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!


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.


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.


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

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

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

Strawberry & EVOO smoothie


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


I love my secateurs!

From marketing plan to market: our first one is booked! Sherston here we come

A while ago I tentatively booked our first market. It will be at the beautiful village of Sherston, just outside Malmesbury, on 16 April 2016. It seemed like an age away back then, but now it seems scarily close. It also seems like we have been preparing the marketing end of the project forever and it is about time we got out there.

We spent the winter of 2014-15 asking everyone we know about business names. To us, the project had always been called ‘Maiorana’ after the name of the Contrada where our grove is, a place Paolo took me to when we were 23 on our first 2 week round tour of Sicily as a young couple. When it was so hot I nearly went mad. When we were so broke we forced ourselves to chose either a pizza for dinner (and sleep – or rather get eaten alive by zanzare in the Fiat punto) or a place at the campsite and a sandwich (pizza nearly always won). Where we watched Inti Illimani in concert, talked to two men on hunger strike to call attention to sacked whistle blowers in the Fiat factory at Termini Imerese, and had the pleasure of listening to a mad mafia underdog riding through the square offering to sort everyone out ‘ci penso io!!’. Where we saw beautiful Greek and Roman ruins, gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, swam off stunning beaches and met all of Paolo’s relatives. We only just made it back to Catania before the Fiat completely died. Literally in front of the house. It was a great summer. So you can see why when I first saw Maiorana I fell for it, it was the complete package. It was here I fell for the idea of roots in the land, having roots in a place, and maybe through my eyes, Paolo saw his treasure in a new light. So Maiorana was a name that was highly charged. But it wasn’t, ultimately the right name for our Oil. Our many emails and WhatsApp focus groups approved of Alivu – Olive in Sicilian. The gmail address was promptly bagged.

So we had a name, but what about our brand? We came up with our design brief, after much searching on-line. Last spring our lovely friend Piero designed our logo and labels (he even gave us a choice of two fantastic, quite different designs). It was Piero who had told us to get in touch with his uni mate Vincenza, who, he said, was doing something similar somewhere in central Sicily. It turned out that Vincenza was based in Villarosa, the tiny town where our groves were located. Then it turned out that Vincenza was a super-star, she helped us get on the Erasmus programme, and shared with us a huge amount of hard earned knowledge about making and selling EVOO. Maybe we should have called the oil serendipity? Nah….

So last summer, armed with our two draft labels we returned to the UK to escape the heat, see friends and family, recce our new base, and, why not, show everyone we came accross our two potential labels / logos to canvas their opinions.

The decision was nearly unanimous. The logo was chosen. Then the real bureaucracy began. In November 2015 we came back to the UK full-time, and started ticking things off our to-do list: first we incorporated the company (after spending hours trying to work out what was the best structure for us); then set up the business bank account and the card payment machine. Next it was registering with the Food Standards peeps at, getting the oil analysed, and with the official wording approved of (you can’t just write any old thing, your mildly fruity and medium fruity is a highly regulated world) we could finalise and print the labels. We pre-sold oil to our lovely friends (it’s coming! Sorry for the delay!)

What’s to do now in terms of marketing? Nearly everything. The website is making tiny steps forward, but is still a mile away from launching. At least we have bought the domain name. How are you supposed to do all this? I don’t think even the swishest PM tool or Gantt chart would help. Two kiddos need our attention and it’s easy to put them first. They are cute and loud. Now Paolo is burning the midnight oil and working on a banner, having just finished the business cards (we knew all those hours spent on photoshop for his PhD would come in handy – transferable skills).

So Sherston here we come, complete with card payment machine, banner and business cards. Probably some cute, loud kids as well. Fingers crossed the oil is shipped over in time.

È ora di fare la potatura – it’s time to prune

We’re getting ready for our first trip back to Sicily since harvest. We are so excited that we will see all our friends and family from Villarosa. This time the job at hand is pruning. This photo was taken during pruning last year. We used old fashioned garden secateurs, but this year we’ll have the help of our electric secateurs and we are inordinately excited. Let’s hope its sunny!

Our volunteer harvesters

Our first ever volunteer harvesters have arrived, Crispin and Jess, from the UK and USA respectively. They’ve been helping us already, though there is plenty of time, as we have just found out that the mill isn’t opening on the 15th October, but on the 22nd. Hmmmm. Plan for the unexpected.

Preparing for harvest

We’ve been here in central Sicily for over a year, and we’re getting ready for our second harvest. The weather is changing, hot in the sun, but it’s finally cool in the shade. I find it’s only when I reach full cycle with a season, particularly winter, that I realise that I’ve actually been somewhere for while. It’s that going back to school feeling. What’s more, in nigh on 40 years (not quite) I’ve lived in 6 countries, the first 3 had nothing to do with me, my parents moved us. The last 3 have been my choices, and I’ve usually been out of the UK for a year or 2, max 3. Hence changing seasons being meaningful indications of how long I’ve been in a given place, rather than say, which PM is ‘running’ the country, volcanic eruptions, my age….

This time last year, we had no idea, borrowed a couple of nets, and plastic combs on poles. Mimmo turned up with a big stick and showed us how he literally wolloped olives from the tree. Out of our 16 secular trees, he wolloped the only that had actually had a lot of olives. The rest we picked by hand. The 20 year old trees at the top of our field hand a handful of olives in total. We were finished by 130pm, which was lucky as I had baby Rosa on my back, and Elio was with his Great Aunty. 2014 was a bad year, warm winter, wet spring means way too many mosche oleare, the olives’ main pest. An easy year for us as beginners, who I repeat, knew nothing. We put our 50 kg together with said Great Aunt’s 80 kg and even that wasn’t enough to get it milled. Mimmo put ours in with his, and we managed less than 20 litres.

This year feels different, not least because all of our trees are drooping heavy with bright green olives. But mainly because we feel we know something – we’ve done the olive pruning course, the olive oil tasters course,  spoken to more agronomists than I care to remember, read books, asked a million questions,  bought our crates, 20 no less, and our own nets, invited and are expecting friends from UK to help us. Let’s hope it’s a good year.

Our olives in July

Our olives in July