Europe

Some of the Best Olive Oils are Made in Croatia

This Mediterranean country bordering the Adriatic Sea has been growing olives for centuries but has only recently been gaining recognition as a small but significant producer of high-quality extra virgin olive oil.

Branko Jud with his nephew
Jun. 1, 2016
By Isabel Putinja
Branko Jud with his nephew

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Croatia is rarely included on the list of olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries, most likely because it is still a rel­a­tively small pro­ducer com­pared to its European coun­ter­parts. This Mediterranean coun­try bor­der­ing the Adriatic Sea has been grow­ing olives for cen­turies but has only recently been gain­ing recog­ni­tion as a small but sig­nif­i­cant pro­ducer of high-qual­ity extra virgin olive oil.

At the 2016 edi­tion of the New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC), nine extra virgin olive oils from Croatia won Gold and Silver Awards. Six out of the nine Croatian award win­ners are pro­duc­ers from the penin­su­lar region of Istria, while the others hail from the Adriatic islands of Krk and Brač, and the Pelješac penin­sula in south­ern Dalmatia.

Croatia is going to be the next big thing. I’m happy our family is part of this his­tor­i­cal move­ment.- Ivan Miloš

To keep up with increas­ing inter­na­tional demand, com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers in larger olive oil pro­duc­ing coun­tries have moved to mechan­i­cal har­vest­ing meth­ods, and many mix oils pro­cured from other coun­tries and label their oil as being home-made. In con­trast, the major­ity of Croatian olive oil pro­duc­ers are small family busi­nesses grow­ing their own olives and pro­duc­ing lim­ited quan­ti­ties of extra virgin olive oil. Most hand-pick their olives, press­ing them the same day to ensure high qual­ity, and some follow organic pro­duc­tion meth­ods. These small family pro­duc­ers cannot com­pete on the European and inter­na­tional mar­kets in terms of quan­tity, but they cer­tainly can make EVOOs of out­stand­ing qual­ity.

Croatian olive oil is entirely pro­duced locally with all stages of pro­duc­tion taking place in the region where the olives are grown; from plant­ing, pick­ing, press­ing, and pro­cess­ing, to bot­tling and pack­ag­ing. Extra virgin olive oil from the Croatian island of Cres already enjoys Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status at the EU level since 2015, while appli­ca­tions are pend­ing for other olive oils from the regions of Istria and the islands of Krk, Korčula and Šolta, and they are expected to be approved later this year.

Among the win­ners at NYIOOC 2016 is Plominka, a rare mono­va­ri­etal olive oil by Utla, pro­duced on the island of Krk in the North Adriatic Sea.

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Plominka is an indige­nous olive vari­ety dating back to Roman times. Branko Jud, the pro­ducer of Plominka by Utla, told Olive Oil Times that this unique olive oil has already won many national awards, but this is the first time it has been given an inter­na­tional stamp of approval.

“Each award makes us very proud and is a con­fir­ma­tion we are doing good work,” Jud said. “The NYIOOC was our first inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and this award means a lot to us since our olive oil is a mono­va­ri­etal olive oil from a vari­ety called Plominka which grows only in a small geo­graph­i­cal region: on the islands of Krk and Cres, and a small part of Istria. Not only is this vari­ety unique, it is also rare.”

“As far as we know, this is the first time a mono­va­ri­etal olive oil of the vari­ety Plominka has par­tic­i­pated in an inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. The award is a con­fir­ma­tion of its qual­ity and proof that it can stand along­side other vari­eties which have proven their qual­ity.”

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Branko Jud with his nephew

What is it that makes this vari­ety unique? Plominka has an inter­est­ing his­tory and is an exam­ple of how ter­roir shapes an oil’s unique char­ac­ter. “It was once an impor­tant part of Oleum Liburnicum, an olive oil highly appre­ci­ated by the Romans,” Jud fur­ther explained. “What makes it unique are the Mediterranean herbs grow­ing among the olive trees. On the island of Krk there are no big plan­ta­tions, and our olives live in har­mony with the grass and herbs which tra­di­tion­ally grow in the region.”

For Jud, olive oil is part of a family tra­di­tion that has been con­tin­u­ing for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions. “We are a family-run olive oil pro­duc­tion oper­a­tion, and we are now in the fourth gen­er­a­tion. The first grove was bought in the early 1900s while the second grove, where most of our trees are, was planted in the early 1950s. We are still plant­ing new olive trees so our groves are always chang­ing and grow­ing.”

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The Plominka olive

Nestled in the rolling hills of cen­tral Istria, is Zlatni Brig (Golden Hill), located 500 metres above sea level. The fer­tile soil of this hill is home to another NYIOOC Gold winner: Grimalda by Uljara Zlatni Brig (Golden Hill Oil Mill), also known by its French appel­la­tion, Moulin de la Colline Dorée. It is here that olive pro­ducer and mill owner Milan Matković planted 3,500 olive trees of the vari­eties Pendolino, Leccino, Bianchera, and the indige­nous Buža in 2009 after return­ing to his native soil from France. Matković’s olives are organ­i­cally grown, picked by hand, and processed in his on-site oil mill.

“Our oil is cer­ti­fied 100% organic — we don’t use chem­i­cal prod­ucts,” Matković told Olive Oil Times. “We use com­post and organic cow manure. We also have organic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for our oil mill. In order to press organic olive oil, we have to follow a spe­cial pro­ce­dure because organic olives have to be pressed sep­a­rately and can’t be mixed with others. So we have to clean the entire machin­ery, includ­ing all the pipes. This is a process that takes five hours. And then we press the organic olives very early in the morn­ing.”

Having already won many awards in Croatia and France, this was the first time Grimalda was being judged at the NYIOOC. “We’re very happy to win a gold medal in New York,” affirmd Matković. “Our oil is excep­tional, but I’m not sure why… maybe it’s the soil? Also, I pick my olives later than my neigh­bors. They pick theirs in October but this past year I waited until November. Of course, it depends on the region too, and we’re at an ele­va­tion here on Zlatni Brig. But I’m very happy with the result. An award like the one we won in New York is not to prove that our oil is the best — it’s recog­ni­tion of an excep­tional prod­uct. The prize is also impor­tant to us because it brings recog­ni­tion not only to our oil but also to Istria as a whole, and puts it on the map as an olive oil region. Until now Istrian olive oils were not known.”

Just a few kilo­me­ters south of Zlatni Brig, cov­er­ing an area of 2.4 hectares, lie the olive groves of Terra Rossa, another Istrian olive oil pro­ducer who won Gold and Silver Awards at NYIOOC in 2015 and 2016 respec­tively. Family-owned and run, three gen­er­a­tions of the Bellani family pro­duce 100% organic olive oil from sev­eral olive vari­eties includ­ing Leccino, Frantoio, Pendolino, Istarska Buža, and Istarska Bjelica.

Based in Zürich, Daniel Bellani con­tin­ues his father Stelio’s and grand­fa­ther Francesco’s family busi­ness and pas­sion for olive oil, and is a cer­ti­fied olive oil sen­sory expert and a member of the Swiss Olive Oil Panel. “My great-grand­fa­ther had started cul­ti­vat­ing olives, while my grand­fa­ther planted vine­yards during the time of Yugoslavia,” explains Bellani. “It was my father who revived the tra­di­tion of olive grow­ing about 20 years ago. Since then we have grown steadily, but have been com­mit­ted from the begin­ning to organic cul­ti­va­tion. Today, three gen­er­a­tions of our family work together, includ­ing my 94-year-old grand­fa­ther, who’s the oldest olive oil pro­ducer in Istria – and maybe in the whole of Croatia, and he still climbs trees to har­vest the olives by hand.”

While small family-run and owned olive groves cannot com­pete com­mer­cially with large scale olive oil pro­duc­ers, inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions put them on an even play­ing field when it comes to judg­ing the qual­ity of their prod­ucts. Bellani shares why NYIOOC is so impor­tant for small pro­duc­ers and the ben­e­fits they can bring: “We won our first award at NYIOOC last year — a Gold Award and with that, recog­ni­tion as one of the world’s best olive oils in 2015. This is an acclaimed award, and NYIOOC is a global bench­mark for high-qual­ity olive oil, so this gives us very strong sup­port and poten­tial new cus­tomers. Given that we are a small family busi­ness with a lim­ited annual pro­duc­tion, this has given us direct con­tact with high-class restau­rants and star chefs who appre­ci­ate the qual­ity of our olive oil and use it for their prod­ucts. Because of this, we have cus­tomers from Sweden to South Korea.”

Further south along Croatia’s Adriatic coast in the region of south­ern Dalmatia is the Pelješac penin­sula and its cen­turies-old olive groves. This is where the Miloš family has lived and pro­duced olive oil from the native Oblica and Pastrica vari­eties for almost five hun­dred years. Their extra virgin olive oil won Gold Awards at NYIOOC for two con­sec­u­tive years, in 2013 and 2014, and picked up a Silver at this year’s edi­tion.

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Ivan Miloš

Ivan Miloš is pleased that recog­ni­tion for their olive oil has been con­sis­tent. “For us it’s impor­tant to be con­stant, and this year’s award shows we are on the right path,” he told Olive Oil Times. “We, both as wine pro­duc­ers and olive oil pro­duc­ers, don’t chase awards, we are just trying to do our best.” For the Miloš family, qual­ity is of utmost impor­tance, and only the best of each year’s har­vest goes into making their olive oil. “We use just the best parts and only per­fectly healthy olives,” he explained. “There are no com­pro­mises: if we are not happy with the qual­ity of the olives, we don’t use them in our selec­tion. Sometimes only a per­cent­age of the poten­tial yield can be used for our oil brand and we leave every­thing else to our part­ners. We wanted to make some­thing which will best rep­re­sent our region.”

For Miloš, the numer­ous awards that high-qual­ity Croatian olive oils have picked up in recent years at NYIOOC have helped put Croatia on the olive oil map and make its mark as one of Europe’s pre­mier olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries: “If you have the best prod­uct in the world and nobody knows about it, you can’t go for­ward, so get­ting an award at NYIOOC helps us to reach an audi­ence and show­case the mag­nif­i­cent things we do here in Croatia. This is an old European coun­try with a long tra­di­tion of olive oil pro­duc­tion and with lots of indige­nous vari­eties. Same thing with Croatian wines and food. So people from all over the world are slowly dis­cov­er­ing our story and Croatia is going to be the next big thing. I’m happy our family is part of this his­tor­i­cal move­ment.”