Paolo and I met as archaeology students on a dig in central Sicily aged 21. Two summers later, I moved to Rome to live with him. Fast forward 16 years, now married and with two small children, we found ourselves once more in central Sicily, but this time digging holes for olive trees.
We spent our 20s and early 30s studying, working, and travelling. We lived in Rome, Cambridge, London and Strasbourg, but no matter where we were, our kitchen always had a tin of the family oil, posted at £25 a tin or brought over in a relative’s luggage. Paolo had inherited a field with 30 something trees, so it really WAS his oil! Friends tasted it and asked for some, and the plan to work out a way to bring it over was born. Every trip to Sicily motivated us a little bit more to do something about bringing our oil to the UK. Some years the family had so much they would give it away, but it wasn’t enough to sell to a bottling company; the minimum order is a tanker load i.e. thousands of litres, rather than hundreds. Our land was half empty, a local farmer planted crops for subsidies but we wanted it to do more. Why not plant some more olives? Make it worth our while to import and improve the value of the land at the same time? Our friend Mimmo planted our first new grove when our son was born. But it wasn’t enough, we wanted more! We wanted to understand how the entire production cycle worked.
It was after the birth of our daughter that we finally decided to cut the umbilical cord and leave jobs and London. After years working in the heritage field – Paolo digging and me in policy and management – we decided to put our ‘project olive oil’ into action. We packed up our London flat, rented it out to some lovely teachers and drove down to Sicily.
The grove was in Paolo’s parents’ village, Villarosa, in the mountainous inland province of Enna. He had spent many a summer Easter and Christmas there, as had I in latter years. Paolo’s maternal grandfather had been a well-loved butcher, his uncle the town’s mayor. The town shares some of its history with British mining towns, it was built thanks to the gruelling work of mining – Sulphur – but after WWII the mines were closed, and immigration started and has yet to stop. The economy is mainly public sector and agricultural now, families survive on one – often part-time – wage. Our arrival from London was met with good humour and surprise. From London to Villarosa? Immigration in reverse!
We spent the next year and a half learning the ropes. We read every book we could get our hands on, we were lucky to win an award to take part in the Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme, and were hosted by local farmer, Vincenza Ferrara, owner of the Agri-business ‘Dora Farm’. We saw the seasons change and watched our trees grow. We followed and questioned local farmers about the key stages of the olive oil production cycle: maintaining your land, pruning your trees, fighting parasites, harvesting, milling and storing your oil. We also planned and planted a new grove. We took courses on pruning and olive oil tasting. The latter also gave us insight on how hard it is for Olive oil to qualify as Extra Virgin.
Our time in Villarosa was amazing, but we needed to get to our market. We wanted to cut out the middle man and sell our oil ourselves. From grove to plate. We also needed to support our venture by at least one full-time wage. In late 2015 we moved to Malmesbury, Wiltshire and set up Alivu Ltd. Our vision: to tell you about what fantastic Extra Virgin Olive Oil should really taste like, and of course, sell you some of ours! Check out our facebook page for our next market dates.