In Vrsar, just like everywhere else in Istria, the typical diet of the inhabitants throughout history was based on stewed vegetable dishes, while meat as part of the meal appeared rather scarcely, mostly during religious holidays and celebrations.
Different types of cereal crops, olive oil and wine are mentioned as the most often used ingredients in the Modern period. Since the bishop of Poreč had sovereignty over Vrsar, he supervised the trade of these products through his officers. The quality of the products was also supervised so that poor quality and counterfeit products would not appear. In order to sell, import or export the mentioned products the officials of the Vrsar county had to previously issue an explicit authorization.
The peculiarity of the Modern period Vrsar are its inns and taverns. The role these had when it came to social life was enormous, which can be perceived through the custom of precisely establishing the way they worked. The county authorities prescribed their working hours, banned playing cards and any other games there, decided these were not to be open on Sundays and holidays, and imposed a strict quality monitoring of the wines served there. The inns and taverns could pour wine only from barrels that had been previously sealed by the county officials. Any other practice was severely punished. Especially harsh penalties were inflicted in cases of wine quality frauds, i.e. if guests were given some fraudulent wine or the one of dubious quality (the wine that didn’t obtain marketing licence). The county officials inspected the wine measures so that the inn and tavern owners would not resort to the misuse of the quantity of wines and other beverages served to the guests. The inns and taverns of Vrsar were marked by signs, frasco, in the way compliant with the prescribed legal acts.
Meat trade was present in Vrsar, but only with the permission and under the terms and prices established by the gastaldo or municipal judges. Slaughtering and butchering of animals, the sale, import and export of meat, were allowed only with a previously granted explicit permission from the county officers. The most frequently mentioned types of meat in Vrsar were cow and goat meat.
Fish must have been a significant food source as well as a source of income. Fishing and fish trade were also supervised by the county authorities. Under the threat of punishment, no one was able to go fishing or sell fish without previously having been granted explicit permission from the county authorities. If the local inhabitants wanted to sell fish, they had to make an offer to the county authorities to repurchase it. The fish could have been sold at the fish market only if the authorities had not repurchased it. You could not sell it everywhere and under your own conditions, but solely at the fish market. Only after all the local people’s needs had been met, the excess of fish could have been sold outside the Vrsar county.
An important activity for the nutrition of the inhabitants was baking. Both pastry cooks and bakers are mentioned in Vrsar. In the Middle Ages and in the Modern period there existed only one bread oven in Vrsar, and the Vrsar county was in charge of it. The oven was a public one, since the private ones did not exist. Each item of pastry that was to be baked had to undergo quality control by the county authorities, and the breads and pastry that met the standard were awarded a cross-shaped marker incised into the dough. In the Late Modern period another bread oven was built due to the rise in the number of population.
Wine had always been a food product widely consumed, therefore, it was consumed on a daily basis. An extensive wine production, consumption and trade were present in the Vrsar county. Yet, wine trade was subject to strict monitoring. A frequently poor wine quality along with the arrival of fraudulent wines (predominantly the imported ones) had negatively affected people’s health for centuries. It particularly influenced male population, so that the bishop of Poreč introduced a precise regulation of wine distribution in shops as well as in inns and taverns. Wine could be sold exclusively in barrels. In Vrsar, there were officials in charge of wine control and they would mark with their own seal every barrel that met the quality standard and that was meant to be distributed. Only such, sealed wine, could be sold. The quantity of wine, i.e. the wine measures, were also controlled so that the wine distributers would not carry out fraudulent activities and deliver smaller quantities because of the reduction of a certain wine volume measurement.
The town gate of Vrsar was open during daytime and closed at night. It would open in the morning at the very moment when the church bells started ringing, and close in the evening after Hail Mary. The sound of the church tower ringing upon Hail Mary in the evening used to invite the residents to enter the town, after which the gate keeper used to close the gate. Once closed, the gate would not,as a rule, open until the next morning. The gate had to be closed in the way that neither man nor animal was able to pass through. The keys of the gate were entrusted to the official called chevalier. He was in charge of the gate, maintained it, and personally opened and closed it. After having been shut, the gate could be open only in case of a dire emergency, but not without the prior consent of the highest county authorities.
It was not allowed for men to wear beards in Vrsar. Since the Vrsar county, led by the bishop of Poreč, was an independent state, it was excluded from the Venetian and Habsburg rule. This was the reason why rascals from other parts of Istria often fled to this territory to find sanctuary from persecution and punishment. Consequently, Vrsar was soon proclaimed a refuge and sanctuary of rascals. In Vrsar, many of these began engaging in stonemasonry, agriculture and fishing. Because of the presence of such people, the bishop of Poreč issued an edict stating that all men were to have their beards shaved so they could be identified, both in Vrsar and elsewhere.
In the Modern period Vrsar was the biggest tobacco warehouse. Ships laden with tobacco would come to the Vrsar port, where from later the tobacco was in caravans secretly transported down the river Draga valley, toward the mainland areas of the Istrian peninsula.
Carrying weapons, day or night, within the Vrsar town walls was strictly forbidden. The rule applied to both local population and foreigners. It was this regulation that contributed to a general state of peace, peaceful settlement of disputes, and insignificant crime rates.
In Vrsar, one was not permitted to play games of chance. The regulation applied to both public places (roads, streets, squares and alike) and private spaces. It was explicitly forbidden to play cards, gamble, and engage in games of chance or any other kind of similar activities.
Thanks to the Church and to the bishop of Poreč, it was determined that in Vrsar all rights and duties equally applied to men and women. All legal acts evenly applied to the population, regardless of gender. Since there were many foreigners (sailors, merchants, newcomers, rascals) constantly moving in, their position was strictly defined. Whoever obeyed the Vrsar county regulations, whether a foreigner or a local resident, was always welcome. The authorities would treat you with appreciation, respecting your human dignity and not neglecting any of your rights.
During the existence of the Vrsar county, Vrsar was the healthiest settlement in Istria. Due to its strict regulations about the public order, the ban of discarding waste on the streets, the ban of animal carcass disposal within the town, and insistence on the water hygiene and purity, as well as on wine quality, Vrsar was never significantly affected by any disease or by major fatal epidemics such as was the case with the rest of the population of the Istrian peninsula.
by: Ivan Milotić, Ph.D. Senior Lecturer