Europe

Old Ways Endure at Award-Winning Farm in Slovenia

Timor’s six olive groves are small and disperse, each containing just a few dozen trees. The rugged terrain makes it necessary to do everything by hand, which the husband and wife team do well enough to earn the industry's highest award.

Orjana Hrvatin and Timotej Zupan (Photo by Pablo Esparza for Olive Oil Times)
Apr. 10, 2019
By Pablo Esparza
Orjana Hrvatin and Timotej Zupan (Photo by Pablo Esparza for Olive Oil Times)

Recent News

Timotej Zupan drives his pickup truck through narrow roads up and down the hills on the way to his farm in Slovenian Istria, where he and Orjiana Hrvasti pro­duce Timor olive oil.

Small patches of olive groves alter­nate with forests of oaks and beeches, still with­out leaves in early spring, dotted with white blos­som­ing almond and prune trees.

This pleas­ant land­scape of rolling hills and deep val­leys that meet the sea is home of a cen­turies-long olive oil pro­duc­tion tra­di­tion and some Slovenian oils rank among the best in the world.

Slovenia has an annual olive oil pro­duc­tion of just 400 tons, accord­ing to the International Olive Council. This is a small figure if com­pared with neigh­bor­ing Croatia, which pro­duces around 4,000 tons every year, Italy, with more than 185,000 or Spain, the biggest world pro­ducer, with more than 1.5 mil­lion tons.



 



“Why Timor?,” I ask Timotej and Orjana, guess­ing that it may mean some­thing in Slovenian or that maybe they are related in some way to Timor, the Southeast Asian island.

“It’s sim­pler than that,” Orjana says. “It’s a com­bi­na­tion of our names. Timotej and Orjiana. That’s where Timor comes from.”

Advertisement

Most of the olive trees along the 47-kilo­me­ter-long stretch of Slovenian coast grow in narrow ter­races exca­vated in the steep slopes of the hills.

Timor’s six olive groves are small and dis­perse, each con­tain­ing just a few dozens of olive trees. While some of the plots are by the coast, others are a few kilo­me­ters inland.

This is not unusual in this part of Slovenia –- as Orjana points out — where large estates are almost non-exis­tent after gen­er­a­tions of divid­ing the prop­er­ties among family mem­bers so that they can be inher­ited.

Advertisement

This frag­men­ta­tion com­bined with the rugged ter­rain makes it hard for machin­ery to access the olive groves. Thus, old ways of farm­ing endure.

As Timotej parks in one of their olive groves, Orjana argues that this appar­ent dis­ad­van­tage is key to under­stand the high qual­ity of their prod­uct.

Advertisement

“Timotej takes care of the land and then all the family har­vests the olives by hand. That improves the qual­ity of the oil because the olives don’t suffer any harm. They reach the mill almost untouched,” she says.

Timotej Zupan pruning his olive trees

“Also, having such small olive groves allows us to har­vest one after the other. If one olive grove is at sea level, then olives ripe first. Those that are inland ripe later. This way we can har­vest each of them on the right moment,” she adds.

Timor’s olive grove, a mix of young and older trees, is sur­rounded by woods and some groups of vio­lets sprin­kle the grass. As we walk along the ter­races, it looks bigger than expected.
“Half of it belongs to our cousin,” Orjana clar­i­fies while explain­ing that the plot is south­west ori­ented.

“This is the most common ori­en­ta­tion in this region. It’s a way of pro­tect­ing the olive trees from low tem­per­a­tures and frost,” Orjana says.

The Slovenian coast in the Northern Adriatic is one of the north­ern­most olive oil pro­duc­ing areas in the Mediterranean.

Here, olive trees cannot grow far from the coast. Only a few kilo­me­ters inland is too cold for them.

“Most of our olive trees are Istrian belica, a typ­i­cal cul­ti­var from this region. It is resis­tant to frost and it pro­duces a lot of oil. It also has a lot of polyphe­nols which are very healthy.”

Advertisement

In one of the ter­races, among the olive trees, there is a small hut.

“Here is where we keep our oil,” Orjana tells.

Inside, there’s a cozy place with a full kitchen and a fire­place which looks more like a coun­try cot­tage than the stor­age, bot­tling and label­ing plant of an award-win­ning oil. It’s both things at the same time, though.

By the kitchen, there is a garage-like room where Timor’s annual pro­duc­tion of around 1,000 liters is stored.

Timotej han­dles with expert hands a pump the size of a kettle which he uses to fill the bot­tles with oil. Then he shows how he man­u­ally applies Timor’s brand labels, using a pur­pose-built desk to keep the bottle stable.

“Like this, I can do around 100 bot­tles per hour,” he laughs.

Timotej and Orjana at their bottling room

Making a living just from olive oil is unusual in Slovenia and for many pro­duc­ers. It is rather a com­ple­ment to their “main jobs.” For others, it’s just a matter of self-con­sump­tion. “Olive oil is our pas­sion, but it is not our pro­fes­sion. He is a lawyer and I am a gen­eral prac­ti­tioner,” Orjana says.

However, her family has pro­duced olive oil for gen­er­a­tions. Before World War II, they had their own mill, but it was aban­doned as many mem­bers of the family moved to cities in Slovenia and Italy. Then, by the mid-80s, her father started plant­ing new olive trees and recov­er­ing the old ones.

It is a job that Timotej con­tin­ued when he retired and moved back to his home­town and when, as he puts it, he fell in love with grow­ing olive trees.

Nowadays, Timor has around 800 olive trees. In 2018, they won a gold award for their organic medium blend at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

“It’s all changed a lot in recent years. Before we used to har­vest in November or later. Now, we follow the advice of the Institute for Oliveculture in Koper (a nearby town) and we har­vest ear­lier. Of course, the qual­ity of the oil is better now,” Orjana explains.