It is 7.00am and I am standing in our olive grove in Penne, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, a part of the country that has largely defied progress, not out of choice, but because it stands to the east of the immense mountain range, part of the Apennines, that has isolated it from the sort of progress that has undermined traditional cultures for so much of Italy. Towering above me are the peaks of the Gran Sasso, 10,000 feet up: glacier in parts and cut off for most of the winter months. Not far up the mountain is a wilderness that still provides a natural habitat for brown bears, Lynx and other exotic species.
When I arrived it was still dark and as I watch the sun rise and light up the branches of these ancient olives trees I wait for the farm workers to arrive, a small gang from an eclectic mix of Baltic states who will help us pick our olives. After many years of managing the harvest remotely this is the first time that I have been here to manage the whole process – and work the trees myself. A moment that is precious and one I will treasure.
But it is back breaking work. Other olive growing regions have grubbed out the old trees to make way for smaller trees, of a size that lend themselves to mechanised forms of collection. But here the ancient trees have been preserved. How old our trees are, I do not know for sure, but the locals look at the twisted trunks, most heavily misshapen, and talk in terms of hundreds of years: maybe 5-600 years for some. These old trunks defy that sort of mechanisation and need to be picked by hand. That is not to say that no mechanisation has been brought to the region but the process is still largely manual, the main change being the use of a wand, a pole, some 2-3 metres in length, connected to the compressor of the farm tractor, using pressurised air to move a pair of mechanical hands, much like a giant clapping machine, that are moved gently along the branches to dislodge the olives. I am working with a gang of 5, three of us moving large nets around the fields as two of the gang work the wands. As the nets fill with fallen olives we harvest them into large plastic vats before moving the nets on to the next set of trees.
At the end of the day I must ensure that I get the olives to the mill whilst the fruit is still fresh. And not just any mill, of course, but one that follows traditional methods and one that I can trust to mill our olives and give us back the oil from our trees. Inevitably my choice was dictated by connections – the family that run the mill are close friends of friends and I know I can trust them. They take the olives, stone and all, and grind it into a paste in a giant stone wheel and then spread the paste onto plates of fabric some half a metre in diameter, built up to a height of nearly a metre and then wheeled over to the giant iron presses. Over the next 2 hours the presses slowly extracts the oil. This is a completely traditional method and uses no heat. A single pressing that produces oil that is fiery, peppery and bears no resemblance to what you will buy in a supermarket back home. Quite simply a different product. The olives, Castiglionese, are not high yielding but are excellent for their quality of oil. Some varieties will yield up to 16% of extra virgin olive oil. We will be lucky to get 12%. In a good year our 500 trees will produce something in excess of 1000 litres. This was a poor year and whilst the quality is the best I have tasted, the yield is a fraction of that I might have hoped for. But none of this stops me feeling a certain exuberance at being at the centre of production.
It took 4 days to complete the harvest – a lot less than normal, mainly because the yield is so low. I am hopeful that next year will be better. At this time of year, as you move about the countryside, you will see small groups out in the field with their nets spread out on the ground and a tractor running nearby driving the compressor. The groups are more often than not an enlarged family, members of all ages, often those who have moved to the city returning to help with the harvest.
I know that what we are producing is the very highest quality extra virgin olive oil. No additives, single estate, cold pressed and unfiltered. But like so many of the local farmers I remain frustrated, even a little saddened, by the fact that the olive oil industry is so fraught with corruption that the oil produced by these small local farmers is not appreciated for what it is, and is sold at a price that is more often than not below the cost of production. I am lucky: I transport our oil to the UK and sell it to family, friends and colleagues for a price that is higher, and whilst I aim only to cover our cost, I am lucky to be able to do even that. Much has been written about this scandal, but it still persists. And of course unlike other crops the farmers are committed to the trees, and in any case producing this fine olive oil is part of the local culture and heritage. I noticed only a couple of months ago an article in the Guardian on this very subject (click here ). I worry though that over time the ties to the trees and its heritage will weaken and the trees will be abandoned or grubbed out to make way for more profitable crops.
The first batch of our 2015 harvest has sold out but we will be bringing more in May of this year – if you’re interested in purchasing the finest extra virgin olive oil on the market please visit our site oliodipenne.com.