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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I love my secateurs!

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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 Wiltshire.gov, 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