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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

I love my secateurs!