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Konoba-style Hotels and Agri-tourism Important Component
of National Tourist Plan for Istria, Croatia

A Visit with Ipsa Olive Oil, Istria
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by Barry Napier, April 7, 2009 - 

Unlike many national tourist plans, the Ten Year Plan of Istria, Croatia, is comprehensive. Every part of its national life is geared towards one touristic goal, from roads, to hotels, olive and grape growing, to agriculture. By ‘hotel’ is meant not just the slow to develop five stars, but konoba-style hotels, rustic and often including wine or olive oil production, or boutique hotels, small but perfectly formed. For this reason, olive oil production has received a great deal of attention in Istria.

Each olive grove is different in its output and taste, depending on the soil and what is around it. In Istria, groves grow mainly in either a deep red soil (lower regions) or a rich brown soil, but there is also a lighter greyish soil.

Fall and Rise of Istrian olives

In 1870 there were two million trees in Istria. In 1950 there were only 700,000, because Mussolini destroyed flourishing groves to grow corn. Later, many Yugoslavs left their country to avoid oppression and poverty – over three-fifths left the inner hinterland for foreign shores. Two-fifths stayed, but migrated to the west coast of Istria. The centre of Istria was left almost uninhabited.

For these reasons, by 1995, the number of olive trees reduced to only 200,000. In a bid to rejuvenate the hinterland, tourism became a top priority and agritourism (rural tourism) was introduced, with konobas (rural restaurants and small hotels), all given financial help to bring the hinterland back to life. From then until now, 2009, Croatians have been encouraged to repopulate the major, inner part of Istria, with many incentives. Even with this repopulating, inner Istria remains wild and natural.

The newness of Istrian tourism is tangible; most inner villages were empty in 1995.  So, most of the orchards, fields, vineyards and olive groves seen today are relatively fresh. New olive trees were planted, with financial help from the government, so what we see today are new trees, some less than five years of age. It takes five to seven years for an olive tree to bear any real fruit, so farmers and growers usually have multiple jobs to earn a living. (There are a few trees aged over 1600 years old on the Brioni Islands, but these are the exception).

By 2000, there were one million trees. It is hoped to raise this number to two million by 2013, plus an accompanying infra-structure of roads to transport products to market. There was only one new major road, north to south. Now, two more are almost completed, east to west. Every small town in Istria has its own local association of vineyard and olive growers.

Interestingly, Istria is the northernmost point at which olive trees can survive and produce fruit. Olive trees can withstand minus temperatures, but if the temperature falls rapidly over twelve hours or so, they die. Every 15-20 years, there is a cold spell, and if trees are partially damaged they are cut low and regrown. But, in 1985, 50% of olive trees in Tuscany were completely destroyed by cold. Usually, when these trees are removed their wood is used to make parquet flooring, but it means new trees must be planted. 

Klaudio Ipsa

Klaudio Ipsa lives half-way up a mountain. Until very recently, the only way up to his home was by a hard-to-find dirt track, wending its way, bend after bend, through forestry. Today, the going is better – a layer of tarmac has been poured on top of the dirt track, but it is still hard to find! That doesn’t seem to stop intrepid day-searchers, who can come from a hundred miles away just to see where Klaudio’s crop of gold is grown!

Klaudio grows the most exclusive, most expensive olive oil in the world. Ten years ago he decided to revive the olive groves his family had abandoned. Now, he is the top producer. He presently has about one thousand trees, but hopes to plant double that soon.

The groves are set on terraces in stunning scenery. Under the main house are traditional Istrian farm rooms. Outside, the entrance to the magical parts, reached by typical Istrian cobbled path, is covered by a wooden trellis covered with vines. The view is nothing short of amazing – mountains, valley, mist, olive trees growing on terraces…

The first room has a typical large Istrian fireplace, taking up a corner, with its blazing logs and colourful surround. Through an inner door, you will find the old olive oil container, a huge hunk of stone carved into a kind of bath with a wooden lid. Beyond that room, with no windows and carved into the mountainside, is the Fort Knox of olive oil, where Klaudio’s golden repository hides in a steady temperature.

This is not like a Spanish commercial enterprise. There are no huge vats covering a large area. The room is about 4 metres by 3 metres, the size of a bathroom. Inside, on a shelf, are several stainless steel vats about 1.5 metres tall. Inside is the entire olive oil stock produced by the grove.

Behind the vats is a gas control mechanism. It pumps nitrogen into the vats. This separates any oxygen from the top of the oil, preventing the oil from degenerating. Because the room is cut into the rock of the mountainside, temperature is usually constant, but Klaudio also has back-up temperature control, just in case.

Ipsa oils consist of five varieties; 2 are blended, but 3 are ‘mono’ or single olive types (like a single-malt whisky). Klaudio offered to teach me how to taste olive oil. I must admit I never knew it could be tasted just like wine and thought perhaps it was just hype! But, I followed his instructions and, sure enough, I did taste the differences! 

The first sensation (of a good oil) should be like freshly mown grass. When the oil is swallowed there should be an ‘afterburn’, rather like pepper. It wasn’t hype… after swallowing I began to cough! The time between swallow and ‘afterburn’ is longer or slower, depending on the variety of oil tasted. I was assured that the best olive oils should combine a sweetish early taste with a later bitterness.

Want Some? You’ll Be Lucky!

Many agritourist konobas and hotels make their own excellent olive oils, but Ipsa is the acknowledged world-beater. It is sold only in small bottles (I was kindly given a presentation box containing a valuable bottle – but the Italian police took it off me at the airport!), and the entire produce is usually ordered well in advance by top restaurants, chefs, and others fortunate enough to get some.

Klaudio currently only produces about 3000 to 4000 litres a year, which is why he has to rent rooms in nearby Motovun, and do other work besides. Picking season is as precise as grape picking for wine, roughly end of September to October. Klaudio watches carefully – once the olives begin to turn colour, from green to black, they are picked. Black olives contain the best oil. But it isn’t as simple as that! They are only picked between 9 am and 5 pm, to avoid moisture in the air. If it is too moist, the olives are left alone. 

Klaudio says that 99% of olives are fat; the rest is the oil, and the skin of the olive is sensitive to moisture. It is also sensitive to everything around it. He spoke with derision of the huge commercial olive oil estates in Spain and Italy, where trees are shaken by machines, so that olives fall off the tree and are then picked up ready for crushing. He says that when the olives lay on the ground, the skins absorb whatever the olives are laying on. So, if they lay on earth, the resulting oil will be very pungent.

This is why Klaudio and his team (mostly family and the few who live in his tiny village) pick each olive by hand. The fruit are laid in wooden baskets, no more than about three olives in depth, and carefully taken to larger containers. After that, the olives are crushed within an hour or so. Only the first pressing is used by Klaudio – the rest is thrown away. This is to maintain the exclusivity of his extra-virgin oils, and the top quality. 

The oil is put into very dark bottles. Klaudio insists that olive oils sold in lighter bottles or plain glass are very inferior, because the oils react to light. Even his tasting glasses are dark blue!

After my tasting lesson, I was invited to lunch. We sat near the blazing corner fireplace at a large oak table. Irena, Klaudio’s wife, brought in several large platters full of Istrian delicacies, drizzled with their finest oil mixed with wine… dark red rich-tasting proscuitto, cheese, pickled peppers & aubergine, a delicious hot fritaja with wild asparagus, lots of home-made bread and plenty of best wine. As we sat, people traipsed in and out to look at Klaudio’s gold reserve. 

Later, a motley collection of amiable and lively folks gathered, including a very exotic Russian lady in a very short dress and high heels – the partner of a fellow who arrived in a Porsche. Wine flowed along with the chat.

Just before I left there was a short spell of rain and because of the peculiar lighting and the darkness of the forestry on the opposite mountain, the drops were lit up like illuminated rods.

To get to Klaudio’s takes a good nose for travel! My driver took me along the base of the mountain, a very narrow road. Around a bend we came across a golden eagle enjoying his lunch on the road. He just hopped aside as we passed. Just moments later, we came across a deer in the road. It looked at us and loped off into the lower forest. Then, almost hidden, came sight of the even narrower tarmac track. It’s in the Mirna Valley, but keep your eyes open! And Klaudio is also a truffle hunter, animal hunter and general do-everything man. Catch him if you can.

© Barry Napier 

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Contact:

Barry Napier 
barry.napier@ntlworld.com
Hotel/Travel Journalist &
Tourism Consultant

 

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Also See: Istria's Ten Year Tourism Plan Targets Discerning Visitors; Includes Many Investment Opportunities for Hoteliers / July 2006
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