Generations of Growers

Olives from my cousins’ orchard in Orasac, Croatia

I’m not a gardener. Well, at least not a successful one. In Connecticut, the soil is rich and summers have a healthy dose of rain, creating an ideal environment for growing plants.  After a long, cold winter, I can hardly wait to get outside to pull weeds and rake the leaves that fell too late the previous fall. I search for the first purple crocuses that invariably pop up on my front lawn.  I’m excited to go to the nursery to buy vegetables and herbs to plant in the yard.  I’ve tried to grow everything—cucumbers, beans, squash, peppers—you name it.  One year it rained so much that all the leaves were covered in mold and the plants died.  Another year, animals or bugs got to the veggies before I could.  The only thing I can ever coax from the ground is basil.  But, even then, I can never seem to make pesto before the plant goes to seed or we have an early frost and it all dies.  I’ve largely given up on growing vegetables—it’s cheaper for me to just buy what I need.

Rose planted by Babi in her orchard, Northern California

But, I come from a family of farmers whose livelihood depended on their ability to grow food. My grandparents owned a 100-arce pear orchard in Northern California, where I grew up.  They also grew walnuts and a few cherry and fig trees.  I loved that orchard.  Babi and Ðedi (my grandmother and grandfather) have both passed away but when I return to visit, I often go back to the orchard they owned. Their house is no longer standing, the sheds are collapsing, and all the pears have been replaced by walnut trees.  But, the remains of the small roses that Babi planted under three of the walnut trees are still there.  The last time I visited, I picked a small rose and pressed it between two sheets of wax paper.  There is something precious to me about this connection to her.  Unlike me, she had the ability to grow things that still remain to this day.  In fact, she had a way of making both plants and people flourish.

Still. It has been a revelation to see how much that growing food (and making wine!) remains part of my family’s daily lives here in Croatia.  This work goes back for generations. Unlike the fertile soil of Northern California and the Neretva Delta (62 miles northwest of Dubrovnik), the land around Gromača and Orašac is rocky and hard to till. Still. I’ve seen some of the property my relatives own, but until recently, hadn’t had the opportunity to be there for picking.  My cousins needed to pick vegetables before the next day’s rain and agreed to let me come along. I wasn’t much help. Actually, I wasn’t any help.  I wandered the orchard, took pictures, and simply took in the fact that generations of my family walked and worked this land. Still.

For a majority of the land’s history, there were only olive trees.  My cousins pulled out several of them to make room for a vegetable garden and I was in awe. I thought of the effort it was to pull weeds in my own backyard and it was nothing compared to the labor needed for this property; and it is labor.  It was so colorful.  There were several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and melons. There were cucumbers, cabbage plants, cherry and pomegranate trees, goji berries, and tobacco.  One cousin picked a large stack of tobacco and put them in his greenhouse to dry.

Just as I was walking near one section of the orchard, I heard a voice yell “try the figs!”  I did.  Ðedi loved his fig trees and I think of him every time I see one. I searched the clumps of hanging fruit and found a couple that were ripe. Perfection.  There are over 700 varieties of figs but the most common ones grown in Croatia are green and retain this color even when they are ripe; the green only gets brighter as they’re ready to be picked.  Once you bite into a fig, there is no other flavor or color that looks quite the same—no wonder it is considered an erotic fruit/aphrodisiac.  Fun fact—figs are not considered fruits but inverted flowers which require special pollination. This process is fascinating and if you’re interested in knowing more, here is one website to check out:

In November, it will be time to harvest the ripe olives which will be made into olive oil.  I plan on being there.  I hope to help but will most likely be taking photos and writing about the process.  Hey, we all have our skill sets.  And who knows?  Maybe when I return to my garden next year, I will plant a fig tree.

Mala Gospa

Church in Gromača (photo taken by Mala Matacin)

Remember Miss Mary Ann from the children’s TV show Romper Room?  If you’re from my generation, you might remember how she looked through her “magic mirror” and identified who she saw out in her TV audience (“I see Tommy and Mary. I see Frank and Amy…”).  I used to wait for Miss Mary Ann to see me, to say my name, to acknowledge my presence.  She never did despite my best attempts to situate myself right in front of the television set.

Croatia is making up for Miss Mary Ann!  I hear my name all the time and I think that people are calling me when they’re not.  “Mala” in Croatian means little or small.  It’s also an endearing term used for babies or small children, as in “little one”. 

So I wasn’t too surprised to hear of a festival called “Mala Gospa” but I had no idea what it was.  “Mala Gospa” translates as “little lady” and acknowledges the birth of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Nativity of Mary. Even though there is no known date of Mary’s birth, it is celebrated on September 8th.  It struck me how foreign such a celebration was to my Catholic upbringing.  I felt lucky to be in Gromača, the little village where my grandfather (Ðedi) and some of my cousins were born, to participate in this feast day. (The feast part is a whole other story)! 

People from Gromača and other small villages gathered in the center of the town around what appeared to be a permanent installation of an icon of Mary. The village only has about 140 inhabitants so I was surprised to see about 50 people gathering for the procession to the church.  I was grateful for a cousin who held my hand and guided me through some of the rocky terrain and tenuous stairs. I broke my leg three months ago and walking is slow and unsteady at times but I did not want to miss this!  There were prayers and singing during the procession until we got to one of the smallest churches I have ever seen. Inside, the iconography of Mary was so pronounced.  Unlike the large crosses that hang on the altar of every single Catholic church I’ve seen, the little church in Gromača has a large portrait of Mary (holding Jesus, of course), instead.  That struck me.  I wonder if this reverence for Mary is true in small villages here or the way Catholocism has been shaped in Croatia generally.

But, the Catholic church is still deeply patriarchal.  I noticed how the men were the ones to carry the banners during the procession and take up the front rows of the church.  I have a lot to learn so if you have any thoughts or information, I’d love to know more.

Hvala, Croatia.  It’s good to be seen.