From small acorns, or rather olives, a huge globally successful business has grown. Sandi Chiavalon was only 13 years old when he started out, helping on his family’s olive grove in Vodnjan, planting their first 100 olive trees.
Now, more than 20 years later, Chiavalon oversees nearly 8,000 olive trees, and export their award-winning extra virgin olive oil to more than a dozen countries around the world.
Sandi had learned his love of cultivation from his grandfather. When he was younger, as a small boy he would visit his grandfather’s olive grove, then a modest plot of some 50 trees, all of them centuries old. After his grandfather passed away, there was no-one left to tend to them – until Sandi and his family set about bedding in new plants.
Inspired by his grandfather, Sandi took the work seriously. First graduating from the Agricultural School in Poreč then enrolling at the Faculty of Agriculture in Zagreb, Sandi gained the modern-day knowledge you need to set yourself up in this competitive business.
Olives have been cultivated in Istria since Roman times, and almost certainly even before then. Because of Istria’s northerly latitude, olives ripen later and produce few acids. They are superior to those grown in, say, Dalmatia, in the south. Although each crop yields a relatively small quantity of oil, the quality of that oil is quite simply the finest.
Olives were traditionally harvested by shaking the boughs of the tree – or even the whole tree. Today, in many parts of the world, machines do the work. Here in Istria, handpicking is more common as the terrain is less suitable for machines – and because this produces a far better end result.
It is said that only olive oil from Istria – Terra Magica to the Romans – graced the tables of the Caesars. It was also exported across the Roman Empire.
After the Romans left, olive cultivation in Istria tailed off and an influx of cheap sunflower oil from Slavonia from the 1950s onwards did the rest. A few family olive groves, such as Sandi’s grandfather’s, were all that remained.
The resurgence of world-class production from the mid-1990s, in tandem with the revival of Istria’s wine industry, sprang from ambitious young producers such as Sandi Chiavalon. They not only saw this not only as a business opportunity but also as a chance to continue the work and respect the heritage of their forefathers.
Bringing in the agro-ecological technology learned in Zagreb, Chiavalon focused on the five indigenous olive varieties of the Vodnjan region: Buža, Bjelica, Crnica, Moražola and Rožinjola. Again, legacy was paramount in his planning.
Another crucial factor in Sandi’s success was his decision to harvest early and process the same day. Little known at the time, this method – carried out when about a third of the fruit had changed their colour, and processing with modern-day cold-press technology so that the end result contained significant antioxidants – created particularly healthy olive oil of the finest quality.
Storage is equally important. Here at Chiavalon, the olive oil is stored in stainless-steel containers with inert gas at a constant temperature of 16 degrees. This way, oxidation does not occur.
Since 2005, Chiavalon have been showered with international awards – most notably their Ex Albis being named among Flos Olei’s Top 15 Olive Oils in the World, and included in the Top 25 Organic Olive-Oil Producers in the World. The Istrian peninsula scored the title of best olive oil producing region in the world four years in a row.
Current products include Organic of intense green, ideally paired with shellfish, tuna and all types of pasta, Romano for fish and mixed vegetable salads, and Mlado, produced during the first three days of early harvest at the start of October, and only in a limited quantity of 2,500 bottles. As Sandi’s grandfather would have done, the new oil is first served with warm, homemade bread – and thereafter, to accompany fish or pasta. A bottle of the ExAlbis is a versatile buy, it’s fresh, nutty flavour makes it easy to splash over salads and the Atilio pairs perfectly with red meat.
Chiavalon’s oils can be sampled and bought in situ, as part of a personal tour around the estate in the centre of Vodnjan, north of Pula. You can learn about the production process and how to spot authentic extra virgin olive oil as part of several tours and workshops - or customise your own private, tailor-made tour at the family estate.