Falling in Love with Istrian Olive Oil
I have a confession to make. I have a new love. Every morning since I discovered the taste of Istrian olive oil, I grab a small piece of fresh bread and douse it with this liquid gold. And when I say “douse,” I mean douse it like I’m putting out a fire. Sometimes if I don’t have any bread, I will put some in a spoon just to get a little of that peppery olive taste in my mouth.
I haven’t started drinking it…..yet. Some people do as it is supposed to have health benefits if you drink a small cup of it first thing in the morning. The flavor of the oil is very addictive, sort of like the spicy juice from the boiled crawfish in New Orleans where I was born. And it makes your lips extra soft, too.
Apparently I am not alone in my love of olive oil, known as “maslinovo ulje” in Croatian. The golden liquid has been produced for over two thousand years on the Istrian peninsula, and the rise of the both the Greek and Roman civilizations has been attributed to this precious commodity. Why has it taken me 50 years to become so enamored? Perhaps it is the superb quality of the oil here, and the prevalence of the trees around the area which serve as a constant reminder of the oil’s benefits.
Olive Groves R Us
When you ride through the Croatian countryside, one of the first things you notice is the ubiquitous olive groves that line every highway, roadway and path. The silvery sage leaves of the evergreen tree appear in gardens, parks and common areas all over the rocky Istrian Penisula and add a shimmery glow to the scenery of this wonderful part of the country. Istria’s unique climate gives the oil a special, distinctive flavor and the location is one of the northernmost areas of olive cultivation. Most of the growers in Istria handpick their olives on a specific date that they choose for optimal ripeness and cold press them the very same day.
Olive oil production is so prevalent here that at a recent local wine festival we visited, someone was selling handmade wooden signs that said “Maslinovo Ulje,” (Olive Oil) specifically for olive oil producers. I mean, who else would buy a sign that says olive oil? How many producers could there be?
Well, according to the Colours of Istria website, the Flos Olei Guide, which is the international guide to the world’s best extra virgin olive oils, has ranked Istria the best olive producing destination in the world several times over. In fact, 77 of the highest-rated olive oil producers in the guide were located in Croatia, and of that 77, a whopping 75 of them were produced in the Istrian region.
And that’s just the ones that were internationally recognized, there are olive trees and groves in just about everyone’s backyards here. You can’t swing a mačka (cat) here without hitting an olive tree. And there are plenty of mačke (cats) here, too.
The History of Olive Oil
The olive tree, known as the tree of eternity, is thought responsible for the rise of both the Greek and Roman Empires, who both acquired wealth through the trade of olive oil. What’s especially interesting about where we live in Pula is that you can see many of the artifacts from Roman times that were used in early olive oil production.
For example, in the area below the Roman Amphitheater in Pula, there are several ancient milling stones from Istria that were once used for pressing the olives. The area also houses decantation basins and special vessels called amphorae, which were used to store the oil. The Romans didn’t just use the oil for food, they also used it for lamp fuel, medicinal purposes and to anoint their royalty.
And how do I know so much about this oil? Well, my friends Carolyn and James and I made a special trip to the Museum Olei Histriae (Museum of Olive Oil) in June to learn about this Istrian gold and how it is produced. The best part of the visit to the museum was that we got to taste several types of Istrian olive oil and learn about the components that make the oil so nutritious.
Oh, and we got to try this delicious dessert shown below, too. This scrumptious treat was simply cottage cheese with dried figs and walnuts that was drizzled with high quality Istrian olive oil. It was amazingly simple, but delicious.
My husband Mike wasn’t interest in attending the tasting when we went, but he is slowly coming around. He now uses olive oil instead of mayonnaise on all of his sandwiches, and while he doesn’t totally share my passion for the oil, he loves my cooking which always tends to have a little olive oil thrown into it somewhere.
Unfortunately because olive oil has such amazing reputation for its nutritional qualities and health benefits and is very expensive to process, many times the oils we buy in our grocery stores in the U.S. have been adulterated until the beneficial nature of the oil is removed. Companies will add cheaper oils such as soy and canola oil to cut costs. I recently read an article that stated the fraudulent olive oil trade in Italy is a multi-billion dollar business. Carolyn, James and I think we have become fairly good at picking out bad olive oil or what the Romans called lampante or “lamp oil.” But experts caution that even the taste can be deceiving as that can be doctored as well.
So before you start burning all your olive oil in your hurricane lamps, here are some tips for buyers trying to locate quality olive oil: first, look for the words “extra-virgin olive oil”on your label and a very recent date of production on the bottles. It is also recommended that you do some research about the company producing the oil in advance of purchase, and buy darker bottles which protect the oil from the light. I found this oil from the California Olive Ranch Co. that is made in the USA which has good reviews if you are interested in finding a good olive oil in the states californiaoliveranch.com . Let me know how if you like it.
Carolyn and I will be making sure we are getting some genuine olive oil in October as we have already planned to go pick olives at a local company in exchange for some olive oil. I’ll let you know how that goes in another post.