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Korčula today

Jonathan Bousfield discovers the 'boutique island' of Korčula

© Vanda Vucicevic/Time Out

There was a time when the word ‘boutique’ simply meant a shop. Nowadays there are boutique hotels, boutique restaurants, boutique festivals, even boutique banks.

Less hyped than Hvar, and more remote than busy Brač, Korčula is the kind of place that might convincingly be branded as a boutique island. The 50km-long ridge of rock has largely shed the seven-days-in-a-package-hotel image that it was lumbered with in the Seventies and Eighties, emerging as a destination that offers intimate upscale accommodation, unique experiences and crafted natural products.

The island’s main town of Korčula contains the Lešić Dimitri Palace, one of the few genuinely boutique hotels on the Adriatic, and also a boutique sweetshop in the shape of the famed Cukarin. In addition, the island can claim to offer a boutique white wine in the shape of Grk from the village of Lumbarda, a boutique local pasta in the form of Žrnovski makaruni, and boutique olive oils from the family-run presses around Vela Luka. The dramatic sloping rocks of Proizd island, just off Vela Luka, provide Korčula with a likely contender for the title of Dalmatia’s foremost boutique beach.

In terms of visitor numbers, Korčula has always enjoyed a fair-sized share of the Dalmatian cake. However the island’s established hotels have been slow to catch up with an increasingly choosy travelling public, and it is Korčula’s more human-scale accommodation options that have taken up the running. The Lešić-Dimitri Palace is a case in point, offering a highly individual take on the idea of hotel luxury, squeezing chicly-decorated, spacious apartments into a stone alleyway of medieval vintage. Outside of Korčula town, bay-hugging holiday homes are enjoying a boom in bookings. Nevenko Žuvela of Vela Luka-based travel agent Mediterano is convinced that tourism on the island is increasingly driven by a new breed of discerning tourist. ‘These summer houses range from tiny stone one-room structures without amenities, to renovated places with several bedrooms and a swimming pool in the garden. What they all have in common is that they are scattered around beautiful bays and are quite isolated.’

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.

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.

About half of Bire’s Grk is supplied to local Korčulan restaurants; the rest is sold in his own wine cellar just uphill from Lumbarda village. Individual tourists come here to sample the wine in a rustic stone-clad room before buying some of the bottles stacked like firewood against the cellar’s walls. The household also makes its own goat cheese and pršut to provide visitors with tasty platters to go along with their Grk. In the garden, tomato plants and broad beans sprout up among the kitchen herbs.

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 per cent 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.

Fanito shows us around his small but state-of-the-art set-up, taking particular pride in a machine that looks like a metal coffin. He slowly undoes the screws to reveal a revolving cylinder that squeezes the juice out of some of the tastiest olives in Dalmatia.

‘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. Fanito serves us the oil neat in little plastic cups, and watches with amusement as Torkul’s bitter after-kick hits the back of our throats. He then shows us how to taste it properly, without choking half to death, and we roll the liquid methodically around in our mouths until all the flavours sink in. ‘It ennobles the quality of all food from the hors d’oeuvres to the dessert’, he says. The fact that it goes superbly well with vanilla ice-cream also crops up in conversation.

With a price tag of about 150kn 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.’

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