Something different this week – food and good ideas from the hinterland of the Dalmatian region of Croatia near Split. For publication in the week of 15 April 2019.
The village of Klis in Croatia’s Dalmatian hinterland is probably best known for the imposing fortress that has defended Croatia for more than 2,000 years. It features in the Game of Thrones HBO series whose final series starts soon.
But a few kilometres away is arguably a more important location – Stella Croatica, a family-owned “agropark” dedicated to reviving traditional Croatian food and crafts. It offers a fine model for job creation in rural areas of poorer countries.
For just over a year the site has been growing herbs and selling olive oil, honey and nuts plus fruit and olive products that have a unique flavour profile. Thus this week we have a wine column with a difference: a focus on olive oil and the many products that come from this marvellous tree.
Stella Croatica is about 30km inland from Split, Croatia’s the second-largest city. The land around the property is barren, rocky and mostly scrub. Nothing much grows there apart from herbs and weeds. A terrain suited for goats and olive trees.
But those herbs are marvellous. Brush your hand against the lavender or rosemary bushes and you are enveloped in the most remarkable smells. These aromas are almost magical in the way they linger.
Croatia is one of the world’s largest producers of lavender. Of all the lavender grown in Europe the Croatian variety is regarded as having the best qualities. It grows prolifically on the rocky hills and valleys of the island of Hvar about one hour by ferry from Split, as well as in the hinterlands. Lavender is a popular souvenir for visitors.
Walk around the Dalmatian hinterland and you encounter a local form of “garrigue,” that marvellous combination of wild herbs, sunshine and terroir found in the Roussillon region of southern France.
It’s worth repeating the quote that opened last week’s column: In his book Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson wrote that the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate wine and olives. Olives have been grown in the Dalmatian region since the ninth century before Christ.
Stella Croatica makes some of the best olive oil I’ve tasted. These come in a range of flavour options: oils infused with local truffles, lemon and garlic, as well as natural. Last year the company’s oil won the gold medal at the Tokyo olive oil show.
The family-owned company makes traditional handmade Dalmatian delicacies that include candied orange and lemon peel, known respectively as “arancini” and “limoncini”. Another delight is candied almonds, which pair marvellously with the local dessert wine Prošek, similar to Vin Santo in Italy.
Tapenades from olive oil offer another delicious snack or pre-dinner temptation. These are the result of one of the oldest ways to extract oil using a mill called a “toc” (photo at left). It is a stone wheel set vertically on another stone. Together they grind olives into a paste and the oil is left in the bowl below the stone wheel. Left-over olive fragments are combined with herbs, fish and salt to make tapenade. The olive must be the most versatile food in the world. Its wood is used as a building material and for firewood. Leaves are fed to animals. Olives are served as food, and used as medicine and spices, and the oil has been burned in lamps for lighting. And olive branches have long been associated with religious devotion and Christian ceremonies.
The olive harvest usually starts on November 2 each year, All Soul’s Day. Picking is typically done by hand using a comb-like device that separates olives from the branches. Another way to harvest involves laying sheets under trees and shaking the trunk and branches. In recent years machines have become involved.
Another traditional way to extract oil was to put the olives in a jute or woollen sack, and then crush the fruit with feet or hands. An example is shown at left.
More than 40 of the hundreds of types of olive grown around the world are autochthonous to Croatia. Dalmatia’s most common olive is called Oblica, and accounts for about 75 per cent of trees. Some islands grow olives unique to that location, so you will find unique olives on the beautiful islands that surround Split. The island of Vis was the first land the Romans occupied when they conquered the region. The long-lived emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace on Split harbour and it is one of the best-preserved UNESCO heritage sites in the world.
One way to preserve olives was to store them in large barrels filled with sea water. Most families did not have their own mill or press so several families or a village would share the one device.
All of the foods served at Stella Croatica are based on traditional recipes and local ingredients. Daily tours give visitors a chance to encounter the cultural heritage of Dalmatia. They learn about the preparation and characteristics of top-quality olive oil, taste award-winning extra virgin oils and other Dalmatian delicacies such as fig and prune cake. Croatia produces magnificent dried figs, and I ate a lot.
Owners Melita and Andrija Polic believe that business success and sustainable development are intertwined, so their business strategy is based on respect for the land. “From the very beginning our goal was to become a reliable partner to our employees, business associates, suppliers and the whole community,” they wrote on their web site.
The farm provides work for scores of women from the local villages. “We accept our responsibility and impact which enables us to be the driving force of a positive change in the local community, to improve the quality of life and raise the awareness of preserving our tradition,” Melita Polic said.
The family’s story began in 2002 on the island of Mljet, which has a long tradition of producing home-grown products. The family started collecting old recipes for local delicacies.
They followed the advice of their grandmothers, which led to the creation of Stella Croatica. “Our mission is to revive the forgotten recipes of our grandmothers and present them in a new light [to] preserve the cultural heritage of our region.” The company has always followed HACCP principles, a way of managing food safety, and the new production facility (shown above) was built according to those principles. Stella Croatica was also the first Croatian company to receive HALAL certification.