Business

Oliva Lucia: A Tale of Love, Loss and Leccino in Istria

Behind Oliva Lucia is a story of resilience: how one woman overcame the challenges of life and nature to become the producer of an award-winning olive oil.

Award-winning olive oil producer, Mili Kus (Photo: Isabel Putinja)
Jul. 18, 2017
By Isabel Putinja
Award-winning olive oil producer, Mili Kus (Photo: Isabel Putinja)

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When I inter­viewed some of the Croatian olive pro­duc­ers who won awards at the 2017 New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC), one of them stood out because she was nei­ther a large, estab­lished pro­ducer nor a family that’s been in the busi­ness for gen­er­a­tions, but a for­eigner and a woman whose only family is her young grove of 1,500 olive trees.

It’s hard to figure out why some trees grow better than others. It’s a process of trial and error. I trust my obser­va­tions.- Mili Kus

While speak­ing to Mili Kus on the phone, the pas­sion and enthu­si­asm she has for her trees and the high-qual­ity oil she pro­duces were com­mu­ni­cated through her warm, friendly voice. Every grove and pro­ducer have a story.

I went to visit Mili’s olive plan­ta­tion in north­ern Istria to learn more about the woman and grove behind Oliva Lucia, an organic medium blend that won a Silver Award at NYIOOC 2017.

Mili’s olive farm is sit­u­ated in the north­ern part of the Istrian penin­sula, a region of rolling hills that’s often described as Croatia’s Tuscany — not only because of its stun­ning nat­ural land­scape but also its many gas­tro­nomic delights: high-qual­ity wine and olive oil are pro­duced here, and highly-prized black and white truf­fles grow in the fer­tile soil. Italian is even a second lan­guage as Istria was part of Italy between the World Wars. This is why the sign point­ing the way to Kukov Vrh also indi­cates its Italian name: Monte Cucco.

Covering an area of six hectares, Mili’s grove is located at the base of this tiny vil­lage with the scenic hill­top town of Buje vis­i­ble towards the east. The Adriatic Sea is just nine kilo­me­ters away in the oppo­site direc­tion, while the Slovenian border is less than 10 kilo­me­ters to the north.

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Born in Toronto, Mili is a Canadian of Slovenian origin who used to work as a stock­bro­ker before life took an unex­pected turn and even­tu­ally took her to Croatia where she’s now a full-time olive oil pro­ducer.

Tragically, only 18 months after her wed­ding she sud­denly lost her hus­band to a quick and fatal ill­ness. In 1992 she decided to leave Canada and start a new life in Slovenia, the coun­try of her par­ents’ birth. Here she worked in invest­ment man­age­ment for many years but while on a fate­ful hol­i­day on the Croatian island of Iž, she met Slavko, a wid­ower with two young chil­dren who would become her second hus­band.

Mili had no expe­ri­ence in olive pro­duc­tion before she mar­ried Slavko, but it quickly became her pas­sion.

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“When I bought this land in 2005, it was cov­ered in forest, meadow and marsh,” she told me as we walked through her groves. “I saw the olive farm as a retire­ment project for my second hus­band who grew up with olive trees on the Dalmatian island of Iž. I respect the olive. It has its own intel­li­gence. The olive tree is able to sur­vive hun­dreds and even thou­sands of years with­out the aid of humans.”

It was from Slavko that she learned the basics of olive farm­ing. The couple painstak­ingly carved the grove out of virgin forest and pas­ture land filled with large rocks and planted the first olive sam­plings them­selves 11 years ago.

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Mili Kus’ farm near Kukov Vrh (Phtoto: Isabel Putinja for Olive Oil Times)

“The first year the deer ate every­thing,” she recounted of the early days, “we also got wild boar dig­ging up the nat­ural fer­til­iz­ers and had to fence the land to keep them out. The grove is made up of three dif­fer­ent types of soil and we quickly learned that it also has three dif­fer­ent micro-cli­mates.”

Mili faced another tragic loss when Slavko lost his life to cancer three years ago and she found her­self alone with the 1,500 trees they had planted and nur­tured together. She con­tin­ues the labor of love they started on her own, tend­ing to the groves her­self with help from only one worker and a few locals who give her a hand during the har­vest season. In the summer she’s in her groves just after sun­rise at 5:30 am and works steadily until 9 am when the heat of the day sets in.

Without her hus­band’s knowl­edge as a guide, she lets her obser­va­tions and expe­ri­ences be her teacher.

“It’s hard to figure out why some trees grow better than others,” she con­ceded. “It’s a process of trial and error. I trust my obser­va­tions. I’ve dis­cov­ered that aggres­sive prun­ing works and so does till­ing the earth reg­u­larly. Through the years I have real­ized that my trees grow best on the east­ern slope of the grove: the first rays of light seem to be espe­cially ben­e­fi­cial for the trees.”
See more: This Year’s Best Olive Oils from Croatia
“But the biggest prob­lem I have is water,” she revealed, ges­tur­ing towards the lower reaches of the grove. She wasn’t refer­ring to drought con­di­tions or the chal­lenges of irri­ga­tion but to the prob­lem of water­log­ging in some areas of the grove: “The lower regions are gen­er­ally much wetter in the spring and autumn sea­sons,” she explained. “To manage this we have built one kilo­me­ter of under­ground and open drainage canals to funnel rain­wa­ter into a pond as well as a con­crete reser­voir with a 100,000-liter capac­ity.”

The many mas­sive rocks that were uncov­ered after dig­ging up the land were put to good use this way by cre­at­ing the chan­nels for the drainage canals. They were also recy­cled into pul­ver­ized dust and mixed into the soil to enrich it with cal­cium and min­er­als. “This rocky land is truly sur­pris­ing,” Mili said, point­ing to a par­tic­u­larly large and pecu­liarly shaped boul­der that she kept as a keep­sake. “My hus­band loved stone. We dug up so many large rocks and for a long time, they were just lying around. I decided to put them to good use by reusing them in these dif­fer­ent ways.”

Just over half of the trees grow­ing on the farm are of the Leccino vari­ety, while the others are made up of Frantoio, Moraiolo, Pendolino and Bianchera. In 2009, three years after plant­ing, the grove yielded its first har­vest and from then on it has been an accu­mu­la­tion of impor­tant mile­stones.

The farm received organic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in 2014, and last year Mili expe­ri­enced an excep­tional har­vest, increas­ing her yield three-fold. This good for­tune was fol­lowed by the silver award at NYIOOC 2017, a prize that came after already win­ning gold, silver and bronze medals on the national level for Oliva Lucia, a medium extra virgin blend with delight­fully fruity notes. The name under which the oil is mar­keted is a touch­ing homage to Slavko’s teenage daugh­ter who had died in a car acci­dent.

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The story of this olive grove tucked into a pic­turesque corner of the lush Istrian penin­sula is one of love, loss and grief, and trial and error. But love clearly pre­vails, with the trees’ boun­ti­ful fruit and high-qual­ity oil as proof. “I didn’t real­ize at first how much work it is and I didn’t really know what I was get­ting into,” Mili said of her ini­tial expe­ri­ences as a new olive grower. “It really is a lot of hard work. But I feel like I’m head­ing in the right direc­tion.”

Oliva Lucia’s brand new web­site is now online, Mili is cur­rently talk­ing with a dis­trib­u­tor, and is final­iz­ing plans to build an on-site tast­ing room where she can wel­come lovers of good olive oil.

Despite the many chal­lenges of the past, the future looks boun­ti­ful.