Life in a Dol house Special -
2018  -  Week 27

Harvest time

Ask about what is grown and harvested around the Mediterranean and you will have a long list of fruits and vegetables, grain crops, legumes, nuts, drupes and grapes. 

Around Dol, we have a good representative sample of most of these. 

Whilst a lot is grown for sale elsewhere in Europe (eg wine), or for the local market, a considerable amount of the fruit and vegetables that local people grow, is for their own and their extended family's consumption. 

Walk along the paths and green lanes and you will see there is almost a mono culture.

Well two mono cultures to be precise: olives and vines. 

The road to the villages threads its way between olive groves on either side, while in the flat valley bottoms row upon row of vines can be glimpsed between the olive trees that cling to the banks and hill sides. 

There are occasional fields of Lavender, but other villages are known for their Lavender, for example Velo Grablje. 

The village distillery in Dol long ago ceased operation - and there was a time when every village on the island had one.They closed when there were not enough of any of the five herbs that were once cultivated for their essential oils, grown any more. 

Rosemary, Sage, and Basil were all once commercial crops. Something which was also distilled in the past, although it will not immediately come to mind, is Maple Syrup, made from the Mediterranean Acer trees.

An even less well known crop that is being harvested at the moment is the Curry Plant, Helichrysum italicum. 

At Jogodna on the central plateau of the island, above and to the south of Dol, there are huge swathes of Helichrysum italicum and this week I've been helping a friend harvest his crop. 

Toni has spent a lot of time and effort to clear the stones from his fields and to increase the size of the parcels so that the latest in machinery can be brought in to harvest the crop. 

When you think of curry, it may be that glass jar of orange curry powder that you have in your kitchen spice rack. But that curry powder is a blend of spices, originating in the Indian sub-continent, chiefly ginger, turmeric garlic and chili. 

The curry plant that is grown on the hillsides above Dol is used in small quantities to flavour soups and meat dishes, using young tender shoots, in the same way sage, rosemary and thyme are used. 

But although there is an intense smell of curry whilst the machine is harvesting the crop, it is the bright yellow flowers that are cut and bagged, then sent to a distillery for the oil to be extracted. 

The island of Hvar is 68 kilometers long, east to west and at its widest 11 km, with a limestone ridge rising steadily from Sućuraj in the east to the highest point on the Island, Svetac Nikola, at 628 meters AMSL elevation.

The fields of Curry Plant are all around the 550 meter elevation mark and can clearly be seen from Google Earth

Although limestone landscapes, known to geologists as Karst, tend to be dry and with a very distinctive range of flora, as I walked the fields, I was surprised by how deep the soils were, especially when compared to the thin apology for a soil that I have at my home. 

Although the rains have washed the soils down below a surface crust of white limestone, once you dig down the soil is a rich, deep, dark brown and surprisingly moist too. 

The Curry Plant likes these conditions and thrives in these exposed fields. 

To the south there is only the warm blue waters of the Adriatic, stretching uninterrupted to the Ionian Sea and thence the coast of North Africa. 

To the north a limestone ridge, 30 meters above the fields protects them from the cold northern wind, the Bura. 

My friend Toni has done an incredible job of turning his small family plots into a field structure that will retain moisture, grow a crop and allow mechanical harvesting to take place. 

With the plants now growing well, they will prevent soil erosion by wind an rain.

There are only four of these Messis machines in the country, so to have one here on Hvar is very much a first for the island. 

Although a two man operation, one driving the other removing weeds and ensuring the cutting head remain free of obstruction, the time and sheer hard work that is saved over the old way of gathering the crop by hand, also in the baking heat of summer, cannot be overstated. 

Two runs up and down the hillside fills the collection bin at the back of the tractor, which then dumps the load at a convenient point around the periphery of the field. 

This is one of those resilient crops which delights farms. 

You don't have to wait in the morning until the overnight dew has burnt off, so harvest can begin at first light. 

The crop does not have to be protected against the elements once it has been harvested. It can be left in large heaps on the field headlands. 

Then when there is enough to make it worthwhile to bring a big truck up the hillside, the flowers can be loaded and taken on the ferry to the mainland where there is the nearest large scale distilling facility.

There is an incredible amount of wildlife which uses the crop too.

This is the first year of commercial cropping, and a representative sample of the crop was taken along to the only functioning small scale distillery on the island, at the heritage village of Humac

Here, in a building which used to be a goat shed, a modern, wood fired, stainless steel distillery operates. 

A load of 100 kilos of Helichrysum flowers is loaded into the pressure vessel in the centre, while the boiler on the left is heating the water to boiling point.

The pressure vessel is filled to the brim with flowers, then the top is lowered and sealed.

You may remember the theory of distillation from school physics and chemistry. 

It is a way of separating out different substances by using steam and then condensing the steam with cold water to separate the different volatile elements. 

For a load of 100 KG, it takes between 1¾ and two hours at 128ºC. 

The boiling water is introduced under pressure to the expansion vessel and the resulting steam is piped, still under pressure to the condenser. 

Initially steam starts to flow from the outlet pipe and then slowly but surely a thin layer of olive green oil start to appear, floating on the top of the receiving flask. At the end of the process, this oil is carefully separated from the water and decanted into sterilised bottles.

One will be sent to a laboratory for a full analysis of the oil, so that there is a baseline of the quality and consituents parts of the oil. 

Our sample of 100KG of flowers produced around 750ml of oil. 600ml is average, so my friend was happy with the result. 

Towards the end of the process, the heat and pressure is increased and the last big bubbles of oil rise to the top of the receiving flask. 

Then the fire is dropped, the water pump turned off and pressure is released. 

The pressure vessel is moved outside and the boiled remains of the plants are added to the heap outside the distillery. 

This will eventually go back onto the fields as compost to improve the soil.

Meanwhile, up on the hills above Dol harvesting is still going on and the truck loads of cut flowers are now being sent to Split for the full commercial process. 

The distilled oil has a number of uses. 

Aside of the use of oil in the perfume trade, the oil has medicinal properties that can heal burned skin or chapped lips. 

It serves as an anti-inflammatory and fungicidal astringent for skin. 

Medicinally it is an anticoagulant that can help thin the blood and decrease the risk of heart attacks for those who have high cholesterol levels. 

The oil can act as a catalyst to stimulate enzymes in the body which dissolve blood clots that form from internal haemorrhaging. 

It can also treat symptoms like coughing and fever. 

Oil from the curry plant can be utilised for aromatherapy to reduce anxiety and stress. 

It is often applied to skin as a moisturiser or to help scars to fade. 

Since the oil has antiseptic and antibacterial properties, it can also be applied directly to cuts or wounds. 

Flowers from the curry plant can be used to make herbal tea and I mentioned at the start that in Mediterranean cuisine, the plant's leaves can be freshly plucked and added to salads and cooked dishes. 

The essential oil extracted from the plant has also been used in making ice creams, sweets, baked goods, soft drinks, and chewing gum in order to enhance fruit flavors.

So when next you see a small bottle of an essential oil from Hvar, think of me and my friends in the fields high above Dol, working hard in the baking July sun, to bring the harvest in.


The natural year in Dol: : 

The weather today in Dol : 

Vrijeme danas u Dol: