Traditionally in the comune of Gubbio the feast of S. Cecilia, the 22nd of November is when it all used to start, but now we start much earlier. I blame enthusiasm and workload. Many believe it is because of global warming (undoubtedly correct), whatever, now we start at the end of October. That is when our olives are ready to be picked.
Like fruit, olives tend to swing between a good year and a poor year. One year a bumper crop and the next a humble offering. These cycles can also be confused and interrupted by weather. Yields can meld into one another. Hail in late spring can blast the small fruit off the branches, as can a late frost burn the flowers and so reduce the fruit quantity. Too much rain (no chance these days) causes the fruit to swell and reduce the oil content, but abundant sunshine throughout the summer and like us guys the olives are in heaven.
I spend mid October in farming mode, scruffy clothes – slightly pungent, strimmer in hands I clear round the trees preparing for harvest. I adore getting down and dirty on the farm. Six hours of strimming and chopping and I am exhausted. From the resulting aches, it is obvious that I am not overly fit. Traditionally in this valley olive groves were also planted with vines between the trees. I guess it was the possibility of maximising crop production on the land. Add to that the planting of roses at the end of every line of vines and there is a myriad of creepery growth to be kept under control.
Fifty plus years ago the then contadini tended an olive tree nursery in the land below the house at Bellaugello. On this sun kissed slope they tended two to three thousand olive tree saplings. On freezing winter nights the family (huge of course) would light fires between the rows of saplings to protect them from the frost. When clearing ground I discovered a strange rectangular structure deep down in the ‘jungle’. A neighbour who had lived in the farmhouse here told me that it was built as a shallow bath, the water then used for watering the saplings. He explained that the spring water was decidedly cold and the shallow water bath warmed the water a little so shocking the tender plantlets less. What devotion, can you imagine parents asking their kids to sit all night in the frost and freezing fog to tend fires in the woods?!
Anyway back to 2018 and the olive harvest. This has been a bumper year. The trees heavily laden with fruit, their branches brought low by the weight. Olive trees flower in mid-May and the fruit begins to form. It grows green, and the varieties of olives at Bellaugello turn black when ripe. No, not all of them turn black, so to gauge when is the right moment to start the ‘raccolta’ I tend to ask and watch my neighbours! We have suffered three years of indifferent harvests. Luckily the olive tree fly is not a huge problem, but annoyingly the weather has not been on our side. Last year there was a late damp spell and then in summer it was burning hot, too hot. This year all went so well. The spring was good and kind, the summer hot and sunny and there was just enough rain at the right time. The trees looked amazing, olives like bunches of grapes hanging from the beautifully pruned branches.
I pick with neighbours here in the valley. They come and help me and I go and help them. Because there are more of them than there is of me I spend much more time on their farm. It is a work I love. Never did I imagine that I would have the opportunity to hand pick organic olives in Italy. We pick in the traditional fashion, no machines, just hands. A net is spread under the tree, and some comb their hands through the lower branches. Some climb ladders and reach the middle sections, and on smaller trees the tops, whilst the adventurous climb into the tree proper and pull the olives from the uppermost supple branches. Your hands get slightly oily, and if tender can be damaged by the constant pulling on the branches, for olive wood is hard.
I am up a tree trying to reach a far out branch and pause to think that I am picking olives in the same way that has been done round the Mediterranean for thousands of years. It is magical. Large trees can yield in excess of 170kg whilst the smallest ones a mere couple of handfuls. We aim to pick all the fruit. That that is unreachable or overlooked we say is ‘left for the birds’. The good fruiting years are most satisfying as the branches are full. Same work, more product.
This year we picked in glorious hot sunshine. T shirts and shorts. We always break for lunch, homemade soup or pasta or risotto, sitting together at one table. After a ‘wee nap’ we head back and work until sundown. The day’s pickings are spread out in a cool room to wait for the trip to the frantoio or olive mill.
Now like men olive mills come in all shapes and sizes. Some are tech savvy milling olives in a vacuum controlled by a copmuter. The frantoio so sterile that it looks like a hospital operating theatre. Some are new and whizzy, built with funds from European farming grants. Some are born in the 1960’s white, shiny clumpy, pedantic and noisy. Some are just plain old fashioned. Me being me I go to the old fashioned frantoio. If I am picking olives as has been done for millennia I want to have the oil milled in them most authentic way.
The earlier one picks olives the less oil one gets but it is noticeably higher quality. Oh yes, you can re-process the olives and it is a widespread practice. But to get the best oil one requires a cold press and a first press. This is how we do it. Come taste it and see. Heat is a no-no. Commercial brands sold in supermarkets mill the olives over and over again and add inferior oils from abroad. They use heat and chemicals to get the last drop of oil out of the fruit with a disastrous lessening of quality.
So I trundle the crates to the frantoio in Gubbio. We go to Rossi. They have stone grind wheels and Luciano one of the partners – it is a cooperative, tells me that he and his brother set it up some twenty years ago. They scoured the Gubbio countryside for equipment and initially found two presses that were in mills that had been powered by water. I understand that Gubbio had at one time some eighty water mills for flour corn and olives. Now Rossi is the last frantoio in Gubbio using traditional stone grind wheels, hydraulic presses and one centrifuge, with a bit of modern technology added! The team is dedicated and a delight to watch and chat to as they turn black fruit into green gold.
My olives are weighed and fed into the washer and leaf extractor.
From there they pass to the grind mill. These two massive stones are some fifteen years old and hopefully will last another seven before they need to be replaced. Black olives turn into a surreal pink paste.
The paste is fed into a container where it is constantly moved ready to be spread on the mats. Traditionally these mats were coir, but are now synthetic. I am told that the paste was almost impossible to remove from the old mats so a new material was introduced. The mats are changed every year.
The mats are stacked one on top of the other, mat – paste – mat -paste until the column reaches over 1.5 metres. Then as the liquid starts to ooze out from the paste mat sandwich they are taken over to the press. The first hour or so the press exerts zero hydraulic pressure. The liquid simply oozes out of the tower.
but then the oil master moves a lever which slowly increases the pressure. The hydraulic ram is heavy, industrial and clanks and groans as it pumps. Our olives are seen in the middle press. An obsessively neat tool bench is evidence of the constant requirement for maintenance and adjustment that this old equipment craves. Finally the pressure reaches 400bar. Yes the hydraulic pressure does slightly heat the oil, but it is very minimal.
Thence the oil passes trough a series of tubes. Some frantoio have their tubes under the floor and it is said by the untrusting that there are cases of deviation tubes, like a blind rail siding in a tunnel, so a certain percentage of oil is diverted to the frantoio proprietor. A former frantoio in a neighbouring town had a reputation for low yields. I’ve heard told that the grandmother sat in the corner dressed in a scruffy black frock with a shabby headscarf and a little black book with a stub of a pencil and like a hawk watched and noted down everything. The frantoio blamed the soil and olive tree variety for the low ‘resa’, but the locals, seeing the owners away from the frantoio dressed smartly with gold jewellery and going on fancy holidays could not accept this argument!
At Rossi the pipes from the press carry the un-diverted liquid to a tank high up on the wall. The liquid is like mud, brown, filthy, and I wonder how this muck can produce olive oil but it does. As if by magic the centrifuge spins off the dirt and water and intense green oil pours into my fusto.
Newly minted olive oil is green, thick, opaque, pungent and piquant.
After some six hours of waiting watching and chatting, the oil is weighed and we head home, remembering to stop on the way at Loredana’s bakery in Ponte d’Assi to buy her delicious warm bread. By tradition we head to my friends house where as we carry in the heavy fusti the wood fire is already lit. Bread is toasted on the wood fire, rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with salt. Then the new oil is liberally poured over the bread to make the best bruschetta imaginable. We wash it down with wine made from organic grapes harvested on the farm, which I too helped pick. Bruschetta with just milled extra virgin cold pressed Bellaugello oil washed down with Pratale wine is orgasmic and cannot be beaten. You can keep your Michelin three star restaurants. This is my favourite dinner of the year.
and this year the olives were bounteous and the oil exquisite. So good I want to bathe in it…
Bellaugello Extra Virgin Cold Pressed Olive Oil 2018 is for sale. €17 per litre plus postage and packing. Various sizes available. We can ship worldwide. Drop me a note for further information: firstname.lastname@example.org