Winter in Dalmatia: Olive Picking on Hvar Island in Croatia
Winter on Hvar is a complete contrast to the summer tourist invasion, and local attentions turn to an important cultural icon, the Dalmatian olive.
The summer tourists gone, the outdoor cafe chairs locked up for the winter, the endless August sunshine a distant memory and replaced by the bitingbura wind – it would be easy to conclude that Hvar was a less than attractive place out of season. While is it certainly true that life is quieter, colder and (dare one mention it, this being the sunniest island on the Adriatic?) infinitely wetter, local interest turns from tourism to something altogether more passionate: olives.
Olive Growing on Hvar
Olive growing has a long tradition on Hvar, dating back more than 2000 years to its introduction by the Ancient Greeks, who founded the settlement of Faros (present-day Stari Grad) in 384 BC. The supremely well-preserved agricultural colony, the 80 hectare Stari Grad Plain (now under UNESCO protection) is still farmed in almost exactly the same way by modern farmers.
Given the long olive tradition, it is not surprising that growing and picking techniques have been handed down from generation to generation, and one of the perennial topics of debate inside the cafes in winter is olive growing techniques, harvesting times and picking methods. The debates can be lively!
The Olive Harvest in October/November
Visiting tourists looking for an alternative experience on their holiday are more than welcome to help. Apart from giving an insight to local life and helping out, a day's picking is a great way to forge local friendships. There is no payment, but help is usually rewarded with a hearty meal in the field or a bottle of oil as a souvenir.
Given that most olive groves are family-owned, picking can take several weeks, having to fit in with existing schedules such as school and jobs. It is a team effort and a time for family to come together, with successful businessman in Zagreb taking time off to return to the family fields. Finding an olive-picking opportunity is easy – simply asking in any cafe should result in success.
Olive Picking Methods: To Shake or to Pick?
Picking methods vary from shaking the trees with the olives falling on sheets on the ground to the individual pick. Both have their fans, but both are time-consuming. Individual pickers often wear pouches to store the picked grapes, useful when stretching or climbing ladders to reach the less accessible olives. The pouches are frequently empties into buckets.
The work is quick physical, with lots of stretching, but the heaviest work is transporting the sacks or containers of olives over sometimes rocky paths to the trailer for onward transportation to the press.
Olive picking usually starts later in the day to avoid the early morning dew, and the picking is a very social affair, with neighbours and friends helping each other out and catching up on the latest gossip. Lunch in the field, usually a barbecue, is an essential part of the experience.
Processing the Olives
Once picked, the olives are transported to one of the various presses on the island. The presses vary considerably in terms of technology, methodology and age (another cafe discussion point), with one of the more modern presses in the cooperative in Svirce.
Olives are pressed by appointment, while very small producers, of which there are many, add their haul is added to a larger consignment. The olives are weighed, and the generally accepted yield is 9-10kg for a litre. Processing is about an hour, after which the freshly pressed oil is ready for collection. While the oil can be used immediately, it is advisable to wait a few days for the oil to settle.
Olive oil from Hvar is of exceptional quality and makes for an ideal souvenir from Croatia.