How embarrassing. My arms are trembling as I forcibly strip a few black olives from their branches, secretly wishing for a shoulder rub. This is when Ive climbs past me in the tree. Ive is 76 years old, and he is whistling. My friend Tea Mamut has invited me to her family’s grove on Croatia’s Korcula Island to learn how they create the world’s purest olive oil. I’m among the youngest laborers, the oldest of whom include a grandfather who is now nestled in a tree, plucking and singing.
It’s hard to believe that this tale started at the Culinary Institute of America of Hyde Park, in upstate New York. One blustery winter evening, I arrived at Tea’s dorm room as she was seasoning freshly steamed zucchini. I noticed a slender flute bottle on the counter. “That’s a fancy bottle for olive oil,” I said.
“I didn’t buy it,” Tea said. “It’s extra-virgin olive oil from my family’s grove.”
The oil hit the vegetable and perfumed the air with a potently herbal smell. Tea handed me a fork of the zucchini. I’d never tasted anything like it. Later, Tea made an offer. “Why don’t you come to Croatia and help with the harvest? My father needs extra hands.”
That’s how I landed in this field with a mountainous backdrop, and breezes that carry the smell of the sea, discreetly trying to stretch out my shoulder. My panoramic view is supported by the sturdiest and most handsome ladder I have ever seen. Ive made it. He’s a retired sailor and now devotes time to creating boats, wine barrels and every wood fixture in the family’s home. The ladder, like the olive oil, embodies a commitment to crafting by hand.
There’s a harmonious feeling in the field. The harvest is more driven by desire than performed as a chore. Ive’s wife, Tereza, looks at me and laughs as she breaks away to start lunch preparations. This is how we communicate (she speaks no English and I no Croatian).Tea’s other convivial and loud deda (grandfather), Božo, projects his voice as if addressing a rowdy crowd and has come to kindly yelling Croatian phrases toward me while sipping red plavac mali wine.
“Dobro jutro,” he shouts, startling me with a hearty “good morning.”
“Kako si?” I scream back, using "How are you?" in this verbal jousting.
We all retire to a blanket for lunch. The squid from yesterday’s twilight fishing is now a ragu. Blitva, a blend of potatoes and Swiss chard, has been cooked in generous amounts of olive oil. Local goat cheeses are also laid out. Every bite is washed down with the same red wine that Božo has been drinking all day. “Wait until next year, when we have this year’s mladi ulje [young oil],” says Tea’s Uncle Zoran. “Then you will understand Croatian flavor.”
There’s something powerful in the oil. The family is amazingly preserved. I’ve witnessed it all day. Grandparents bouncing through the fields and climbing trees. There’s a shine to their skin, and contentment in their eyes. It comes from the oil’s healthy properties, but also from the satisfaction of preserving family history.
Over the course of the next two days, together we will pull more than 1,800 pounds of olives, which will create 40 gallons of oil in the communal press house — the family’s largest harvest to date. Before I depart, Božo extends a salute of health and happiness and a hello to my parents, whom he has never met. He projects his voice louder than necessary and tucks into my bag two beautiful bottles of the fresh olive oil. But I know it’s more than that. I’m carrying home the lifeblood of Croatia’s culinary soul and a lasting taste of family tradition.