My friend Shivani, a U.S. expat who grew up in Alaska, and I were riding through the small roads of Istria yesterday on our way back from visiting the ancient ruins of Nesactium* in Ližnjan, Croatia, when we saw a sign for olive oil. It pointed to a small dusty road which we turned down and proceeded to look for the olive oil store or facility.
We came to dead end with a rustic stone home on a farm that had an olive grove, an apiary and an extremely old stone building. Cords of wood were stacked neatly by a large tree, and in the back of the property, we saw another, more modern building with a large tractor and some giant green crates stacked next to it.
No one was around so we thought maybe we had misread the sign when we saw a young man heading our way down the rocky driveway. I was a little apprehensive that we were going to get scolded for being on private property, but as soon as we told him we were looking for some olive oil, he said we were at the right place.
He said his name was Branko, and after we introduced ourselves, he said we were the first people who had ever visited his place who were from the U.S.
While the southern part of Croatia gets a lot of U.S. tourists (think Dubronik and Split, and thank Game of Thrones), Istria up in the northern part of country isn’t quite as well known to U.S. citizens, so we are definitely somewhat of a novelty here. Branko said he had had people visit him from Germany, Austria, Belgium, (Europeans mostly) to sample his oil, but never from the U.S. so he was as excited to talk with us as we were with him.
One of the first things he told us was that his first name “Branko” which meant “Defender” in the Croatian language. And his sir name, “Sladonja,” meant “Sweet,” so he joked about him getting teased as a child as being the “Sweet Defender.” We immediately felt at ease. How many Sweet Defenders were you going to meet in a lifetime?
How many Sweet Defenders were you going to meet in a lifetime?
He had a wealth of knowledge about American history and deep understanding of current U.S. politics for someone who lived on a farm in the middle of a tiny village with a population of 800. He was curious about our opinions about the current state of U.S. political affairs, and said, “Catastrofa (catastrophe), right?”
I don’t want to get into politics on my blog, but just wanted to convey that a person running a farm in the small country of Croatia (total population 4 million) speaks English, is well-versed in U.S. politics, history, pop culture (his favorite U.S. TV show was “The Simpsons”) as well as a host of other complicated issues about world problems.
The world is watching us, folks. And they are making olive oil while they do.
Branko went inside his home to get us some of his olive oil to sample which he offered with some bread. It had the aromatic smell and the pungent taste and flavor of many of the Istrian olive oils that I’ve had and fallen in love with since I’ve come to Croatia.
His oil is a blend of many different types of olives: the Italian leccino, and the Istarska (Istrian) bjelica and buža to name a few. Some producers separate the olive varieties and make different types of oils into the liquid gold. Branko blends all of his varieties together as he also runs an “uljara,” which is a production facility for other farmers around his area where they were able to bring their olives and get them pressed into oil. The oil was delicious, so whatever he is doing is working well.
He took us on a tour of his uljara and showed us the process for olive oil production. My favorite part of the lesson was the olive jacuzzi that he said cleaned the olives before they made their way into the press. It just sounded so cute having a little jacuzzi for the little olives to go bobbing about in.
Branko also produced honey from his apiary and took us on a tour of his farm pointing out the the scientific names of various trees that dotted the land. He has a degree in horticulture. Of course he does.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of his life to me as an American was the fact that he knew his familial history going back eight generations and had a photograph of his grandfather at 14 years of age with many different generations of the family included in just that one photograph. He said six, but I believe he meant with his father’s generation and his included.
And the sweetest thing this Sweet Defender did was that he invited us into his home just to take a look at that photograph.
We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”-Anaïs Nin
As Shivani and I marveled at the old photograph hanging on the wall and talked to him about his grandfather for five or so minutes, I happened to turn my head and look around the small room. It was small and neat with a kitchen, a small dining table, and there was a hint of a smell of Italian food permeating the area. There was even a sofa.
A sofa with a little elderly woman laying on it.
Yes, there on the sofa lay Branko’s elderly grandmother, taking an afternoon rest, who I hadn’t even noticed when I walked into the room. I was completely embarrassed for being so enamored by the picture that I hadn’t even acknowledged her. Or noticed her for that matter. Had we woken her?
I tried to apologize to her in Croatian, but Branko said matter-of-factly, “It’s okay. She doesn’t understand, she only speaks Italian.”
Which meant Branko also spoke Italian, among his many talents.
The Istrian peninsula of Croatia used to be a part of Italy, as well as the Austro-Hungarian empire, so the people here are a mixture of those nationalities. As testament to that, most signs designating locations throughout Istria are written in both Croatian and Italian. But it also means that many of the people not only speak Croatian, but Italian as well. And English. And usually German, too (because they get so many German and Austrian tourists to the area). Think of how hard it is to learn one language. Then multiply that by four. That is mind-boggling to me.
It’s not only people on farms in Istria that are able to speak so many languages. Waiters, taxi drivers, our landlord and many others that work in the tourism industry all have a grasp of the basics of many different languages, which always impresses me.
Anyway, it was a really a wonderful feeling to be invited into the warmth and intimacy of not only someone’s business, but someone’s home, and we were both honored to learn the history of such a special family. As I use some of the olive oil I purchased that afternoon, I think of the Sweet Defender working on his farm and tending to his land and his olive trees. And my meal tastes that much richer.
*Note: About 10 km from Branko’s home lies the famous ancient ruins of Nesactium, which I highly recommend visiting if you are ever in Istria.
Here is its amazing history taken from the Istrian Culture Website (photos are mine):
“The Nesactium is thought to have been the seat of the Histri, a people of the Indo-European descent who were formed in the early Iron Age after the settlement of today’s Istria peninsula.
The oldest traces of this hill-located settlement stem from the Bronze and Iron Ages. Glavica’s steep hills provided good defence as the structure was encircled by several wall layers from the hill bottom. Some walls are of Roman descent. They were in use until the late Antiquity. Between the walls and the settlement, two terraces are still recognizable. Archaeologists think these are prehistoric sites.
The appearance of the prehistoric site is not known. However, it can be stated with confidence that there was life in Nesactium from the 9th until the late 6th or the early 7th century until the break in of the barbarians and the Slavs who destroyed all ancient settlements.
Along with the western part of the walls, between the Roman and the prehistoric gates, a prehistoric necropolis with as many as 114 graves was found. Iron Age graves containing urns existed beyond the zone, below the remains of the Roman temple and the urban villa. Numerous artifacts have been preserved in the graves, including the urns, ornamentally decorated stone plates or sculptures.
Historic sources say that the Histri used boats for controlling the sea around south Istria and intercepted Roman and Greek ships, which caused Rome to start destroying the fleet and hilltop settlements during the first war in year 221 BC.
Histrian tribes united under Epulon in an attempt to prevent the Romans from going forward. However, following two years of defeats and the siege of Nesactium, Epulon and his warriors allegedly committed suicide in 177 BC, after which the Histri had to accept the Roman rule.
The site today is an archaeological park with conserved architectural remains from the Roman and Late Antiquity period.”
For more information, please go to: https://www.istria-culture.com/en/nesactium-i111