Food

Olive Oil: The Eternal Elixir

As a young girl growing up in the Tuscan countryside, there was only one time of year as fun for me as Christmas: the olive harvest, an awakening of the senses. Every year, my family and neighbours would pick olives from the trees that populate the land that surrounded our house. I remember mornings pulling on my yellow rubber boots with excitement and stepping into the brisk fall air, ready to set out for the field to help the adults. Once there, I would tread across the ground, often muddy, and join mom and dad already at work among the silvery green trees. I’d pick up a hand rake and start combing through its fronds, pulling the olives loose from them, listening to them fall like heavy raindrops on the parachute canopies beneath. With every breath, my nostrils picked up the familiar smell of olives that lingered in the air, earthy and distinctive. Big plastic cases would gradually fill with olives and I’d sink my hands in the giant mounds, grabbing fistfuls and letting them dribble through my fingers like lots of black and green pebbles. At the end of the harvest, my dad and others would take a truck full of olives to the frantoio (olive mill) to press the small fruits. Then dad would come home with a few large steel containers filled with spicy green oil that we would indulge in that night for dinner, drizzling it on everything. We finally had the long-awaited olio novo (new oil) as we call it in Tuscany. And so it all came full circle; what we had harvested was now on our table delighting our taste buds in its most delicious form.  

People in Tuscany and the rest of Italy have been harvesting olives for centuries, ever since the Phoenicians brought the olive tree from Greece to Sicily in the 7th century BC. However, it was thanks to the ancient Romans that the cultivation of this tree spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. The Roman writer on agriculture, Columella, stated that “Olea prima omnium arborum est,” meaning “The olive tree is the first amongst trees.” The plant was sacred to Greeks and Romans alike, who saw it as a gift from the goddess Minerva (Athena) and its oil the symbol of the earth’s prosperity. In Tuscany its earliest harvesters were the Etruscans, an ancient people known, amongst other things, for their agricultural prowess. 

Continuing the oil-making tradition of the Etruscans, down the road from my childhood home, is the Colmano farm, owned by Piero Masi and his family, where they produce both wine and olive oil. I had the pleasure of visiting Colmano in the middle of the harvest. While I chatted with Piero and his son Giovanni in the field, feelings of nostalgia overcame me as I watched the familiar but slightly modernized activity; in place of the hand rakes I remembered, they were using long mechanical poles, scuotitori, to shake the olives off the branches. I observed them pick up the olive-filled nets like cradles and dump the contents in the tractor wagon while Giovanni talked about pruning the trees in March to ready them for the following harvest. Though usually spanning from late October to mid-November, Piero explained that due to rising temperatures and market demand, the harvest has been starting earlier and earlier. Luckily this doesn’t damage the quality of the resulting oil, which Piero revealed is mostly related to the extraction method. As he put it, “You can have good olives, but if the frantoio doesn’t process them properly, the oil will be ruined.”  

Every farmer will claim their oil is the best, but the silent stars of the process are the people at frantoi like Società Agricola Maggi, where Giovanni Maggi and his family press olives for Piero and other farmers in the area. I headed there at sundown with Piero and his son after my afternoon at Colmano to drop off the day’s harvest, in the midst of the coming and going of tractors from other farms. The men joked that this time of year the frantoio becomes their local cafè where farmers take a moment to chat after a long day’s work. Then, once everyone leaves, the magic happens and specialized machines transform the olives into emerald liquid. Giovanni explained that it’s important for the farms to take their olives to press the same day they are picked to ensure production of the freshest oil possible. To maintain that freshness, he advised that consumers keep their oil in dark bottles or cans and in cool, dry places. 

Every November, Tuscan families await the arrival of olio novo, like a Christmas gift in liquid form. In the household, the precious oil is coveted like gold by those able to get it from their local farmer or family member. When the moment has finally arrived, our favorite way to taste it is to drizzle it over a slice of warm toasted Tuscan bread – a little snack we call fettunta. It might seem absurd that we make such a big fuss over it, but it only takes one taste of the peppery, pungent oil to understand its allure. After all, olive oil is the foundation of Italian cuisine, simple but necessary. We use it to sautée, to season, to garnish. We use it for everything in the kitchen and beyond. It brings families together in communal moments at the table, in the fields and at the frantoio. And to think this magical elixir comes from an olive, the tiny sphere that defines even our physical traits: the Italian with olive skin. From ancient Rome to the modern Tuscan table, olive oil has remained a constant in our culture, eternal like Italy and its people.