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: info@bellaugello.com

As well as being geographically central in Italy, Umbria is central to tradition and on the Friday of the Easter weekend towns all over the region witness the “Processione di Cristo Morto” – the procession of the dead Christ.  At Bellaugello Gay Guest House we are a few km from the medieval city of Gubbio where the preparations already began some weeks ago and it is an event that we love to share with our guests and hate to miss.

In the weeks preceding Easter go to dinner in Gubbio and you might just hear and catch a glimpse of a group of men racing down medieval streets, stopping outside a church and begin chanting, the Miserere, it is a haunting, deep, dramatic melody and part of the tradition that makes Italy so very special.  On different evenings they sing outside some of the many churches in the historic centre.

Friday evening before Easter Sunday the effigy is taken from the church of San Domenico and processed around the medieval city centre.  The procession is heard before seen, the sound of the sinister ‘battistrangole’ arrives long before we catch sight of the Carabiniere who walk in front of the men in cloaks, all but hidden except for their eyes.

Last night the crowds of spectators were large, it seems all the town and many tourists came out to witness the procession.  Many are believers and were seen crossing themselves, many others not, no judgement made, everyone mingling happily together.  Soon I heard the Miserere the choir walking slowly behind the effigy of Christ carried on the shoulders of four strong men.

The procession wends its way round the historic centre, up and down narrow candle-lit streets, crowds follow and we pass one of the huge bonfires lit in the streets:

If you look carefully you just see me on the right of the photo, it gives you an idea of the scale of the fire.  I remarked to a friend that this could only happen here in Italy.  Back in the UK there would be fire brigade, cordons, barriers, police, ambulance and first aid, that is even if the risk assessment would let the fire be lit in the first place, to me it just would not happen, and what a shame, here there is none of that, the fire burns brightly and people walk by. A friend tells me that one year the fire was lit in the same place and melted the telephone box…  he went on to say ‘now everybody has cell phones’.

Part of the joy of evenings like these is seeing familiar faces, meeting people one has not seen for some time and sharing company, so it was we met up with friends and late on were a huge table eating delicious pizzas.  The conclusion to a marvellous evening.

The next date is May 15th when we celebrate the “Festa dei Ceri” the race of the candles, the town fills with men in white trousers carrying three ‘Ceri’ or candles and in the evening racing them up the hill, a truly spectacular day, come join us!

The past several days of glorious weather got me back into the garden here at Bellaugello Gay Guest House.  The garden is huge, it seems as if every year it physically grows, by that I do not mean the plants but the actual garden itself, it is as if a metre stretches itself, thus increasing the workload.  However days spent in the garden are for me pleasurable.

Blowing spring leaves from under the huge fig tree the first primroses and violets are already in bloom.  Cheeky wee violets show timidly from their deep verdant foliage, yellow primroses stand proud and erect, trees are beginning to show bud and the fruit trees the first signs of blooms, all heralding the onset of spring.  Days are getting longer and time before we open on 8th April is getting shorter.  I discover I am not the only one working in the garden, there has been an istrice or porcupine busy.  These devils devour all tubers and bulbs.  Two years ago they ate all the potatoes, this spring they have demolished what was left of my irises, several daffodils and my prized alliums that were looking promising.

Up on the roadside until I manage to burst the tyre I barrowed loads and loads of leaves uphill, burning the dry ones and tipping the soggy ones over the greppo.  A real satisfaction to see the entrance roadway at least half cleared, and the smouldering leaves taking me back to childhood working in the garden with dad.

Even at this time of year the variety of colours never ceases to amaze me.  Rosemary is flowering, pinks and purples, bees buzz busily already seeking nectar, energetic song birds gaily coloured flit from branch to branch checking out possible nesting sights, my lawns are growing in clumps of varying shades of green through yellow, there is a myriad of colours all around, which took me to thinking about other places full of colours and my mind came to rest on the “Festa dei Ceri” the race of the candles run every 15 May in our local town of Gubbio.  This event traces its roots back to pre-christianity a fertility festival, and is the reason our city still exists.  Nothing in Gubbio comes before the Ceri.

Early in the morning there is a buzz in the town, like wasps to a honeypot the streets are filled with people in white pants all heading towards the centro storico.  Some wear yellow shirts, some blue, some black, all adorned with red sashes and neckerchiefs, they are the participants and team supporters.  Others are dressed ‘normally’ the spectators and tourists.  Cramming into the Piazza Grande that magnificent space half way up the town, the tension rises as the ceremony commences. The Sbanditore  or flag throwers arrive, dignitaries, men on horses, trumpeters, all resplendent in traditional costumes, and then the Ceri themselves it is a veritable orgasm of colour and tradition.  The crowd in fever pitch, supporters and ceraioli the guys who will actually carry the three ceri await the appearance of the ceri; San Ubaldo the patron saint of the city, San Giorgio, the saint of the merchants and city dwellers, and ours San Antonio the patron saint of the farmers and country-dwellers, are carried horizontally (and at a run) out of the maginificent Palazzo dei Consoli, the appropriate saints are attached to the ceri and with a blessing from the bishop and baptism with a ceramic pitcher of wine, the ceri are erected to the vertical and the run around the town really begins.  It is amazing to witness.  Here is a wee video that I shot last year of the actual ‘alzata’.

The ceraioli pause for a huge lunch before in the early evening starting all over again and the race begins.  Relay teams carrying the three ceri literally run through the town before racing up through the top city gate and up to the basilica of Saint Ubaldo on the top of the hill behind the town.  Hot sweaty work, muscles bulging, determination on faces, it is a serious event which you really should witness at least one time in you life, and Bellaugello Gay Guest House is the place to stay.

Amidst all the chaos, turbulence and unrest,

I feel so very fortunate to be a simple peasant farmer perched high on a tranquil Umbrian hillside.  Mornings herald new days, some can be dramatic, fiery skies,

others less so…

but in Umbria, the centre of Italy mid way between Rome, Florence and Rimini, there is tranquillity and an escape from the violence of today’s world.  Bellaugello is a place to escape.  Here I am woken by the dawn chorus, birdsong, the rushing of the river cascading over stones way down in the valley, the majesty of the hills that far away encircle my gay guest house provide an inner peace that so many guys come to enjoy.  Wars, job worries, stress, uncertainty and hatred are a far off land, here is an oasis of calm and simple life.  Now that is not to say all is rustic or basic, we enjoy a wonderful swimming pool,

and when one wants to simply chill and relax there are comfortable suites, each one different, furnished with family pieces and items from my collection of life, places to enjoy with your loved one…

I have a great team lined up for this season.  I am shortly to be joined by Bruno who is flying over from Argentina and will be at Bellaugello until late July.  This is not his first trip to Europe, but the first time here in Umbria.  Experienced in the hospitality industry, as well as serving at breakfasts and dinners he will be helping round the pool and Bruno is a qualified masseur and yoga instructor so helping you guys relax and make the most of your holiday.

I would also like to introduce Mateusz who is coming from Poland to join us for the month of July at Bellaugello.  Let him introduce himself in his own words:

“Hi 🙂 ok, as I assumed, it’s so hard to write few sentences about myself… you gave me a hard task! 🙂

Live fast and die young – that is not how could I describe myself. I cherish my friends as well as my family. I’ve been living alone for three years – that’s why I appreciate every moment spent with them.
I’m very orderly person – everything needs to be on its proper place. I’m helpful and easy going guy – although in future I’m going to become a bailiff ;). When I’m off my duties I enjoy nature, books, biking, swimming and have every kind of fun with interesting people.
I’m looking forward to join Alec’s team in July and probably spend the best vacation I’ve ever had. See you there!”

Mateusz who is joining our team in July

Mateusz who is joining our team in July

There are more but for details of those you will have to wait a bit longer, or just book and meet them in person!

This week the English speaking Italian newspaper ‘The Local’ featured an article on “Five crazy Italian festivals nobody should miss” and our local town of Gubbio with its annual “Festa dei Ceri” or race of the candles is up there with the best in the video:

….and to my mind the Calcio Fiorentino looks like another good reason to be staying at Bellaugello Gay Guest House in late June.