Indulge in the flavours of Istria
The distinctive olive oils and wines of west Croatia make it a must-visit destination for foodies.
A band of gourmands exchange appreciative murmurs as they take generous gulps from a row of glasses. The room is filled with giddy laughter – like at a wine tasting – yet the golden liquid in the glasses is not wine, but olive oil.
Quaffing olive oil might seem hard to stomach at first, but not all oils are made equal. The superior grades produced by Brist Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Vodnjan-Dignano, 12 kilometres north of the Croatian city of Pula, are in a league of their own.
“The mixed chemistry cocktails found in supermarkets aren’t true extra virgin olive oils. Up to 90 per cent fail to meet virgin standards – they’re cut with lower grade oils,” says ex-Irishman Paul O’Grady, who runs Brist together with his Croatian wife Lena Puhar and his father-in-law Silvano Puhar.
When he first moved to Istria eight years ago, O’Grady “scarcely knew the difference between olive oil and motor oil.” Today the ex-architect takes pride in his professional mission “to make absolutely the best olive oil humanly possible.”
Burn of quality
A swirl of the glass releases a heady herbal fragrance. The first sip surprises the palate with an intense grassy tang mixed with hints of fresh fruit and leaves, followed by a spicy kick.
“Early-harvest oils are richer in antioxidants and polyphenols. A great oil should leave a spicy, burning finish. If you feel nothing at the back of your throat, it’s probably been mixed with something else,” explains O’Grady.
After the tasting, he takes the group on a tour of Brist’s grove located just outside town. Looking over the immaculately tended crop, he explains why Vodnjan has been famous for its oils for over 2,000 years.
“Many Roman texts refer to the best oils in the Empire coming from Istria. We are the northernmost frontier of the olive-growing world, offering the ideal combination of rain and sun. The salty winds add ‘oomph’ and act as a natural disinfectant,” he says.
Rock star of Croatian wine
The mineral-rich red soil of Istria lends its unique flavour not only to the local oils, but also to the wines, which – not surprisingly – make the perfect pairing.
Hosting a tasting at his winery in the village of Šišan, Bruno Trapan regales his guests as he fills their glasses with acacia-matured Trapan Malvazija Uroboros 2013, a distinctive, fragrant dry white with a peachy character.
Dubbed “the rock star of Croatian wine,” Trapan is a flamboyant celebrity who spends most of the year on promotional tours, making TV appearances, and hosting endless parties and tastings.
“But it’s not just about me. It’s about raising awareness of Istria and its great wines,” demurs the uncompromising viticulturist.
“I didn’t choose wine. Wine chose me. When I bought this 12-hectare property in 2006, my dad called me an idiot because it was so rocky. We had to bulldoze 60 tonnes of rock. I chose this location purely on intuition,” he says.
Trapan’s intuition proved uncanny. Today his 100 per cent organic wines are applauded by Decanter magazine, fetching top dollar in high-end restaurants on the US East Coast.
Taste of iron
Crafted with “love, energy, and courage,” Trapan’s top sellers include Ponente, a fresh malvasia (Croatia’s second most planted wine grape variety) and Terra Mare, a red made from 100 per cent teran grapes.
Like Brist olive oil, Trapan wines are crafted labour-intensively in small quantities, with over 50 per cent of output sold locally.
“We’re too small to be cheap! And we plan to keep it that way, focusing on quality,” vows Trapan.
Perched on the Istrian Peninsula, Pula is an intriguing mix of Slavic and Italianate influences.
“It’s a true cultural melting pot. We embrace a culture of openness,” says local history expert Nenad Stojkovski. Located only 120 kilometres from Trieste, Pula’s cultural diversity is reflected in everything from its cuisine to the local dialect, Istroveneto. The eclectic architecture ranges in style from the 1st century Roman amphitheatre to hulking fascist monuments.
Text and photos Silja Kudel