Liquid Sunshine: A Love Affair with Croatian Island Olive Oil

Olive groves Croatia Island

Every time you are approaching the island, even if there is a light breeze in the air, it carries the scent of sun-warmed stone and something else, a richness that speaks of the earth and the sea. It’s the aroma of Croatian Island olive oil, as familiar and comforting as the worn grooves in the stone steps leading down to the beach where I and most of my friends learned to swim. Growing up on Šolta, a sun-drenched island off the coast of Croatia, olive oil wasn’t just a condiment; it was the lifeblood of our community, woven into the fabric of our lives.

Childhood Memories: Growing Up on Croatian Island Olive Oil

My earliest memories are steeped in the golden glow of olive groves. Every summer, my grandfather, Vojko, a weathered man with hands gnarled like ancient olive branches, would take me on expeditions through the family grove. We’d navigate the labyrinthine rows, sunlight dappling through the silvery leaves, the air thick with the heady perfume of ripe olives. Matej would patiently explain the different olive varieties we cultivated – the plump green Levatinka, the peppery Buža – each one yielding a unique oil with its own personality.

Harvest time was as joyous as serious an affair. The whole family would gather under the still fierce summer sun, even though it was now late summer, as we meticulously hand-picked the olives. We’d fill large wicker baskets, the weight of the harvest a testament to the island’s bounty. Then came the pressing – the anticipation was sky high as the olives were crushed into a fragrant paste, the rich oil slowly poured out by the ancient stone mill. The first taste of the new season’s oil, drizzled on warm bread, was a revelation – a burst of sunshine, peppery and grassy, capturing the very essence of Šolta in a single drop.

Culinary Magic: Olive Oil at the Heart of Island Cuisine

Olive oil wasn’t just for dipping bread; it was the cornerstone of our island cuisine. It glistened on shimmering plates of grilled fish, infused robust stews, and added a touch of magic to even the simplest pasta dish. My grandmother, Nonna Danica, a big woman with a heart as big as the Adriatic Sea, was a culinary sorceress, transforming the humble olive oil into culinary masterpieces. Her pašticada, a slow-cooked beef stew bathed in red wine and olive oil, was legendary, the meat meltingly tender and the sauce rich and fragrant. Even today, the smell of pašticada simmering on the stove transports me back to Nonna’s warm kitchen, filled with the aroma of love and olive oil.

Beyond Šolta: The “Black Island’s” Olive Oil Legacy

Šolta isn’t alone in its love affair with the olive. Across the turquoise waters of the Adriatic lies another island, Korčula, nicknamed the “Black Island” for its dense forests. Here, too, olive trees carpet the landscape, their roots digging deep into the ancient soil. Years ago, while sailing between the islands, I met Luka, a passionate olive oil producer from Korčula. He spoke of his family’s centuries-old tradition of olive cultivation, their oil known for its intense fruity notes and a hint of smokiness, a legacy passed down through generations.

A History Steeped in Tradition: Over 2,500 Years of Olive Cultivation

Luka introduced me to the fascinating history of Croatian olive oil. Archaeological evidence suggests olive trees have graced these shores for over 2,500 years, brought by the ancient Greeks. Over the centuries, Romans, Venetians, and Austrians all left their mark on the island’s olive oil production, each culture adding its own unique touch to the tradition.

Today, Croatian island olive oil is experiencing a renaissance. Small, family-run producers are embracing sustainable practices, meticulously hand-harvesting their olives and using traditional methods to extract the oil’s full potential. The result? Award-winning oils, each sip a journey through the history, land, and passion of the islands.

Beyond its culinary delights, olive oil has played a vital role in island life for millennia. It was used as fuel for lamps, a natural moisturizer, and even a form of currency. The byproducts of olive production, such as pomace (crushed olive pits), were used to heat homes and fuel ovens. Olive trees themselves provided shade and shelter, their twisted branches a testament to the island’s resilience.

Šolta’s Olive Treasures: A Tapestry of Varieties

On Šolta, one can fine a different olive tree varieties, each contributing its unique character to the island’s olive oil. The most known and common is the Oblica, famous for its resilience as trees thrive in Šolta’s rocky terrain. Its oil is known for its balanced flavor, offering hints of almond and green apple. Another one is the Levatinka, also called Šoltanka (“lady from Šolta”). This local variety produces a lighter oil with delicate floral notes and a peppery finish. Then there’s the Buža, a robust olive with a peppery kick, perfect for adding depth to stews and grilled meats. These are just a few of the treasures found in Šolta’s groves. Each variety stands as a testament to the island’s rich agricultural heritage and the dedication of its olive oil producers.

Today, passionate producers like ‘Zlatna Šoltanka’, known for their award-winning extra virgin olive oil, and Olynthia, whose family has been cultivating olives for generations, continue to champion these unique varieties. Each bottle of Šolta olive oil is a testament to the island’s rich agricultural heritage and the dedication of its people

A Timeless Tradition: Olive Oil Production Through the Ages

Let’s get into some production basics: the history of olive oil production on Šolta, and throughout Croatia, is a fascinating and years long journey. Traditionally, the process was much more labor-intensive and took much more time than it does today. Olives were hand-picked using combs or rakes, a method still used today for the highest quality oil and mostly by small olive oil producers. Large mortars carved from stone, some of which you might still see on the island, were used to crush the olives into a paste. This paste was then pressed in a mechanical press powered by animals, donkeys or horses, or even by hand. The resulting oil would separate naturally from the water and remaining solids.

While these methods produced exceptional olive oil, they were also time-consuming and limited in quantity. Today, technology has influenced the process. Modern olive mills use machines to extract the oil more efficiently, while still maintaining a focus on quality. Many producers still hand-pick their olives, ensuring only the ripest fruit is used. Additionally, advances in temperature control and storage have significantly improved the shelf life and quality of the final product.

This blend of tradition and innovation is what makes Croatian island olive oil so special. Producers continue to honor the time-tested methods passed down through generations, while embracing advancements that allow them to share their liquid sunshine with the world.

Liquid Sunshine: A Connection to Heritage and Home

As a child, I never fully grasped the significance of olive oil. It was simply a constant, ever-present blessing in my life. Now, as I travel the world, a bottle of Šoltan olive oil in tow, I share my island’s liquid sunshine with newfound appreciation. It’s more than just an oil; it’s a connection to my heritage, a taste of the islands I call home, and a reminder of the enduring spirit of the Croatian people.

So, next time you drizzle Croatian island olive oil on your plate, close your eyes and take a moment to savour the taste. You might just taste the salty breeze, feel the warm sun on your skin, and hear the laughter echoing through the ancient olive groves.