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.
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.
You 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.