Vivian Grisogono


  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email
  • Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF

There are olives everywhere on Hvar during November, on the trees, piled up in crates and sacks by the paths and roads, or being transported on trailers, trucks and tractors, slow or fast, but always rattling with noisy self-assurance.


Olive picking is intensive manual labour. It takes precedence over almost everything. People with jobs try to fit in their work around the picking, or take annual leave. Those with a lot of trees may spend several weeks bringing the olives in. The quality of oil produced on the island is generally considered very fine. Not surprisingly, oil costs a lot more per litre than most locally produced wines, although it's still cheaper than oil of similar quality sold in the United Kingdom. Many summer visitors to the island make a point of buying olive oil to take home.

Picking olives. Photo Vivian Grisogono

In some Mediterranean countries, people beat and shake the trees so that the olives fall on to sheeting spread out below. In Dalmatia sheeting is also used, but the trees are more fragile, so the olives are picked by hand, almost individually. Some people use little rakes, others just scrape the fruits down the branches with their fingers.

Wise pickers wear protective glasses: every year there are eye patches around the villages testifying to unhappy encounters with olive branches. Picking involves bending, stretching, climbing up ladders, sorting the fruit into buckets and then into sacks or crates. The sheeting is stretched out under each tree in turn. Most of the olives are gathered in the sheeting, but some pickers working at the edges of the trees use pouches round their waists, or put the olives straight into the buckets. Some of the best black olives are separated out for eating. Carrying the sacks or crates weighing up to 50 kilograms to the transport is the heaviest work, and can involve a long walk on uneven, stony and often steep paths.

Of the most commonly grown varieties of olive, the native “oblica” (pictured below) has a relatively large fruit, whereas the “lastovka” is very small and much more arduous to harvest. Most people prune their trees during the picking, aiming at encouraging low healthy growth for easier picking in the future.

People help each other during the olive picking season, so the work is made lighter by a constant flow of banter and the inevitable short breaks for water, coffee, wine and food, depending on the time of day. You can catch up with the gossip, history, politics, religion, or just get on with picking in silent contemplation.

By contrast with the grape harvest, olive picking doesn’t start early in the day, as there is usually too much dew on the trees. Picking olives in the dew causes yellowing and rotting of the leaves. A typical day of olive picking starts between 9 and 11am, and continues until about 3.30pm, when the light starts to fail, the air gets chillier, and the dew starts to fall again if it’s been a warm day. Around noon there is usually a short break for a light meal - Dalmatians are very particular about feeding at regular intervals. At the end of the picking there is a late lunch, usually of good wholesome warming food like “bakalar” (salt cod, most often stewed with vegetables) or barbecued meat or fish. If the weather is very fine, the food is barbecued in the fields, but more often the meal is eaten at the home of the person whose olives have been harvested that day.

Meanwhile, the olives go to be processed into oil, often on the day of picking. There are several oil processing works on the island, some using very old methods, others more modern. Most use cold water for the pressing, and most people consider this produces much better oil than hot water pressing.

The press owned by Antun Balic in the village of Svirce is state-of-the-art, and runs virtually non-stop during the olive season.

Certificates of excellence line one wall, and the centrepiece is a relief of St. Spiridion, a peasant from Cyprus who became a Christian bishop, but was then martyred under Diocletian’s anti-Christian purges at the end of the 3rd century. St. Spiridion oversees the work of the oil press, which is closed on December 14th, his feast day.

Olives arrive in vast quantities by appointment. Anyone with only a small amount of olives has to join in with a bigger producer. My modest contribution of two small sacks totalling 38 kilograms was added to the truckload picked that day by neighbour Nikica and a large group of friends. As a rough guide, about 10-14% of oil is produced per kilo of olives, so that 10 kilos will yield something over 1 litre of oil. Each consignment is weighed, and then processed in turn.

The olives are run through a separator which removes any leaves or twigs, and then passed through the cold water washes. The waste materials are pumped outside the building and collected on to lorries for removal.

In the final stage the water is separated out and the owner collects the oil in canisters. The whole process takes about an hour and a half.

After that, few can resist a ceremonial tasting, although the oil really needs several days to settle after processing, to allow cloudiness to disperse.

Most people finish their olive harvest before Christmas, although some years the crop is delayed and picking continues into January. Then it’s time to rest, for a short while at least. During the weeks following the harvest, more pruning of the trees may be done, and people spread fertilizer or manure around the roots. New trees are planted, so that they benefit from the winter rains. The wild boar love animal dung, and can cause damage when they dig for it, but ecologically minded farmers still use it in preference to artificial fertilizers, digging it in carefully to make it less accessible. The fields are also cleared of brushwood and debris that can’t be used. Like echoes of native American signals, scattered columns of smoke rise from the fires dotted far and wide around the landscape. Open fires in the fields are only allowed during the winter months, and there are regulations to protect against forest fires, the main one being that a fire must not be left unattended while flames are still burning.

As these post -harvest tasks are completed in the olive groves, people turn their attention to the vineyards. The initial preparation of cutting and training the vines usually starts immediately after Christmas.

© Vivian Grisogono 2007