On the olive oil trail in Istria

Almost ripe olives

Years ago, when I was of drinking age, we’d go out on the town for the night. Invariably, the drink would hit someone harder than the others. The rest would smugly ask: Surely you ate before you came out? ‘Tis only asking for trouble to drink on an empty stomach. Fast forward a few decades and I can say, with certainty, that one thing worse than drinking on an empty stomach is tasting olive oil on an empty stomach.

The olive oil trail has been on my bucket list for a while, ever since the S family brought me back a bottle of olive oil from Istria for my birthday. It actually had taste. I’d always been reluctant to spend money on the good stuff, knowing it would eventually end up in a frying pan, making little or no difference to my bacon and eggs. But this stuff was really tasty. So, in Croatia recently, and in Istria to boot, the olive trail beckoned.

We headed towards the town of Vodnjan, the hub of the Istrian olive oil region. On our way in, we spotted a sign for Oio Vivo. Curious as to what these olives were vergin’ on, we stopped for a look. Inside the tasting house, the lovely BranKa (she who learned her excellent English from watching American TV programmes) told us everything we never knew we needed to know about the process.

I didn’t know, for instance, that olive trees grow better in rocky ground. Or that they take 3-4 years to bear fruit. Or that they come in male and female form. Or that machines are rapidly taking the place of people when it comes to picking. Okay, that one was obvious but what I’d never factored in to the cost of the oil was the money it takes to feed all these labourers. In this 56-hectare grove, the company Oleum Maris has carefully planted some 15,000 trees on land that was once devastated by fire. Operating since 2005, it is the largest olive grove in southern Istria. Olive trees come in many varieties, just grapevines: Busa, Istrian bjelica, Rosignola, Zizolera, Busa Puntosa (all native) and Leccino, and Pendolino (from Italy) – not that I could tell one from the other on the day that was in it, but I’m sure I could, with practice.

Branka gave us thimble-sized tastes of their five oils, explaining the various tastes and textures. She used words like bitter, spicy, and fruity and spoke with authority about blends and purities. When I recovered from the shock of actually being able to taste the difference in the oils (what a philistine I am), I was hooked. I was disappointed that we didn’t get the home-baked bread and prosciutto but then again, this was my first olive tasting and I could be forgiven for not knowing any better.

I was very impressed that Oio Vivo uses colour to differentiate the different properties of their oils (greens for fruity, pinks for spicy and browns for bitter) and that their labels are also in braille. That’s progressive. And of course we bought, or rather the lovely Gs bought for me. And if you can read Croatian or Italian, you can download their catalogue for some helpful tips about what oils enhance which foods. Me, I’ll have to go from memory.

Very pleased with ourselves for this little discovery, we headed on to Vodnjan. The town square is surrounded by some pretty impressive buildings including the Bradamante Palace with its decorated façade.

We wandered through the cobblestone streets and narrow passageways, heading towards the church of St Blaise, reportedly the biggest church in Istria. Weirdly,

[it] keeps 370 relics belonging to 250 different saints. In addition to one of the thorns from Jesus’ crown, fragment of the Holy Virgin’s veil, particle of Jesus’ Cross and many others, a special attraction are the desiccated remains of saints whose bodies or body parts have been completely preserved: St. Sebastian, St. Barbara, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Leon Bembo, St. Giovanni Olini and St. Nicolosa Bursa.

I did some work a while back on a book by the wonderful Rosikon Press Publishing House in Warsaw which told me all I ever needed to know, and more, about Christ’s Relics. [It’s a lovely book, if you have anyone with a religious bent on your Christmas Shopping list.] I wasn’t that pushed about paying to see mummified bodies. Anyway, the chap in charge of admission wasn’t the most welcoming of souls, so we left him to guard his secrets.

Strolling through the town, I was quite taken by the graffiti – partial as I am to some wall paintings. Were I ever to go back, I’d take the time to check out the frescoes in the many other churches in the town: St Margaret’s (12th century), Our Lady of Traversa (13th century), St Kirin’s (6th century) or St Fosca’s (8-9th century). But that particular day, I had olives on my mind.

Vodnjan has many tasting rooms that see a steady trade in tourists but that wasn’t quite the experience we were after. We wanted to see the trees, to walk the grove, to hear how the oil gets into the bottle from the people who put it there. So we drove on, stopping when we saw the next billboard pointing to yet another grove – this time San Antonio.

Milenko Marjanovic has been running San Antonio since 2009. He was there himself and talked us through the process. His is a much smaller and newer grove covering 14 hectares with 7,500 young trees. His oils have won all sorts of awards in international competitions in Tokyo, Milan, and New York , awards that he is rightly proud of. I was curious, so I read a review in which his oils are thus described:

…an intense limpid golden yellow colour with slight green hues. Its aroma is elegant and ample, rich in fruity hints of unripe tomato, banana and white apple, together with fragrant hints of basil and field balm. Its taste is rotund and strong, with a vegetal flavour of chicory and fresh broad beans, lettuce and celery. Bitterness and pungency are present and balanced, with evident sweetness. It would be ideal on mayonnaise, chickpea appetizers, sea bream carpaccio, ovoli mushroom salads, marinated trout, broad bean purée, fish cous cous, fried vegetables, steamed fish, soft fresh cheese, oven cookies.

Who knew that olive oil was so complicated?

He’s built a kažun in his yard – a traditional shelter used by olive pickers. He had to do something with the stones he’d cleared from the land. He told us how the walls in the region are protected by UNESCO so he had to jump through all sorts of hoops when he bought the land and decided to plant his trees. The land he bought was originally 650 parcels with some 300 km of stone walls. It’s great to see UNESCO on the ball, protecting our heritage and tradition, but as the tractor has more or less replaced the horse and ox, might there not be a need to widen the paths and roads? One wonders.

Marjanović’s kažun

An original kažun on the road to Rovinj

And again, we tasted the five oils he had on offer. And I bought. But I was starting to get a little queasy. My empty stomach was started to rebel. And while I was delighted to have crossed olive oil tasting in Istria off my bucket list, I wish I’d taken the time to eat a breakfast. Be warned. Don’t go tasting on an empty stomach.



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