The word Istria may sound rather exotic to some, it surely did to me. Other than the vague idea that the place is somewhere in Croatia (as I was told), I knew close to nothing about it. And yet, we decided to jump at the opportunity, and move there – because why the hell not. And glad we did, I can tell you that much.
I like to think of Istria as an olive country: from whatever point you choose to look, you will probably see an olive grove, or an olive tree at least. A village, town square, seafront alley, parking lot perhaps – the olive trees are everywhere, somehow highlighting (if not stating boldly) the identity of the region. A region where life without the olive oil would be, well, unimaginable.
Coming from Poland, I grew up with butter, lard and other (mostly animal) fats, with olive oil being acquainted only in my teens by my mum who, inspired by (then fledgling) cooking TV shows, bought some to try. We used it rather awkwardly, though, adding it to ready-mixed salad dressing powder from the supermarket, avoiding at all costs frying with it, as we were all too well informed by chefs on the TV and women’s magazines, that frying with olive oil is a no-no (which, in fact, is not true). We knew it was supposed to be great, yet even if we pretended we loved it, we knew deep down that, well, it wouldn’t be our first choice when thinking about delicious things; we weren’t quite sure where it fits into our everyday pork and potato-heavy diets.
Even after moving out from home, olive oil still was just a condiment, often sitting in the middle of the restaurant table (together with vinegar, mustard and ketchup): cloudy, dusty and unappealing. If it wasn’t for my friend Maria, whom I watched (in disbelief) enjoying (!) bread with olive oil, as if it was something awesome, I would have never considered it something that can indeed be quite delicious. Istria, however, and Anna to a greater extent, introduced me to olive oil properly.
I saw it in its true glory, looking very appealing and very tasty indeed. It was clear, golden and oh my god, so delicious. And I saw it used as if it was salt: generously and confidently. I saw it eaten with bread in the konoba while waiting for the meal to arrive: splash of oil on the plate, bread dipped in it – heaven. I heard it talked about as if it was fine wine: that this year is great for oil, who produces the best and tastiest, and how delicious and clear the new batch is. It was only then, when I saw olive oil in its proper setting: as something as much everyday as butter has always been for me, and yet – something that’s valued and cared for. And I (obviously) fell in love with it. Olive oil has shifted in my consciousness from something somehow delicious, yet foreign, to something I find myself missing in my kitchen. I was sold.
The olive harvest, when it starts, can be felt all throughout Istria. And it starts early here. I was told, that it is usually somewhere between the end of October and the beginning of November when the picking begins, yet this year – apparently due to the mild winter and unusually hot spring and summer, the olives were ready to pick at the beginning of October. Everywhere we went, we could hear the roaring of the tree shaker, used here to harvest olives. At first, we didn’t realise, of course, that this is what we were hearing. We thought it was a chainsaw or a grass mower. We were, at first, hugely unaware of the olive picking frenzy that’s started all around us.
Olives in Istria are picked much earlier than in other parts of Croatia. The most appreciated olive oil here is the one made with green, early picked olives, which give it its distinct fresh, grass-green colour and characteristic bitterness. Not everyone likes it, and not everyone considers it the best olive oil there is, especially that, traditionally, olives are picked at their prime ripeness, and the olive extracted from them is golden-green and milder. Istria, however, has developed a taste for the early oil’s bitterness, making it something of a regional specialty. And mind you, I was quite excited to get a taste of the first olive oil produced this season, hoping that one of the konobas we visited would offer it to try. They sure did, and it was awesome. Bitter, meanly green, and a bit grassy, but god, so delicious.
As Bolara 60’s neighbours are olive oil producers and have almost 1000 olive trees to deal with, we went to help. After a short walk to the olive groves, situated just across the road, on the mild hill slope, we were ready to start work. Part of the field was carpeted with nets, carefully clipped together with pegs, so that there was no patches of the ground uncovered. These were to ‘catch’ the olives that will be shaken from the trees – a clever way of making one’s work of collecting them from the ground, easier.
I was given a linen bag, that was to be hung on my shoulder to free my hands, and was asked to start picking olives by hand from the smallest, youngest trees. Older, bigger trees were given a different treatment, as their branches are stronger and less likely to break. First, the tree was shaken with a special electric shaker by Daniel. The most ripe olives then fall from the tree onto the nets spread on the ground. Then comes Oswaldo, with another tool, looking a bit like electric rake with the individual prongs in the fork moving, with which he was ‘raking’ the tree branches to shake off the olives that didn’t fall. Then come the hand pickers, picking whatever stubborn olives that are left on the tree. Żubrek took the job to a whole new level, by climbing each tree (!) in search of the left-behinds. I suppose any occasion to climb a tree is a good occasion?
I was told that not that long ago, when the two grandmas who now live in the neighbour’s house were young, all the olives were picked by hand, to the very bags I was given at the start of the harvest. Can you imagine the amount of time (and effort) put into the harvest every year? Some of the trees are quite big and branchy, not to mention tall! The tree shaker and raker (how I call them, I am not sure what the proper names for the tools are) make the work much quicker and efficient. When the tree is shaken initially, the olives fall densely, making one feel as if she found herself in the middle of a heavy rain, when in fact it’s only raining olives. It’s quite incredible, unreal even, to watch. A short video, showing how it’s done, here.
When the trees are done with, the nets are lifted and olives are gathered into one spot: the bigger branches and leaves are taken out of the pile, and olives are then moved into crates and set aside. When all the crates are full, Oswaldo or Daniel come with a tractor with a trailer attached and pack the crates onto the trailer. The olives will later be taken to the nearby mill in Buje, where they will be pressed for oil. Usually, the day’s crop is taken to the mill on the same day, when the olives are freshly picked. Fresh oil, I was told, has to ‘stand’ for a couple of weeks before it’s good to eat. And good to eat here doesn’t mean it’s not edible before, it just means it should clarify first, and then be consumed, at its best.
If you ever find yourself in Istria, don’t be shy and try. Even if you consider yourself a person who sees olive oil as uninteresting, try. Find a producer – and there are plenty of them in Istria (wherever you go, there are roadsigns advertising olive oil, usually produced by one family or agroturizam) – buy a bottle and try. Skip the supermarket, skip the known brands, and buy locally – there is a big chance that the olive oil you buy will be the best you’ve ever had. How to eat it? Well, my favourite way is to add a splash of olive oil onto a plate (preferably white, so you can see the colour properly), and dip pieces of soft, white bread in it. If you have some pršut – even better (and the pršut in Istria is pretty awesome). It’s only been two weeks since I’ve left Istria, and I miss the olive oil greatly. As much as I love my Dad’s Sunday rosół, I find myself craving a simple plate of bread, olive oil and pršut quite often recently. Istria has changed my tastebuds and adjusted my cravings – to the extent that I am already thinking about visiting again next summer. Can’t wait!
Below, a photo gallery from the olive harvest. Enjoy!
Have a delicious Sunday everyone,