Discovering the Boutique island of Korcula and its culinary gems!
As you approach Korčula from the mainland nearby, the crowded little houses on the edge of the island seem to be pushing each other out of the way to see if you are friend or foe. Holding them in, stern medieval walls centrepieced by the slim belltower of St Mark’s Cathedral stand guard over the narrow Pelješac Channel, protecting the riches contained on the sixth largest island in the Croatian Adriatic. So lush with dark pine forests, vineyards and olive groves the ancient Greek settlers called it Korkyra Melaina (‘Black Corfu’), Korčula has managed to avoid the tourist trap tendencies of its original Greek namesake 480 km south.
No longer fought over by Turk or Venetian, by French or Austrian, by Partisan or German, Korčula is one of Dalmatia’s most relaxing getaways. The main town of the same name, set on the north-eastern tip of the island opposite the Pelješac peninsula, has one of the best-preserved medieval centres in the Adriatic. Historic Korčula is therefore the most popular south-Dalmatian destination after the more crowded Dubrovnik, with which it is often compared.And Korčula is undoubtedly a beautiful place in which to get stuck for a week or two, its woolly green covering of evergreen holm oak and prickly maquis punctuated by dark-green spears of cypress. The main road from the ferry port at Vela Luka to Korčula town switches from one side of the island’s central spine to the other, offering majestic maritime views that take in the crisp grey-brown silhouettes of neighbouring islands Hvar and Lastovo. Throughout the interior, hillside-hugging villages hover above a patchwork of vineyards and vegetable plots.
Tourists with modern-day demands are at last catered for at by some excellent boutique hotels: the Lešić-Dimitri Palace Korčula, a five-star luxury retreat with a spa and restaurant to match. The refurbishment of the four-star Marko Polo is another boon. For the most demanding there are beautiful villas overlooking the sea, such as Villa Ellie, or scattered in the lush countryside. In both cases, waiting for them there will be splendid panoramas and slow rhythms.
The main attraction is Korčula town itself, with its historic centre of narrow alleys and crenellated walls. Superb beaches (including some genuinely sandy ones) are to be found at Lumbarda, and in the secluded coves of the south coast. The beautifully-situated port of Vela Luka is the island’s other major urban centre, although there’s a lot to be said for the sleepy villages inland – it’s here that the true heartland of Korčula’s distinctive cuisine and unique wines is to be found.
Most of Korčula’s hillsides are scarred with contour-hugging lines of piled-up rock, a reminder of the times when vine- and olive-bearing terraces covered the island, each of them laboriously carved out of the stony ground by generations of islanders working with simple tools. Cultivable land didn’t occur naturally and had to be created by brute force: surface rocks were broken and stacked up in huge wedges, and any available earth was piled into the gaps.
When phylloxera (vine lice) reached the island in 1925, centuries-old vineyards were abandoned and thousands of Korčulans emigrated to North America or Australia. Olive plantations to some extent replaced the vines, although the tendency of the remaining islanders to take up jobs in shipbuilding or (somewhat later) in tourism condemned many of Korčula’s agricultural terraces to a long period of neglect.
‘Everything to the left and right of here used to be vineyards’ says winemaker Frano Milina-Bire, pointing to scrub-covered slopes overlooking the sea on Korčula’s south coast. Running down the middle of the overgrown hillside is a strip of new terraces planted by Bire himself last year; a geometrical grid of metal sticks, each with a slender young vine strapped to the base.
Bire is a keen advocate of the revitalisation of old vine terraces south of the seaside village of Lumbarda. It is the heartland of Grk, a refreshing white wine made from grapes that only grow in this part of Korčula. ‘It is important to preserve Grk and encourage ecological production at the same time’ says Bire. ‘There are a lot more old terraces around the place and the potential for further revitalization is enormous.’
The back-breaking hard work that created the Korčulan landscape has an almost spiritual significance for Korčula’s new breed of wine and olive growers, as if their diligently crafted produce represents tangible tribute to the agricultural toil of the past. ‘Grk is one of the oldest grapes on the Adriatic’ Bire explains. ‘The Ancient Greeks who settled here were growing it well over 2000 years ago.’ Grk is so localised (attempts to grow it elsewhere have never met with much success) that annual production rarely exceeds 25,000 bottles, little of which gets off the island.
Grk is by no means the only wine that Bire can rustle up in his cellar. As he explains, ‘Grk is one of those vines that only has a female flower, so it needs to be planted next to another grape in order to be pollenated.’ Bire’s partner of choice is Plavac Mali, the indigenous grape from which most of Dalmatia’s best reds are made.
Most of the rustic taverns that sit in the island’s interior serve Pošip, the crisp white wine that comes from the fields below villages like Čara and Smokvica. One great creator is Jurica Šain, who lives in Čara and produces a lovely bottle called Sveti Ivan (he also makes a superb olive oil). These inland villages – draped along the slopes of Korčula’s central spine, all the better to avoid raids by medieval pirates – form the heartland of the island’s famous makaruni, hand-rolled pasta twizzles that look like mini-cigars and which are frequently served with a meaty sauce. One of the best places to try them is Konoba Mate in Pupnat, where you can tuck in to makaruni served with innovative sauces, such as fennel and chili, or the house-recipe pesto made from almonds and fresh herbs.
If eastern and central Korčula has the wine and pasta, it is western Korčula that has the olives. It was here that the vine-pest epidemics of the 1920s resulted in an almost complete shift from wine making to olive oil production. Today, the terraced hills around towns like Blato and Vela Luka are covered in the pastelly grey-green hues of over 100,000 olive trees, and in a good year, western Korčula produces up to 10 percent of Dalmatia’s total production.
What makes the local olive oils special is the blend of bitter Lastovka olives with smoother-tasting strains such as Drobnica and Oblica. Local firms such as Marko Polo from Blato and the Velo Ulje cooperative from Vela Luka produce outstanding oils that crop up in specialist food shops all over Croatia.
Arguably the most sought-after of Korčula’s oils however is Torkul, an elixir-like drop of Mediterranean bounty produced by Fanito Žuvela in what looks like a large garage in opposite his house Vela Luka.
“Torkul is a meeting of two extremes” Fanito explains: “It combines oil from the Lastovka olive, which is exceptionally bitter, and Drobnica, which is spicy but smooth. When you mix them together you get the ideal blend”. Both Lastovka and Drobnica are also high in polyphenols, providing the oil with a range of health-enhancing properties, from the cholesterol-reducing to the antibiotic. “It ennobles the quality of all food from the hors d’oeuvres to the dessert”, he says.
With a price tag of about 150 kn per 75cl bottle, Torkul is a bit more expensive than the mass-market olive oils you are likely to find in your local supermarket back home. However Italian visitors to Korčula who know a thing or two about speciality oils have frequently expressed surprise at what good value Torkul actually represents. “It’s a very specific, not to say unique olive oil, and I’m constantly trying to work out how to give it even more quality and individuality than it has already” says Fanito. “It’s only when I succeed in selling a bottle of this stuff for a hundred euros that I’ll finally take my hat off to myself for doing such a good job.”