Traditional olive picking in Croatia/Dalmatia

“Mrtvi dan, skale van!” (All Saints Day, bring out the ladders!)
This old proverb is rarely used these days when fashionable “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is taking roots even here, on the shores of Dalmatia.

Traditional olive picking would start somewhere around November 1st and lasts through the winter, sometimes even till mid January or, like in Sali on Dugi Otok, even later…

Olive tree

Olive tree is the “sacred tree” of the human kind and olive trees have been grown with special care and attention. Same applies even for picking – I still hear my uncle yelling at us, kids, when we would brake a branch while picking! The traditional process is fairly easy: bring out the ladders and big sheets of fabric or anything similar and divide into groups. Some climb the tree, some climb the ladder but most stay on the ground collecting the fruits that fall down on the fabric.
Small trees don’t need any of the equipment and those are usually picked from the ground.
Some areas in Dalmatia, keep the tree growing in width and not in height (by putting weights on the young branches) so they don’t need to climb at all making everything very easy.

Picking the olives on small tree

Olive picking is not an easy job and injuries and lost eyes are quite common!
However, being on fresh air and enjoying family, is pure fun that gets rewarded by olive oil. In the past, and even today, people would work for olive oil since that is a job that demands as many hands as possible. It was customary to give workers one or two liters of oil per day (for food and light) and they would even get some food. Since both the owners and the workers were usually quite poor, most of the day they would work with eating only dried figs.
In Murter, the owners would throw the workers figs on the ground so they would eat them as they find them not to loose time sitting down.
Now we prefer to grill some meat and fish while in the fields and that seems a better way :)!

Nice and ripe!

There are some 5 mil trees in Croatia now and that is still a small number. Portugal, of approximately same size has 38 mil.In the past, there were many more trees and it was even noted that Brac island alone had about 1 mil!
Most of the olive groves are in Istria and Dalmatia and the recovery started quite recently when government begun subsidizing planting of olive trees. Probably the best move they did! Everyone was planting new trees and olive oil was regaining it’s role in our cuisine. We, at home, use about 8-10 liters per person in a whole year which is way above what “regular” Croatian household spends but still quite bellow Greeks who use 26 liters per capita!!!

Olive oil on Croatian coast was regarded as one of the highest quality “in the World” even from the Roman times: see Apicium here.
The comment in this book is addressing olive oil from Liburnia and saying that Liburnia is southern Istria. That is not correct: Istria was Histria and Liburnia was the region from Histria to the banks of Krka river now in North Dalmatia.

Islanders from Pašman Island coming to their "overseas" lands

The groves pictured are in Primorje region: just between sv. Filip Jakov and Biograd. It was a huge Vila Rustica estate and farm in the Roman times so we can talk about a continuing tradition of growing olive trees here for nearly 2000 years! The olive grove belongs to my aunt’s family from Mrljane but they have too many trees ob Pašman Island so they let us pick these.
Many of the groves in this region are owned by the people from Pašman Island (town of Tkon in particular).
On this video you can see them preparing to go home after a long day in the fields:

Today a “battle rages” between the supporters of traditional and new, fashionable Extra virgin olive oil. We, who grew up on traditional olive oil, have (had) a tough time getting used to bitterness and grassy taste of extra virgin oil. Besides, it is not for cooking but mostly made for dips and salad dressing.
I have become quite fond of this modern olive oil and really enjoy all the different possibilities it offers. Just recently we enjoyed a fabulous combination of very young oil with roasted, salted almonds at Alen Bibic winery.
But, this extra virgin oil has nothing to do with Mediterranean tradition since this method was almost impossible in the old days and no one practiced it! The problem was that there were very few olive mills and the means to transport the picked fruits to the mills were quite slow. That is why olives were kept in barrels with sea water to preserve them till the producer’s turn at the mill would come. We still keep our olives in sea water and we had to wait our turn even last year! Now, 4-5 new mills opened in our region this year alone and we can all have extra virgin olive oil… if we wanted to.

The fruit of the Gods!

When you talk about the Mediterranean tradition, then only the traditionally made olive oil can be considered as the “real” one. Now the supporters of extra virgin olive oil are trying to give all sorts of evidences to prove that their oils are healthier and better but personally, I can care less. I like them both and use them both. Not because it is fashionable thing, but because I like them. I know of NUMEROUS Istrian olive oil makers who sell all their extra virgin olive oil production in Italy or Zagreb for “top Dollar” and going to Dalmatia to get the traditional one since they like it better. Fine by me!

The best thing out of all this is that new groves and trees are planted every year, people are investing in new technologies and designing various bottles/packages and more and more families can support themselves on their own land! That is very important for smaller islands and one of the best examples is Olyinthia on Šolta Island which is famous for it’s olive oils!

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