Mountain Oil from Podere valle Pulcini


Produced by Brian and Lynne Chatterton

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Olive oil from the mountains of Italy

"Mountain oil" is a fuzzy concept not recognised in European labelling law as there is no firm definition of a "mountain." Our olive grove at Podere valle Pulcini near Castel di Fiori is at 550 m. (1800 feet or about half as high as Mt. Snowdon - 3560 feet). It is definitely more mountain than molehill. Our grove is only 100 to 150 m. below the maximum altitude for olives in central Italy.

The high altitude gives us a cool ripening period in autumn. A cool autumn means the olives are packed with flavour even if the oil percentage is much lower than olives grown on the plains of southern Italy or the warmer regions of North Africa.

Our cool climate and our local olive varieties give us a higher than average proportion of the desirable (from a health and flavour point of view) mono-unsaturated Oleic fat. Olive oil generally has 70 to 80% Oleic but the amount varies considerably with the warm regions of North Africa having figures as low as 56% while the mountain oils of Umbria, Tuscany and the Marche have as much as 84% Oleic.

What is extravergine?

The technical description of Extravergine Olive Oil is that it has an acidity of less than 0.8%. The acidity of the oil is a measure of its degradation and is roughly similar (but not identical) to rancidity. An oil with high acidity has been made from low grade olives (for example those picked up off the ground) or has been poorly processed. Acidity in olive oil is quite different from wine where an acid balance is essential for good wine.

"Extravergine" says very little about the flavour of the oil and many of the cheaper Extravergine olive oils pack such an insignificant flavour punch that one wonders what all the fuss is about.

The olive oil that fails the acid test of 0.8% when it come out of the the spout of the centrifuge (see below) is treated with chemicals to reduce the acidity and is sold on the lower shelves of the supermarket as "Olive Oil" - that is with capitals to signify it is a grade of olive oil. The chemicals not only reduce the acidity but destroy most of the flavour and the healthy anti-oxidants. Olive Oil - the grade - has a lower acidity after treatment than most Extravergine olive oil.

The low acidity levels of Olive Oil mean that unscrupulous blenders and bottlers can add it to true Extravergine and make a very health profit. The trade in adulterated olive oil is described in an excellent article by Tom Mueller - "Slippery Business" - in the New Yorker 13-08-2007 ( to read the article cut and paste the following address http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/13/070813fa_fact_mueller if the link from Slippery Business does not work)

First and cold pressed oil

I am not sure of the origin of "first pressed" on labels because effectively olives are only pressed once yet the implication is that there are a series of pressings. The treatment of the solid waste the sansa to extract the tiny amount of oil left is as much a chemical process with solvents as a further pressing but I suppose it could at a pinch be called a second pressing. Sansa oil is terrible stuff and is not sold neat to consumers. Unfortunately it finds its way into the food processing industry so beware of products bottled or tinned "in olive oil" as it may be this olive oil extracted from the sansa.

There are some weird and wonderful stories out there on the web about olive oil and one I got off a US web site claimed that Extravergine olive oil was the first pressing, Virgin olive oil the second and Olive Oil (the grade) the third. This is complete nonsense as poor quality olives can certain produce Olive Oil on a first pressing.

Cold pressed is another vague term. Cold compared to what? Here in the mountain regions of Italy the olives can be very cold indeed when they are picked. I am writing this on 24th November 2008 a few days after we finished out harvest and it has been snowing and raining all day. The poor growers who have not finished their harvest will probably bring in fruit at 4 or 5 degrees and some heat is essential to extract any oil at all. In other parts of the Mediterranean region olives are harvested when the ambient temperature is above 20 degrees. Which is cold pressed? There is no doubt that excessive heat during process will reduce the quality of the oil but I am not sure that consumers would be able to draw any useful conclusion if the exact temperature was put on the label.

Mats or centrifuge

Our oil is processed by centrifuge which is by far the most common method of separation in Italy. There are a few frantoio (olive mills) that use the old mats. They have been modernised to the extent that they are now use nylon mats and the presses are hydraulic but contamination of the mats with moulds and other residues remains a problem and I firmly believe the centrifuge produces a more reliable result.

Our olive mill uses the two and half stage centrifuge which produces a better flavoured oil. The difficulty with centrifuges is that the paste made from the ground up olives is often too solid to feed into the centrifuge and, in the past, water was added to smooth the flow. The added water stripped out some of the flavour. Now our mill has modified the process and uses the juice extracted from our olives in a recycling loop, instead of fresh water, to smooth the flow. The juice is packed with flavour and the resulting oil is excellent.

This is a simplified diagram of the flow of olive oil. It gives a false impression that different acidity oils come out of the centrifuge at the same time. That is not the case. It depends on the batch of olives and other factors.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away - if only it was that simple.

If you are looking for a magic bullet that provides you with good health while you continue to eat junk food then olive oil is not for you - nor is anything else!

The Mediterranean Diet - From where did it come and where has it gone?

Of course the Mediterranean diet has been around for millennium but its healthy properties were first identified in the middle of the last century by the famous American professor Ancel Keys. I have quoted extensively from his study in our book "Discovering Oil." The major finding of his study showed that some of the lowest levels of mortality from heart disease were in the Greek islands and some of the villages of southern Italy where all the element of the Mediterranean diet were present.

One needs to remember that the lowest absolute levels of mortality were at that time in Japan with a completely different diet.

Keys went on to live in one of the southern Italian villages and became an honorary citizen until he died two years ago aged 100 years. It seems to have worked well for him.

Over the half century since Keys' study the Mediterranean diet has declined rapidly in the Mediterranean region. According to Josef Schmidhuber (FAO July 2007) the eating habits of people in the Mediterranean countries identified by Keys as models for low heart disease, have greatly deteriorated. Calorie intake in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta has increased by 30% over the last forty years and combined with a lower calorie expenditure it has turn the Greek population into the most obese in Europe. Measurement of the Body Mass Index have shown conclusively that Greece now has the highest prevalence of overweight and obese people within the European Union.

Schmidhuber identified all the usual suspect for the death of the Mediterranean diet - the rise in the supermarkets, changes in food distribution, increased income, and greater food intake with more sedentary lifestyles. I would add to this list a decline in fish consumption due to over fishing. Fish has become an expensive luxury (much of it imported from outside the Mediterranean region) rather than a staple food.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve health and reduce heart disease. The components of the diet include the usual fruit, vegetables, lentil, chick peas, fish and of course plenty of olive oil and little animal fat. The olive oil is not just a couple of spoons drizzled over the occasional salad but a replacement for the margarine and butter that is used in large quantities in Britain, USA, Australia and other European countries outside the Mediterranean region.

Go cold turkey if you dare! Banish the butter and margarine from the table and replace it with a bottle of olive oil fitted with a pouring spout.

Olive oil in the Mediterranean diet

The olive oil industry has sometimes come close to hijacking the Mediterranean diet as a sales vehicle for its product. It is important to remember it is only one component.

The important attributes of olive oil in terms of good health are the high levels of mono-unsaturated fat and the antioxidants. Mountain oil has a higher level of Oleic fat (the good mono-unsaturated one) and more anti-oxidants than the average low grade olive oil. Oleic levels in olive oil vary considerably and those from cool mountain regions are usually at the top end of the scale. There are literally hundreds of compounds in olive oil that have antioxidant properties but most are destroyed in the chemical processes that are used in the production of Olive Oil (the grade). Extravergine olive oil does not undergo any chemical treatment. It is extracted by mechanical action, pressure and perhaps a little heat but no chemicals.

Average consumption of olive oil in Italy is about 15 litre per head per year while in Britain it is less than half a litre.

Olive oil and diabetes

There is a danger that olive oil becomes the snake oil of good health but serious studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet and extravergine olive oil have an impact of reducing the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Miguel A Martinez-Gonzales from the University of Navarra at Pamplona, Spain reported in the online edition of the British Medical Journal (30th May 2008) a study with 13,380 Spanish university students. It showed that those students who scored highly for a "Mediterranean diet" in a survey had a lower risk of contracting diabetes. This was in spite of the relatively high fat content of the diet. It seemed that the olive oil with its high ratio of mono-unsaturated to saturated fat together with the antioxidants in the extravergine oil counteracted the high fat levels.

Dr. Martinez-Gonzales' study has followed the student for an median period of 4.4 years and the incidence of type 2 diabetes is still low. There were 33 cases in a total of 58,918 person-years of study. While the results show a positive correlation, a longer period will give a greater level of confidence in the statistical results.

Flavour is the key to consumption

Fortunately many of the flavour components are also closely associated with the anti-oxidants but flavour has another important part to play. Unless you enjoy your olive oil you are not going stick with it and make a real switch in your diet. If you long for margarine on your bread rather than olive oil you are unlikely to stay the course.

The mountain oils of Italy are strongly flavoured - spicy oils that can blow your head off when really fresh in the first few months after harvesting and pressing. It is a little like the first time you taste curry but certainly worth persisting with. Remember that the flavour will fade over the course of the year and you are not eating oil neat except at olive oil tastings.

When you use olive oil on warm vegetables (for example on potatoes instead of butter) the strong flavour comes into its own.

While olive oil is fine for high temperature cooking it is a waste to use the highly spiced mountain oils as their flavour evaporates at high temperature. Mountain oils are better with salads, warm vegetables, soups and of course they are essential for pasta. Many classic Italian pasta dishes depend on good quality olive oil to add flavour to what is essential bland food.

More on cooking with olive oil

There is considerable controversy surrounding olive oil and cooking. As I said above it is a waste to use a good Extravergine Olive oil for high temperature cooking as almost all the key flavours are evaporated off. The question remains as to whether one can use it. The important point about cooking with vegetable oils is the smoke point. One should not heat the oil beyond the smoke point. The following figures are the smoke points for various oil taken from the internet (Wikipedia)

Extravergine olive oil 190 C

Refined olive oil (treated with chemicals to reduce acidity) 242 C

Canola or rape seed oil 200 to 246 C

Grapeseed 215

Peanut 232

Sunflower 226

Safflower (refined) 265

Refined coconut oil 232

Oils that have low smoke points and which should be avoided for high temperature cooking,

Coconut oil (natural aand unrefined) 177 C

Flaxseed 107

Hemp oil 165

Unerefined walnut oil 160

Butter 121 to 149

Organic olive oil

Extravergine olive oil from our grove at Podere valle Pulcini is not certified as organic because we are small growers and the certification fees would cost a disproportionate amount for our small output.

I am a great supporter of the organic ideals. There is not space here to undertake a complete critique of modern chemical farming but to me the major concerns are:

* That many of the older chemicals have not been tested to modern standards. While the European Union is trying to establish some retrospective testing it is being strongly opposed by the chemical and farmers' lobby and is being undermined by national government who are applying for exemptions.

* That testing applies to one chemical at a time while the real situation on farms is a whole cocktail of chemicals are applied. We know little about the combined effect.

* The testing does not adequately examine the long term effects of chemicals. We have the same problem with medicines. They have traditionally been tested for their safety as a cure for a specific illness. Now more and more drugs are being provided on a long term basis for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression etc. We are now seeing that these drugs can interact in strange ways with individual peoples' genetic makeup. The very nature of chemical residues in food is a similar long term low level effect.

The purpose of organic certification is to provide the consumer with confidence. It allows organic food to pass through a long food chain and still remain uncontaminated. Our oil does not need this as it is controlled by us and is sold direct to consumers. If we wanted to cheat we could do so whether we were certified or not.

+ We do not use insecticides or fungicides on our olive trees - not even the ones allowed by the organic associations. We are outside the zone for regular olive fly attacks but when they occur we use traps to control the fly not insecticide sprays.

+ We use a small amount of mineral fertiliser (phosphate) to encourage the growth of clovers and other legumes under the trees. These legumes are mulched into the soil in spring. They build the soil organic matter and provide a major source of nitrogen for the olive trees. We do not use chemical nitrogen such as urea or other nitrogen compounds.

+ We use a really tiny amount - perhaps 200 ml per ha per year - of herbicide. There are a number of perennial weeds which cause problems in the olives grove because they snag the nets. The black thorn is controlled by mowing but blackberries (brambles) and wild rose thrive with mowing and need to be controlled with herbicide. We have about a dozen new plants in our grove each year where they have germinated from seed carried by birds. These are spot sprayed in the spring.

Our oil is not filtered after pressing and over time will probably throw a deposit in the same way as a red wine. The deposit is quite natural.

Genetic Modification

As far as I know there are no GM olives and I think that GM olives are unlikely to be produced as the olive tree lives for a long, long time and commercial interests would not make sufficient profit from sell young trees. Almost all GM crops are annuals as they can charge a royalty on the seed each year it is planted.

The threat to olives comes from the other direction. The GM companies many try to increase the price of sunflower or some other oil seed crop by introducing olive flavours.

How do you know it is our olive oil?

Of course you cannot be sure. You have to take it on trust. I think your chances of getting extravergine olive oil from our grove at Podere valle Pulcini are many hundreds of times better than getting an olive oil from Italy or Tuscany bottled by one of the big brands and sold in the supermarkets. There is a high chance that part of this supermarket oil came from Spain or Tunisia and there is even a chance that some is not extravergine or even olive oil. There is more testing of oils now but even the experts admit that they cannot detect levels of certain nut oils below about 10%.

DOP is a scheme that is being promoted by the Italian government and the European Union to provide a guarantee of the origin of olive oil and other products. While I applaud the intention I do feel they should clear up the gross abuse by the big bottlers before they extend the scheme to small growers.

I picked up this little pamphlet in our local shop that supplies tins and bottles for olive growers On the back was the above sketch which explains the operation of the DOP scheme to perfection. I am surprised the artist was allowed such a subversive interpretation. Perhaps the bureaucrats did not understand the symbolism?

+ On the left is the largest figure wearing a tie and glasses. He obviously represents the super bureaucrat who controls the whole scheme. He is lurking a little off the page as he does not want his power to be too obvious. He is casting a eye over his underling - the inspector - who is reading the regulations to an olive tree and is warning it that if it continues to produce erratic crops in contravention of Clause 52 a (ii) it will be subject to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months.

+ On the right are the olive growers frolicking in their shorts and mini skirts in the grove. They represent the bureaucrat's view of the growers as bucolic peasants enjoying the pleasures of the countryside. If the bureaucrat had any idea of olive production he would realise that all the serious work in the grove takes place in cold conditions where shorts and mini skirts would lead to frost bite. Pruning is in the winter months and picking is usually in November when winter is on its way and snow is not unknown.

On the left in the background is a chef scratching his head in puzzlement. If he is representing the consumer I am not surprised at his confusion. As for the average consumers they do not even come into the picture.

More about our grove and the oil

I do not want to be pretentious about our oil but quality olive oil is similar to wine - that is you are looking for taste and aroma with colour as an added bonus. A major difference is that olive oil should be consumed young while many wines improve with age. The term "novello" oil is the description of olive oil fresh from the frantoio (olive mill). It is packed with flavour and has a lovely green colour. Our olives are picked in November and the novello is available from early December. The oil will mellow with age but it is fine for a couple of years as long as it has not been exposed to excessive sunlight. We find the oil is a little too bland after about 18 month but that is a personal choice.

Olive Oil grades are similar to other commodity grade cooking oils. It does not matter when they are consumed within the "consume before" period.

Growing conditions and grove management are important for olive oil quality. Our autumns are cool because of the high altitude and the olives are packed with strong spicy flavour. We pick early (usually beginning at the end of the first week in November) for even more flavour even though we sacrifice some oil production. Early in the picking season the olives are strongly attached to the tree and we are forced to pick by hand or semi-mechanical means as machines (such as tree shakers) only remove a part of the crop.

We do not pick any of the olives off the ground as they do in some parts of Italy and other countries in the Mediterranean. Olives that have been on the ground for any length of time have a high acidity as they are on the way to becoming rancid.

The oil comes from a mixture of the classic Umbrian and Tuscany varieties. Leccino, Frantoio and Moraiolo dominate but there are a few old trees that are not identified as named varieties. They have yellow and purple fruits that add complexity to the flavour of the oil.

The olives are taken to the frantoio (olive mill) every few days to maintain their freshness. They are processed as a separate batch to ensure the oil is genuinely our own.

The whole year's work flowing into the drum!

We pick our own olives with the help of friends and do our own pruning and landcare.

Olive oil at home

Light does more damage to olive oil than air. One can leave a bottle half full but do not leave it in a sunny place for any substantial length of time.

A traditional Umbria olive oil container. They hold about 20 litre and are glazed on the inside. Lovely to look at but stainless steel is easier to handle.

For this reason I have somewhat reluctantly put some of our oil in green bottles which provide considerable protection against light. I feel it is a pity as the green-golden colour of the oil in a clear bottle is part of the sensory pleasure. Our oil is also available in tins which are more practical but have no romance at all. Unfortunately there is no alternative for oil sent to Britain as the carriers are expert in smashing bottles.

Here in Italy we have our oil in clear bottles on the table but we consume it at such a pace that there is no time for the light to do any damage. Podere valle Pulcini oil comes in bottles with a plastic restricter so they can be placed straight on the table for drizzling on food. If you wish to go up market remove the plastic insert and put in a cork with a pouring spout. Either way you are able to drizzle a thin stream of olive oil over your food. The oil can be stored in tins but poured into bottles for use on the table or when cooking.

A bottle of our olive oil catches the light.


Olive oil has traditionally been used in Britain for salad dressings but the Italian custom of applying it to warm food is not as common. Olive oil is ideal instead of butter or margarine on new or mashed potatoes, spinach (with some lemon juice and garlic), broccoli, cavalo nero, asparagus and any other steamed vegetable. Italians use a good olive oil to add a zing to vegetables and soups. In spring we make a stunning paste from fave (broad beans) that have mashed or zapped in a blender with fennel leaves or dill, lemon juice and of course plenty of good olive oil.

When making a pasta dish put a little olive oil in the bottom of warm bowl, add the cooked pasta, and mix with the sauce.

Purchasing our oil

Contact us by email: blchatterton@tiscalinet.it or telephone + 0763837186 (if ringing from outside Italy put in the country code for Italy +39 and leave in the 0 - for example from Britain 00390763837186) for details of price and availability.

For customers in the UK we can ship oil in 1 litre tins or larger but the freight is excessive for quantities under about 30 litres. We have dispatched oil in 750 ml bottles but so far the breakages have been horrendous and we recommend tins.

2006

2006 was an excellent crop of good quality olives which were processed into a well balanced oil. We had 122 kg of oil (about 135 litres) and decided to export some to Britain. We sent is in glass bottles and the carrier managed to break nearly half of them so we have decided in future to sent the oil in 1 litre tins. These are very practical as they exclude the light completely. They weigh only 180 gm per container whereas the bottles weighs more than the oil.

2007

We expected a poor crop after the 2007 harvest as olives tend to be alternate bearers but never as bad as it turned out. It was the worst crop in the 17 years we have been growing olives at Podere valle Pulcini.

The season started badly with a poor flowering which was expected after the excellent 2006 crop. During the spring we had a hail storm that cut a narrow strip of damage over the olive groves of Castel di Fiori. The hail knocked off many of the flowers from the tops of the trees. Finally the autumn period has been incredibly dry with rainfall only 20% in September, 25% in October and 15% in November.

The olive does not grow uniformly throughout the season. It grows very slowly at first - that is how it resists the normal summer drought through July and August - and then put on a spurt of growth in September and October before the harvest in November. Usually we have good rains during this period which encourages good oil production. Our lack of autumn rain in 2007 was the final straw that turned a poor crop into a disaster.

Due to the drought we picked very early. In fact we finished the harvest on 2nd November - a few days before we would normally start. When we took them to the frantoio they were quite mature. The oil has the characteristic spicy flavour of this region but perhaps a tiny bit less fruit than most years.

Our production was only 25 kg the amount we normally consume ourselves. It is only because we have some supplies from last year that we are selling any at all.

This is the label for our oil.

We have decided to provide our customers with olive oil from our neighbours this year as we would like them to enjoy the mountain olive oil produced in this zone.

Lorenzo and Rikke Misciattelli have kindly agreed to supply us with some of their oil. The grow olives at Montegiove which is over the hill from our grove. Their altitude is almost the same and they have a similar mix of classic Umbrian varieties Fortunately, while they also had a poor crop, they have a surplus to sell.

Lorenzo and Rikke comparing this season's olive oil and that from last year.

Lorenzo and Rikke live in the castle at Montegiove which is on their web site (http://www.castellomontegiove.com if the above link fails) and you can find out more about their oil at http://www.castellomontegiove.com/english/olivouk.htm

2008

The 2008 crop should bounce back to at least an average yield. The alternate bearing character of the olive tree is due to the fact that the olive oil and the next season's buds are produced at the same time. Thus the buds for the 2008 crop were produced in September 2007. September is the time when the small olives begin to swell rapidly and fill with oil. As the trees had a light crop there should have been plenty of energy left over in the trees to develop strong buds for a bumper crop in 2008 but.... there always seems to be a "but" in farming ..... September 2007 was very dry and the trees were quite stressed. I will be surprised if we have the exceptionally strong flowering in 2008 that we are entitled to.

After flowering it is the usual story of farming - and why we farmers have such a reputation as whingers - of jumping from one disaster to the next. The flowers have to pollinate and set. We have to control the olive fly and we need good rain in September to fill the olives and produce plenty of oil and hopefully some good buds for 2009. I will keep you posted.

June 2008

I have been surprised at the strong flower buds on many of the trees - particularly the young Moraiolo. Only a small number of of the flowers will set and produce fruit and there are plenty of opportunities for the pollination to be poor but with excellent spring rains the crop outlook is certainly much better than I thought during the winter.

The winter was comparatively mild and I expect the olive fly to be a serious problem this summer. I have started to collect old milk and water bottles for olive fly traps.

August 2008

We have had a hot dry summer, typical of the Mediterranean region. We have had two days of rain from the 18th June through July to mid August. The total rainfall has be 24 mm. The olives are thriving under these hot and dry conditions - at least the older trees are. The small trees that are less than ten years old have lost some of their olives and the remainder are very small. If it rains soon they will grow but my experience in other years is that if the autumn rain is late they never catch up and grow into a proper size.

I put out the traps for the dreaded olive fly in July using old bottles with a mixture of water, soil and urea. They seem to be working as they give off a strong smell of ammonia and are catching flies the right size for olive fly but it is not possible to identify them precisely in the soup.

I have put out one of these traps based on a phoneme that attracts the flies. They are caught on the sticky roof and can be identified.

November 2008

We finished our picking on 19th November. The crop was excellent. We had 130 kg of oil from 800 kg of fresh olives which was our second best crop for the 18 years we have been growing olives. The quality is better than last year with more intense flavour.

The autumn was certainly difficult for the olives. They thrive under the dry conditions of a normal Mediterranean summer but like some rain in autumn. This is the period when the olives swell rapidly and most of the oil is produced. We fortunately got 45 mm of rain in mid September but then nothing until the end of October by which time is was too late as we began picking a week or so later. The older trees pulled through but many of the young trees (about ten years old) had tiny fruit, about half the normal size. They were very time consuming to pick. At least they had some fruit. In earlier years the young trees simply dropped their fruit when suffering water stress.

We used a mechanical aid to pick most of our olives this year. It is an electrical device that runs off a car battery and is quiet enough not to disturb the peace of the olive grove. It has a series of whirling fingers that beat the olives off at very close range. This is important as we pick early when they are strongly attached to the trees and trees shakers would only remove a small proportion of the crop.

The machine improves our productivity by about double but just as important is the fact that we do not have to climb into the tree or up ladders. This year the local casualty list during olive picking included one broken leg and one broken hip so olive trees can be dangerous. We took the olives to the mill in two batches to make sure they were fresh.

There was not much olive fly in the district this year - certainly not at our altitude but the traps seem to have been effective as we had zero infection. The fly lays eggs that hatch into grubs that eat the olives and their breathing hole allows fungus to enter the olive. The fungus gives the oil a mouldy taste.

December 2008

The Times (London) online

December 5, 2008

The difficulty in finding the finest olive oil


Oil pressed from the first green olives is a taste like no other. But fraud means that finding a good one is hard.

Alex Renton

The green of the olive oil is shocking: like Night Nurse. Or Swarfega. You wouldn't put it in your mouth if it wasn't so reassuringly expensive. With reverence, we poured it into white china saucers and offered it round to the supper guests with warm flatbread.

Tasting the oil was a show in three acts: the first, smooth and scented; then a trumpet blast of green pepperiness and a long, redolent finale that brought out the guests' fancy adjectives: “almondy”, “citric”, even “raw caulifloweresque”. The words I used were “acidic” and “scary”.

One of the great dates in the foodie calendar has arrived, and the new season's olive oil is in the shops. Around the Mediterranean, olives are harvested between late October and mid-December, and the fruits of the first pressing are much prized, with prices to match. Last week I tasted two varieties, Picual and Arbequina, from a grand Spanish estate, the Castillo de Canena in the Guadalquivir valley. These oils weren't just virgin, or early-season - the really, really green one boasted of being “first day of harvest”.

Rosa Vañó, whose family have run the estate since 1790, explained that the colour comes from pressing the olives so early that they are more green than purple. When, still reeling from my first explosive taste, I questioned whether that was actually a good idea, Ms. Vañó nailed me with a cold look that was pure Andalusian aristocrat: “But can't you see - it tastes of olives!” She was right, it did. And olive oil usually doesn't.

The British are fairly ignorant on this subject. After all, only a generation ago we used olive oil mainly for drizzling into children's ears. Now most self-respecting English kitchens contain a bottle of extra virgin and a bottle of ordinary. Yet, of all the continental foodstuffs that we have welcomed to these shores, olive oil remains particularly mysterious. What's so good about “cold-pressed”? How much more virginal can an extra virgin be?

In my local Italian deli there are many brands of olive oil, at up to £50 a litre. The price labels are the only things on them that mean much: what, you wonder, looking at one gold-wrapped “extra vergine”, does “superior category” mean? And if this oil has been “obtained directly from olives and only by mechanical means”, what does that say about the cheaper ones?

These are the signs of a business in a mess and, of course, Italy has suffered many olive oil scandals (the Mafia has a finger in the barrel, apparently). With some green colouring and good-quality rapeseed or soya oil, it's quite easy to fool the punters.

But more shocking is the fraud that is permitted by Italian law. “Extra virgin” has no regulated meaning. And “Italian olive oil” says no more than that it was bottled in Italy. The oil may well have come in a tanker from Tunisia.

Rosa Vañó was not impressed when I asked how we could trust her olive oil. “Look at the label,” she said. “It's the family reserve! It was picked on our estate! It's won a Coq d'Or [a top French prize]!”

She was more forthcoming when I asked what you could do with something so fierce-tasting; so forthcoming that she ordered up some fantastic tapas. A little dish of boned chicken wings, sautéed in her Picual olive oil. A lozenge of salty Manchego cheese wrapped in dried beef and dressed with the luminous green syrup of first-day Arbequino. They were very good; I began to see the point.

Green olive oil is, of course, useful for cheering up a sad supermarket avocado or a salad of mozzarella, basil and tomato. But its best use is for shocking your friends: it will look fantastically lurid dribbled on to the orange surface of my winter crowd-pleaser of pumpkin, paprika and chorizo soup.

Castillo de Canena olive oils are available at Waitrose or at www.kingsfinefood.co.uk.

Alex Renton claims that the British are fairly ignorant about olive oil. He certainly does not cover himself with glory in this little piece. I know how he feels as I used to write a weekly column in an Adelaide newspaper on wine and at times one is absolutely desperate for something to write about.

Perhaps the only way to obtain green oil in the Guadalquivir valley is to pick the olives very early and very green but I would be surprised as here in central Italy skin colour has little impact on the oil colour. This year with the dry autumn our olives were nearly all dark - almost black - yet the oil was our normal green. There were perhaps 5% of the Frantoio variety in the crop that had a green skin colour but obviously they could not have had much effect. I think the problem is that people cannot get grapes and wine out of their minds. Most of the colour of red wine comes from the skins. The juice alone is a rosé. Olives are completely different. Oil is not the juice of the olive - which is watery like grape juice. The oil comes from inside the cells of the pulp.

Alex Renton is right to point out the difficulties of obtaining authentic olive oil but he is mistaken when he says extravergine has no regulated meaning. It is strictly defined but as I pointed out above the definition of acid levels does not relate directly to flavour. I like to compare it to alcohol in wine. In the past - back thirty or forty years ago - high alcohol was a sign of quality. Winemaking methods were rough and ready and high alcohol was a good indicator that the wine would keep. We have now gone beyond that and we are worried about too much alcohol.

With olive oil low acid is a sign of a good oil but not the only one. It still matters but there are other important criteria.

I have already commented on the fallibility of "cold pressed" as a measure of quality and if he understood the way acidity was measure he would understand the difference between extravergine and virgine olive oils.

2009

June 2009

June is the season for cutting the grass in the olive grove and harvesting the cherries. The cherries have been so abundant this year the even the birds have lost interest and, except for the first tree growing away from the house in the centre of the olive grove, they have not touched them. While we have been sharing the cherries with neighbours the surplus has been bottled and turned into jam.

In May we were worried (those whinging farmers again) as it was exceptionally dry. Rainfall was only 25% of average. While we had good winter rainfall and the soil profile was full we like to have some further spring rain to reduce the stress on the trees during flowering. After flowering the summer drought improves the quality of the fruit.

Fortunately we had 85 mm of rain over a couple of days in early June and the soil profile was replenished. The olives have had a good number of flowers and we are waiting to see how they have set. There has not been excessive hot wind or cold fog during flowering so wind pollination of the flowers should be reasonable but it is unwise to count the olives before they harvest and are in the crate.

The young trees are increasing is size and production each year. In this zone they are slow to come into production and their contribution to the total crop is not significant until they are ten years old. Now they are increasing rapidly in their production. The young trees we hope will not just increase our production but also the quality of our oil as they are nearly all top varieties in terms of flavour.

September 2009

It seems that we had our "opening" on the 15th September. This is not the inauguration of some building or another opera but the beginning of the growing season. One can never be completely sure until a month afterwards that the growth of the grasses and clovers will continue but we had a good rain on 15th (25 mm or an inch under the old measures) followed by another 40 mm over the following week. That has given a good germination of annuals but more important for us now we are no longer livestock farmers is that it freshened up the olives. The young trees were looking a little sad and the olives were wrinkled with lack of moisture. They are now looking much happier and the olives seem to get bigger almost as one looks at them.

The crop is certainly not brilliant. I cannot offer any excuses for the trees except that we had an excellent crop last year and they are a little tired. That is not a whimsical as it sounds. The olive trees do produce buds for next year at the same time as they are producing fruit for this year. While they were producing an excellent crop last year they had little energy left over for the next crop (this year). Fortunately the young trees are better than the old ones but I am still expecting a total yield well below average.

We were lucky to be spared the hail. During one of the storms that made up our 65 mm opening rain was one intense shower that turned to hail over Montegabbione and Monte Arale. The mountain was quite white. We were only a few kilometres away and had only rain.

November 2009

Picking weather has been good as it can be very cold indeed in November. The crop was good but not a record but a disaster happened when I dragged the 50 litre drums from the car to the storage room. One fell, the top burst off and I lost 10 or 12 litres of precious oil. To make matters worse it happened in front of the kitchen door so I had this big oil patch to remind me of the tragedy.

2010

March 2010

Winter is the time for pruning but it has been slow this year as we have had a wet winter - not exception rainfall but British rain. We have recorded day after day with light rain. Normally we have heavy rain. That is how we have so much more rain than London (850 mm compared to 500mm) but half the number of rainy days. It is a miserable job pruning in the rain besides it spreads bacteria diseases that are transmitted by splashing onto open cuts.

Until the last few days we have not had the cold that struck northern Europe but on 10th we got 35 cm of snow. This is the heaviest snow fall since 1996-97 when we got a metre. Luckily it did not come with a cold north easterly wind. Olive trees are resistant to frost up to about -8° C and so far this winter we have not had those temperatures. There appears to be no frost damage but some limbs have been broken by the weight of the snow.

The damage is nothing like the poor Cyprus trees in the background. The olive trees usually spring back but the Cyprus trees have snapped off and many are only half as tall.

June 2010

June is when the olive trees flower in this part of the Mediterranean. Our Tunisian friend told me that his olive trees flowers in late March.

This is of course a critical period for the next crop, Good flowering like the photo above is a good start but only a start. The flowers have to pollinate. The pollen is carried by the wind which should not be too strong or too weak. Fog or rain is not favourable to good pollination. After that hail, olive fly or drought can ruin the crop. Such is the life of the farmer!

Spring is also the time that olive oil from last year comes into its own with the spring vegetables. One of the first is the fave or broad bean. We pick them young, steam them for a few minutes and then mash them into a delicious paste with some fresh fennel leaves or dill, salt, pepper, lemon juice and of course that strong spicy olive oil from last year. It is not possible to keep up with the beans and as they mature one needs to cook them for a longer period and to peel the beans.

The fave paste is spread on the olive oil bread - what a marvellous combination!

This is the olive oil focaccia in all its glory. Of course it can be made at any time of the year but with the fave paste it is sublime.

The next vegetable to come into season is asparagus which we also steam and then drizzle with olive oil, salt and lemon juice and perhaps tarragon.

December 2010

The olive harvest is complete. The olives have been crushed and the oil is safely in the drum and I can stop worrying about the rain. We had an excellent harvest. The quantity was about average - 118 kg or about 130 litres and the quality good. We picked early in November which worked out well as we had only a few interruptions due to rain. November was the wettest we have recorded in the 20 years we have been living here in Umbria. We had 300 mm (about half the annual rainfall for London) in just one month and most of that in the last two weeks. We had two Sundays with 75 mm and 92 mm respectively in a period of less than 15 hours. The growers who picked later in the month had a terrible time and many had to abandon the tail end of their crops.

We will let the oil settle as we do not filter it and then put it into bottles and tins towards the end of the month. Besides our usual markets in Italy and Britain we hope to get some of our oil to India where there is a growing interest in Italian food and quality olive oil.

When we first came to Castel di Fiori we took our olives to a neighbour (from whom we had purchased out olive grove) and he took them with his own to the mill. Afterwards we shared out the oil and the charges. He died some years ago and his olive groves became more and more abandoned. The thorn bushes and blackberries took over. Now the land has been divided and his grandsons have decided to restore the groves. As they work in Athens and Rome I have taken on their grandfather's role of collecting the olives and then sharing out the oil.

2011

February 2011

As I predicted five or six years ago when I wrote "Growing Olives and Producing Oil" the seed breeding companies have genetically modified oil seed crops to imitate olive oil.

The following application was recently made to the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Agency by Monsanto:

"Application A1049 – Food derived from Herbicide-tolerant, High Oleic Acid Soybean Line MON87705. (Assessment report)
Monsanto Australia Limited is seeking permission for food derived from genetically modified soybean that has an improved fatty acid profile resulting in enhanced nutritional characteristics. The soybean has been developed to have an unsaturated fatty acid profile similar to olive oil and canola oil, while having less than half the levels of saturated fatty acids of commodity soybean oil. Submissions are invited on this report."

The words "similar to olive oil" are of course rather vague and understandably so because the oleic acid levels in olive oil vary considerably with variety and climate

The above chart shows that the varietal difference can range from 60% to 80%. Olives grown in a cold climate similar to ours also have a higher oleic fatty acid content compared to olives grown in the warmer climate of North Africa.

Fortunately they have not yet imitated the flavour of olive oil but one wonders why anyone should bother given the low price of supermarket grade olive oil

Here is some Dante extravergine olive oil being sold at €2.49 per litre which is less than maize seed oil. It is not simply a loss leader as the small print says there are 60,000 litres available. I have not been able to find any prices for soybean oil but I doubt it would be as little as €2.49 per litre.

April 2011

The olive harvest is in full swing in Australia and New Zealand and there are numerous articles (for example "How to process winning oils" Australian Olive grower No 78 March April 2011 Page 14) and reports on how to determine the maturity of olives for picking. Australia and New Zealand have adopted an extraordinary complex maturity index based on the colour or the skin and flesh of the olive. I wonder how this took such a firm hold in their technical world. I have never seen it used in Italy where people use their experience to determine the picking date. Those who wish to be more technical use attachment force. I am surprised that the Australian and New Zealand industry have not apparently even considered the attachment force as a measure of maturity. It is so obvious. All fruit fall on the ground when they are fully mature and this can be predicted by using a very simple device that measures the force needed to detach the fruit. As the olive fruit matures the force declines. It is so simple compared to the colour charts. You just hook the meter over the olive, pull the olive off and the meter reads out the force needed.

The attachment force is not just a measure of maturity but of ease of harvesting. If attachment force is strong the olives are going to be difficult to remove using a shaker. The size of the fruit is also important but attachment force is the key to efficient removal of the olives.

The other interesting news from Australia is the pressure being applied to the big European olive oil bottlers to meet standards. They seem to have been able to evade them in Europe but now their oils are being tested in Australia and New Zealand it is being revealed that many famous brands do not meet the standards for extravergine olive oil. Unfortunately there does not seem to be much in the way of follow up legal action. The supermarkets are merely selling them at even greater discounts. The local olive growers are rightly lobbying for something stronger in the way of penalties as they are effectively corrupting the extravergine name.

November 2011

We will start harvesting our olives soon and it is going to be a terrible crop. Not just poor but really bad. It is hard to tell why. Olives are full of mystery when it comes to their cropping pattern. We did have a reasonably good year last year but not exceptional. We would expect a lighter crop this year but not this bad. The rainfall pattern has been strange but olives are tough trees and this should make too much difference.

We had erratic rain fall in spring but we had a good finish with 77 mm in July. It was then dry all through August (only 2 mm) and then a good rain towards the end of September. While many people complained of the dry summer that was not really the case. It was just a little later than usual with the dry weather continuing into September. The problem started earlier with poor fruit set.

Some great news from Australia on labels for olive oil. The new standard excludes terms such as pure, light, extra light and premium. Those who have read our first book "Discovering Oil" may remember that I had a rant against these terms as they are so misleading. It gives me great satisfaction to think that 15 years on they have been banned under Australian standards.

"Pure" is applied to Olive Oil - that is the lowest grade of edible oil. It is misleading because the oil has been treated with chemicals to reduce the acidity. In the purity stakes it is in fact lower than the other grades of extravergine and vergine.

"Light" and "Extra light" are even more confusing. The normal meaning in advertise speak is that "light" means less calories. Usually water is added to the product (butter, margarine, etc) with some detergent (they call it an emulsifier) which gives the illusion of reducing the calorie content. It is of course a fraud as they are selling water at the same price (or even more) than the butter. The same effect can be achieved by eating less. With olive oil they do not add water or anything else to dilute the oil and calorie content so the light means perhaps light colour or perhaps light on flavour it is had to tell. It is applied to the lowest grades.

"Premium" is also redundant. We have the grades of oil which are precisely defined and premium is not. It is more confusion for the consumer.

The standard is voluntary and has not been adopted in New Zealand but I think it will be widely accepted in Australia. If the big supermarket chains can be persuaded to adopted it they would be able to put pressure on imported oils to comply. Given time it might rumble slowly through the whole olive oil market to the great benefit of consumers and producers of quality oil.

December 2011

As predicted the crop was bad but olives have a great aptitude for the unexpected. We harvested 287 Kg of olives of about 200 trees which was one of the worst fresh yields we have had in 20 years but the percentage oil was 19.5% which was one of the highest and the result was 55 Kg of oil which will satisfy our needs for the year. One might think that a high percentage oil is related to a low fresh yield but olives are never that simple. The groves that I manage for the Corneli brothers produced a miserable 320 Kg from about 400 trees. They had some excuse as we gave the trees a severe pruning last winter as they had not been touched for 20 odd years. Their low yield did not produce a high percentage. They had 48 Kg of oil or 15%.

We farmers are notorious moaners but the low yields certainly push up the cost of picking. The Corneli crop cost about €12 a litre to pick and crush. Of course there is pruning and grass cutting to pay for as well. If the crop was three time greater the picking cost would probably be much the same as the time taken to pick a tree is much the same. I avoid facing these cost by not pricing my own labour.

November has also been extremely dry. We recorded only 7 mm of rain. Usually it is our wettest month with more than 120mm. The dry weather meant the harvest was completely uninterrupted and the frantoio closed very early.

August 2012

It is a long time since my previous olive blog but I have not been lounging around. I have put my olive growing ebook onto the Amazon Kindle and it is selling very well indeed. I also wrote a short ebook on olive oil called "Inside the olive oil jar" which is also on Kindle. A couple of previous titles were converted to the Kindle format and uploaded. Red Herrings which Lynne wrote and my political memoirs called - Roosters and Featherdusters. More recently I have published "Restoring the rangeland" and "What is wrong with water markets?"

The winter of 2011-12 continued to be extremely dry and then during the first weeks of February we had snow, Of course we have snow here almost every year but this was exceptional. Usually we have a couple of falls of 10 or 15 cm.

Here I am digging a path from the front door through 1.5 metres of snow. We were lucky it did very little damage. The weight of the snow broke a few branches off the trees but only one branch on every fifth trees which I consider a lucky escape given the amount of snow. The temperature dropped below the critical -8 degrees which causes damage to the trees but only three of our trees were frosted off. Others did not escape so lightly and olive groves around Montegabbione had hundreds of trees frosted. They lost all their leaves. They will recover but will have no crop this year.

The snow gave us some moisture but the rain held off through February and March. Things were getting desperate particularly for the recharge of the aquifers. Fortunately we had good rain in April and May which meant that we went into the summer with the soil full to capacity but the rain was too late to do very much for the recharge of the aquifer.

The summer has also been exceptionally dry. It rained on 12th June and then again on 26th August. There was zero in between. That is unusual for us - more like an Australian summer than the mountains of Italy. The plants in the garden have taken a hammering - as much from the heat and the wind as from the lack of rainfall but the olives have survived very well. They are certainly tough plants. The critical period is September and October. The olive fruits really begin to grow and produce oil during this period and we need some good rain to get the trees going again. We had 12 mm on 26th August but that only just wet the surface and we need some soaking follow up rain.

September and October are also important for next year's crop. The fruiting buds are laid down during this period so a stressed plant can have a poor crop and a low number of fruits next year.

The crop is certain low. I hope it will be better than last year's terrible crop but it could be much the same. The olive trees have not read my book. They do not understand that they should have alternating good and bad years. Last year we had two trees near the house which produced a staggering 50 kg of olives between them. Our whole crop off 200 odd trees was only 287 kg. This year they should definitely have a poor year but they are again showing an excellent crop while other trees that should have recovered are still poor.

November 2012

It certain has been a season of extremes. Of course everyone says there has never been a year like this but I am sure there have been. The winter was dry with only the snow providing any worthwhile moisture that soaked deep into the ground. After my last entry we had good rain in September and October which filled the olives that we had.

We started the olive harvest slightly early on 2nd November which was fortunate as we finished on Saturday 10th November. On 11th the missing rain arrived in one great burst. On Sunday and Monday - about 36 hours we had 250 mm which is more than the average for the whole of November and about 40% of the average for the year. It made us thankful that we are on top of a hill as there were severe floods in the valleys. The river at Orvieto rose 9.5 metres and flooded much of the lower town. Some said it was similar to the floods of 1936 but of course at that time people had not built on the flood plain and urban development of roads and buildings had not increased the pace of the runoff.

On 13th November we had to fly to Doha for a conference. Not on olives but our main field of expertise - dryland farming in North Africa and West Asia. Doha has an annual average rainfall of only 80 mm. By Tuesday the water had reached Orvieto and the autostrada was closed so we had to make a scenic tour of Umbria to join it at Orte. The journey to the airport took six hours instead of two. We missed our flight but fortunately there was another six hours later.

Our crop was again low. That is against the rules. It was the second year in a row. This year we crushed our olives with our neighbours - the Corneli brothers. We have come the full circle. We bought our farm from their grandfather Memo Corneli in 1990 and when we first picked our olives we crushed them together. A few years later we dropped out and crushed them alone because he followed the tradition of waiting to the end of the harvest before crushing. This meant that they waited in the shed for two or more weeks and lost a great deal of their fresh flavour. Memo Corneli died some years ago and part of his land passed to his two grandsons who do not live in Castel di Fiori full time. In 2010 I agreed to mange their five groves which had been abandoned for the best part of 25 years. In 2010-2011 we had to clear the undergrowth that had engulfed the trees and radically prune them down to about one third of their height. Naturally there were few olives in 2011. This year they - or at least two of the five groves - have come good with a rush and we had a great crop.

We were able to set up a good team of pickers. Four people with two electric beaters. They picked at a rate that allowed us to take the olives to the frantoio every two days.

Of course olive growing is not a profitable business. I managed to sell the surplus oil at a reasonable price but that covered the cost of the picking and the processing. There was very little left over to pay for the pruning and grass cutting. The picking and processing cost almost exactly a Euro per kilo of fresh olives. Our average percentage oil was low at 14% so we needed 7 kg of olives for each kilo of oil. At €7 for picking and processing that takes most of the price and we still have to pay for the pruning, fertiliser, and grass cutting. Profit? What is that?

December 2012

Most of the surplus Corneli oil went to Throgmorton an accounting group in the UK who have given it to their clients as Christmas presents (I hope some of those who came and picked have kept some for themselves).

This is the oil bottled and labeled by Throgmorton. The stunning view on the label and card is not our house and cottage but the castle at Montegiove (see above) where the Throgmorton team stayed while they were here picking the olives. The name Colle Fabrosa comes from the best of the Corneli olive groves. "Colle" is the hill and "Fabrosa" the name of the farm.

December 2013

Olives are capricious. That is stating the obvious but this year showed the full extent of their variability. After two poor year ours came good with a rush and we had a record crop - the best for 23 years. It was about four times the yield of last year. It was probably the younger trees which I planted 15 years ago that pushed us over the last record. They produced about 25% of the crop so they have a way to go yet to reach their full potential. We could see that there was an excellent crop of olives but the unknown, until the olives are crushed, is the percentage oil. The "resa" as it is called in Italian is the great topic of conversation among farmers during the olive harvest. There were reports of oil yields as low as 7% but ours produced an average of 12% so the large crop of olives was converted into a record yield of oil. We have had a higher resa in the past but in this mountain zone it is rarely more than about 15% which is the penalty we pay for quality.

There is some relationship between yield of olives and the resa but it is not as simple as saying more olives means a lower resa. Of course if one leaves the olives to be picked later the resa is higher as they dry out. The problem is that the flavour of the oil is less and some olives drop on the ground. It is extremel doubtful whether the higher resa produces more oil. While the cost of processing is higher (the charges relate to the fresh olives not the oil) we always pick early for flavour. We never pick up any olives off the ground. Not only would it be too expensive but they have started to ferment and will ruin the flavour of the oil. This year we again achieved our goal to process all our olives in less than three days. The average time is of course a day and a half.

The capricious yield was also true of the Corneli groves that I manage. Of course our grove was originally a Corneli grove, I have now been managing their five groves and 400 trees for three season. After the severe pruning in the first year they yielded practically nothing. They came good with a rush last year and I quite expected a decline this year but the crop was even more than last year. In fact we had to sell some of their oil to the frantoio in bulk. It showed once again that you have to sell olive oil to retail customers to even begin to break even. The bulk price covers the cost of picking and processing at the mill but very little else - certainly not enough to pay for the annual pruning, cutting the grass, the fertiliser and that elusive profit.

Once again we were fortunate to have an excellent team of pickers. The picking rate depends to some extend on the yield and even the best pickers cannot do well if the the trees have little on them and the nets have to be moved more frequently. The good yield and the good pickers produced an average of 65 kg an hour which is truly excellent in this mountain country. There were three. Two with electric beaters and one moving the nets.

On the world olive scene I read that another Australian olive plantation company has gone bankrupt. There were many of these large projects established to take advantage of tax deductions. There seems to be a class of wealth Australians who prefer to risk all their money rather than pay 40% in income tax. Now another group have lost their investment. I was not surprised as I saw the prospectus of one of these large schemes and realised how the figures had been massaged to make a profit. It was that resa all over again. They predicted a resa (that is a poor start as it is so capricious) of about 18% which is reasonable in a warmer climate and is the Italian average. They then predicted over the next few year a steadily rising resa until they reached a staggering 26%. While that could be achieved on rare occasions it was a totally an unreasonable, longer term prediction but was necessary to achieve a return on the investment. Of course it was not realised and the projects have been falling into bankruptcy one after another.

December 2014

Capricious? That was my opening last year but I did not realise the limits that olives could go to. 2014 has been a year to forget for olive growers in most of Italy. We had a very mild winter in 2013 to 2014. It was one of the few years that we have not recorded any snow. There was very little frost either. We pull out all our geraniums in autumn and replace them with bulbs but friends who left them found they carried through the winter without being burn by the frost. Such a mild winter is perfect for the survival of the olive fly. The summer was exactly the opposite. It was wet and mild. July is normally our hotest and driest months. Frequently we have no recorded rainfall but this year we had a staggering 143 mm - more than other months that are supposed to be wet. Friends who grow grapes found that instead of 5 applications of fungicide that had to apply 11 as the constant rain and mist washed off the fungiicide and provided ideal growing confitions for the fungus. August was not as wet but the temperatures were well below average - again ideal for the olive fly to thrive.

While there was olive fly in 2002 this is the most severe attack that growers can remember. The olive crop in Umbria and Tuscany is 70 to 80% below average. Given that much of the oil is produced by small growers whose main aim it to provide for their family and friends the amount of oil entering the commercial market is even less. Usually the frantoio (olive mill) operates 24 X 7 during the harvest but this year many did not open at all and the one we use was working for about 6 hours a day. Italy imports oil every year but this year it will be much more than usual. Fortunately Tunisia has had a good year.

Our production was well down. Less than half of last year. We had some olive fly but less than 10% which is quite acceptable. Our olive fly attack was late in the season so we had hardly any mould. The fly lays its eggs on the olive. The grubs hatch and eat the into the olive. That reduces the crop but the grub has a breathing hole which allows entry of moulds. These cause more problems than the grubs as they spread through the uneaten part of the olive. The olive turns black with mould not by ripening. The mould imparts a off flavour to the oil. Our low incidence of grubs and even lower incidence of mould meant that the quality of our oil was good. We had a reduced crop partly because we picked early - about 2 weeks earlier than usual. We did this because we feared the mould might become a more serious problem particularly if it was wet. In fact the weather was perfect and we harvested a smaller but good quality crop. Our resa that is the percentage oil in the olives was as low as we have ever had. This was not unexpected as the olives increase their oil content by about 1% per week in October and early November. We had 11% and the Corneli groves had 9% The flavour of our oil is usually very robust. This year it is less but considering everything not too bad at all.

The Corneli groves that I manage did not fare as well. The three groves at Castel di Fiori and Colle Fabrosa di sotto were excellent. The two lower down at Pantano were a complete disaster. The grubs were in more than half the olives and the mould was terrible. We decided that the quality of the oil would be so bad it would not be worth picking.

Obviously we hope that next year will return to normal. A good cold winter would be excellent but not so cold that it frosts the trees. Olive leaves begin to be damaged at about 8º below freezing but it depends on the time of exposure. It needs to be colder for serious damage to the wood. A hot summer would also be useful. We are not sitting back and hoping. We do use olive fly traps and will next year be putting out many more. We are in a good position to use traps because we are relativelly isolated. Using traps in a grove that is surrounded by groves heavily infested with fly is not effective. We have some abandoned groves near us but they are not large areas. I also hope that the research and extension services are better organised next year. Many gowers are angry that they were not warned when fly numbers were increasing rapidly in early spring. They could have take action to control the fly early in the season..

August 2015

In the olive grove – August 2015


Mediterranean Grarden Society. Also in Italian

By Brian Chatterton


August and September will test your land management skills. During the last part of August or in September we usually have the heavy rain that marks the beginning of the growing season in the Mediterranean zone. This growing season has already started with some heavy falls that have caused flooding. These heavy rains can leading to a loss of water and soil from the olive grove. The loss of soil is the most visible effect and has the greatest long term impact but the loss of water is also important. After a mostly dry summer (we recorded only 9 mm of rainfall between 20th June and 10th August ) the olives need a drink. They are well able to stand this summer drought but need moisture in the two months leading to harvest in late October or early November.

The great land management debate goes back to the previous spring and hinges on whether to cultivate the land or not. Traditionally olive groves and vineyards have been cultivated in the spring throughout the Mediterranean. The practice has some scientific support as the weeds that grow in the spring take moisture from the soil that would otherwise be available for the olives or vines. Of course some moisture will evaporate from the bare cultivated soil but the roots of weeds will penetrate to a considerable depth and take much more water.

The opposing argument is that the cultivation of the soil year after year for decades and even centuries totally destroys the soil organic matter. Without organic matter clay soils have no structure. That means they pack down easily into something like the clay used for making ceramic pots. It is almost waterproof and the water runs off rather than soaking into the root zone. If the grove is on a slope the water will wash down hill taking some soil with it. In southern Spain there are large olive estates that have been cultivated for centuries and the olive trees are growing on small hillocks as much as a metre high. The roots of the olive trees have held the soil in the immediate vicinity of the trees but autumn and winter rains have washed enormous quantities of soil away between the trees.

The erosion crisis is not confined to the olive estates of Spain but is happening here in central Italy although cereal farming is probably a greater culprit that the olive groves. The British School in Rome conducted an archaeological dig near Gubbio in the late 1980s. They found that the soil deposited from the erosion of the surrounding hills during the Roman period amounted to 20 cm. This period of about 400 years included moderately intensive cereal growing. After the collapse of the Roman state the population fell and cereal production was less intensive. There were more animals grazing on pasture and over the next 1500 years or so. Another 20 cm were deposited in the erosion sediments. From 1950 a whole new range of artefacts appeared in the sediments. The archaeologists referred jokingly to them as the Coca Cola layers. From 1950 to the late 1980s two metres were deposited or five times the amount for the previous 2000 years. I don't know whether there has been any further work on the site but I imagine there has been another metre deposited as the farming system has not changed.

Gubbio is no exception unfortunately and I can see fields near Orvieto that will need to be abandoned soon as the erosion has been so severe that the bed rock is visible in places.

I have found that cutting the grass, wild flowers and weeds in the spring over the last 25 years rather than cultivating has produced a soil structure in my olive grove that is like a sponge. Even when all the grass is dry at the end of summer the heaviest rains soak in. In winter the sponge is eventually full and run off occurs but it is crystal clear and carries no soil with it.

The arguments are not as simple as this – they rarely are in farming. Obviously the slope is important. In central Italy most olive groves are on a slope. Traditionally the valley floor has been used for cereals and in any case it is not sufficiently well drained for olives. The gentle slopes have been used for vines and the steeper and poorer ground for olives. The olives groves are therefore vulnerable to soil erosion. This is quite different from Puglia for example where the olives are grown on the plain or areas with a gentle slope.

The soil type is also important. Clay soils will cap over and become resistant to the penetration of rainfall more than loam soils or sand. Soil organic matter and the good soil structure that goes with a meadow are therefore more important.

The jury is out on the moisture question. Cultivation will save moisture in the spring for the summer drought but the capacity of a soil with low organic matter to hold moisture is much less. In the autumn the situation is reversed with well structured soils absorbing more rainfall than poorly structured ones.

As well as the question of water, a well managed meadow under the olive trees provides a healthy soil with more than enough nitrogen to satisfy the low requirements of the olives. The meadow will contain pasture legumes such as annual medicago, clover and vetch. When these are cut and mulched down in the spring they provide a fertile and healthy soil for the trees.

There are other non scientific reason not to cultivate. Years of cultivation in the grove destroys not only the annual plants but their seed bank. When the rains come in autumn the plant cover is limited to a few species that are prolific and early producers of seed that have therefore evaded the spring cultivation. Many of the colourful wild flowers disappear altogether together with the bulbs and ground orchids. The grove has become an ecological desert.

I cultivated my grove many years ago to level the ground. Before we purchased the grove it had been ploughed and many years later the ground was still uneven. I cross cultivated to level out the furrows. Picking the olives that autumn was a battle against the mud. It was an experience I never want to repeat.

If you are convinced that a meadow is the better option you need to act soon. If the land was cultivated in the spring is may be quite rough. If you decide to turn it into a meadow it is better to try and smooth it as much as possible because that is the way it will stay. In my olive grove the land had been ploughed in one direction and even ten years after the grove was abandoned the furrows still existed and I had to cross cultivate to smooth them out. If the grove has been ploughed for years little will germinate except some spikey thistles. Over a long period a meadow will emerge but seeding in the autumn with annual medicago, clovers and vetches will give the meadow a good start.


July 2015

In the olive grove – July 2015

Mediterranean Garden Society.

By Brian Chatterton.


Suffering from the summer heat? Think of the positive side. The olive flies are dying – well like flies. Last year we had a disastrous harvest in Italy with Umbria and Tuscany being particularly hard hit. We were the only people to pick olives in our village and the frantoio we use was open for only a few hours a day. The major reason for the plague of olive flies was the cool and wet summer of 2014 although the mild winter in the previous year did not help. We recorded 143 mm of rain in July 2014. That was more than the previous November yet November is usually the wettest month of the year. August last year was not so wet but it stayed cool and the olive flies thrived. This year we have had weeks of hot weather and not a single drop of rain for a month. It has decimated the fly population.

Of course we could not anticipate such a sharp return to normal summers and I put out hundreds of traps for the flies in June. The recipe is in The Mediterranean Garden No 81 July 2015 but I could have saved myself the bother as I think the the heat would have killed most of them anyway. The traps have certainly collected many olive flies so they have provided me with peace of mind.

While many plants in the garden are suffering from the heat and lack of rain the olive trees are fine. In California where they have had a severe drought for many years they are learning that olive trees do not require summer irrigation for a good crop of oil. Traditionally olives in California have been irrigated because the majority are used to produce olives for the table. Most of the olive oil comes from the olives that are rejected by the processors as too small for the table. The lack of water due to the drought has meant the growers cannot irrigate and they have discovered the Italian tradition that irrigating olives for oil production needs to be carefully timed. If you have the water it is beneficial (in the years that rainfall is inadequate) during the period of flowering and then in September and October when most of the oil is produced. Irrigation during the summer will increase the size of the olives but they will have a low oil content and you have achieved nothing except higher processing charges at the frantoio.

Earlier this year we went on the Italian Branch's tour of Puglia and were most surprised that so many olive trees were irrigated. The trees in Puglia are hundreds of years old and some even date back thousands of years. They have reached an enormous size without a single drop of extra water and we wondered why they needed it now.

The olive fly but you will need a strong magnifying glass to see this detail.

October 2015

In the olive grove October 2015


Mediterranean garden Society.

By Brian Chatterton.


An olive pest, Xylella fastidiosa (Xf) has recently been identified in the Puglia region of Italy but there is considerable confusion over its impact. Bloomberg Business News reported the infestation as a major cause of the low level of olive oil production in Italy in 2014. In fact it was caused by the olive fly which has been with us for as long as olives have been grown in Italy. The Xf outbreak is extremely serious in the long term but the immediate impact on olive oil production for the whole of Italy is slight. Thousands of hectares of infected trees sound a great deal but in the context of the millions of hectares of olives in Italy it is insignificant. The disease is extremely serious in the longer term because there are currently no known control measures. If it spreads throughout Italy it would be a disaster.

The outbreak is in Puglia which is the most historic part of the Mediterranean for olive production. UNESCO has declared ancient olive trees a world heritage. Trees that are many hundreds of years old have been individually identified and recorded throughout the Mediterranean zone. Tens of thousands have been identified in Greece and other Mediterranean countries but Puglia alone has more than a million of these heritage trees. The disease is currently confined to the Salentino peninsular but all of Puglia and the rest of Italy is under threat.

Xf is a bacterial disease that is transmitted from tree to tree by sap sucking insects. The primary carrier of the bacteria in Puglia is the spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius). Infected trees die rapidly because the xylem (sap tubes) become blocked and the disease is sometimes called Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS). The Xf group of bacteria will infect a wide range of commercial crop plants including vines, citrus, stone fruits as well as olives but it appears that they are different strains of Xf. Xf has not attacked these crop in Italy. However the disease in Italy has appeared in other species besides olives including almond and oleander. Most surprising is its appearance in oak trees.

The appearance in oak trees is of great concern. There are millions of hectares of oak forest in Italy and if the disease becomes entrenched in these forests it will not only cause damage to the oaks but become a permanent reservoir of infection for the commercial tree crops.

The outbreak was first identified in the Provincia of Lecce in 2013 and spread over many thousands of hectares. Controlling the advance of the disease with insecticides does not seem to be a practical method although it could have some short term benefits. The main insecticide for use against the carrier insect is the neonicotinoid group which is being banned by the EU because of its adverse effect on bees. Of course olives are pollinated by wind not bees so the Italian government could probably obtain an exemption for a short period but other methods of control will need to be found.

The Corpo Forestale is destroying infected trees but for this to be effective farmers need to obtain generous compensation so they will report outbreaks rapidly. Healthy trees need to be destroyed around the infected ones as a local buffer zone. The Corpo Forestale does not have the resources to monitor the vast area under olives in Puglia and needs to have the cooperation of farmers. They in turn must have a strong incentive to report their concerns immediate and not wait in the hope that the trees will recover. As well as generous compensation the administration of the fund must be rapid. Thirty years ago the compensation for olive growers affected by severe frost in central Italy took years and years to be paid. The financial authorities must realise that the faster and better the payments the less they will need to disburse in the long term. Short term savings will translate into long term costs.

The EU has adopted a ban on the movement of plant material outside the infected zone and has protected that area with a further buffer zone and security zone.

It can be seen from the map below that the infected area (orange) is in the Salentino peninsular but there has been one outbreak already that has jumped the main Buffer zone (dark green) into the Provincia of Brindisi. The security zone is purple.



We were in the Salentino area during April 2015 on a tour organised by the Mediterranean Garden Society, Italian Branch and saw many dead trees. I do not know whether they were infected with Xf but it is quite probable. We were certainly not aware of the various zones declared by the EU in February 2015. There were no signs on the roads or any other information indicating that we were entering the Infected zone or Buffer zone. In Australia we have had considerable experience of quarantine and have managed to keep Phylloxera (the disease of vines) out of South Australia through strict controls for more than one hundred years. These measures include large warning signs on all roads indicating the movement of plant material is prohibited and on the major highways we have road blocks where trucks and cars are stopped at random and inspected. If the quarantine is going to be effective in Puglia the authorities will certainly have take serious action to make people aware of the bans and enforce them.

While the outbreak of Xf was confirmed in 2013 it is fairly obvious that it started some years earlier. It seems to have come in through the importing of ornamental plants from South America. Oleander and ornamental coffee plants from Cost Rica are thought to be the main culprits. There have been other outbreaks in Europe. One was in Paris where an infected ornamental coffee plant was discovered in a suburban market. Paris is hardly a olive producing zone but one should not laugh as London and Paris have large numbers of ornamental olive trees. It would be quite easy for an Parisian or Londoner to take their potted olive tree to their summer house in the south of France and spread the disease. Another outbreak has been discovered on Corsica which has about 7,000 hectares of olive groves. The Xf was found in a myrtle-leafed milkwort plant not olives but is could easily spread to olives and other trees. So far research has shown that this strain of Xf does not infect citrus but we are still waiting for more comprehensive tests on other plants.

The EU is considering a ban on the importing of such plants. While this would be an excellent short term measure it is time that the EU reconsidered its whole attitude to plant and animal quarantine. Many decades ago quarantine was used as an excuse for trade restrictions. The pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction and the free trade and globalisation advocates are in charge. Almost all quarantine has been swept away. It is time to rethink our policies and apply some more stringent needs-based tests. It is not enough to say that a particular plant may carry a certain disease. We should go further and say is the importing of a certain plant really necessary. If it is not then the assumption should be that it is not worth the risk. It may be a carrier of a disease not yet identified. In this particular instance Europe has plenty of oleander varieties. I cannot see any need to import more. Our standard of living will not be reduced if we cannot buy ornamental coffee plants. Merely testing the plants for disease is not enough. No one knew at the time that they carried Xf or that the strain of Xf they carried would infect olives. We have to assume there are other diseases out there that could be equally damaging.

It is time the farmers and gardeners made their voices heard against the free traders and obtain some protection against exotic diseases and quickly. We do not need more reports, studies and reviews but implementation before another series of exotic diseases invade Europe. To think that olives have been grown in Puglia for well over 2000 years and may now be destroyed as a by-product of free trade is a terrible inditement of current trade and economic policy.

At present the only method of control is the destruction of infected trees and those in the vicinity. There was however an interesting article in The Olive Oil Times in September 2015 (http://www.oliveoiltimes.com/olive-oil-making-and-milling/phages-xylella-fastidiosa/48797). It reported on research work being done at Texas A & M University on a Xf disease found in grape vines. The researchers made a mixture of four phages which they found significantly reduced the damage caused by Xf in grape vines.

Phages are viruses that attack bacteria. One is reminded of the nursery rhyme:


Big fleas have little fleas,
Upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
and so on, ad infinitum.


The ad infinitum may be a little exaggerated but the idea is sound. Most pests and diseases do have natural pests and diseases that control them in turn. We have found in Australia that new pests often arrive without their biological controls and we have to return to their country of origin to find their natural predators. The Xf that attacks vines does not appear to attack olives so other strains of phages will need to be found as well as effective means of introducing them into the infected olives. The researchers are only claiming a reduction in damage not a complete cure. All this will take some years so we will have to rely on the destruction of infected trees in the meantime. Hopefully this will be implemented rapidly.

An alternative view is put forward on the http://xylellareport.it/ web site. This group claims that the measures taken so far are too extreme. They say that only 1.8% of the trees tested so far have proved positive for Xf. It is not clear whether the 1.8% refers to trees already showing signs of decline or a sample of all the olive trees selected at random. The Xylella report group claims the major problem is that the olive trees have been treated with too many chemicals – herbicides in particular. Certainly when we were in Puglia with the Mediterranean Garden Society we noticed how the frequent use of herbicides under the trees had created an ecological desert with an adverse effect on the biology of the soil. There may be some validity in their argument that the problem has been exacerbated by a dependence on chemicals and poor soil health but the fact that 1.8% of the trees have tested positive can be used as an argument in support of the eradication policy. If the incidence is so low there is a good chance it will work.


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