October is the month for harvesting olives in Croatia. I thought about this recently when cooking in my Kerala kitchen as I opened a jar of imported olives, knowing in advance that they would never hold a candle to the quality of artisanal food. When we lived in Paris one could buy olives by the kilo at the marché, with numerous varieties to choose from. But here in southern India I have to settle for rather industrial Spanish imports at the table and memories of unparalleled flavor in my mind.
In reality, there are two harvests—one for olives that will be cured, and one for olives that will be pressed for oil. On smaller islands the frenzy of activity is much more evident for the latter—perhaps because fewer people cure olives anymore. The island people found me to be quite the curiosity. Here I was, a newcomer, trying to do all the traditional things that most young people were attempting to abandon.
There was no commercial production or agriculture on Koločep, one of smaller of the 5 Elafiti Islands, that sit like an extended constellation from the city of Dubrovnik. All gardens and orchards are for personal use, but there are people who certainly had large amounts of land in one sort of production or another. Our very overgrown home garden was a small example—there were figs, pomegranates, mandarinas, plums, carobs and of course, olives—none of which have been pruned for what looked like decades.
So, being new to the island and excited by the prospects of our own versions of Mediterranean foods, we grabbed our buckets and began to pick. For curing, the variety of olives that grew on that island must be fully green. When they begin to darken to purple they have too much oil and will be used for pressing. We picked on our land, and we picked around the hotel properties—taking olives that usually would have been left to rot. We picked enough to fill 5 gallon jars. Then we began the next step in the process.
According to island tradition, one takes a rock or meat tenderizer and smashes the olive enough to split it. Then these split olives are placed in fresh water, which is changed daily for about 2 weeks. After that point, you make brine by boiling water with a large amount of salt and pieces of a wild plant that is related to anise. The olives are added to this mixture, jarred and eaten at leisure, adding olive oil, salt and vinegar at the table. We also made one jar using the Polymanakou method from my husband’s family in Greece. In this case several cuts are made in the olives instead of smashing, the two week soaking process remains the same, and then they are left for several days in a thick mixture of salt and vinegar, after which they are rinsed and stored in olive oil with a little vinegar. When I asked the islanders about these differences, they said that the people of their region were traditionally very poor, so they wouldn’t have had the luxury of storing the olives in so much precious oil.
A few weeks later we began picking again, hoping to gather 150 kilos for oil. Between the group efforts of a family of 4, we succeeded in gathering 30 kilos. I will give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in terms of lack of proper tools and experience, but upon completion we had a goodly number of scratches and scrapes to prove our valor with the olive trees.
The next thing we had to do was wait for the designated day our island could use the press. Few people own their own presses, and even the communities themselves share them. The 5 islands used a cooperative press on Šipan, the largest of the Elafiti islands. During the season the council will create a schedule on which day each population would bring their harvests.
On a beautifully sunny October day, Seth and I leapt aboard the ferry (literally, as it was pulling out), our bag of olives safely stowed on deck along with probably several tons from other island residents. Unfortunately the old fashioned press on Šipan has closed, but the mechanical one is efficient if not as picturesque. We watched the process by which the olives go from purple-black fruit to gorgeously thick green oil. I unfortunately had to get back to Dubrovnik, so we headed back to the port to catch the next ferry—Seth riding on the back of the tractor pulling a wagon carrying oil and me on the back of a motor bike to make sure we made the boat on time. As it was, I had to plead with the captain to wait just a moment, as the tractor came around the bend of the road with Seth poised for a repeat leap onto the ferry. That night, after our errands in Dubrovnik, we were presented with 3 liters of oil—our portion from the 3 kilos we added to our neighbor’s olives—all for the cost of 30 Kuna, or less than $6!