A day in an Istrian olive grove
This essay was originally published in New Eastern Europe magazine. Here published upon the kind permission of the author and NEE.
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Olive oil is a symbol of Mediterranean culture and antiquity, so special that the ancient Romans poured this drink of gods into painted amphorae. It is no coincidence that, for centuries, olive oil has been used as chrism for anointing during worship. It always seemed to me that those who produce olive oil with their own hands belong to some higher, secret culture.
Even in the ancient world, olive oil from Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula had a remarkable reputation and was served to Roman emperors. After the Second World War, when the region became a part of the socialist Yugoslavia, this sector fell into decay. Nonetheless, interest in the cultivation of olives has experienced a true renaissance since the early 2000s, and the area of olive groves in Istria has increased tenfold. It is the revival of tradition that is essential for the local identity, part of its cultural code. Moreover, this is also about the development of green tourism, focusing on environmentally friendly products as well as the business strategy of the new generation of entrepreneurs. To understand how high quality olive oil is produced, I decide to work on an olive grove for one day.
The joy of physical labour
Around seven o’clock, before daybreak, I depart from the city of Pazin, located in the centre of the Istrian Peninsula, towards the sea. It should have taken about half an hour to get to Vodnjan, a town located near the Adriatic coast, but I got delayed by traffic. It is the beginning of October and Istria wakes up early for work – after all, it is the high season for harvesting and selling crops. At the gas station near Vodnjan, a young man with a bright t-shirt waits for me. His name is Tedi Chiavalon, the director of a small but world-famous company that produces organic olive oil.
After engaging in some small talk, we make our way to the olive grove. The sun is rising so we cannot waste any time. There are twelve of us – just like the disciples of Jesus – and soon we get down to work. This comparison is important to me because since childhood I have associated olive trees with the sorrow of Jesus in the Gethsemane Garden. And olive oil is a symbol of Mediterranean culture and antiquity, so special that the ancient Romans poured this drink of gods into painted amphorae. It is no coincidence that, for centuries, olive oil has been used as chrism
for anointing during worship. It always seemed to me that people who produce olive oil with their own hands belong to some higher, secret culture. Perhaps this stereotype stems from my roots. There are no olive trees in Ukraine and therefore everything associated with them seems exotic. For my colleagues, however, today’s harvesting is no different than the harvesting of plums or apples. It is a job that enables them to earn some money. No secrets or piety involved.
My Croatian colleagues are mostly of middle or elder age; they live in Vodnjan and the surrounding villages. They do not have steady jobs, so in the summer they work close to the sea serving tourists, and in the autumn they work in the fields harvesting the crops. We are a group of nine men and three women, which is more than enough to harvest a large olive grove in one day. They will have enough work for one and a half months since the first olives in Istria are gathered in early October; the last, right before the winter. I do not tell my colleagues that I write books and articles – instead I let them think I just came here to work.
“Oh, I get it,” says Davor, a grey-haired elderly man who never takes a cigarette out of his mouth, even when he speaks. “There’s a war in Ukraine, so you’ve got no money. We are well aware of that. The war destroyed everything in our country, and we still cannot get back to the same level of living that we had before. You’ve heard about the war after the collapse of Yugoslavia, right? Those were terrible times, so I get you. I wonder why so few Ukrainians come here – there is a lot of work. After joining the EU, nearly half the population left Croatia, especially the youngsters. What have they left to do here? Everyone wants to go to Germany. The prices are as high here as in the West, but the wages are a joke. That may be enough perhaps for Ukrainians because you have war and inflation. I would also have left, but it’s too late for me. I like it here, I am used to it. But I told my children to go and never look back!”
Davor’s emotional monologue ends on this note and I do not have enough time to respond because we have to part ways – the work between the trees is humming already. We begin by stretching a long net under the trees, a dozen meters of thick cloth with small holes. They are so small that the cloth looks more like a curtain than a fishing net. It is greasy to touch, like hand cream, because of the olives that fall there. When the net is spread open, small tractors ride between the trees. This somewhat contradicts my vision of harvesting the olive trees. Much has changed since the Roman times.
Tractors and the European Union
The process of harvesting the olives is significantly automated. First, a small tractor equipped with long forceps, which have a rubber surface, comes between the trees. It grabs the base of the trunk and begins to shake the tree vigorously for a minute. As a result, approximately 40 per cent of the ripest olives fall down. Then another tractor with plastic rakes connected by hoses on a long handle approaches the tree. These rakes intensely vibrate and the worker combs the olives out of the branches. This stage of the process is the most difficult. The vibration is so strong that not only the muscles in my hands but the muscles in my torso and neck start to hurt. The rakes can be compared to a punching hammer, which knocks coal in mines. But the result is also impressive – as much as half of the olives fall down.
The remaining olives near the tree trunk or on the upper branches are picked by hand with a wide wooden comb. There are no olives left on the tree after the three stages and all of them have fallen onto the net. When the olives from all the trees in the row are gathered, a third tractor arrives. This one reels the net onto a large spindle and simultaneously sucks the olives into a large hose, which looks like a giant vacuum cleaner. In the hose, the olives are separated from the waste and leaves and are then poured into plastic containers, each containing 500 kilograms of olives. These containers are collected by a truck which takes them to the production facility, where the olives will be washed and put in a press for oil squeezing. All the equipment – the containers, tractors and trucks – is marked with blue stickers of the flag of the European Union. Its procurement was funded by the European Agricultural Fund.
“If not for this help from the EU, we would’ve been gathering the olives by hand, just like in the Middle Ages. The fact is that this business really becomes a business only at a certain level – when you can harvest the olives from at least a thousand trees. If the volumes are smaller, then you will not be able to earn money to pay taxes, salaries and maintenance throughout the whole year. Not to mention that there is also a need to invest a certain amount into the purchase and maintenance of technology,” says Tedi. “We started out in 1997 but it was more of a hobby than a job. We developed very slowly. In fact, our olive oil was enough only for our families and for tasting during the tourist season, when tourists were interested in purchasing local products. After Croatia joined the EU we received an opportunity to compete for development grants and our business moved to a new level. We bought machinery, planted olives and hired staff. The European market has opened for Croatian production and now you can buy our olive oil in 20 countries. By the way, only a third of our products is sold on the Croatian market, the rest is sold across the world. Since 2013, that is in five years, our firm has grown five times and this would have been impossible without support from the EU.”
Starting from seven in the morning until lunch, our team of 12 gathered 800 kilograms of olives. For each hour, an employee gets 25 Croatian Kuns (around three euros), so a ten-hour working day brings 30 euros and a warm meal. But this is Istria, so the meal is extraordinary. You can choose between delicious lasagna and tuna pasta, coffee, juices, water and biscuits. The meal was so tasty that I wondered whether it was prepared by a famous chef. But it is plausible that a strong sense of hunger arises from the exhausting physical labour. For someone like me, accustomed to working at home with a computer, it was such a wonderful feeling to get tired from working with my hands in the fresh air and then sit down on the grass to have a delicious meal.
Customers often complain that organic olive oil is quite expensive. For example, a small half-litre bottle from Tedi’s farm costs almost 20 euros. In fact, this price is reasonable because the manufacturer bears substantial costs. First, he pays a tax for the land where the olive trees grow. Second, the business must operate year-round, not only during the harvesting season: he has to pay salaries and taxes and to rent a warehouse and industrial site. He also has to pay and feed the seasonal workers. The three tractors that operate at Tedi’s company consume 90 litres of fuel per day, which is also a lot of money considering that only 800 kilos of olives are collected. Moreover, olive trees need to be trimmed in the springtime, a task that requires several dozen people. Trimming is a true art, since it is necessary to form a branch so that the olives have plenty of air and sun. Workers must till the soil under the trees, add some natural fertilizers and keep the grass trimmed. There are also pests to fight, and Tedi demands this be done without chemicals. To protect against the main threat of the olive trees – the olive fly – he scatters baskets with cut fruits between the trees to attract pests and lure them into a trap. So much effort, so much work for the whole year, in order to produce a kilogram of olive oil (yes, it is measured in kilograms, not litres) from ten kilograms of olives!
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My nationality is Istrian!
After lunch, a truck with harvested olives arrives in a spacious facility where there is an unexpectedly large bed between the tanks, barrels and presses. “You see, during the season, the processing of olives lasts around the clock, and we want to minimise the time between the gathering of olives and getting them into the press for squeezing so the olive oil will be rich in antioxidants. That’s why someone needs to be here all night. It is hard work, sometimes you want to rest for at least half an hour,” Tedi explains to me.
In the workshop, the method of processing the olives is outstandingly simple and has changed little in the last few centuries. First, olives are thoroughly washed with clean cold water and then immediately put into the mill. They are peeled together with the pits because they contain many valuable nutrients. Then they are ground together with the kernel. The extracted olive “porridge” is stirred for 15 minutes and sent to a decanter, which looks like a huge centrifuge. Due to the extraordinary speed of rotation at this stage, oil is separated from the water and a thick residue of porridge. But the olive oil is not ready yet: it has to be kept in barrels for several hours and to pass through a special filter. Only then do we get extra virgin olive oil. During the entire process, no synthetic chemicals or thermal treatments are used. It is done as naturally as possible.
Sandy, Tedi’s older brother, an agriculturist who established the family business more than two decades ago, approaches us. Technically speaking, he is responsible for the olives and the production, while Tedi looks after the administration, promotion and sales.
“I know olive oil since my childhood. Here, in Istria, everything is prepared with olive oil, a family uses 60 – 80 litres of extra virgin per year, and a lot of people start their day with drinking a little glass of oil; it is good for the health. Olives were my first job because my grandfather took me with him to harvest the olives and then gave me some money for helping. In 1997 when my father died, I decided to do something in his memory that will remain after us. So I planted our first grove – 100 olive trees. After all, olive trees can grow for a thousand years! As a matter of fact, the olive tree of Istria is as sacred as the cow in India. I enjoyed the process of growing olives and squeezing oil because I always liked to work with the earth and do something with my own hands. At the beginning of the 2000s there was a local programme to support the development of new olive plantations in Istria – one-third of each stem was paid for by the regional authorities, a third by the city and the farmer paid for the other third. Thanks to this programme, we managed to plant many seedlings. And now we have 7,500 trees as well as groves for 5,000 trees that we rent from the locals.”
Chiavalon is not the only company in Istria that produces olive oil. After the boom in the early 2000s, every third family on the peninsula began producing olive oil for their own use, and posters and billboards advertising olive oil could be found even in small villages. Tedi’s company is not the largest in the region. But the Chiavalon olive oil is the best, not only on the peninsula but in Croatia, and has received awards from all over the world. This includes the Olive Oil Prize in Zurich, Olive Japan Award and the Los Angeles Olive Oil Award. In competition with several thousand olive oil samples from all over the world in 2008, the prestigious international guide Flos Olei ranked Tedi’s olive oil among the top 15 in the world. In 2016, the World’s Best Olive Oils included Chiavalon among the top 25 organic olive oil producers in the world. However, production of olive oil in Istria is not just a business: it is also a part of the cultural identity.
“Olive oil from Istria was praised by Strabo and Pliny the Elder,” Tedi proudly tells me. “It is an honour to preserve and continue the tradition. Istria was a part of the Roman Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Italy, socialist Yugoslavia, and now Croatia; people here are accustomed to the fact that borders and states are changing, but the local customs and culture remain. I speak Istrian, and though some may say that it is a combination of Italian, Croatian, German and Slovenian, for me it is an entirely separate language. My children speak this language and only learnt Croatian at school. My family have lived in Vodnjan for 600 years and what I am telling you is not separatism, but simple pride for this unique region. When we receive gold medals in world olive oil competitions, I am pleased that the world hears about Istria, about our ancient culture, about the phenomenon of this small but unique peninsula. That is why I believe that by nationality I am first an Istrian and only then a Croatian.”
My working shift is over. I experienced the whole cycle: from picking olives to squeezing the fresh oil. It is greenish and smells like an autumn morning in an olive grove. The oil from the supermarket never smells like this. I say farewell to Tedi as I get into my car. I immediately feel how tired my body is and how each muscle hurts. After working with olives, my hands are greasy and soft. I want to wash this day off. So I drive a few kilometres in the direction of the sea. All the tourists have gone already, but the water is still warm. It is Istria, so you can swim even in October. I do not want to get out of the water, the air is colder. In the evening, the exhaustion takes its toll: I fall asleep, barely touching the pillow. And I dream of combing the ripe olives off the tree…
Translated by Margaryta Khvostova
Source: New Eastern Europe