Thursday, February 22, 2007
Olive Trees, Olives and, Oh yes, the Oil
“Beppe!” I called to the man several yards in front of us, “do you have a favorite tree?” We were making our way across ground cover of thick grass and wild flowers underneath the 400 olive trees of Beppe's grove high on the side of an Apennine mountain.
He stopped and pointed behind us to a thriving, wide branched specimen fifteen-feet high.
“Why?” I asked.
Like someone standing before a wise man finally ready to spill the beans about the true meaning of life, I waited. I was certain the words to come would reflect the mystical aura of the age old, pure panorama surrounding us, snow peaked mountain ranges filling the horizon, a blue, clear sky above.
“It's the best producer,” Beppe shouted back in Italian. “Mi fa 200 kili di olive all'anno.” (Translation – It gives me more than 450 pounds of olives a year.)
Bye bye romance. The answer was classic Beppe (short for Giuseppe), this retired nurse with a quick, dry wit that I had been interviewing for the past three hours. “He knows his olive trees better than he knows his children,” said the mutual friend who had told us about him.
Lunch in Vico
When we called, Beppe immediately invited us to lunch. So on a Sunday in late April we drove to his home in Vico nel Lazio. The old village sets more than 2,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Ernici. It is home to about 2,000 inhabitants and is located just above richly forested slopes approximately forty miles east of Rome. It has the feel of a world apart.
The village is encircled by well-preserved, ancient walls featuring three massive portals and, amazingly, twenty-five battlement towers. It has the striking quietness not only of a place geographically remote but of its elevated position in open space. The grandeur of distant Apennine ranges is visible in all directions. Beppe was born here as were generations of his family before him.
I had found my way to Beppe as part of my quest, for it seemed so, to find out as much as I could about olive trees, olives and olive oil. To learn the history of these ancient trees and how to grow and take care of them was something I felt I had to know. Like millions of others who come to Italy, or other Mediterranean or middle east countries and see the olive groves for the first time, I had fallen under their spell immediately. I had a long list of questions for Beppe.
For lunch, Beppe and his wife served us angel hair pasta with fresh asparagus and prosciutto, all handmade or home supply. The red wine we drank was made by their son. On the table were two bottles of olive oil, product of Beppe's grove. One bottle held oil più amaro (more bitter), this for Beppe's taste, and the other bottle was filled with oil più dolce (sweeter), to suit the preference of his wife.
Later, Beppe showed us the storeroom nearby where he keeps his annual yield of oil of approximately 1,000 liters. The gold-green liquid is stored in large metal canisters. About one hundred liters is held aside for the family's use through the coming year. The remainder of the artisan supply is sold locally to friends and neighbors, as is the custom with many private grove owners.
The Grand Tour
In the afternoon, after a short tour of the village center, Beppe drove with us about a quarter mile back down the mountain road leading into Vico. Off a small side lane is the seven-acre grove of which he is so proud. Beppe has these trees thanks to his grandfather who gave the grove to him, his first grandson. His grandfather bought it back in 1933 with money he himself made from migrating to Cincinnati, Ohio for several years. He worked in the limestone quarries there.
Standing with us under his beloved trees, Beppe was happy to give us a tutorial.
“The tree talks,” Beppe said. “It says, 'Look at my strength and leave the burden to me.' There are trees that are majestic, generous. There are some that really are more than a thousand years old,” he added, stressing the word really.
The grove here is just on the extreme edge of possible location to grow olive trees, Beppe explained. Any higher than this and the freezing temperatures would damage the trees. Because of this, he said he chooses varieties of trees that are resistant to cold, specifically Leccino and Trana.
When pruning, Beppe said he has to understand if the tree has the strength to feed all the branches or not. If not, some must be cut. Each tree varies from year to year, he said, so it's important to remember with every tree how one year one part has fruit, one part no. This way when he prunes them annually, Beppe said, he remembers not to cut the part that didn't bear olives the year before.
Also, the wind affects each tree's growth. A branch may not produce anything because of the wind, so the next year Beppe said he has to remember not to prune it because it is still strong.
There are two kinds of branches, he explained, male and female. The distinction is in the leaves. The male leaf has the smooth side toward the north, the feminine leaf's smooth surface is to the south. When he cuts off the small, new branches, Beppe said he must cut all the males and he has to remember always to leave at least one new feminine per permanent branch because only the feminine ones bear fruit.
All of this, Beppe said, he learned from his grandfather.
The grove also has cherry, prune, and apple trees. Wild chicory with its small, blue flowers pokes through here and there in the rough grass. The surrounding land is rocky but here the ground has been cleared. The stones are all piled in a long row on one side, giving the appearance of a low wall. It's not hard to understand why Beppe calls the grove his paradiso.
As we left the grove and walked to the car, Beppe continued to tell stories about his grandfather and the times they had spent together. His grandfather had only gone to the third grade in school, but Beppe said he had been his “university.” And the teaching wasn't just about trees but about life.
“My grandfather told me, 'With olive oil the bad goes down and the good rises. This is also how it is with human beings. It seems the bad people go up, but that's not true – they will always go down.'”
I asked Beppe if his grandfather liked America. “Yes,” he answered.
Why? I asked, again waiting for the profound insight.
“At least there they were eating,” Beppe said.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Photo Essay: Olives. Journey from Branch to Bottle
My quest to learn about olives continued through another season. We toured groves in Tuscany and in our own back yard close to home near Rome. We were invited to visit two local frantoio – the olive press – to watch how the oil is made each spring.
There are various methods of making olive oil, each having its own effect on the level of quality achieved. In this essay, you can see the traditional, cold-press sequence of steps (without the use of chemical solvents or heat) the olive travels as it is transformed into the rich, golden oil that receives the highest official rating from the Italian government, oil that is the indispensable ingredient of la cucina mediterranea.
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato