega, on the Croatian mainland, who can take care of the animals full time.”

As a first sign of success, meat from the cattle farmed on Unije is being served in restaurants in Lošinj, the area’s main tourism destination, a few miles from Unije. The objective, however, is more ambitious: to sell the beef directly on the island.

We return to the island’s only village, also called Unije. The sun-filled streets wind upwards from the sea, past morning glory vines, rosemary bushes, fig trees and the odd palm tree. The houses, high on the slopes of the island, under the tall belltower of the Sant’Andrea church, are almost entirely encircled by small courtyards, in turn surrounded by drystone walls.

Just 85 people live in Unije today, compared to 783 in 1921. Economic migration, often overseas, has emptied the island, but so too have the painful and complicated political events that for the entire 20th century have marked the land along the northeastern Adriatic, contested by opposing national projects.

Even tourism, which has become a huge economic resource along the Croatian coast, has had a more limited impact here. There are barely 200 beds on all of Unije, with the few tourism facilities concentrated on the shore facing the small harbor: two small inns (Kod Joze and Kod Barba Ive), a holiday farm and a small seasonal ice cream shop.

At the same time, the island offers the ideal situation for focusing on development that picks up the components of the traditional economy and adapts them to the new economic and cultural context. “The other pillar on which Unije’s delicate equilibrium used to be balanced was olive growing,” explains Robert. There are no cars on the island, so we are walking up the stony slopes of Kalk, the 138-meter-high hill that dominates the southern area of Unije.

“We have over 15,000 trees, mostly of the two varieties best suited to our climate, Starovjerka and Slatka, but they’ve all been abandoned,” he says. Once carefully tended, Unije’s olive trees were grown on the terraces so typical of much of the Mediterranean. “We’ve tidied up around 500 trees, which will soon start producing again. It’s a small but important step towards relaunching an ancient tradition that risked disappearing forever.”

The bora wind picks up, and we can hear the waves breaking against the white cliffs that we can glimpse below us through the dark branches of the olive trees. The sea gets rougher, making its presence known, reminding us that autumn is approaching. With autumn comes the fishing season for squid (lignje in Croatian).

Every November 30 for the past seven years, in honor of the patron saint’s day, the local Slow Food team has organized the Lignjada, a squid-fishing competition for local boats as well as guests from nearby Slovenia and Italy.

“The playing field is the western coast of Unije. One year, the participants managed to catch 60 kilos of squid in six hours, which were then eaten after the competition finished.” Robert smiles, perhaps already thinking about hot soup after a day of fishing, about the cobalt sky that meets the metallic blue of the Adriatic on the horizon. “But the Lignjada is much more than a simple fishing competition. For us it’s a chance to remember the connection with our sea, with our island. But also the delicate equilibrium that has held the destiny of our small community together for centuries, and still supports it.”

Francesco Martino, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

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