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.

 

It’s Raining Figs, Halleluja!

The other day I noticed there were ants crawling all over the sandals in my room.  I went to go smack these annoying little creatures with that very same set of sandals when I saw a sticky, gooey, dark brown blob with tiny seeds smashed all over on the bottom of them.  Think Fig Newtons and remove the little cake coating, and that’s what was on the bottom of my shoes. Have I mentioned it’s fig season here in Croatia?

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Yes, everywhere you go around the city there are reminders and remainders of figs, or smokva as they are called here in Croatia. On the sides of the roads, you see people with baskets picking them. In the market in town, little old ladies are selling them fresh or dried, in preserves or in jellies. Mike and I were sitting at a beachside cafe when a lady came up to us selling cartons of them. Our friends in the tiny town of Kringa were given a huge case of them from a local restaurant owner who was up to his eyeballs in figs.

There are so many trees with figs in my neighborhood that they are literally dropping all over the sidewalks where they sit until they are smashed underfoot by unsuspecting tourists. (Oh, by the way, it is also tourist season.)

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While August is peak fig season in Croatia, it is also peak tourist season (photo by Michael Gelpi).

Every few days our landlord drops off a little bowl of these beautiful little green fruits with the pinkish white interiors. They are different from the ones I am used to from New Orleans, but just as delicious. To date, I have cooked fig jam, had them in salads, eaten them raw and am working on concocting a fig cobbler. Sweet!

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

I have to admit that I had felt a little guilty in the beginning of June when I saw two figs on a branch overhanging a fence and I took them.  Carolyn and I had been on our way back from a grocery trip to Plodine when we saw the two plump figs just waiting to be picked, and I just popped those babies right into my rolling shopping bag while Carolyn looked around to make sure no one was watching us. Seeing all the fig trees as we walked along the roadway back home had made me dream of the day when figs would be available to buy at the market in town.

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

Looking back, it seems a little ridiculous to worry about as there are so many fig trees Nabisco would be able to stock Fig Newtons in stores for a year with all the figs I’ve seen smashed on the sidewalks and roadways. Well, maybe that is an exaggeration.  But really, be careful what you wish for.