Olive harvesting in Croatia
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
The end of October/early November is an olive harvesting time all over coastal Croatia, from Istria to Dubrovnik. Harvesting olives is one of my favorite fall activities because I get to be an insider into the local culture for a day and to climb trees. This year’s experience was extra special, because our guest, a writer and blogger, Jennifer Stevens came along. Olive harvesting became another way for our guests to get immersed in the life of the locals.
Combining unique homestay with olive picking
For three years now I have been harvesting olives with Vito and his family and friends in Benkovac. It’s a whole day experience of picking, conversing, laughing, eating, and sometimes playing music and singing at the end of the day. When Jen mentioned to me that she was looking for an olive harvest experience before they came to us, I was thrilled to be going with a new friend. Vito was happy too when he saw another person come to help.
Jen and I arrived to Vito and his wife’s Lidija house at 8:30 am. His son Luka and another friend were there, on their way out and back home after their 10 days of harvesting. We were offered a seat and a shot of loza, a homemade grape brandy, a remedy many Croatians use instead of brushing their teeth in the morning. After a quick toast, we were on our way to the olive orchard.
Entering an olive grove for me is like entering a castle that belongs to the Queen of all trees. This particular orchard is extra special to me, because of the old age and the ancient and wild look of the trees, as a result of a lack of regular care. The ancient look of the orchard is given by the wide and knobby tree trunks and long, knurly and untamed branches. Another very old olive grove in Dalmatia is the Lun olive grove on the island of Pag, a definite must-see.
For Vito and Lidija, harvesting olives is a task they do to make additional money to supplement their retirement income. Between the 2 of them, they get 600 Euro a month, which is not enough to live on. By selling several hundred liters of olive oil for 15 Euros per liter they make enough money to make ends meet and to slowly renovate their old stone house in Benkovac.
Croatia’s best olive oil
Croatian olive oil is not well known around the world like Italian or Spanish, although its quality is comparable with the best olive oils. The World Olive Oil Official guide lists many Croatian olive oils as Gold and Silver award winners. Only a very few make it to the world's market because only small amounts are produced. The majority of olive groves are small and number less than 100 trees. Most olive farmers make enough oil to meet their own needs. Whatever extra they produce they sell directly to tourists for 13-16 Euro per liter. No middleman will pay this price and still export the oil to the world’s market. So, minus a few exceptions, most of the excellent Croatian olive oil is only tasted in Croatia.
Vito harvested 60 olive trees, 39 of which are The rest he buys, in the form of fruit only which he also picks himself. He produces between 500 and 700 liters of oil and sells it to his friends in Croatia, Serbia and Germany.
How to recognize good quality olive oil
Good olive oil smells fresh, like green grass, and it tastes grassy and peppery. Some people like this intensely flavored oil, and others like it milder. Vito's customers love his grassy and peppery-tasting oil. He gets this flavor by paying attention to several aspects of olive picking. He picks the fruit while still mainly green. He gets less oil this way but that’s what gives his oil its fresh and pungent flavor. He is also diligent about removing debris from the fruit, a task that is the most time-consuming during the harvest.
Olive picking process
We first spread a big net under a tree that had the heaviest crop. We each got a small plastic rake, similar to the kid's rakes I used to play with when I was little. Vito instructed us to gently brush the lowest branches and let the fruit fall on the net. Vito’s job was to pick the highest branches from a tall ladder, using a battery-run olive harvester. To be funny, he occasionally picked right above us, to wash us with the olive showers.
After brushing the fruit from the low branches, we got down on our knees and spent what seemed like hours picking out fallen twigs and leaves from the net. We only picked the largest twigs and some leaves, because at the end of the day Vito and Lidija sifted the fruit once more through a sieve. Too many twigs and leaves make the oil more bitter.
Once we removed enough debris, we each picked up a side of a net and walked toward each other, pulling the fruit in one heap. We then scooped the fruit with buckets and poured it into mesh bags. Vito counted the bags, getting an estimate of how many kilos we harvested from each tree.
The best quality oil is made when the fruit is pressed within 24 hours after harvest, which is why our goal was to harvest a minimum of 200 kilos a day. This is the smallest amount a press can process. We picked about 300 kilos of fruit that day, which made about 45 liters of oil. (1 liter of oil requires 5-7 kilos of fruit).
Lunch midday was a picnic feast in the grove and the only 30 min break we took all day. Lidija picked up a couple of roasted chickens in town and freshly made lepinja bread, served with a jar of pickled cucumbers and homemade soft cheese. She made our lunch experience a little more upscale by bringing a tablecloth and coffee in a thermos bottle.
After lunch, we harvested another tree and barely picked up all the fruit by 4:30 pm, when the winter sun dipped beneath the horizon in spectacular colors. We loaded the bags in Vito's car and drove to their house to collect our pay for the day: 3 liters of fresh-pressed oil each.
Two days later I went back for another harvest day and made 3 more liters. We use Vito’s oil around our bnb as a special treat. When I bake sourdough bread, as soon as the bread cools down enough so that I can slice it, I pour Vito's olive oil on a saucer and dip my bread in. This little ritual instantly puts me in heaven.
If you are looking for some way to experience local culture in Croatia, harvesting olives in November is one of the best ways. The only thing better than this is combining your olive harvest experience with staying at Lilly’s Cozy Cove and enjoying other aspects of life in Croatia, like hiking, cooking, eating, sitting by a fire, and connecting with other humans.