Croatian Joins Elite Panel of Tasters in New York

Dr. Karolina Brkic Bubola, the leader of the official panel for olive oil sensory assessment for the Republic of Croatia, will be among the 18 judges at the 2018 NYIOOC.

Marina Lukić and Dr. Karolina Brkić Bubola (right) in the chemical analysis lab they co-founded. (Photo by Isabel Putinja)
Jan. 16, 2018
By Isabel Putinja
Marina Lukić and Dr. Karolina Brkić Bubola (right) in the chemical analysis lab they co-founded. (Photo by Isabel Putinja)

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One of the mem­bers of the inter­na­tional panel of expert tasters judg­ing entries at the upcom­ing NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition in April will be Dr. Karolina Brkić Bubola from Croatia.

I found some­thing beau­ti­ful in that fresh green odor and bit­ter taste of Istrian olive oil and fell in love.- Karolina Brkić Bubola, NYIOOC Judge

Brkić Bubola has a long expe­ri­ence in the world of olive oil and has ded­i­cated her sci­en­tific career to it. She’s a senior research asso­ciate at the depart­ment of Agriculture and Nutrition at the Institute of Agriculture and Tourism in Poreč. Other impor­tant hats she wears include as deputy head of the insti­tute’s lab­o­ra­tory for olive oil qual­ity con­trol — which she co-founded, as well as leader of the offi­cial panel for olive oil sen­sory assess­ment of the Republic of Croatia, rec­og­nized by the Ministry of Agriculture and the International Olive Council.

The NYIOOC pres­i­dent and Olive Oil Times pub­lisher, Curtis Cord, invited Brkić Bubola to the elite panel of tasters after an exhaus­tive search process. She is the only Croatian on the team that includes ten women and eight men from thir­teen coun­tries and the first addi­tion to the panel since Suzan Kantarci Savas from Turkey joined the panel in 2016.

Brkić Bubola invited me to visit the insti­tute in Poreč, a medieval sea­side town on the west coast of the Adriatic penin­sula of Istria, an impor­tant olive-grow­ing region. She first showed me around the lab she founded together with her col­league Marina Lukić. Dressed in a long white lab coat and her face cov­ered in a mask, Lukić was busy at work han­dling test tubes and glass beakers. December is a busy time in the lab because har­vest sea­son is over and local pro­duc­ers send in their sam­ples for chem­i­cal analy­sis so that they can legally put extra vir­gin” on their labels. 

Next we moved down­stairs to the sen­sory analy­sis test room where the offi­cial panel Brkić Bubola leads con­ducts their tast­ings. Two long rows of par­ti­tioned tast­ing sta­tions lined each side of the room and I spot­ted the famil­iar cobalt blue tast­ing glasses and heat­ing units. She had even pre­pared a short tast­ing ses­sion of sam­ples of local olive oils. We first sat down for an inter­view, and I asked her to tell me about her first olive oil tast­ing experience. 

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I grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina and we did­n’t use olive oil much for cook­ing, only for med­ical or cos­metic pur­poses,” she said. So the olive oil I was used to was not extra vir­gin. I first tasted extra vir­gin olive oil 15 years ago here in Istria. I found some­thing beau­ti­ful in that fresh green odor and bit­ter taste of Istrian olive oil and fell in love. Then when I dis­cov­ered all the sci­ence behind olive oil, a whole new world opened up for me.” 

That first taste of extra vir­gin olive oil would be the cat­a­lyst to Brkić Bubola’s sci­en­tific career. While a PhD can­di­date, she joined the insti­tute as a research assis­tant in 2005, even­tu­ally com­plet­ing her the­sis on the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of olive oil pro­duced from Istrian native cul­ti­vars, which exam­ined their volatile com­pounds and sen­so­r­ial char­ac­ter­is­tics. This was com­ple­mented by a series of spe­cial­ized courses orga­nized by the International Olive Council and a three-month course at Jaén University, Spain, lead­ing to a pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tion as an expert in the organolep­tic assess­ment of vir­gin olive oil. 

Having tasted olive oils from all over the world and inti­mately stud­ied the cul­ti­vars that are native to Croatia, I asked her to tell me what’s unique about Croatian olive oil and how many vari­eties are cul­ti­vated here. 

Biodiversity is very high in Croatia,” she revealed, and we have lots of autochtho­nous olive cul­ti­vars like Istarska bjel­ica, buža, rošin­jola, and žižol­era found here in Istria, and oblica, lev­an­tika, and plominka in other parts of Croatia.”

Croatia has two olive-grow­ing regions: Istria and Kvarner in the north-west and Dalmatia along the south­ern Adriatic coast. and they are quite dif­fer­ent. Temperatures tend to be higher in Dalmatia. It has a very long coast­line and olive trees also grow on the many islands of the Adriatic. Oblica is one of the most abun­dant that’s found all over Dalmatia, but there’s also lev­an­tika and las­tovka. It’s dif­fi­cult to know exactly how many vari­eties we have in Croatia. One of our projects here at the insti­tute is to clas­sify these. We def­i­nitely have around 80 and are con­stantly find­ing new genotypes.” 

In addi­tion to native vari­eties, Brkić Bubola explained that there are sev­eral Italian cul­ti­vars which have been intro­duced, espe­cially in west­ern Istria, like lec­cino and pen­dolino. These olive vari­eties start to change color and ripen before our own cul­ti­vars. So this is the rea­son why we har­vest the Italian vari­eties first, and then our own. Most pro­duc­ers har­vest Istarska bjel­ica last because this is a vari­ety that changes color later than the oth­ers. Its oil is very high in pun­gency and bit­ter­ness since it is one of the rich­est vari­eties in Istria in terms of phe­no­lic com­pound con­tent next to rošin­jola and kar­bonaca,” she added. 

She went on to explain that while each vari­ety gives a spe­cific odor and taste to the oil, the soil and cli­mate are other impor­tant fac­tors that influ­ence the char­ac­ter­is­tics of an olive oil. The fact that Istria is located in the north­ern­most olive-grow­ing region of the Mediterranean influ­ences the taste which can range from mid­dle to intense bit­ter­ness and pun­gency. This is also the rea­son for the high lev­els of phe­nol com­pounds in Istrian olive. Another aspect that influ­ences qual­ity is early harvesting. 

Samples at the Institute of Agriculture and Tourism in Porec. (Photo by Isabel Putinja)

We can’t for­get that a good dose of TLC on the part of pro­duc­ers also makes a big dif­fer­ence. The qual­ity of our olive oil is very high because pro­duc­ers take care to pre­vent dam­age to the olive fruits,” she pointed out. People are aware what qual­ity olive oil is and they try to make the best oil they can pro­duce. They pro­tect their fruits and ensure they’re healthy. They har­vest early and press the olives within 24 hours – which is very impor­tant, at mills using mod­ern tech­nol­ogy with two-phase centrifuge.” 

The result is olive oil with a low acid­ity level, low level of oxi­da­tion and high polyphe­nol con­tent,” she con­tin­ued. Care is also taken to pro­tect olive oil from oxi­da­tion dur­ing the milling process and after. The oil is stored in inox tanks filled with nitro­gen to keep the oil from oxi­diz­ing. At each step it’s impor­tant to pro­tect the oil from light, tem­per­a­ture and oxy­gen: the three ene­mies of olive oil. When mea­sures like this are taken, the olive oil can be pre­served for up to 18 months and it retains that smell of very fresh young green olive oil.” 

But of course it’s not only mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. I think that there’s also a lot of tra­di­tion and love that local pro­duc­ers put in their prod­ucts,” she added. In Croatia olive oil is mostly pro­duced by small fam­ily busi­nesses and the whole fam­ily is some­how involved in pro­duc­ing that prod­uct, includ­ing chil­dren who help pick the olives, for exam­ple. So it’s not only mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, it’s also the love they put in it.” 

In addi­tion to work­ing in the lab and head­ing the sen­sory panel, Brkić Bubola is also involved in sev­eral impor­tant research projects. One is Typicro, funded by the Croatian Foundation for Science, that aims to iden­tify the chem­i­cal com­pounds, specif­i­cally the phe­no­lic and volatile com­pounds which are respon­si­ble for the odor and taste of olive oils and wines pro­duced from autochtho­nous cul­ti­vars found in Croatia. She’s also one of the experts involved in the European Union’s OLEUM project that aims to find bet­ter solu­tions for the assur­ance of qual­ity and authen­tic­ity con­trol of olive oil. As one of the objec­tives of this project is to pre­vent fraud and boost con­sumer con­fi­dence, I asked her if olive oil fraud is a prob­lem encoun­tered in Croatia. 

Since olive oil is an expen­sive prod­uct, it’s sus­cep­ti­ble to fraud all over the world,” she said. I can’t really judge what is the sit­u­a­tion in Croatia because we have quite a small pro­duc­tion and gen­er­ally our gov­ern­ment tests one sam­ple per 1,000 tonnes to check the mar­ket. That means it should test five to six sam­ples but they usu­ally test more and each year they increase that num­ber to pro­tect Croatian pro­duc­ers as well as con­sumers. We rarely encounter the prob­lem of olive oil being mixed with other types of oil. More com­mon is the wrong cat­e­gory of olive oil qual­ity listed on the label.” 

My final ques­tion for an olive oil expert who has tasted oils from all over the world was a sim­ple one: Do you have a favorite? Her answer was pre­dictably diplo­matic, con­sid­er­ing her posi­tion as a mem­ber of the panel who will soon declare this year’s best olive oils. If we’re talk­ing about local Istrian vari­eties, I think that our Buža is a very inter­est­ing vari­ety because its oil is very fruity and aro­matic with a bit­ter­ness and pun­gency which appears a lit­tle bit later and increases in inten­sity over time to very spicy and per­sis­tent. But I really like all extra vir­gin olive oils since dif­fer­ent types of olive oil pair well with spe­cific foods. There’s a whole sci­ence behind food pair­ing when it comes to wine and I think that the future is food pair­ing with dif­fer­ent vari­eties of olive oil.”


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