We’re back ‘home’ in Switzerland, far from the Tuscan sun and ocean and olive groves. We never did get to visit with the bigger farmer. Instead we got a lesson in organic olive farming from Serena di Malfatto and husband Fabrizio, our hosts at Costa Etrusca, the Agritourismo farm we stayed at.
In 1993 Serena took over her father’s six hectares of land close to the Mediterranean coast. She uprooted the grapevines and replaced them with olive trees, which are less labour intensive. Pruning of the trees, which is just finishing, and harvesting the olives are the big jobs. Harvesting is done by hand. A tarp is spread under the tree, and the fruit is pulled off the fine branches with combs. Fabrizio harvests most of their 1200 trees with their hired hand.
Many farmers put tarps under the trees well before harvest, to catch whatever olives fall prematurely. This is what lower quality, cheaper olive oil is made of, as many of the olives are bruised or already fermenting by the time they are pressed. Serena says the best oil is made when the olives are still partly green, before they are fully mature. The sooner the olives are pressed after picking, the better the oil.
Serena brings her olives to her neighbours to press. When they come home with the oil, it’s a party. Everyone joins together for fresh oil and bread, the way good olive oil should be enjoyed. It`s never better than that first day.
The decision to grow olives organically was a life style choice. “I don’t want to grow poison,” Serena says. Since making the switch from conventional to organic, the harvests are smaller. Serena says the trees still produce the same, but the olive fly causes many olives to fall prematurely. There is a biological spray that is allowed for organic farms, but Fabrizio feels it’s not very effective. Some use insect traps, which are quite expensive.
Growing organically didn`t increase the price of the oil. Fabrizio says it’s ironic that people have no problem paying 15 to 20 Euros for a good bottle of wine, but they think that 10 Euros for a litre of good olive oil is too much. (One Euro is equal to approximately Can$1.40.)
A healthy mature tree produces about 25 kilograms of Olives, which makes about four litres of oil. Many trees are still young. Last year was dry, so the harvest was much smaller.
The Agriturismo business – the resort – is Serena’s main stream of income. In the busy season they cater to 50-60 patrons per day. I’m not surprised – it’s a beautiful location, the food is great, the rooms comfortable, and Serena and Fabrizio are very gracious hosts. (http://www.agriturismocostaetrusca.it/eng/)
Serena didn’t put me to the taste test between better and poorer quality oil, as she said she would. Instead Fabrizio poured dark red wine into goblets – from Suvereto, the best there is, he claims. Serena drizzled their very own organic extra virgin olive oil over toasted fresh baguette slices on a wooden plate. Life can be that simple, that good.