Arrivederci Sicilia

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Scorchio!

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Olives with three months to go

It’s very hot. Southern Italy has been experiencing three months of heat wave, most days it’s 38-40’c. Fires have been raging around the island, some accidentally, unfortunately without a shadow of doubt,others intentionally.

On a personal level the three wheat fields surrounding our Maiorana groves caught fire last month. A lad had to abandon his combine harvester as the fire engulfed the field he was working. He was hospitalised for smoke poisoning. The harvester faired less well.

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The burnt out combine harvester abandoned in a blackened wheat field

I went today to see for myself. Luckily only 7 of our 170 trees were damaged, scorched by the heat rather than burnt.

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One of our scorched centenary olive trees

Many are heavy with olives, and no sign of the olive oil fly. It’s simply too hot and dry. The young trees were watered in June and July. They’ll get another drink this month. It’s early days but the signs are good. We’ve got two volunteers signed up so far and it looks like we’ll have our work cut out for us.

 

Tasted but no thanks: Napolina Standard EVOO gets a slippery 0/5

I have to confess that I bought Napolina’s standard Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) for my first tasting session last December, held with Malmesbury’s Women’s Business Network, in our local Co-op shop for £3.75 for 500ml as the standard low-quality cheap oil, presenting it alongside Alivu’s handpicked EVOO, and the Sainsbury’s DOP suspecting that the Napolina EVOO would be the bland one.

However, I wasn’t prepared for how rough it would be. Especially as ‘Which’ magazine voted this oil one of the best buys in the country in 2011.

Napolina has a lovely Italian sounding name, and its website emphasises the company’s Italian roots. Now Napolina is 100% owned by The Prince group, which in turn owns several well known brands such as Branston, Cross & Blackwell as well as several oil brands you may have heard of: Olivia; Mazola; Flora; Crisp and Dry.  It has its HQ in Liverpool but the Olive Oil is bottled at ‘Edible oils’ bottling plant in Belvedere,  which is not on the banks of the Tiber but on the Thames, near the Cross Ness Sewage treatment works in Greater London. Who says there is no romance in food ay?

So who owns Princes foods? Apparently it is 100% owned by Mitsubishi Corporation, Japan’s largest trading company.

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Edible Oils plant in Belvedere, Kent

The bottle claims that the oil is produced with 100% EU olives. More on that another time.

So back to the taste test. Can anyone recall the list I wrote in my previous blog on how to determine whether your olive oil is likely to be any good, even before you have tasted it?

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Next you taste to identify defects and qualities. If the defects are serious, even if there are qualities present, a tasing panel will reject the oil as Extra Virgin.

I ran through the steps of tasting our oil with the group. Warm, sniff, sip and slurp, swallow and breath out through your nose. I described what they should be looking for: the fruity smell, the bitter taste, the spicy kick as you swallow and another fruity whiff as you breath out at the end. I didn’t describe the defects, I wanted to see if the could detect tgem without my help. If you have never tasted an oil straight you may not appreciate how a defect jumps right out at you.

Having explained what to do my group of 8 tasters, who were all doing this for the first time, we tasted the three oils blind. The oils were held in small transparent cups although, as I have explained before, colour is not a good indication of taste or quality. The cups were  colour coded so I could track which one we were tasting.

Some preferred the Alivu Oil to the Sainsbury’s Sicilian DOP (I will be evaluating this next time) but they all universally condemned Napolina and were all surprised when I revealed which brand it was, and that I had only just bought and opened the bottle.

Our observations included that the oil looked rather thin when swirled around in our tasting glasses. Participants said: the oil smelt of paint stripper or petrol; it was unpleasant; it smelt of oil, this last comment was the most positive. It tasted bitter, in theory a quality, but if the bitter is unpleasant, leaving your mouth goopy and sticky, it is the bitterness associated with a defect. It burned a little bit in the throat. It didn’t have a fruity taste. This was the groups opinion.

What we had detected was a serious defect; rancidity. The oil was old and off. Rancid is the most obvious of defects. It is the smell of dusty, musty, oxidised fat. You can smell it, taste it and it’s strong in your retro smell. Its closest association is paint stripper. This gives it a high score on the defects. In terms of its qualities:

Fruity: 0/10

Bitter: 1/10

Spicy: 1/10

I can’t recommend this to you I’m afraid, not even for cooking in. Sorry Mitsubishi Corporation. There is no poetry in your oil. And it tastes grim.

Alivu Phase 2: how to taste an oil

Back in November, I wrote about our nonexistent 2016 harvest and the new angle that Alivu was planning to take in 2017; running tasting sessions to teach people how to decipher between their oils. In 2015 Paolo and I qualified as olive oil tasters, part one of a two-part course which olive oil tasters must complete in order to join government-authorised olive oil tasting panels, charged with analysing the organoleptic properties of olive oil; the aspects that an individual experiences via our senses.

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An accredited ‘Panel’ for tasting olive oil in Italy

The importance of these properties has been recognised for thousands of years. And they can be tasted. Given our most delicious oil is not available until the end of 2017, Alivu’s plan is to help you taste oils and recommend some to buy. Over the next year, Alivu will be tasting mainstream products available in the Malmesbury area, so at least we will all know what we are buying out there in slippery world of EVOO.

So, in December, Alivu ran it’s first tasting session, with the Malmesbury Women’s Business network, tasting three different Extra Virgin Olive Oils, at least, that is what we supposed they were. I will be writing about these oils next week, but before I go any further, it is worth explaining why tasting oils is so important, with fraud rife and oil at such varying prices.

The problem?

Only 3% of olive oil milled in the world makes the grade as Extra Virgin Olive Oil or EVOO; it’s more costly to produce a genuine EVOO oil both in terms of harvest and it terms of milling and storing. Olive oil is a juice extracted directly from the fruit. If you pick at the right time, it tastes pleasant and has all the beneficial properties that olive oil is famous for, and keeps them for longer. So what? The problem is that it is more labour intensive to harvest, and the olives that make EVOO have a lower yield of oil. In theory, the higher price of EVOO recognises this extra effort, but in practice, many companies are after a quick buck and fake it.

What makes an oil EVOO as opposed to just Olive Oil?

To make EVOO you need to pick your olives as soon as they start to ripen; these green olives are harder to pick when compared to later in the season when the mature fruit is less attached to the stem, and are also less productive when you mill them; the amount of oil you get from a greener olive is less than the oil you get from a ripe, black olive. This is because the black olives are already fermenting, and produce a greater quantity of runny oil. This is why a mill that heats the olive paste can extract more oil.

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A traditional oil press in Western Turkey (Photo: Aydin Cetinbostagoglu)

EVOO must be produced only using mechanical (i.e. not chemical) methods – a press or mill – and at low temperatures (not exceeding 27’C). Heating the oil breaks it down whereupon you lose some of its qualities. This is why you read ‘cold press’ and ‘cold extraction’ on your bottle (incidentally the former should only be used if an actual ‘press’ has been used, most prize-winning oils are extracted in a mill, where quality can be more closely controlled).

To sell your product as EVOO, the oil must go to a registered lab and pass a chemical analyses which measures its acidity amongst other things (low acidity – less than 0.8 – is required for the EVOO grade).

If you don’t make the grade with the acidity test, then the oil gets sold on to a bottling company or refinery, where it is heated to 2000’C, stripped of its defects with solvents and then resold as ‘olive oil either as ‘olive oil’ (which must have at least 1% EVOO content) or ‘lamp’ oil, which is not even fit for human consumption. It is this which is ‘Olive Oil’. Yuk.

Given all these extra costs, you can see how it is so lucrative to sell your lower grade oil as EVOO. How? By faking it. Acidity can be fixed in a lab, a practice which is allegedly common in the big bottling plants. It is made to taste and look better using chlorophyl (green) and carotene (taste). So how can you tell?

The solution?

The fact is that if you are used to a genuine EVOO, you won’t be easily fooled by these fakes. However, if you are used to cooking with oils, or mixing them with vinegar and herbs for your dressing rather than tasting them, you may be tricked.

One solution is making an organoleptic analysis mandatory. Only authorised panels can conduct these analysis. Even if your oil’s acidity is low enough to pass the chemical analysis, even it was extracted mechanically and at the requisite low temperatures, it still doesn’t mean that it will pass the taste test.

If the tasters detect a fault – rancid, vinegar, metallic, mouldy, heated, muddy – using a highly rigorous tasting system, it will not be awarded the coveted EVOO standard, and can only be sold as olive oil. At present, the organoleptic analysis is optional, only necessary if you want to use descriptions such as ‘fruity’, ‘bitter’, ‘spicy’, ‘green’ (amongst others) on your label. If you look at the back of your bottle, it probably doesn’t use any of these optional descriptions.

So why is it not mandatory? Many, especially interest groups trying to raise oil quality and small producers, wish it were, but the idea is lobbied against by the big bottling companies, who, as I mentioned above have their own labs, and often their own qualified tasters. They argue it is subjective, but their real motives are financial. If they weren’t worried about the quality of their oil they wouldn’t be threatened.

So look at your oil’s description, a self-respecting producer will have a description such as fruity or spicy. Even then, this is not a fool-proof guarantee, as at present the EU requires best-before dates that are very long (18 months only after you have bottled the oil, which may have been harvested – and analysed – years before). Oil does go off, eventually, but an air tight dark bottle will keep it in a good state for a while. No self-respecting Sicilian will use oil older than 1-2 years. Real aficionados prefer to use theirs within 6 months of picking, a bottle is open for days, not months.

What about us Northerners buying in good faith? The situation may, at this point, sound pretty hopeless.

How will I ever know if I have the real thing? Here are some tips….

A lot of oils are for sale, and if you can afford the prize winners then good for you (even this is not a sure thing) but if not look out for:

  • Dark bottle or tin;
  • Year of harvest (buy preferable last years oil);
  • DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetto) or IGP (Indicazione Geografico Protetto) both of which are designations of origins requiring additional checks and controls directly related to the quality and traceability of the product;
  • Single Estate or at least a real producer (as opposed to a bottling company that buys its oil in the tankard or lorry load) and then blends it in a factory;
  • Organoleptic descriptions;
  • learn to taste your oil, straight, like the tasters do and find the oil that is right for you.

If you want to read about the oils that Alivu is buying and trying then watch this space and follow our blog. I will be buying EVOOs available locally and writing about them right here. If you have one you want us to try then write us an email. If you want me to teach you or organise a tasting event, then get in touch!

Next week the blog will look at two EVOOs: Napolina’s EVOO and Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ DOP Val di Mazara EVOO.

From Sicily to Westonbirt — from Parks and Gardens UK

Leaving our olive groves behind last week was hard, we’re happiest pruning and harvesting our trees. But working in Westonbirt school’s beautiful gardens helps. Today we’ve been digging up ivy and brambles. Everyday grind in a glorious place. It’s exciting to be part of an entirely different landscapes long history. Especially exciting to be involved now, with Heritage Lottery Funds on their way, and the gardens due to be restored, involving community partners and opening up to a wider public, with the aim of being more inclusive.

A piece from an excellent blog on garden history:

Everyone’s heard of Westonbirt Arboretum, one of the most extensive and beautiful collections of trees in the country. But how about the other gardens at Westonbirt? Perhaps not. Yet like the arboretum they were created by the same visionary, Robert Stayner Holford, are just across the road and are open to the public, although they now form […]

via Westonbirt & the Holfords — Parks and Gardens UK

#Badharvest: 2015 – 380 litres, 2016? None…

This blog could also be titled the strange story of the 2016 Harvest. Let’s set the scene: Southern Italy, a mild winter leads to early blossoming of the olive trees in April instead of mid-May. An even hotter spell burns much of the blossom. Those trees that managed to pollinate start to form baby olives. Many of these shrivel in the warm spring, those that make it are attacked by pests, the Mosca Olearia – the Olive Fly – which lays its eggs in the new olive, so that the growing larvae eat the pulp, damaging the fruit, often causing it to mature early or drop off the tree. To add insult to injury, the summer is not a scorcher, so many more flies and eggs survive than otherwise would have.

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Mosca Olearia – The Olive Fruit Fly

Add a couple of violent rainstorms in the central region of Sicily, where our groves are located, and job done. Olive Producer Associations recommend an early harvest and miller and producer forums report that they are all picking early.

imageYou get the idea. Last month I warned many fans of Alivu’s oil that there would be little oil. Even if we could have left early for Sicily, an early harvest would have been a costly and futile excercise as reports had already reached us from Paolo’s uncle that there were virtually no olives on our trees. Except for a few looking like this one, left. When we arrived to inspect our groves in person, we found a handful of our 5-year-old trees had bravely grown some olives, some of them the right colour to pick i.e. Greeney purple. We managed to fill a 25kg fruit crate just for the fun of picking with our young son and two friends over from Germany.

Harvesting took half an hour (last year 5 days with 3-4 adults on the go 8 hours a day) but we ended up throwing half of them on the ground as we picked: they were toccati or damaged by the fly. Still, maybe we could put our olives in with a neighbours, enough to make some oil? Even a few litres? The crate was taken home but within hours the floor of our cantina was covered in tiny maggots.These olives would not make good oil. It would probably come out brown. The olives were spread out on Paolo’s uncle’s garden, at least it could fertilise the ground beneath his olives.

But there are worst places to be on a warm autumn day than our groves, and we did our best to make the most of our time. We tied and pruned our new groves, moved stones from the field, and ordered some equipment. We chewed the cud with the villagers, all if whom expressed disbelief at the state of their olives this year. Coldiretti, the largest Farmers Organisation in Europe, reported that Sicily has experienced a 42% drop in production. Overnight, prices of Italian EVOO have increased by several €/Litre. Beware of EVOO which hasn’t gone up, but be aware of when your oil was milled and where it’s from.

So no oil this year, because we have decided to produce Alivu oil strictly from our own olives, olives picked exclusively by our own fair hands. The Alivu project has always been about our oil, our olives, our trees. We’re in the happy position that we do not depend on our crops for our livelihood. Agriculture is a fickle business and guaranteeing supplies is one of the biggest connundrums for small scale farmers, no less so for Olive Oil producers. We didn’t start this journey to just sell oil, or indeed Italian food in general.

When we first started the Alivu project in 2014, our aims were vague; we wanted to get our oil to the UK. Full stop. During one of our first day trips to a village on Mt. Etna, we wondered into a shop in Nicolosi selling beautiful hand-made toys, souvenirs, and fine foods, including a delicious EVOO made by the shop’s owner fom his own olives. We frequently remind ourselves of his advice; don’t sell what you don’t have. Don’t let demand affect your ethics of production. Only 3% of olive oil sold around the world is extra virgin, as it is hard and costly to produce. So much of its quality is affected by the harvest and pruning techniques, milling and conservation methods. So given that our aim is to bring our very own, top notch, EVOO to the UK, we prefer to let nature dictate this year’s work. Happily, we have a few other eggs in our basket.

We will be back in Alivu’s Villarosa home this December, to prune our trees. Meanwhile, some brainstorming is going on in our Malmesbury base to keep our hands in the world of EVOO during 2017. Phase 2 of Alivu is soon to be launched….this time it’s olive oil expertise we’ll be promoting. So if you want to learn to taste EVOO, understand what you’re buying, or receive tips on which oils are up to scratch this year, follow this blog and get in touch.

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A Wiltshire olive oil expert

 

 

 

Street Market Wisdom…

Well, we did it: our first year of sales, and after a grand total of 14 markets, Alivu’s 2015 harvest has sold out. The last bottle flew off our stall at Malmesbury’s Petticoat Lane market in early September. Thank you to old friends and family, and new friends we have made this last 6 months for buying and rebuying our fresh olive juice!

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It’s taken me the whole of the rest of the month to catch my breath. Mamma mia, I have been on chatter mode. Even for me. I’ve been busy extolling the virtues of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and unsurprisingly, dispelling a few myths.

1. No, we do not grow our olives in the UK. There are no commercial groves here, yet. Not enough sun, too much rain. Though there are a few brave romantics making some attempts, and producing small but tasty fruit. We grow our fresh green olives, harvested early in the season (green olives turn black – another frequent question) in sunny, hot, dry, beautiful Sicily.

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2. Cooking with EVOO: You can, nay, should, cook with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and not the cheepo stuff. Fresh, genuine EVOO has as high a smoke point – the point at which it begins to break down and lose its health properties (c. 200’c as compared to 100’c for unrefined and 227’c for refined sunflower oil) – as other trendy oils (e.g. coconut or walnut).

Fair enough, you don’t want to use your nice oil for deep fat frying your chips. Ok. But if you can afford to, do. The higher the quality the oil, the more stable it is, it gets hotter quicker and cooks quicker. There is even research showing that vitamins and antioxidants (those polyphenols I ceaselessly rave about) transfer to the food you are cooking. So go and fry those aubergine and make Sicily’s most famous dish, La Parmigiana di Melanzane! I’ll blog a recipe soon, but you can find some on-line. Apart from these oil guzzling veg, most others only require a couple of tablespoons to fry with.

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3. How long does it keep? Most supermarket EVOO are not Extra Virgin any more (if they ever were) at point of sale when tasted blind by official tasters. And we’re talking 70-80% according to most articles. With 7 of the leading Italian EVOO companies under fraud investigation it’s hardly surprising – but that is a whole other blog post. This is the oil you buy at £4 a litre.

Industry standards require that you put a 18-month ‘use by’ date WHEN YOU BOTTLE your oil. Which could be months or years after you have had it extracted and analysed to prove it has the requisite low acidity to make the Extra Virgin grade (oil increases in acidity with time as it starts to go off). It’s a fresh juice, albeit a stable one: any self respecting producer puts the harvest date on their label. And you should eat that oil before the next harvest  – ideally within 6 months. And…it won’t improve with time. Once it’s open, enjoy it, it has started deteriorating! And remember, not in the sun, not by heat, and keep your bottle tightly closed!

4. I’ve got a bottle but I don’t get through it very fast, what do you use it for? I can’t have much as it is a Slimming world sin. The government recommends 2 tablespoons a day. That’s a fair few drizzles. We use more. We cook everything in our oil, and put it raw on everything: our soups, pasta sauce, roast veg, bread, muffins, pizzas, lentils, steaks…you name it. As a family of four, we get through at least a litre a week. The biggest pro-capita consumption of EVOO is the population of Kritsa, in Crete, who get through 50 litres a year; nearly a litre a week per person! They drown their food in it, but I suspect they do not fry mars bars. They are not obese, and as for the Creten spirit! Anyone read Zorba? Low levels of diabetes, cancer, heart disease are among the much-extolled benefits of the Mediterranean diet. There are websites galore explaining the health benefits of EVOO, and I summarize them very briefly on our website.

5. Taste it?? No thanks, I just had breakfast. (So?) Actually it’s delicious, we have it for breakfast every day.  The bimbi  have it on their English muffins in the morning, and we only use butter for bechamel sauce now. EVOO should taste good! It’s the old, fake oils which at best taste of nothing, a worst, leave a cloying paint stripper burning sensation in your mouth; this is rancid fat you are tasting.

Everyone who has tried our oil has been surprised at how pleasantimage2-3 the sensation is, especially those who have learnt to taste it like a pro: neat. I’ve taught a few bold market visitors to taste oil properly using the 6-step tasting technique we learnt at the Ministry of
Agriculture/Chamber of Commerce official olive oil tasting course last year (warm, smell, sip, slurp, swallow, breath out through your nose). This picture shows us being examined on the level of a common default (we had give the oil a number from 1-12 by comparing our sample to a standardized group with increasing levels of fault). Here is a good video if you are interested in learning (or even better, get in touch and I can organize a tasting session).

If your oil doesn’t taste pleasant, of green grass, with a hint of herbs or tomatoes maybe even artichokes, it is probably a) old – how long have you had it open? b) never was EVOO in the first place….ever heard of olive oil fraud? If you can’t buy it from a producer, or on a trip to Italy or Greece, then look for things like PGI* (Protected Geographic Indication), whether it is a single estate oil, or if has a harvest year.

5.  I can get it cheaper in the supermarket…Really? If the market visitor who makes this comment stays for long enough I try to refer them to any of the above…

*The Protected Geographical Identification (PGI) is a EU designation to protect the origin of an agricultural product or foodstuff which originates in the European Union and is made according to the procedures established by the Regulation (EU) No 1151/2012 of the European Parliament and the Council of 21 November 2012.

Strawberries and EVOO?

In light of our visit today to Crudwell Strawberry Fayre and in gratitude to Jess, one of our volunteer pickers from last years harvest, some (non-cake) recipes:

Strawberries, vanilla and lime

Ingredients
2 Punnets of strawberries
2 table spoons olive oil
1 lime
40g fine vanilla & sugar

Preparation
Wash and hull the strawberries and place in a bowl. Wash and dry the lime, then grate the zest very finely. Add the zest to the vanilla sugar, squirt with fresh lime juice and mix. Add the sugar zest mix to strawberries, pour over your Alivu EVOO and gently toss through.

Recipe from http://www.vanillabazaar.com/

Strawberry & EVOO smoothie

Ingredients

1 Cup Frozen Strawberries
½ Cucumber, Peeled
1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Pink Peppercorns
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Blend strawberries, cucumber, oil and vanilla. Crush and add pink peppercorns at the end.

Recipe from https://snapguide.com/guides/create-a-savory-strawberry-olive-oil-smoothie/

Try some oil…we made it ourselves

Our oil finally arrived in the UK on Friday 15th April, but, wait I hear you say, reader, wasn’t your first market the next day?

Yes, dear reader, you’d be right. It made it, all the way from Villarosa, Enna province in Central Sicily, in one week. Paolo had brought forward the delivery date by 3 days going to fetch it from an Avonmouth (Bristol to yee foreigners) warehouse himself. Otherwise we’d have had nothing to sell.

Upstream in Malmesbury, we celebrated the arrival of our oil with pasta col ragù e vino rosso. Then I stayed up late, making a photo collage of pruning, planting, harvesting and milling. Just to emphasis that we really do make this green-gold, olive juice ourselves.

Sherston is a lovely Cotswold village (yes, ok South Cotswolds to you purists) with requisite stone cottages, wide high street, two pubs and a cosy village hall run by the locals. It was sunny but cold when we rocked up in both cars. The serious car for children and oil, the diddy one just in case, though I wish I could have driven the Fiat 500 straight into the hall and used it as my stall (thank you Ana for the pic). At least we could have contained the two under 5s. For four hours of market.

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Yes, our two kids were in tow – well, cuteness sells! Jokes aside, they are an integral part of Alivu. When I asked our eldest if he was going to help mummy sell her oil he corrected me:

“Our oil, mummy”.

So how did it work out? A play in four acts:

  • Hour 1: The kids sat patiently eating fresh bread (from Ollie’s stall next door) and olive oil (ours, yummy)
  • Hour 2: Both ran around like screaming banchees, luckily it wasn’t too busy. Both played on their tablets. Yes, one each. Then Smallest got pinned to her pushchair and taken for a walk-nap. Outcome: a success
  • Hour 3: Smallest sleeps whilst Smallish plays with the tablet
  • Hour 4: Another loaf of bread with olive oil consumed and then papà takes two small ones to the play ground.

Critics review: 2 exhausted parents, 2 greasy kids, and 20 bottles of oil sold!

We were really impressed with the customers at Sherston market, we met some real olive oil fans who jumped at the chance of buying Extra Virgin Olive Oil direct from the producers. Others liked our story, and tried our oil from curiousity and politeness, but then bought it! We did have the charming Fae Planton pointing customers our way  (thanks again Fae).

Emboldened by having avoided failure, we are now booking a few more markets in the comings weeks. It was very satisfying to sell our oil, not like parting with a beloved sketch or drawing or a crotched baby blanket squinted at of an evening. Instead, it was a feeling of quiet joy, knowing something that we enjoyed eating everyday for years, something we have dreamed of sharing with our friends, is now in someone’s kichen, hopefully being sloshed liberally on some pasta. Our oil.

It is nice to be farmers, albeit part-time, to feel the pleasure of knowing how to grow something that is being enjoyed by people we met, and with whom we shared our story: the lovely shoppers of Sherston market. Their feedback gave us confidence in our own product, but also confirmed our gut instinct about selling olive oil in the UK, through markets, face-to-face, restoring the relationship between grower and consumer.

Our next job is to deliver our oil to friends and family, dotted around the UK. Thank you for your patience friends, we’re coming!

 

Let’s prune – a potare!

One day in February 2015, Paolo and I spent a wet windy morning on the western flanks of Mt Etna. In an olive grove, learning the basics of pruning and grafting, a free course run by L’Associazione Produttori Olivicoli Catania. I was one of two women and 30-odd men, most of them jobbing farmers. The teacher was an 80 year old guru who did most of his pruning with an axe. It was so precious -the axe- he wouldn’t let any of us use it. We had brought our own secateurs.

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Don’t touch my axe

The course was an eye-opener. We had been reading, observing, questioning, but seeing the theory put into practice, and the magic explained, was, well a relief. We had come to Sicily to learn, hands on, how to plant and manage a grove. Olive trees have a good year then a bad, when the tree rests. The two key maintenance activities are

  • keeping the land free of weeds
  • pruning

So many people prune in the winter after the bumper crop. This is also because the most fruitful branches are the two year old branches, a system which increases and emphasises the biannual cycle. Sounds easy? Well, kind of – every couple of years, you cut branches that are over two years old. Kind of.

Many of you may be slapping foreheads in frustration. Or are you as mystified as we were – we’ve never been anything but enthusiastic and incredibly amateur, naive gardeners, our biggest success crops of spinach and chard in our London garden. Pruning seemed just too risky. What if we damaged the tree, jeopardised the crop…got it WRONG!!??

The course clarified so many things. Remove faults (crossing, touching, shooting up, going in, goose necks), and thin out dead wood from below. Shape new trees low, at 70 cms, leaving only 4 branches max. The sausage and red wine lunch, steaming in the cool air was quiet for Sicilians. I felt like I was in a novel.

Later that winter, we tentatively applied what we had learnt to our 80 odd trees. Then we planted our newest grove, 90 new trees, and pruned them too. The kiddos helped, watched, slept and winged.

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Little helper

It was one of the best jobs we’d ever done, and as well travelled archaeologists, we’ve done a few. But the proof would be in the pudding. We watched the buds, the flowers, and then the new and growing olives. Then we watched the sky and the olives on the ground. And it was a good crop.

The tentative pruning had taken ages, and now we were based back in the UK with our eldest at primary school it was not a luxury we could afford for pruning 2016. Though we couldn’t really afford it either, we bought a set of ex-demo Pellenc, lithium battery-operated, pruning secateurs. It still feels so strange to get so excited by gardening equipment. It would speed things up, we hoped. For a week we worried that they wouldn’t let us take them on our flight (lithium ion batteries can apparently ignite) but we were lucky.

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We’d missed Villarosa, our friends, relatives, house and habits but we’d missed Maiorana – our grove – the most. We arrived on Easter Monday: temperature mid-20s, sun shining, gentle breeze, flowers blooming, the older trees were bushy, and the baby trees lost in a jungle of weeds.

Three days and a bit of sunburn later and we’d done it. The feeling of being lost in your  work, shaping, correcting, cutting back deadwood, observing, climbing, looking again: you look at your watch and 40 mins have passed. Quick, time to get on to the next tree!

Before and after.

We were heavier handed that we set out to be, but we had the confidence to shape the trees as we wanted them, and now the proof will be in the pudding. Can’t wait to be there again.

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I love my secateurs!