A little time ago I picked up a bottle of olive oil in one of the UK’s discount supermarkets. It was labelled “Luccese oil” and purported to be made of virgin olives. Lucca is to olive oil in Tuscany what Chianti is to wine – not necessarily always the best but a very high guaranteed quality.
I became a little suspicious of the spelling. “Luccese” instead of “Lucchese” – then I realised that it was a concoction made up of olive oils from various parts of Europe including Spain and Greece. Italy, of course, has constantly to fight against this kind of thing – there are cheap imitations of well-known Italian quality brands coming in all the time, not only from places like China, but also from illegal manufactories within the country.
It’s all very unfair, degrades the DOC Italian product a million-fold and makes prospective clients suspicious. It’s funny how in the UK things have in many respects happened the opposite way round. The UK has to defend its so-called chocolate which the EU would have liked to re-label vegolate because it is of inferior quality to what mainland Europeans expect to find at their confectioneries, and the saga of the British sausage, so hilariously sent up in one of the classic “Yes Minister” comedy episodes, is well known.
It’s incredible to think that once, if you wanted to buy some olive oil in the UK you’d have to go to the chemist as it was only considered fit for medicinal purposes! Now olive oil forms an increasing part of the British diet and is much preferred in this cholesterol conscious age to other fatter oil. Indeed, olive oil production has spread from Europe to other countries and, recently, even to Pakistan. Climate change in the UK means that olive groves are spreading there too –that country’s first olive grove was planted on the banks of the river Otter near Honiton in Devon in 2006.
The best olive oil comes from farm estates one trusts and there’s nothing more rewarding than meandering around the “oil and wine road” of the Luccan hills. One can also attend the various oil fairs that take place around the area and sample the local products. We went to a particularly good one at Valdottavo in April. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/olive-oil-persian-cats-and-the-gothic-line/) for that).
Why is olive oil from the Luccan hills so good? There are three factors involved in its superiority. First, the climate which is influenced by the area’s much closer proximity to the sea than, for example, the hills around Florence (notoriously affected by heavy winter frosts, such as the one which killed so many olive groves in 1986). Second, there is something in the soil, the gradient of the terrain and its south-facing location which delights olive trees. Third, there is an ancient tradition and know-how of cultivating the olive which dates back to Etruscan times – indeed the olive is the most quoted tree in classical literature and forms a major theme in ancient myths as well (cf Apollo and Daphne).
The idea of planting some olive trees when I had cleared the scrubland which came as part of our house purchase, and attempted to turn it into a more pleasant area, with possibilities of a vegetable garden and orchard, came to me around 2007 and since then about twenty olive trees have flourished, with very little difficulty, at what many consider to be the maximum altitude (around 600 meters) for growing them.
I’d bought two-year old specimens and only now are they beginning to reap some rewards for me in terms of their olive harvest which here comes at the end of October-beginning of November.
Most of the trees I bought are of the frantoio variety but I also have some leccini which are good for fertilizing the other trees, although their taste is not as fruity as the frantoio.
I should add that the majority of these olives will be put in jars of salt-water and prepared for eating. I doubt that I shall ever have enough olives to merit their taking to a mill for squeezing into olive oil.
Anyway it is nice just to stretch out in a sun-lit olive grove, especially when it is your own, reflect on the silvery leaves catching the light, delight in the tiny olives plumping out and relax after a morning spent cutting the grass and de-weeding the zucchini patch.