In a hall at Battersea Arts Centre, just round the corner from Clapham Junction, the European Union’s latest recruit was showing off its wares.
While Europe continues to divide the Conservative party and define Ukip by what it opposes, here were businesses keen to make deals in the single market.
Croatia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and later part of Marshall Tito’s communist federation of Yugoslavia. It declared independence in 1991 and cleared occupying Serb armies by 1995. Now a member of Nato, Croatia signed the EU treaty of accession in 2011 and will become a member on 1 July.
Stalls at a trade fair organised by the British Croation Business Club were festooned with products that will be familiar to tourists who venture further south to Greece or Turkey – many the products of the olive tree. Olive oil, olive oil soap infused with medicinal herbs, olive tapenade.
Neb Chupin of Hermes International was promoting the Taste Dalmatia range of conserves. There were bitesize samples of tapenade, sour cherry or organic fig spread, the latter an explosion of flavour when married with a little cheese.
A British couple, Tim and Paula Batson-Jones, were explaining how they are involved at every stage of producing their 100% extra virgin olive oil. They help harvest the native Oblica olives from their own groves on Brač, near Split, oversee its pressing and bottling, then drive back to Bristol and sell mail order through their website, croatianimports.co.uk.
Sounds small scale. Yes, but they recently saw off 200 rivals to win a gold medal for the quality of their oil. That sounds like a recipe for success.
Tim sounds a little concerned for Croatia’s future in the EU. It’s perfect as it is, he reckons. Small, you feel, is beautiful for many of the stallholders. It’s explained to me that while much business is carried out in euros, the country will be retaining its own currency, the kuna. It means marten in Croatian and is based on the medieval use of pelts as units of trading value. There are 100 lipa (linden or lime trees) to the kuna.
Another British enthusiast for the country, Sarah Driver of Walk Croatia, can hardly wait to accompany the first group of the summer to go wine tasting along the Pelješac peninsula, north of Dubrovnik. It’s not just the wine or the walking, but the oysters of Mali Ston Bay, the only successful breeding ground of the European flat oyster, Ostrea edulis. The company offers island-hopping walking and sailing holidays in the Dubrovnik region.
You don’t have to go far to find historical sites, islands with empty beaches or rugged mountain scenery in a country where the climate is a mix of the Mediterranean and continental.
There were bigger companies represented, among them Croatia Airlines, patrt of the Star Alliance, and Valamar Hotels & Resorts with 39 properties along the Adriatic coast. They represent the modern face of Croatian corporate business, with glossy bilingual inflight magazines and brochures.
There was tradition too, in the cheeses of Paska Sirana, a company from the island of Pag. Layers of sea salt swept in by the winter winds cover the grasses and herbs of this rocky island. Paški Sir, the hard cheese made from the milk of sheep that graze this land, has protected geographical origin and a unique taste. Eat as an appetiser if young, and a dessert if old.
But I was most taken by the enthusiasm of Hrvoje Subat, a young committee member of the British Croatian Business Club who lives in London and energetically promotes his home country as a place to invest in property; of wine importer Mislav Kapetanovic, shepherding tastings of fresh, green appley Grasevina whites, a modern take on native grapes from the Danube valley bottled by vintner Vina Belje, alongside more traditional reds including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
It made for a heartening contrast to the blinkered British cynicism about Europe and all its works. And it made me add Croatia to my must-see list of countries.