Drama in the olive groves

Ari LeVaux

Photos by Ari LeVaux
Photos by Ari LeVaux

Umbria, Italy. A few weeks ago, in an olive grove in Spoleto, six food writers and their chaperones stretched their legs. We were headed to Perugia for a tasting competition featuring many of Italy’s finest artisan olive oils. The bus had pulled over at the Villa Paradiso di Pianciano, where we met with olive growers, toured their land, and tasted their oil.
In addition to its 22,000 olive trees, this estate is home to 400 head of chianina cattle, the largest, and by some estimates oldest, breed of cattle in the world. These stately white creatures lead elk-like lives, spending their winters in the lowlands eating hay, olive leaves, and spent olive mush from the on-site mill. They spend summers roaming the forested high country like wild beasts, returning to the valley only when the autumn breeze becomes too sharp for their liking, where they graze and poop among the olive trees. They look at you in a way that suggests more going on than in the brain of your typical bovine, which is awkward given how good they taste.
As we toured the olive trees, a dog named Obama kept a loose orbit around us, chasing mice amid the wild fennel and blackberries growing beside the road. On the valley bottom was a large grove of oak trees that is managed for three truffle harvests a year. Beyond the oak trees was a vineyard, or so I thought.
It was, altogether, the kind of idyllic pastoral ecosystem that our sponsors at the Italian Trade Association wanted to remind us is alive and well in Italy. Several recent Italian olive oil scandals, in which extra-virgin olive oil was mislabeled and even counterfeited, have grabbed headlines lately, causing great pain to Italy’s soul as much as its olive oil economy.
The growers competing at the Ercole Olivario are in a different bracket, in terms of both price and quality, than the bottlers tainted in the scandals. These producers take careful charge of every step, from olive cultivation to the pressing and bottling of the finished oil, and most of these bottles don’t make it outside of Italy.
In Umbria province, there are about 27,000 hectares of olives and 218 mills where the olives are processed into oil. The mill at Villa Paradiso was outfitted with Scandinavian machinery, which the owners assured us kicks olive ass.
 And next thing you know, as seemed to happen at every turn on our little trip, we were sipping wine and slurping oil.
Following the protocols we drilled on our first day in Rome, we each poured a little oil into a cup and then covered it with a hand to let the vapors build. We shook our cups circularly to coax more vapors into the trapped air above the oil. We then took thoughtful whiffs.
The smell can be fruity, or dominated by the famous “fresh cut grass” smell of chlorophyll, or more elusive odors like rosemary, artichoke, green tomato or “tropical fruits.”
After these deep inhales we sipped the oil and worked it around our mouths, feeling the oil and tasting the progression of piquancy and bitterness that gives quality EVOO its personality.
Finally, we slurped. Not a delicate or elegant sound, but an indispensable one for probing the subtler, organoleptic qualities of the oil.
By sucking air through the olive oil around one’s tongue, oil droplets are dispersed to hard-to-reach taste receptors of the tongue and throat, helping to paint a fuller picture of the oil’s flavor. Meanwhile, as the air stretches the oil you can feel its viscosity, and how it holds together in the turbulence of your slurp.
Some oil starts with a fruity whiff and a buttery kiss and stays smooth all the way through, making it good for baking, or for dressing a lettuce-based salad. Some oil starts with a kiss and ends with a slap, or at least a raspy cat lick to the throat, making it more suitable for pairing with stronger flavors like chicory salads, or drizzled on a steak or pasta, or other savory dishes.
The oil at the villa Paradiso was grassy and spicy out of the gate, and stayed that way, but was cushioned by a buttery velvet body all the while. It smelled more limey than grassy, and while it wasn’t the thickest of oils in terms of viscosity, it nonetheless clung admirably to my mouth parts as I slurped through it.
The trees that produced the oil are about 500 years old, middle-aged for an olive tree, and cling to steep rocky hillsides. Amazingly, they need no irrigation. They are planted about 20 feet apart, allowing the roots to spread deep and wide, and snag every drop of moisture they can from the craggy landscape. But during the morning’s donkey walk we learned that they are exploring a different kind of cultivation, alongside their ancient groves.
I had asked one of our hosts about what I thought was a vineyard across the valley, through which a tractor was pulling a manure spreader between verdant rows. That field is “an experiment,” he told me, in high-density olive planting. Normally, he explained, olive trees are planted at about 200 per hectare. But in that hectare-sized experimental plot, a thousand olive trees were growing. The reason it looked like a vineyard is that like grapes, these olive trees were trellised, with irrigation pipe woven into the trellis as well. Irrigating produces bigger, more reliable harvests, he explained.
Someone in the group remarked that the olive trees looked crucified stretched out on those trellis wires, where they would be harvested by machines instead of pickers. But at the same time, it’s hard to fault a farmer for trying to stay afloat. Olive growers remain traumatized by the the abysmal 2014 harvest, not to mention the labeling scandals, and most recently a flood of cheap Tunisian olive oil hitting the market. If they can produce high-quality extra-virgin olive oil in such a small space, and get a better return on their land, then they will.
This intensive olive growing system was pioneered by the Spanish-owned California Olive Ranch, north of Sacramento. The trees in this 2,200-acre olive plantation are similarly densely planted and trellised, irrigated, and harvested mechanically. A seven-ton load of olives, which would take a fifteen-person crew all day to pick, can be harvested in a half-hour by a machine. They are pressed minutes later, and the result, indisputably, is a very fine oil.
Such intensive practices are lamented by many in California’s olive oil industry. “[It’s] another example of removing “culture” out of ‘agriculture,’ lamented California olive grower and retired agriculture professor Steve Gliessman. And if experiments like the one in Spoleto yield decent oil,  Italy may soon find itself in yet another existential crisis about olive oil, as some in the old guard would surely object to such modern practices. For a plant that grows in such peaceful groves, those olives sure bring a lot of drama.