CROATIAN OLIVE OIL’S DELICIOUS HISTORY
The tradition of olive growing in Croatia is ancient, and lush olive groves grow from Istria to Konavle, on Brač and Solta—everywhere.
Olive oil: we use it every day, but it has a pretty illustrious history. The goddess Athena was said to have created the olive tree. Homer—that one dude who wrote the Odyssey and the Illiad—dubbed olive oil “liquid gold,” while Hippocrates called it “the great healer.” Spartans and Greece’s first athletes rubbed it all over their bodies. The Roman emperors veni, vidi, vici (came, saw, conquered)—and then planted a plethora of olive trees.
Croatia’s history has been literally steeped in olive oil—an attribute UNESCO recognized when it designated the Mediterranean diet, with its foundation in olive oil, an intangible heritage for Croatia in 2013.
CROATIAN OLIVE OIL PRODUCTION
While other commercial olive oil producers have turned to mechanical harvesting techniques or mix oils from several countries, the greater part of Croatian olive oil producers have retained their roots as small family businesses. This means they produce less, but the majority still hand-pick and press their olives—a well-proven formula for producing olive oil of incredible quality. Overall, Croatian olive oil has a distinct fruity aroma tinged with slight bitterness, with a nice green color.
In places like Krk, olives grow among the natural grass and herd that grow in the region rather than being produced in isolation. This means that many of these olives are constantly evolving with the region.
The Island of Brač, with its some 500,000 olive trees, produces the most olive oil in Croatia. Though olive oil production was already underway by the time Croats showed up on Brač, it wasn’t until the 16th-19th centuries that Brač really became an olive oil powerhouse.
CROATIAN OLIVE OIL IN THE NEWS
Though Croatia has been growing olives for centuries, it has only recently gained recognition as a notable—if small—producer of high-quality extra virgin olive oil. In fact, the 2016 New York International Olive Oil Competition (you know, the NYIOOC), nine Croatian EVOO’s won Silver and Gold awards. Six of these came from Istria, whereas the other NYIOOC winners were produced on the Adriatic islands of Brač, Krk, and southern Dalmatia’s Pelješac peninsula.
Click here to read about Croatia’s recent winnings at the NYIOO.
FUN FACT: Istria’s oldest olive tree, planted in the 4th century, grows in Brijuni National Park
TOP FIVE DOMESTIC VARIETIES OF OLIVES
Oblica, Croatia’s most widely crown variety, was cultivated in Croatia for over 2,000 years and is therefore considered a native variety though it was possibly brought over from the Middle East initially. Approximately 90% of Hvar’s olive trees are of the Oblica variety.
The tree resembles an umbrella with a rounded crown, and its fruit is roundish rather than oblong. When ripening, its color transforms from green, to yellow, to red, and finally black. The oil maintains the smell and taste of the ripe olive fruit, with a pronounce sweetness sitting alongside slight spice and bitter notes.
Lastovka variety olives can be found on Korčula (where it’s the predominate variety), Brač, Šolta, Hvar, and thoroughout central and southern Dalmatia. Much like the Olblica trees, Lastovka trees have a rounded crown resembling an open umbrella sitting atop a low, forked trunk. In fact, its fruitful branches resemble the wings of a bird—a resemblance that gave name to its name as Lastovka is Croatian for “swallow.”
Lastovka olives are ovals with a flat bottom and a rounded tip. As the olives ripen, they turn from green to dark purple before becoming black when fully ripe. The high-quality oil has a pronounced bitterness due to the oil’s high levels of polyphenols.
Levantinka has been cultivated on the island of Šolta since the 19th century, and Šolta remains the only place to produce a single varietal oil. However, Levantinka is grown throughout south and central Dalmatia and continues to gain interest as a crop as it's a self-pollinating crop that has the potential for higher yields.
Levantinka trees have a spherical crown abundant with leaves. Unlike Oblica and Lastova, Levantinka prefers better soil and regular watering, though it can be drought resistant. The Levantinka olive grows into an elongated oval in clusters of 3-5. As it matures, the fruit turns from green to a reddish-purple until it becomes black.
Drobnika is an old, authentically Croatian variety of olive found along the coast as well as on several islands alongside Oblica. You’re most likely to see Drobnica in the region of Zadar, by the Makarska Riviera, Istria, and the islands of Krk and Korčula. On Korčula, Drobnica is considered to be the region’s oldest olive variety.
Drobnica trees grow quit tall and upright, their large trunk topped with sparse foliage. The olives are small and a rounded oval. As they ripen, the light green becomes a wine-red and purple. The oil Drobnica produces is thought of as piquant, with a light bitterness and less pronounced sweetness.
Mastrinka is not widely grown and is considered a native wild olive. It’s mainly used to pollinate domesticated olives. The olives themselves are on the small side.
CROATIA OLIVE OIL ROADS
Never mind the yellow brick road. It’s the olive oil roads you should be following in Croatia.
Throughout Istria’s numerous olive groves lies various “olive oil roads”—all marked with signposts—that can be traveled by any food connoisseur or gourmet wanting to see a great variety of cultivators, the methods of production, and bottles and bottles of liquid gold. Walk through olive groves, check out the cool cellars where the goods are kept, and sample the Istrian olive oil known for its more bitter and spicy notes. If you’re hoping to get an authentic look at Croatia’s olive oil heritage, this is the way to do it!
Back in the day on Brač, when Venetian law ruled, if a young man hoped to be married, he first had to plant 100 olive trees to ensure a future rooted in tradition for his family. You can check out the variety of cuisine that Croatia has to offer on our Dalmation Differences tour.