Sometimes small words conjure oversize magic. When our friend Massimo asked if we would like to help with olive harvest on Hvar island’s #UNESCO-recognized Stari Grad Plain, we said, “Uhm, yes,” and soon found ourselves in a field belonging to the Stancic family. Huddled with sons, cousins, neighbors, friends – and us newbies – the husband and wife team gave us one mission: pick as many olives as you can.
For almost 2,400 years, since Greek immigrants arrived and divvied up farming plots, this fertile plain has produced olive oil, wine, vegetables, and herbs. Although we had no idea what we were getting into – and worried with the language barrier we would slow down the process – excitement about being a tiny part of this rich tradition outweighed apprehension.
Five minutes of hand gesturing and hands-on demonstrations and we were waved off into the trees. Through watching and replicating, we acquired a few picking tricks as mounds of dark olives began to pool around our feet. With broken English and Croatian – and the help of an English-speaking daughter-in-law who arrived mid-morning, we learned that not only was our host Antun a renowned farmer, the family patriarch is also a chef. We also learned, even with a dozen set of hands, plucking every single olive from every branch on a big ‘ole tree takes longer than ever imagined.
As the day rolled on and buckets overflowed, everyone began to shed layers. Even in November, Croatia’s sunniest island delivers bright rays and, surprisingly warm temps. Thoughts began to drift to refreshment. As if on cue, we noticed smoke billowing from behind a stone wall. Antun had slipped away from the picking and was now grilling pork over coals. When we agreed to help our friend’s friend with harvest, we didn’t expect to be treated to a meal.
What a treat it would turn out to be. The alfresco feast – casually shared while seated on buckets, stone wall and ground around Antun’s van – included the sweetest bell peppers I’ve ever tasted; Ajvar, a beloved Croatian dish of peppers and garlic, freshly baked bread, and, of course, homemade olive oil, plump olives, and homemade wine. Meal and setting were simple perfection.
With bellies and hearts full, we began saying goodbye. As we were walking away, Antun delivered yet another surprise by asking, “Would you like to come to our house tonight, see our restaurant, and taste more of our wine?”
The only correct answer?
When you visit Hvar, be sure to eat and drink all things at Restaurant Santa Marija in the tiny village of Dol and whatever you are asked, reply “Yes!” (Or, “Da,” in Croatian).
Here’s a link to the Stancic family’s restaurant and apartments. Between Antun and his wife Katarina they craft everything in sight from seed to plate and glass : http://www.apartmanisantamarija.com/en/