Silvano Puhar (Photos by Pablo Esparza for Olive Oil Times)

“It is a lit­tle bit unusual that one finds an Irishman in the mid­dle of an olive grove. It was very far from olives where I was born. Probably closer to to pota­toes I think,” Paul O’Grady says as he walks among olive trees at Brist’s farm in Vodnjan, in the Croatian side of the Istrian penin­sula.

Before becom­ing “the Irish mem­ber of this olive grow­ing fam­ily,” O’Grady, an archi­tect, had many jobs, from busi­ness coach to teach­ing English and Irish danc­ing.

“When I mar­ried into this fam­ily and moved to this part of the world, I was fas­ci­nated by every­thing, about the farm, about how it’s done. And I got involved,” he says.

“I had to learn every­thing from zero and that’s one of the really enjoy­able things for me.”

Silvano Puhar, his wife’s father, agrees. Brist is a fam­ily busi­ness where every mem­ber has a role.


 

Silvano takes care of the land, while his daugh­ter Lena is in charge of tast­ing and blend­ing the oil.

“No won­der why they chose the Irish one to be the sto­ry­teller of the fam­ily,” Paul jokes.

The ter­rain in this part of Istria is quite dif­fer­ent from the North of the penin­sula.

As one heads Southbound and enters Croatia, the rugged lands of the Slovenian coast slowly give way to a milder land­scape.

Large oak trees, forests (this is a rich truf­fle ter­ri­tory), and gen­tle hills meet the sea. Picturesque Venetian-styled vil­lages remind one that bor­ders have been redrawn many times in this region.

Vodnjan lies some six kilo­me­ters inland. With a pop­u­la­tion of around 6,000, this town used to be an impor­tant trade cen­ter in the times of the Republic of Venice which lasted until the end of the XVIII cen­tury. Its loca­tion at 135 meters above sea level –- far enough from the humid­ity of the coast — made it a healthy place to set­tle.

“Olive grow­ing in this region of Istria has a very long tra­di­tion dat­ing back to Roman times. Its high point was dur­ing the time of the Venetian Republic when there was the great­est amount of trees, which was fol­lowed by a period of con­tin­ual decline. After the Second World War there was a sud­den drop,” Silvano explains.

Born in Pula, the largest town in the area, just 10 kilo­me­ters away, Silvano, a now-retired elec­tri­cal engi­neer, describes him­self as a “child who grew up sur­rounded by asphalt.”

“My par­ents and my wife’s par­ents, they all left the land and reset­tled in the big­ger towns to work in the fac­to­ries. Olive grow­ing effec­tively died, which meant that for those of us who have this tra­di­tion there was a break of 50 years“, he says in a mix of English and Croatian which I’m able to under­stand thanks to Paul’s simul­ta­ne­ous trans­la­tion.

“The whole of my life, my mother, who passed away last year in her 98th year, always spoke to me about the impor­tance of the land, which, while I was young, was quite a vir­tual con­cept“, he adds.

Eighteen years ago, Silvano bought a plot of approx­i­mately 10 hectares and decided to “recon­nect with the land” and started pro­duc­ing olive oil again. That’s how Brist –- which lit­er­ally means “elm tree” — began, he recalls.

Now, they have around 2,000 olive trees and also buy olives from other nearby farms.

Brist’s farm is not far from the vil­lage of Vodnjan. From the olive grove one can spot the sea some kilo­me­ters away and the dark sil­hou­ettes of the Brijuni Islands.

Now a national park, back in the days of Yugoslavia, the small arch­i­pel­ago used to be a hol­i­day play­ground for Marshall Tito, the pres­i­dent of the social­ist coun­try, and his guests.

Recently planted trees mix with cen­tury-old ones at the Brist’s estate. Most of them are Buza, a local cul­ti­var which may slightly vary from vil­lage to vil­lage across the region and which is known as Buga in Slovenia.

“It is evi­dent from the past that native vari­eties have an advan­tage over intro­duced vari­eties, like those from Italy for exam­ple, as they have adapted to this spe­cific micro­cli­mate over the last two thou­sand years,“ Silvano says.

“In world mar­kets, which are sat­u­rated with oils from big pro­duc­ing coun­tries such as Spain, Italy, Greece and oth­ers, Turkey, Tunisia, we can­not com­pete in quan­tity. We can, how­ever, com­pete with the authen­tic­ity of our vari­eties,” he sug­gests.

Dry stone walls and a few small stone shep­herd shel­ters, known as kazuni in Croatian, sur­round the olive grove and give Brist’s farm an almost secluded atmos­phere.

This ancient tech­nique of con­struc­tion by stack­ing stones upon each other, with­out using any other mate­ri­als except some­times dry soil, is spread through­out the Mediterranean region from Cyprus to Spain and was inscribed in 2018 in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco.

Croatia has an annual olive oil pro­duc­tion of around 4,000 tons, far from other Mediterranean coun­tries such as Italy, Spain or Greece in terms of quan­tity.

However, the qual­ity of Croatian olive oil is increas­ingly appre­ci­ated, tak­ing home 40 prizes from the 2018 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, only behind Italy, Spain, the United States and Greece. In that edi­tion of the con­test, Brist won a Gold Award.

“This micro­cli­mate is excep­tion­ally well suited to grow olives. Istria is a small region and it’s very close to the sea so we get these nice sea breezes. We also have the bura wind, which is the north wind and comes across. Those two winds are very good,” Paul men­tions as one of the fac­tors that make this region spe­cial for olive oil pro­duc­tion.

“We pro­duce a very lim­ited quan­tity but of max­i­mum qual­ity. The rea­son for this is that dur­ing the period of social­ism here this land was aban­doned and now we have reac­ti­vated it. This means that this land is clean, vir­gin and has not been effected with min­eral fer­til­iz­ers“, Silvano adds.



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