Wedged between Lussino and the point of Capo Promontore, in Istria, the island of Unije is one of the jewels of the Adriatic, still resisting mass tourism. Every November, the island calls its aficionados to fish squid (called lignjada in Croatian). This year the Unije Plus Convivium decided that there would be no better way to celebrate an early Terra Madre Day than to make lignjada the stars of the occasion.
We leave from Fiume on the ferry and heading to the island. We are surprised to see everyone greeting and hugging each other. We soon understand that the choice to meet in the cool late autumn is not by chance at all: It is a way to select the guests, and ensure the presence of those who really care about this place.
At noon, the fishermen leave from a small pier on the island. The sun, at the zenith, awakens the perfumes of Mediterranean brush: scents of helichrysum, sage and rosemary chase each other from the land to the sea, where the small boats are now separating heading towards the spot they believe, right or wrong, to be the most teeming with squid.
No sounding leads, nets or electronic devices: they fish using togna – line, and totanara as bait. This is why the more than 20 fishermen involved could manage to fish only a little more than 50 kg of squid in 4 hours. It might seem like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to an industrial fishery, which would get the same result in a few minutes with a much smaller crew. But in no way would it have the same value for the local community: a collective event, celebrating their own culture and their main resource, the sea, where Unije stands as a guardian.
What surprises us the most of this tiny island, counting only a little more than 90 inhabitants, is loving hands that are working to fix the gap between economic growth, safeguard the community’s cultural identity and territory stewardship. It’s not only the sea.
Past Maracol bay, where sailing boats from the Mediterranean dock all summer long, the island’s mayor Robert Nikolic reintroduced boscarin, the legendary Istrian ox, the large white ancestor of all of the Italian podolica breeds. “It might seem crazy to bring cows, oxen and calves here,” says Robert, “but oxen have been grazing here for ages, providing a fundamental c ontribute to the economy of the island.” “Tourism is fine”, he adds, “but alone it’s not enough. A tourist takes a picture and disappears. We need real inhabitants, living here 365 days a year. We need farmers.”
This is why last year the inhabitants of Unije went to to the mainland to search for a shepherd and invited him to settle down on the island, offering him a house and some land. Petar Bosko accepted the challenge and from the wild Lika hills together with his family and sheep. Now they all live in Unije, and the cheese he produced between spring and summer was all gone already by September.
The sun is setting, painting the walls of the houses in lavender and pomegranate, as the crew comes back with its catch. The few people still remaining on the shore go and welcome them, curiously roaming around the fishermen’s buckets like seagulls.
In the pub of the village they improvise a stage and a jury. Goranka and Svezotar, masters of ceremonies, hand the prizes to the winners, but taking a close look it seems that there is a prize almost for everyone: all around celebrations have began with accordions, choruses, white wine and crackling barbecues cooking pilchards, squids, onions. Standing a little aside, Robert enjoys the scene, like an artist at the end of his masterpiece.
Michele Rumiz is the Slow Food coordinator for Croatia
Photos: Matteo Giraldi
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