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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

#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.


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.


A Wiltshire olive oil expert