Volim Te, Maslinovo ulje (I love you, Olive Oil)

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An olive grove sits in a valley on the way to the hilltop city of Motovun in the distance. (photo by Michael Gelpi)

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.

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I took this picture of some olives on a recent day trip to Grodžjan, a small hilltop town in Croatia known for its art and music communities. Olives are usually harvested throughout the month of October in Istria.

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?

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Handmade wooden signs boasting olive oil (maslinovo ulje) were sold at a recent wine festival in Istria.

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.

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James and Carolyn get ready to sample a variety of olive oils at the Museum of Olive Oil in Pula. A bitter, peppery taste is actually a sign of a fresh quality olive oil.
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Our teacher at the museum explains what to look for in a quality olive oil. The proximity to the sea, the mild winters and the location of the groves on western slopes give Istrian olive oil its distinctive flavor and high nutritional content, she said.

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.

 

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Buyers Beware

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.

 

A Walk on the Wild (Asparagus) Side

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A few weeks ago Carolyn and I were wandering off in the woods of the Soline Forest again near Pula and ran smack into a little boy of about 6 years-old and his mom.  The boy ran right up to us and proclaimed something excitedly in Croatian and showed us a fist full of a green plant he had collected.

“Do you speak English?” we said to them. “Govorim Hrvastki!” (I speak Croatian!) the little boy said enthusiastically and ran off back in the woods to grab some more of the plant he carried.  His mom laughed with us and said, “A little.” It always surprises me when someone says they speak “a little” English here because they always seem to be able to converse with us pretty well.  They certainly know more English than we know Croatian.

Anyway, what the little boy was running around exuberantly collecting was wild asparagus which grows around the Croatian countryside during early spring. It apparently is a delicacy here and widely sought after like the truffles are in the fall. Croatians have been scouring the countryside for these little spears called “šparoge” for many centuries. They believe the plants have medicinal properties, and of course, with all of the vitamins and antioxidants packed in the asparagus, they have nutritional ones as well.

This little boy and his mom proceeded to show us what to look for in the brush to locate the small spears that were just bursting forth from the established plants. They are a lot thinner than the ones we are used to eating in the U.S. and apparently there are plenty to go around.  The next thing we know, thanks to the young mom and her son, we were spotting them on our own.

I brought one with me to show Mike and James who were waiting for us at a local cafe while we explored.  The waiter saw I had an asparagus in my hand and told us proudly he had just collected a large amount of them in Premantura the previous weekend and told us where to go to find our own.  Much bigger than the one I had found, he said. I love it that the local people are so free with information about their area. Unfortunately, we never were able to go wild asparagus hunting in the woods in Premantura, but the next week I found them in the local market and bought a large bunch for about 25 kunas (~$4 USD).

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The lady above sold them to me and told me the small spears are good in omelettes, with pasta, in salads or just on their own with Istrian olive oil. I made a pasta dish with the delicate shoots and they were really good, a little more pungent than the bigger ones we are used to, but I can definitely see their appeal. And the fact you can just go pick them on a pleasant day in spring for free makes them even more appealing.

Here is the dish I cooked with them for our dinner. It was very good, except that I didn’t do a very good job of taking off the bottom part of the stalk which was a little woody, so there were some left over stems on our plates. Whoops. Next time I’ll know better.

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Living in such a fertile area like the Istrian Peninsula makes it easy to eat by the growing seasons. Having read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life  by Barbara Kingsolver who discusses her family’s experience of a year of eating only locally-sourced food had inspired my book club and I to attempt to do it in New Orleans at one point, but it was a little difficult.  I can see it would be a lot easier to do in a place like Istria where the neighborhoods are surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and fig trees and other fruit trees grow like weeds around every corner.

Our neighbor’s trellis here in Pješčana Uvala hung heavy with a multitude of kiwi last October when we we visited, and I can’t wait till those bad boys are in season here. Right now it’s also strawberry season, so I’ve been scooping them up at the market, too. What can you forage for in the area surrounding your home? Could you live by eating just what is produced in your area by the season?

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Is the Danish really Danish? (And other facts about Nordic Cuisine)

Suppose I told you the raspberry Danish pastry that we know and love in the USA didn’t originate with the Danish.  Blasphemy, you say.

No, it’s true. In Denmark pastries are called Weinerbrød (which translates to “Vienna bread”) after their origins in none other than Austria. In the 1850s bakers went on strike in Denmark, and the country hired some from Austria to fill in for them.  When the strike was over, the Austrians went home, but the recipes remained to be used and improved upon by the Danish.

Variations of these delectable pastries were everywhere on our recent stay in Copenhagen, and I found quite a slew of them in the bakery near our Airbnb rental.    Carolyn and I made quite a few bakery runs in the morning while we were staying outside of the city center.  I think we both enjoyed the brisk morning air watching the residents zoom by us on bicycles as much as we did the bakery itself.

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The Danish Hindbaersnitter is a delectable treat found at many bakeries in Copenhagen.

One look at the hindbærsnitter above and my brain started thinking about Pop-tarts.  But truth be told, the taste of the hindbærsnitter is so much better that it’s probably not fair to compare the Pop-tart to one.  These pastries literally fall apart in your mouth with their buttery goodness and then if you’re not careful, they’ll fall apart in your hands. The trick is to eat them fast. At least that’s what I did.  But in Copenhagen they are more of a special treat for children’s birthdays and not an everyday breakfast food.  Made from two thin buttery cookie-like pastries with raspberry jam in the middle, they are topped with a sugary glaze and decorated with the non-pareils. Very sweet and delectable!

Not so with the next item. It’s called rugbrød and forms the base of the open-faced sandwiches called “smørrebrød” that are a popular meal for many in Denmark. The bread is very dense and chewy, and the one below was served before our dinner and was quite good.  It was so rich that I was afraid to eat a whole piece before my dinner came.

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This dense bread forms the bottom of the open faced sandwiches called Smørrebrød popular in Denmark.

I was glad I refrained from eating the whole piece when I saw my dinner.  A pile of tiny shrimp, some raw tuna, pan fried fish with several different relishes, some tomatoes and some sour cream topped with fresh dill and I was in heaven. The yellow relish in the little dish was my favorite. The Danish call it “remoulade,” but it is very similar to our tartar sauce only it is sweeter, has larger chunks of sweet pickles and pickled onions in it, and has curry and yellow mustard for flavor and color.

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My first meal in Denmark was truly a treat.

One rainy evening we visited Torvehallerne, which is a food market in the center of Copenhagen. It has two glass enclosed sections with about 60 stalls between the two, which was perfect with the rain. We tried a real smørrebrød from Hallernes in this market and it was incredible.

IMG_0164The lady who waited on us said we were lucky we came late (around 4:30 p.m.) because the line had wrapped all around the place earlier. I believe it. The food not only looked beautiful, but it was pretty delicious.

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A wide variety of smørrebrød was available at Hallerne’s Smørrebrød.

While I was enjoying my smørrebrød, I noticed this bottle of Linie Aquavit from Norway sitting on the counter. IMG_0159I had to do some research when I saw the label saying it “matured at sea,” especially for my husband, Captain Mike, who would also love to mature at sea, although not in an oak sherry cask. Apparently aquavit is a Scandinavian liquor that has the taste of caraway seeds and fennel with notes of dill and anise. The Danish like to drink it with fish, and I didn’t realize until I got back to Croatia and actually researched it that I had had some aquavit in on a day trip to Helsingør that came free with the pickled herring I ordered. It was delicious together, and I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the pickled herring as much without it. So order some if you try pickled herring. You will thank me later.  Anyway, the Linie Aquavit travels all over rolling around on the sea in the barrels which gives it a really smooth finish.  I wish I would have tried it with the Salmon smørrebrød I ate at the market, although really good, I think it would have been even better.  You can see the small flute of it in the second picture below.  The first one is my plate of pickled herring, served with beets, mustard and pork fat (!!). The herring is hiding under the pile of fresh dill.

The Torvehallerne market itself is a must-see if you visit Copenhagen.  I’m told it is very busy throughout the year, but it’s worth hustling through a crowd to see all it has to offer. It also had some seating and produce booths outside the glass enclosure, which probably would be a nice place to hang out if the weather is good. Here are just a few pictures I took by the seafood section:

 

 

My next posts won’t be so food-oriented, but will be on a few of the places we visited in and around Copenhagen, including my husband’s favorite, The Viking Museum in Roskilde.  Hope you will wander along with us for the next leg of the journey.