Lavender – the purple gold of Hvar

June 3, 2023

Lavender is a big part of the history of the island of Hvar. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the purple gold of the island. Lavender harvest defined daily life and lavender essential oil brought income to the island. Today lavender is more of a souvenir. Even though its value’s still immense. Lavender harvest is fulfilling and tiring at the same time. Many small and beautiful details of dalmatian tradition can be discovered in the lavender production process. Find out more about the harvest period, lavender essential oil production, and where you can book the experience.

Lavender and cooperatives

Cooperatives existed in the 19th century all through Croatia. In ex-Jugoslavija, they were responsible for exporting many agricultural goods on the market. They were a guarantee for getting the maximum price on the market. Among many agricultural products, on the island of Hvar, lavender essential oil stands out.

The nearest cooperative to the town of Hvar can be found in the village of Velo Grablje.

Lavender before and today

In the nineties, cooperatives and with them the system fell apart. So people started selling on their own directly to buyers. Simply put, Croatia went from a common system of production into a capitalistic one.

Today, when you take a stroll through any of Dalmatian ports, you’ll find small lavender products sold as souvenirs. Those are leftovers of a quite large industry that existed in mid 20th century. On the island of Hvar, lavender fields used to cover up to one-fifth of the whole island.

Today, lavender producers are rare. Just a fistful of early risers stayed in an almost-lost industry. The lavender scent is still astonishing and literally breathtaking. I know it, from personal experience. But the market changed, and with it, the habits of many.

And why “early riser”? Because we harvest lavender from 4 – 10 am.

In the eighties, during one working summer, only with the income from lavender essential oil, people could buy a car. And that was a big deal, at the time. Sure, it wasn’t Tesla, but still, it was a car.

Cooperatives and coworking

Coworking centers are a great hit in today’s societies, especially in Western-oriented societies. Especially after COVID-19, which is a story in itself. In addition, in the bigger cities in Croatia, such as Split, Zadar, and Zagreb, coworking centers are a great basis for many digital nomads. They are a way to spend time with other people. A way to integrate into society. Which is pretty cool.

Lambik or distillery (lavender production center) used to belong to the community and it was used by whoever needed to “bake” (as we say) lavender. Usage of the machinery (caldron, boiler) was paid for in goods, lavender oil. And today we pay in cash to a private owner of a distillery.

The coworking system is how many agricultural communities used to operate.

Usually, a distillery’s a house or a space where we have machinery used for the production of lavender essential oil. Inside that house/space is a pretty large caldron (boiler) used for the production of lavender essential oil. Or a couple of them. The lavender is harvested by a wider family, and then lavender essential oil is made in common lavender production centers or lambik. Quite a coworking and cooperating.

It’s the same thing with the production of olive oil, by the way. Or rakija (grappa, schnapps, shotch, etc.). And there are a number of private producers of olive oil on the island, and wider all through Dalmatia/Croatia. For instance, myself.

In the distillery, called lambik

Kol’ko butoje?” or “How much does it throw?” That’s the first question we ask each other, as we enter the lavender production center during the “baking” (cooking) period. It means, “How much lavender essential oil are you getting?”

Or “how many liters per sack do you get?”. Which is pretty cool as a measure. Each sack of lavender is around 25 or 30 kilograms. Which would be around 55 – 65 pounds. So if you get a liter per sack, your effort was worthwhile. If not…, well, what can I tell you…, work harder.

There can be simple reasons why it’s less than a liter per sack. You harvested it too late, meaning mid-July. And it was already dry. Or you should stop staying out and drinking late. Because of your partying, you’re obviously starting the daily harvest too late in the day; when the Sun is high on the horizon and lavender is again, already dried.

Or it might be because of the drought, and so on.

The romance behind it all

While lavender is in one of the caldrons, one person needs to enter and press the lavender with their feet. Pressing of lavender is done before the lid is placed and everything is sealed for the baking process. And, that lucky person is usually me.

Of course, I have my shoes on as it’s not pressing of grapes. While I’m pressing lavender with my weight and moving in circles, others are releasing the heat to soften the lavender.

It’s like an African tribal dance in a big caldron stuffed with lavender. And the rhythm is given by the rising heat of steam around me.

So how do you release the heat? You are gradually letting H2O steam inside, from below. And of course, when your coworkers are your two beer-drinking brothers nearby, nothing happens by accident.

Like an enormous amount of hot steam that you find yourself eventually in.

It’s amusing for them to see somebody vanishing in the lavender steam while being inside the cauldron. And that’s like 130 Farenheits of lavender that I’m in. And they’re laughing outside. I’m on higher ground and you can’t just jump out of it. So I have to suck it up and finish the job. Later on, I’ll get them back, somehow…

After that experience, people could smell me from 600 feet away, for a month.

Production of lavender essential oil

Lavender oil is baked or cooked.

the production process is distillation. The same way you would make rakija, grappa, snaps, scotch, or any other hard liquor. If you never did it, give it a try. It’s pretty cool and you’ll have a lot of fun. I actually found on eBay all you need for homemade hard liqueur production, going for around 100 euros. Chipchange for a nice glass of rakija.

Lavender is placed in one caldron. Another one – standing right next to it – is filled with water and a spiral tube passes through all the way down. The same spiral tube starts from the lid, that is placed on the caldron in which lavender is. While lavender is baked, lavender steam together with water steam passes through the spiral tubes. Because the spiral tube is surrounded by cool water from the outside, the steam becomes liquid again (H2O). And, of course, the oil floats on the surface.

As simple as that.

And then you just scoop up the oil from the surface. The water that’s used in the production becomes hydralyte.


Lavender harvest

Lavender harvest is a really cool experience. It stays with you for a lifetime. While working in nature, you organize your days according to nature. It’s a huge value that you realize only later in your life.

The skies and scents in the early morning are unbelievably beautiful. Fulfilling. In the beginning bugs and bees are annoying. Herbs and dry bushes leave scratches on your skin that itch. But as time passes by, you get used to it. You become part of everything and nature becomes part of you. Eventually, you don’t care for the buzzing sound, scratches don’t itch, and the only thing you have on your mind is: how refreshing is the sparkling sea below. And then, everything’s just nice.

The harvest takes place between June and July. Hvar is the sunniest island in the Adriatic and Europe. So, understandably the lavender harvest starts already in June. For comparison, in the northern parts of Croatia, they wait till September for the lavender harvest.

Harvest timetable would be from 4 – 10 am and 5 – 9 pm. When the Sun is mild and nature peaceful. Breakfast’s a fistful of fruits. 2 liters of water per person are a must. We harvest with sickles. And we harvest only the buds. Actually, we harvest the whole length of a stem. But then we re-cut the stem and only the bud goes in the sack. Later on, only the bud is “baked” or “cooked” (used for getting the lavender essential oil).

Out of curiosity, once I tried selling lavender essential oil to a firm from China. They wanted to know how big is our bud and how many containers can I send them. But with lavender from the island of Hvar, it doesn’t go like that. The small producers produce between 20 and 50 liters per year. I mean, there’s a reason why it’s called essential oil.

To get a liter of oil, you need the whole morning. Those experienced ones, that are harvesting lavender oil longer than they are alive, can squeeze up to two liters in the morning. Or two sacks. Around 60 kilos (130 pounds) of lavender bud. Like my grandma. But those people are from another planet.

Once, out of fun, I filmed her while harvesting. Later on, when I was watching the record, I couldn’t spot her hands. It looked like I fast forward it, how fast her hands were moving. If she’d been born in Vegas, she would be the card dealer of all time.

Is it a lavender of lavandin?

It’s lavandin, in short. The bud of our lavender is bigger than the one you’ll find in France. It’s a sort of lavender called Budrovka. And how does that influence its quality?

Let’s put it this way. Hvar is the sunniest island in Europe. And with it, a dry one. Being an island, there’s not so much traffic and pollution. Mostly in the summertime. Fields are usually tucked away and approachable on foot or on a donkey. (They were the working force of the island before, but that’s another story.) Dalmatia has 12 different directions of the wind. Among them, bura is often mentioned. It can blow easily over 100 miles per hour. We call it “the cleaning lady”. Lots of wind changes give clean air. So, when you take it all into consideration, our lavender is stuffed with sun rays and fresh air. Due to red and dry soil, it’s a concentrated oil, lacking water, and an abundance of minerals.

The declaration is for suckers

I’m exaggerating, do you think? Send me an inquiry for a lavender fields experience tour and I might have a spot for you. You’ll see it for yourself and then you can let me know if I was exaggerating. See ya soon.

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