Saturday, 30 January 2010

The olive harvest - It's a not-so-dirty job, so I'll do it

The Campogrande grove, January 2010

In November 2009 I participated in an olive harvest for the first time. Don't let the strained look on my face fool you – I had it pretty easy. David Thom and Tanya Starrett are a couple who moved from Glasgow to rural Umbria a few years ago to found Campogrande, a B&B and organic olive farm. At the moment they have only 40 trees, enough to produce about 70 litres a year of delicious extra virgin oil.

As I said, it was my first harvest, and far less difficult than I expected. First of all, it's not nearly as dirty a job as I'd anticipated. Prepared for long hours in mossy trees buzzing with vicious insects and incontinent birds, I was pleasantly surprised to find the trees clean, sturdy and miraculously inhospitable to territorial wildlife. Secondly, the big, ripe olives fall off the tree like they're desperate to be picked. We hand-picked the low-hanging olives and used small rakes to scrape the fruit off the higher branches. What I expected to be a repetitive, tedious process becomes a perfectionist game, a challenge to leave the tree scraped completely clean. It's almost impossible to walk away from an unfinished tree, the unreachable branches waving like a crude taunt. Once scraped off the branches, the olives fall into ground nets, a tumbling carpet of purple, green and black.

It's amazing how prolific some of the trees are. A well-kept tree in a good harvest year can produce a full crate of fruit, or about 4 litres of oil, according to this blogger. So far I've characterised the work as painless, but only because I could come and go as I pleased, and helped to pick a relatively small haul. In no way do I want to understate the hard work that goes into large-scale commercial harvests. I also helped another family in their (much larger) grove, where they arrived early in the morning and worked tirelessly until sundown. Extra bodies make an enormous difference – one person could pick clean one of Tanya and David's trees in an hour or so. Add a a partner and the tree is done in half the time. Two teams of two can get therefore do four trees an hour.

Campogrande's olives are pressed at an old-fashioned stone mill (frantoio). The area has a more modern facility, reputedly the preference of many Italians on account of its hygiene guarantees, but small-scale producers often opt for the slower, more traditional technique. I went with David and Tanya to collect their oil, which had been pressed over two days at the frantoio. As I understand the process, the olives are dumped from crates into an industrial blower, removing leaves, twigs and other adulterants. The raw olives are then pulped between large stone discs, creating a rough paste. This paste is then spread onto what look like nylon platters, which are rested between rotating plates on a large centrifuge, the whole device resembling the unholy offspring of a jukebox record stack and donner kebab. The platters are squeezed between the spinning plates, and the resultant oil pours liberally from the stack. Even when you've had access to every step of the production process, it's still difficult to believe just how much oil these trees can produce. And of course, it's hard not to start pondering those annoying questions about olive fundamentals... Who ate the first olive? Who decided it might be a good idea to crush them and make oil? When was it discovered that a couple weeks' curing would make the raw fruit edible?

Traditional olive press in action, Moiano, Umbria

We were so eager to try the oil, we decanted it from the back of the car into a small bottle and tasted it as soon as we pulled into the driveway. It was a clear, grassy green, a quality that has more to do with freshness than olive variety. The rich green only lasts a couple weeks before it starts to pale into the more familiar yellow, though the flavour diminishes only slightly within the first six months after pressing. Fresh from the frantoio, Campogrande's oil was honestly, truly unlike any I'd ever had before. The first hint is of an earthy, grassy purity, followed after a curious delay by a strong peppercorn punch at the back of the throat. This peppery quality is often extolled by producers, but nothing I've tasted has ever matched the impact of Tanya and David's oil. I don't know what chemical components of the oil produce this effect, but in a fresh, organic oil like Campogrande's, it's a unique and memorable signature.

I'll no doubt be spending a lot more time with olives. By all accounts the pruning is a specialised art, and the subject of perpetual debate amongst self-appointed experts. My next volunteering jaunt takes me to Arezzo province in Tuscany, where the olive trees and grapevines await grooming.

Campogrande's oil is currently only available directly to B&B guests, though Tanya and David are looking for ways to make their product more widely available.

Monte Vibiano Vecchio

Last spring I was invited to Monte Vibiano Vecchio, near the small town of Marsciano in the Umbrian hills. Of all the environmentally progressive rural projects I’ve studied, this is easily one of the most ambitious – and successful. Managed by Lorenzo Fasola Bologna, a city exile who returned to his family’s land after working in Perugia, Monte Vibiano Vecchio has been transformed from a conventional farm into a complex experiment in sustainable agriculture.

Now boasting a full-scale winery and on-site olive mill, 20 employees and 300 hectares of cultivated land, Monte Vibiano Vecchio aspires to be a model for other green businesses to follow. The company’s initiatives are outlined in their 360 Green Revolution plan, and include the following:

  • Planting over 10,000 trees on the site to absorb greenhouse gas emissions
  • Generating energy for the office and production facilities through solar panels
  • Using electric farm vehicles, powered by solar charging stations
  • Converting chemical fertilisers to organic
  • Covering silos in special heat-reflective white paint

Bologna told me that these projects have been implemented with greater speed and success than even he predicted. Committed to developing a network of sympathetic partners, the company builds incentives for ecological sensitivity into its business structure. Their deliveries are carried out by Poste Italiane on the basis of their demonstrated efforts to reduce energy consumption. A distribution deal for the company’s wines has been struck with the nonprofit Co-Op, a national supermarket chain with a noted commitment to promoting local organic agriculture, as well as produce from mafia-reclaimed land.

Bologna’s attempt to sustain Marsciano’s employment base and ensure a high quality of life for local workers is perhaps the part of his plan that left me most impressed. Almost all employees live locally, and commuting by car is discouraged. Bicycles are provided for staff, and walking to work is promoted. Bologna expressed a frank disdain for the commute-work-consume cycles engendered by urban capitalism. This duty of care seeks to revive an area’s collective investment in the success of a local enterprise – a pleasingly old-fashioned approach to a very modern and forward-thinking operation.

Friday, 29 January 2010


Welcome to Helix Pomatia, a blog on the gastronomic politics of Italy that will probably be updated with all the indolent lethargy of its namesake. I've tried blogging before but could never make it past the fifth post. My success as a researcher hangs on changing my writing habits, though, so this blog comprises part of my attempt to become a little more prolific.

It's also an ideal way to keep my thoughts in order and invite some feedback as I travel around Northern Italy, collecting data for my PhD project at the University of Glasgow. My research relates broadly to urban to rural migration in Italy, but more specifically to 'back-to-the-land' migrants who have taken up agriculture after abandoning their urban origins. My interest in the subject was stimulated by joining the WWOOF and Help Exchange networks a few years ago. Joining these organisations as a volunteer gives access to directories of organic farms and other rural projects that offer free room and board in return for labour (usually 4-6 hours, 5 or 6 days a week). I noticed in the directories a surprisingly large number of farms that had been established (or restored) only recently, often by people entirely new to agriculture. How does an urbanite learn agriculture from scratch? How could entering agriculture be economically sustainable at a time when so much of European farming is dependent on subsidies? Is there something about particular regions – a structural explanation – that allows new farmers to subsist? Something in policy, perhaps, or a large market infrastructure for the kinds of produce that back-to-landers may gravitate toward?

I've started to investigate the relationship between new farmers and alternative food networks. This is a loosely-defined and hotly contested term, and I don't want to get bogged down in a debate about its appropriateness here. What I'm referring to, generally, are initiatives like buying cooperatives, farmers' markets, bartering schemes, co-ops and purchasing consortia such as those developed by Slow Food's Presidia project. Does the existence of these networks stimulate opportunities for new farmers, particularly those motivated by issues of sustainability, quality or social and economic justice? And, reciprocally, how are these initiatives sustained by back-to-the-landers?

So these are the key questions of my research, though to spare readers the tedium of too much academic pondering, I'd like this blog to address more than these issues. Basically, I'm a lover of food and a committed reformer of the highly destructive industrial food system, and my ramblings here will reflect more of my personal experiences and discoveries than the more arcane stuff that'll eventually find its way into a thesis. Essentially, it's another blog about stuff that interests the author. It took me a long time to get to that, didn't it? I can be verbose. You've been warned.