On our must have list when looking for the perfect Italian property was amongst others – an olive grove. Not totally sure why as back then in 2003 we didn’t even know the health benefits of EVO but the thought of producing our very own oil was a dream of the ‘Italian good life. Now a bottle of our oil is common place in our kitchen, a part of daily life, a drizzle here and a drizzle there. I have discovered so many uses for it in almost all my dishes, including many cakes I bake. Poured onto freshly toasted sourdough bread it has become a favourite snack that I often eat standing up, whilst in the midst of other kitchen work.
Our first olive harvest was a bit of a challenge and definitely one of the least pleasant! It was november 2004 and the house we were beginning to restore had no roof on, we had three small children to look after, and no idea how to even pick the olives. Our Italian neighbours ( I will tell you about them another time) lent us their old nets which were full of holes and told us that it was very important to remove all the leaves and twigs from the picked olives. We picked by day, and once kids were in bed we strapped on head torches( we had no real electricity back then) and removed all the leaves. To add to our exhaustion, the only appointment we could get to press the olives was during the night. Off Thomas went and was gone most of the night. He discovered that for a few euros the olives could be shaken clean of their leaves but as we now know, the local farmers are very, very careful with their ‘pennies’.
When finally the oil, our very own single estate, organic EVO oil came home we prepared the local white bread and drizzled on the viscous, luminescent green oil onto the slices. With it dripping down our hands as we lifted the bread slices, we tasted it for the first time. It was and is peppery, with undertones of green grass. We felt so proud!
Thirteen years on, we are more prepared, knowledgeable, and have our own hole free nets! The olives were ready early this year, for mid October, so we enjoyed gorgeous sunshine. Our 2007 planted olive grove, gave us 200 kilo of olives this year, despite damage from the huge snowfall of last winter which laid heavily on the young trees, breaking some almost in half. They are tough trees ( well actually bushes) and revive amazingly. The soft hills of Le Marche are dotted with these silvery trees, some ancient, some pruned neatly, some untamed but they all signify a durability which echoes that of the local farmers.
We still pick by hand with rakes. It’s like combing through my daughters mass of curly hair when she was younger. The olives pop off and land on the net which is often edged with a variety of sticks and crates to prevent the olives rolling straight off the net. I do wander as I drive around why some trees have been planted on banks and slopes but then again the past farmers would have wanted to make use of every bit of land and the impractical act of ensuring olives don’t roll away once picked would have been far from their thoughts. Some of our trees are old and after years of no pruning( before our time) they are wide and high, thus a special ladder is used to get to the higher branches.
Accidents are common. Olive branches are brittle and can break suddenly with the weight of a person trying to reach the olives. Our friend fell this way, landed heavily on top of the broken branch and ended up in hospital. Ladders can also be perilous. Thomas fell backwards from his ladder during this years harvest and was luckily only badly bruised. Our Italian farmer neighbour uses a mechanical picker, a big claw like thing which shakes the olives from the branches. Its the future and requires less people to work around the tree. We have many carbenella olive trees, which give a superior oil but don’t take well to the new way of doing things, thus we rope in our teenage kids, our English neighbours and visiting parents.
Once picked they must be pressed asap or they begin to deteriorate and lose important levels of acidity. The frantoio or olive mill is a buzz of activity and each person watches their own olives being processed, checking every stage. First they are cleaned and leaves removed, although a few left in will add to the flavour, so I am told! Then they disappear up a conveyer belt to be crushed, by huge rolling millstones. The mush is then spread on huge discs and pressed in layers to squeeze out all the water.
Finally the water is separated from the oil which eventually pours slowly out into the containers. The amount of oil that pours out is precisely measured and your ‘resa’ ( yield or amount of oil per 100 kilo)is calculated. Ours is always high, but we don’t brag. After all, we are foreigners and thus whisper the 18 ‘resa’ quietly to ourselves. This year due to an extraordinary dry summer, our resa is only 14 but still higher than others so we keep quiet whilst in the mill and congratulate ourselves later in private, whilst tasting it with toasted bread.
Tasting olive oil correctly is something we’ve learnt, alongside guests with Tiziano who is the local expert. He places various oils in tiny cups. We hold them in our hands, first breathing in the aroma, writing down our thoughts. Then sipping them pure or rather slurping them on our tongue and ticking a list of whether it reminds us of fresh grass, or …………… Its like a wine tasting and Italy is now realising that oils like wines can be expertly assessed and scaled. Single estate olive oils from one farm, and perhaps from one type of olive tree is becoming a foodie thing.