Making British oil in the Italian Appenine, in Licenza (RM).

I must confess, I am not a morning person and every week I greatly look forward to my weekend lie-inns. But on this specific Saturday things were different: I had woken-up and immediately jumped out of bed to check the weather outside. The reason being that we were going to pick the olives in my father's small estate in Licenza, a mountain village an hour's drive from Rome, to then make our own olive oil. My greatest concern on these occasions is the weather: anyone who has endured the suffering of being stuck-up a tree all day in the rain and wind will understand what I am referring to. But this year luck was on our side and the sun was shining.
Olive picking has become a sort of tradition for my British family. In November of each year a small group of friends and relatives descend from the UK to help: it has turned into an occasion to gather and into yet another excuse to indulge in excessive eating and drinking. This year the team was very small: my brother George and his wife Silvia had come down from Modena in northern Italy, while my parents’ friend Ginny had arrived from Scotland. Fortunately local friends were also keen to help, so we had all the hands we needed.

After a quick espresso in the village square, where the locals were all busy discussing their own olives (most people in the village at this time of year were harvesting too), we headed back home: it was going to be a long day! My father’s olive grove is relatively small and consists of approximately 30 trees. These belong to mountain varieties and are very different from those one finds along the shores of the Mediterranean: despite being centuries old, they went through periods of abandonment, so they are not as composed and groomed as their seaside counterparts, but instead oddly shaped and wild. Many hang over small crevices, which make collecting their fruit all the more challenging.
We have always picked olives the old-fashioned way, by hand: this involves laying large nets under each plant and then using rakes to brush the olives off individual branches.
It's a very pleasant activity, as it does not require much concentration: constant bantering, frequent coffee and cigarette breaks, a large boozy lunch and a long afternoon rest means time flies by.
It took us just over two days to work our way through all the trees: from the start we could tell it was going to be a good harvest, but the 360 kg of olives we picked was our largest crop ever and beat all expectations.

The weekend came to an end and, following our departure, my father was left to drive the precious cargo up to the Frantoio (olive mill) in the village: despite having a mere 1,000 inhabitants, Licenza has its own oil mill and the same can be said about other neighbouring villages, no matter how small.

Olive trees have always been a part of the Italian way of life: Licenza, for example, is home to the remains of the villa of Latin poet Horace that dates back to 33 BC. Documents tell us that back in those days the estate already had an olive grove: this means that the tradition of olive oil production in this valley is at least 2,000 years old and remarkably the picking procedure has remained substantially unchanged.

Although more modern than what was used in Horace’s times, Licenza’s oil mill also has a very antiquated and old fashioned appeal: in a large, dark and greasy room, huge granite wheels turn in a round tub crushing the olives into a lumpy pulp.  A series of pipes, filters, centrifuges and other machine components work their magic, until at the end of the line oil trickles out of a spout into demijohns placed below.

This at least is what should happen in an ideal world: like all old equipment, this machine is constantly breaking down and repairing it can be tricky.
 After all our good luck with the weather, something was bound to go wrong and it was my father to bear the grunt: he spent a total of 13 hours at the mill because, once they had started pressing his olives, the motor had broken down in a cloud of smoke and needed replacing. At the end of a very long day he none the less returned home a happy man, his car laden with 65 litres of murky green olive oil.
The last and possibly the most rewarding step in the entire process is tasting the final result.  Year after year I am convinced that the fiercely peppery oil we produce is the best tasting oil in the world. Being so directly involved in the production means there is an emotional connection with what is being produced.
This feeling derives from a precise knowledge of how and where the olives were grown, how they were picked and then processed:   I like to imagine that this is what the many artisan food and wine producers across Italy feel about their workand it's at times like this that I feel so incredibly lucky to be an Englishman living in Italy, where one is still fortunate enough to come across these contemporary and millennial traditions. 

Tags: / lawrence fort / italian appenine / evo / licenza / extravirgin / olive oil /

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