Tuesday, 22 December 2015

OLIVE OIL FROM SABINA - The Green Gold of 2015 is Fresh, Green, Grassy, Peppery, Pleasantly Bitter, absolutely Delicious and Available at a Store Near You!

This is a follow-up from my previous post on Sabina's olive oil harvest of 2015. Since our forays out into the oliveti in the valley below Casperia to help our friend Pino, we have had a number of opportunities to taste and buy excellent oil from the region. 

Remember, last year's olive harvest in central Italy was a complete disaster. Up until a couple of months ago, we have had to get by with oil from elsewhere, and that usually came in bottles with labels that read "100% oil from the EU". It was olive oil, but it was not of the quality we were used to from our time here in Sabina. When you read our friend Giuseppe Bizzaro's tongue in cheek history of the rise and fall of ancient Rome and its connection to ancient Rome's desperate obsession with Sabine olive oil, you will find stories that echo our sense of disappointment and depression having to go without Sabine olive oil for so long. 

At this point, however, we have in our possession the largest amount of olive oil we have ever had at one time, all from different producers in Sabina. We have amazing oil from Montebuono, Farfa, Cantalupo, Vescovio, and a number of different oils from Casperia.   

Many of you who are reading this post have likely read, or at least heard of, the book called "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil" by Tom Mueller, and if you haven't read the book, you have likely read similarly themed articles in magazines and newspapers about the terrible olive oil fraud scandals here in Italy and elsewhere. Remember though, that these inferior, sometimes doctored oils are brought to you by big name producers that foist their fake product on an interested but uneducated public via grocery stores and supermarket, all over the world.

It is a whole other experience though to face a producer across a table at a country fair and look him in the eye as you taste his oil and then buy product directly from him. This is what we did last weekend at the annual winter Fiera at Farfa Abbey.

We have been friends on Facebook for a while now, known each other through our mutual love of Sabina and our love of photography, but had never had the chance to meet face to face. 

In the spring I had stumbled upon Fabrizio Mei's farm during a visit to Farfa Abbey. I had noticed some signs up advertising fresh cherries and was surprised to find that the beautiful red cherries being advertised were from Mr. Mei's farm. 

Anyway, when Richard and I visited the Winter Fair at Farfa, there was Fabrizio with a table just inside the Abbey grounds selling not only his oil but some of his honey as well. His oil, which he advertises as "the only olive oil from Farfa," was exquisite. It had all the qualities we look for in a Sabine olive oil: fresh, golden green, peppery, with a lovely bitter tingle in the throat aftertaste, evidence of a healthy high polyphenol count. So of course, we bought a tin and expanded our growing collection. 

I think I wrote about this in some previous posts. In past years, when we were visiting Casperia for short visits, we were shocked to find that local Sabine oil didn't seem to be available at the local Conad supermarket. Here we were in the heart of Sabina D.O.P. country, with signs at major intersections proclaiming Casperia as the home of Sabina D.O.P. and the only shopping outlet available to people without a car didn't carry Sabine olive oil. 

We of course found out later that all we had to do is ask Massimo, the owner of the local franchise, and he would be able to sell us some of his own oil. We also found out later that the G.S. Market in neighbouring Cantalupo sells some spectacular oils, some made in Casperia and others in Cantalupo, but for the first couple of visits here the only good local oil we were able to source was through Massimo at Casperia's Conad. 

The good news is that there are lots of opportunities to buy very good oil here in Sabina. And for those visitors who are interested in experiencing this local delight, here are some sources we can heartily recommend.

In Casperia: 
        Conad Supermarket
        Via Roma, 7
        02041 Casperia (RI) 
       This little market is our go to place for every day shopping. They have a great deli counter and fruit and vegetable stand. The owners and staff are very friendly and have been instrumental in expanding our culinary horizons while living here in Italy. As of this year Massimo has started selling his delicious olive oil in bottles. Look for the squat 500ml bottles labelled as Sabinae Naturalia Extra Vergine d'Oliva. The labelling is a bit confusing as it is actually for an oil from Poggio Nativo to the south of us, but it is indeed Massimo's delicious oil from Casperia. If you cannot find them on the shelf, ask one of the staff working behind the deli counter. If you are interested in buying larger amounts, the oil can be bought in larger tins as well. It is sometimes a good idea to ask ahead for the larger sizes as they are not always in the store. 

        Ortofrutta di Sara e Paolo
        Via Tomassoli, 20
         02041 Casperia (RI)
         Tel: 329 232 5996
        In May of 2015, I wrote a post in my blog about this great little shop located on the main street linking Casperia's Porta Romana with Piazza del Comune. Since its opening, we have enjoyed buying delicious organic produce, both fruit and vegetables, at Paolo and Sara's shop. 

Right now we are in citrus season and we have used their organic lemons and clementines to make Limoncello and Clemoncello, and their lemons to make our famous herbed salt. I'll write more on that in another post. 
     Sara and Paolo's shop is usually only open on Friday's, Saturdays and Sundays and their hours fluctuate from season to season. Here is a link to their facebook page which will give you up to date hours. Remember, most shops here close for the afternoon lunch and siesta between 13:00 and 16:00, sometimes as late as 16:30 and reopen in the late afternoon. Paolo and Sara have two different types of organic Sabine olive oil pressed from different cultivars of olives harvested from their oliveto below Monte Caprignano. These can be bought in tins of various sizes. The one we particularly like is the one labelled "Luma Frutti Antichi".

In Cantalupo:

       G.S. Market
       Km 21.400 SS 313
       02040 Cantalupo in Sabina (RI)
    The G.S. supermarket located below and to the west of Cantalupo's historic centre on the Via Ternana, also known as SS 313, is a great place to shop if you have access to a car. It is larger than the Conad in Casperia so there is a wider variety of things to buy. I wrote a post on Amadeo, the owner and the market's chief butcher, and his prize chianina bull Scirocco a number of years ago. Amadeo lives on a beautiful farm a kilometre or so south of the market, close to the recently restored Church of Sant'Adamo. Besides raising cows, sheep and goats, he also has extensive olive groves around his farm. The Galena and Sant'Adamo brand olive oil for sale at the G.S. Market is his. We have tried both in past years and they are wonderful oils. This year so far we have had a couple of bottles of the Galena, and it is spectacular. Besides these two oils from Cantalupo, the G.S. Market also sells an oil from Casperia labelled "Casperia". How simple is that? All of these oils are available in a number of sizes, from 750ml bottles to three litre tins.

       Azienda Agricola Biologica Settimi Dante
       Vocabolo Fonte Taverna 57/B
       02040 Cantalupo in Sabina (RI)
       Tel: 347 456 5660
       E-mail: dantesettimik@gmail.com 

If you have ever had the pleasure of staying in Casperia's signature B&B, La Torreta, you will most likely have tasted this delicious oil. 

Dante Settimi, the producer, is the owner's son-in-law. Dante's delicious oil is used in the meals served at this historic B&B and is also used in their very popular cooking classes. Dante's oliveto is located just west of Casperia in neighbouring Cantalupo and is certified organic. His oil is a full flavoured blend made from mostly the Carboncella cultivar with some Leccino and Frantoio as well. Dante also grows organic produce. Here is a little vimeo video to give you an idea of what his property looks like.

At Farfa:
      Olio Mei
      via di Porta Montopoli, 31
      02032 Fara in Sabina (RI)
      Tel: 0765 277156
      Web: www.oliomei.it
      E-mail: info@oliomei.com
This Sabine olive oil touts itself as the only olive oil from Farfa. 

If Fabrizio says so, it must be true. Beyond the history and the caché though, I can assure you that Fabrizio Mei's oil is delicious. It has all the wonderful freshness, fruit, tickley pepper and pleasant bitterness typical of the better oils of the region. If you are visiting the Imperial Abbey of Farfa and are looking for a delicious souvenir of your visit, a bottle or tin of Olio Mei is a perfect solution. Remember to swing by in cherry season for some truly spectacular cherries!    

In Montebuono:
      Frantoio Oleario Minicucci Cairo SRL
     1, Via Sargnano, 2
       02040 Montebuono (RI)
       Tel:0765 607059
       Fax: 0765-609021
     Web: http://www.frantoiominicucci.com.spazioweb.it/
      I wrote about this frantoio in my previous post. It was one of two modern, very clean and busy operations we visited during our very informative and memorable motorcycle olive oil and culture tour hosted by the Pro Loco of Montebuono and the Sabinacci Motorcycle Club in November of 2015. 

It was here that we ended our tour with a BBQ lunch and bought two litre tins of the golden green fragrant oil produced at this mill. Olive growers come from as far away as Casperia and possibly farther to mill their olives here. It is one of a select number of olive mills licensed to mill organic olive oil. Our friends Sara and Paolo take their organic olives to be milled here. If you are planning a tour of the Montebuono area and have made arrangements with the Comune to have a tour of the historic San Pietro ad Muricentum Church with its breathtaking frescoes, this frantoio is a hop, skip and a jump further along the road leading to the church from the town centre.

      Olio Sapora
      Azienda Agricola D. Di Mario
      Via S. Andrea, 7
      02040 Montebuono (RI)
      Tel: 0765-607663
      E-mail: oliosapora@libero.it
      Web: http://www.oliosapora.com/
         I wrote about this modern, clean, and very busy frantoio in my earlier post as well. It was the first olive mill we visited during our memorable "Andar per Olio e per Cultura in Motocicletta" motorcycle tour of the area around Montebuono and Cottanello. It was here that we enjoyed our first taste of this year's freshly pressed olive oil on a piping hot bruschetta. 

This frantoio sells their own certified organic extra virgin olive oil in three size options: bottles of 500 and 750ml and in five litre tins. The oil is uniquely fruity and comes from a blend of four cultivars: Moraiolo, Leccino, Frantoio and the local favourite, Carboncella, which adds a pleasant light bitter element to the oil. Remember, if you are looking for not only a delicious but a healthy extra virgin olive oil, that it is this bitter, almost peppery flavour of the high polyphenol content that you should be looking for.

In Poggio Mirteto:
       E Non Solo Carne
      via Giacomo Matteotti, 23
      02047 Poggio Mirteto (RI)
      Tel: 0765 22197
      The name of this very highly regarded butcher shop situated one floor above Poggio Mirteto's popular La Chianina Restaurant means, "And Not Only Meat", and it's true. This remarkable little store is a dream for the buon gustaio. First of all, yes! Their meat is truly excellent, from their fresh beef, veal, pork, and lamb to their sausages and cured meats. 

Recently we were treated to one of their specialties. This is a beautiful herb and olive oil dressed pork loin wrapped in a long bread loaf, most likely a baguette, then wrapped in pancetta, and tied up in string. You roast it on a baking pan covered in parchment paper at 180 C for 60 minutes turning it over after 30 minutes. Let it rest for 10 minutes or so before slicing and serving. Mamma mia! My mouth is watering just writing this. This store also sells all sorts of artisanal pasta, polenta, jams, marmalades, compotes, lentils, farro, cheeses, as well as an amazing sourdough bread produced from a 90 year-old starter!

They also sell though delicious Sabina D.O.P. Olive Oil produced by the Sabina D.O.P. Consortium in tins of various sizes as well as some bottled Sabine olive oil from select individual producers. There are so many amazing things in this store make sure you have enough cash on you or your credit card handy as you will walk out with more than you intended when you went in. Here is a link to their Facebook Page.  

      Ecofattorie Sabine
      Via Ternana, 2
      02047 Poggio Mirteto (RI)
      Tel: 0765.26016
      E-mail: info@ecofattorie.it
      Web: http://www.ecofattorie.it/index.html

At the other end of Poggio Mirteto, more to the west and closer to the Tiber River and the Poggio Mirteto Scalo railway station, you will find another gourmet's paradise, Ecofattorie Sabine cooperative. We have been going to Ecofattorie Sabine for 10 years now. They have excellent local cheeses--the first time I tried their ricotta al forno I thought I had died and gone to heaven--salumi, local organic meat, pasta, and the best rye bread you will sink a tooth into this side of the Tiber. They also sell honey, marmalades, jams and wine. We recently visited their newly expanded operations and were very impressed with what we saw, tasted and bought. 

Ecofattorie Sabine offers two different extra-virgin olive oils: "Capofarfa", which is fruity, sweet, traditionally pressed in the ancient family mill, and "Podere Moricelli", which is medium fruity, from handpicked organic olives, traditionally milled.

In Torri in Sabina:
     Colle Magrini
     Vocabolo Carpinete, 30/B
     02049 Torri in Sabina (RI)
     Tel: 076562381
     Web: www.collemagrini.it 
         E-mail: info@collemagrini.it
       This producer in Torri makes oil of extremely high quality pressed in a modern clean mill. Their oil is a blend of three types of olives: Frantoio, Leccino and Carboncella and comes highly recommended by our friend and internationally renowned olive oil expert, Johnny Madge.

In Vescovio/Tarano:
       Fattorie San Biagio di Marcheggiani Marco
      via Palica Tiburzi, snc
      02047 San Polo di Tarano (RI)
      (Available at L'Oasi Restaurant in Vescovio) 

This amazing oil has a funny story behind it. Some years back we discovered the amazing restaurant called L'Oasi situated beside the beautiful romanesque former cathedral church of Sabina at Santa Maria in Vescovio in Torri in Sabina. It was a beautiful warm March day in 2012. We were in awe of the beauty of our natural surroundings and were very hungry. I remember sitting outside in the beautiful courtyard beside the church and enjoying an amazing meal of trofie con salsa di noci which was a Ligurian twisted short pasta with walnut pesto (white, not green) followed by a dish of perfectly grilled sea bream. 

It had to be one of the best meals of my life. The following year when we visited Sabina again we wanted to repeat this experience. This second time we visited, it was cooler outside so we opted to dine inside. There was a welcoming fire burning in the fire place. As we were going over the menu, a man, we found out later he was the proprietor, Marco, came by with our wine, water and a plate for freshly toasted bruschette. We were so focussed on deciding what to orderShould I risk something new, or do I order the delicious trofie again?—that we did not eat the bruschette right away. All of a sudden Marco comes by and whisks away our uneaten bruschette replacing them with some fresh from the fireplace. "These should be eaten while they are still warm!" he reprimanded us in Italian then walked away. Richard and I looked at each other, astonished, then burst out laughing. Of course, Marco was right. The oil on the beautifully toasted and salted bread was his own, Fattorie San Biagio and it was delicious. Later we went over to talk to Marco and I explained why we had committed the unforgivable error. I explained that I we were huge fans of his restaurant and that I had written a blog post about our experience. That seemed to mollify him. As we were standing talking, we noted a display of his olive oil and bought some bottles to take back to Canada. Every time we shared some of his precious oil on freshly toasted bruschette with friends in Vancouver we would tell the story, laugh, and order them to eat the bruschette while they hot!

Marco stands proudly beside his beautiful oil. Eat his bruschette while they are hot!
There are a number of other producers which should be featured and will be soon. In the meantime, I would like to announce that the English language version of my friend Giuseppe Bizzaro's book on the history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and its connection to Sabina's olive oil is now printed and will be for sale in a number of places including Osteria Vigna and La Torretta B&B in Casperia. I will add other information as it becomes available. Be on the lookout for this title: Sabine Divine Nectar: The Hidden History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and the World's First Oil Crisis.

The Italian language version, which is named Delizia Sabina, Maledizione Romana: Il Ruolo Nascosto dell'Olio d'Olive Sabina nel Destino dell'Impero Romano is available in a number of places in Sabina including E Non Solo Carne at Poggio Mirteto.

For those of you wishing to explore further the wonderful world of Sabine olive oil, there are a number of options including Johnny Madge's highly rated Olive Oil Tours, as well as the recently reopened Sabine Olive Oil Museum at Castelnuovo di Farfa. 

An antique olive press

I recently had the opportunity to visit the museum after a special reopening ceremony a few weeks back and I was very impressed with the antique olive presses and other related paraphernalia. 

There are some interesting art and musical exhibits as well. 

This exhibit concerns music created by the sound of dropping olive oil

This revolving olive tree actually creates an eerie type of music

So far the museum is only open on weekends and other days by special appointment. 

This olive crushing stone wheel was once powered by mules or donkeys who were much stronger than the average Canadian
If you were planning to visit the museum, a good idea would be to combine it with a visit to Farfa Abbey. Nearby Castlenuovo di Farfa is the ancient church of San Donato built on the site of an old fortress. The ancient Roman spoglia incorporated into the church's walls are interesting. 


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sabina's Olive Oil Harvest and how it relates to Motorcycles, and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

It has been a little more than a year since we made our move to Italy. We have experienced the colours, different shades of light, the wild range of temperatures and weather, and an amazing array of food festivals through all of Sabina’s four seasons. Last winter we experienced the culinary and community joys of our first Casperia Christmas. We even made our own home-made Nativity Scene complete with a macaroni roofed stable. 

Gluing the pasta "tiles" on the cardboard roof

The finished roof after a paint job and some moss added

The finished project. 
We have foraged for and cooked with asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus), 

The start of a wild asparagus frittata!
...ortica (stinging nettle), and lupoli—known in the local dialect as vitapia (wild hop tips) in Spring. 

A bowl full of vitapia. These can be used like wild asparagus
We have survived the hottest Summer temperatures—a humid40+ degrees—I have ever experienced in my life by exploring and frolicking in the tree shaded, cool, refreshing waters of Sabina’s spectacular Farfa River Gorge. 

40 degrees? What 40 degrees?
This Autumn, we had an amazing hands on experience helping our friend Pino with his olive harvest. We gathered olives from trees that we can see in the valley below our window.
Pino's olives with Casperia in the background 
This was a first for us, and would have been an unforgettable experience in and of itself, except this was made all the more precious when Pino turned up at our door and handed us a litre tin of emerald green peppery Sabine oil that came from the olives we picked!  

I find it very hard to put in words the feelings these experiences evoked in us.  First of all, we were participating in a harvest that goes back about 2700 years here in Italy. The ancient Phoenicians and Greeks spread olive cultivation and different olive varietals throughout their colonies in Sicily, Sardegna and mainland Italy. 

Traces of olive oil were found inside a ceramic flask—now in the Boston Museum—found in Poggio Sommavilla, a Sabine settlement site a 30 minute drive west-southwest of Casperia

The Flask of Poggio Sommavilla

The flask, which is inscribed with Sabine writing has been carbon dated to the  7th century BCE so at least olive oil appreciation, and likely olive oil production, goes back that far here in Sabina. 

However last year, 2014, was a disaster for olives and olive oil production here in Central Italy. This was brought on by a perfect storm of strange weather patterns. A freezing cold spring interfered with proper pollination. This was followed by a scalding summer that caused much of the fruit to drop. What olives survived these conditions were first battered by hail storms in autumn and any that remained suffered an unusually strong attack by the olive fly.  

A friend of ours here in Casperia, Johnny Madge, is an olive oil expert who offers exceedingly popular Olive Oil Tours in Sabina. At the time of this writing, TripAdvisor rates his Olive Oil Tours #17 of 160 Food and Drink activities in the Rome area. Johnny has a very acute sense of smell and palate. 

He is the only Englishman to participate on a tasting panel for Slow Food's Extravergini Olive Oil Guide. According to Johnny, even oils made from early harvest olives from award winning producers in higher altitudes—usually untouched by the olive fly—had problems in 2014. Imagine having a palate so acute that you could identify the flavour of fly worm in expensive oil! Luckily, most of us are not so gifted.

So as the summer of 2015 progressed we watched the weather and the olive trees around us with some anxiety, wondering if last year's pattern would repeat itself. I remember checking the branches of the olive trees we would pass by on our daily walks in the country looking for evidence of pollination, then small fruit. Each stage of the process seemed like a miracle. Every so often we would ask people we knew who had olives how things were going, and people would answer philosophically, "Quest'anno ci sono olive... Speriamo bene." This year there are olives. Let's hope for the best.

As autumn progressed we could see the olives on the branches begin to change colour as they matured. Some turned almost a reddish colour. 

Others turned purply black. There are at least nine varieties of olives grown in Sabina that can be used in the Sabina D.O.P designated olive oil. These are Carboncella, Leccino, Raja, Frantoio, Olivastrone, Moraiolo, Olivago, Salviana and Rosciola. Each one of these olives produces a different tasting oil. Some varieties have a more fruity or grassy flavour, while others are more bitter or peppery. Most olive growers here in Sabina have a number of different varieties of olives in their orchards so from farm to farm, each producer with have a unique tasting blend depending what olives the grower has.

I recently bought an interesting book on olive growing called Coltivare l'Olivo by Pierluigi Villa. 

One thing I learned reading this very interesting book is that certain olive cultivars have to be cross pollinated by pollen from other varieties. For instance, if you were to plant a new field of olives here in central Italy where there is a tendency for the wind to blow from north to south, especially in the pollinating season, that from a mix of local varietals that you would plant a line or two of Moraiolo olive trees on the north end as they are self compatible, that is, they don't require pollen from other trees. The Pendolino olive cultivar is often planted among a mix of other olives as it not only produces good olives for oil but also produces a lot of pollen that will help neighbouring trees produce a good crop of olives.   

Four different shaped leaves from four Umbrian cultivars

Many of the people here can recognise which variety of olive it is from the form of the tree, even the shape and colour of the leaves.

We were once given a demonstration of this by a friend who makes olive oil in Orvieto but I can't remember how to tell what from what. In Umbria, the four varieties they were using were Frantoio, Moraiolo, Leccino and I think Monaco.

The weekend before we actually got to help pick olives with our friend Pino, we had actually been invited to come help pick at our friend Giuseppe's property which is located 22 minutes drive south of us in the frazione, or sub-village, of San Valentino in the town of Poggio Mirteto. Sadly, a combination of circumstances, including a very late night return from the October 31st annual Stregate della Torre festival in the village of Catino the evening before we were to pick, prevented us from helping with Giuseppe's harvest. Hopefully next year. I bring up Giuseppe because he is a historian and a writer. He is currently working on a comprehensive tourism guide for Sabina which I can't wait to see published and read. 

What is really exciting though is that Giuseppe has just published an amazing book that links Sabine olive oil with many of the key events associated with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It is a tongue in cheek history, very much in the spirit of a British book called 1066 And All That, which was an all time favourite of mine. Giuseppe wrote the book in Italian first and then rewrote the book in English. Giuseppe, whose family hails from Poggio Mirteto was actually born and raised in Malawi in Africa. 

I had a lot of fun first reading the Italian version, then going through Giuseppe's final English draft helping him tweak it here and there, and to come up with the English language title: Sabine Divine Nectar - the Hidden History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and the World's first Oil Crisis. I also was very honoured to be asked to write the introduction to the English version of the book which follows below:

Thousands of years ago the ancient Roman’s ruled an empire that spanned three continents that entirely engulfed the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean, to the point that Rome referred to it smugly as Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea”. Over 1500 years after the collapse of the Western Empire, Rome’s imperial shadow still looms large in our modern imagination. We stand in awe of Rome’s architectural, engineering and other technological achievements, not to mention ancient Rome’s artistic, intellectual, literary and legal legacy. Any way you look at it, Rome’s influence on Western culture is immeasurable, and like the City of the Seven Hills itself, eternal.
    So you may wonder, why Rome? Why of all the towns and cultures that once flourished on the Italian peninsula did Rome come to dominate? What motivated and sustained her people and their leaders? What inspired them to fight, conquer and eventually rule their immense intercontinental empire? And then why, after being so brilliantly successful for so many centuries, did Rome falter and eventually fail? Read this book and find out the shocking truth. It was all about oil. 
    Oil you say? Yes oil. But this oil that fuelled the mighty Roman state with her conquering legions that campaigned to the ends of the known world was no ordinary oil, but olive oil. More specifically, it was olive oil pressed from the mythic fruit harvested from the silver green olive groves in the happy arcadian paradise known as Sabina.
    Sabina, you ask? Yes, you have probably never heard about Sabina. Located in the hills to the northeast of the Eternal City it still is Rome’s most carefully guarded secret, and it is all because of her precious oil, Sabina’s divine nectar—ancient Rome and modern Italy’s supreme and sublime condiment. 
   There is nothing quite like it. Sad but true, it can only be produced in one place in the world, and on this bitter fact hangs the entire story of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Why did Rome’s long march to world conquest begin with the conquest of Sabina, and what was the reason behind Rome’s frenzy for territorial expansion? How did the hero Horatius keep at bay an entire Etruscan army at the Sublician Bridge? Why were the Carthaginians so desperate to conquer Rome? What was the real reason behind Rome’s obsession with bloody gladiatorial games, and what is the sinister secret behind the assassination of Julius Caesar?  
    Read this book and all will be revealed. A precious green gold liquid link connects every major character and event in ancient Roman history. Edward Gibbon and every  eminent ancient Roman scholar before and since got the history all wrong. Or did they? Wait, maybe they too were guardians of a secret!  
James C. Johnstone

Sabina: A Stunning Land - My Secret Italy

Giuseppe's book will be available for sale in the next few days, right in time for Christmas! The cost, as far as I know, will be 12 Euros. It is a great little read and would make a wonderful souvenir gift for any visitor to Sabina and would be a perfect companion to any olive oil event or tour you might take here.

So with all the anxiety and anticipation of the 2015 olive harvest, combined with my reading Giuseppe's new book, and the fact that we had missed an opportunity to pick olives with Giuseppe's family in Poggio Mirteto, we were thrilled to find out that a friend of ours, Pino, was picking olives in the valley below Casperia on a piece of property in full view of our west-facing apartment window.

Casperia, framed by olive trees in the valley below
We set out with our friends, Helen and Ritchie, in search of Pino in the valley below. We headed down using a rocky trail that connects Casperia's parking lot to the valley below. It is a route we like to take on a lot of our walks, especially in Spring, when there are lots of opportunity to forage for wild asparagus, wild hop tips, stinging nettles, mentuccia, and other wild herbs. During the summer, it was one of our favourite places to visit in the dark of night in search of fireflies, called lucciole in Italian.

Helen, Ritchie and Richard with his bag for sticks we would gather on the way home to use as kindling. Winter is coming!
We got down to the bottom of the valley but when we got there it was unclear which way we should turn to find the olive grove where Pino was working. It seemed so clear from our apartment window, but once we got to the valley floor we lost sight of all the landmarks we could see from above.

We went across one field where we could see people harvesting but it was not Pino, but Massimo Petrucci, the owner of our local Conad Grocery Store, his brother and their families harvesting their own olives. Pino! Where are you? We called him on his cell, but even then it was a bit difficult to find him. But find him we did. He had been working for more than an hour and had already filled a number of plastic boxes with beautiful green, purple and black olives.

It is probably fair to say that Pino Pirelli is one of the hardest working men in Casperia. Besides being our volunteer dance teacher (more on that later in another post later), by merit of his owning one of the few tractor vehicles that can negotiate the stone stairs inside the castle walls Pino not only works three mornings a week helping collect Casperia's garbage and recycling, but when you need to move furniture, transport a large purchase of groceries, move building materials, buy a load of firewood for your cantina or haul away junk, Pino is one of a few people you can go to, so he's a very busy guy. 

Pino comes from Montenero Sabino, a hill town to the south of us across the Via Salaria. His family has olive orchards still in Montenero and his brother looks after harvesting those. The olives that Pino harvests here in Casperia are not actually his own but are owned by our butcher Armando Sileri. Armando is too busy with his Macelleria to be able to harvest his own olives so he has worked out a deal whereby Pino harvests his olives, hauls them to the frantoio (oil press) for crushing and gets a share of the resulting oil. Win/win! 

Pino explains the harvesting technique and gets Richard, Helen and Ritchie to help remove large twigs from the tela or net.
Pino explained to us how the harvesting techniques have changed in his lifetime. When Pino was a youngster, the olive harvest was all done by hand. The people gathering the olives would have a large wicker basket strapped to their chest and pull the olives from the branches, often while standing on ladders, and drop them into their baskets. Nowadays the olive harvest starts earlier than traditionally. This is largely due to an effort to avoid the olive fly getting to the ripe fruit. When Pino was a school boy, Christmas holidays were not so much holidays but time for the young folk of the village to spend all their time helping their parents with the harvest. As the harvest was done with bare hands, the winter cold made the work sometimes painful.

Later, a sort of hand rake was invented that speed up the process and allowed people working in the cold to wear gloves if they wanted. Nowadays small landholders use an extendable mechanical rake called an asta. Instead of using wicker baskets, where possible, nets called tela are spread around the tree being harvested and the asta makes the olives drop into the net which is then gathered up much like a fish net to facilitate the dumping of the olives into the 25kilo size plastic boxes. Of course larger estates that have land that allows it sometimes use larger mechanical harvesters but as far as I know they are not used here in Sabina. 

Before the olives are dumped into the boxes large twigs and any other extraneous objects that have fallen with the olives are picked through and discarded. 

In the adjoining olive orchard to the north, the Petrucci family were hard at work at their harvest. Richard and I took a moment to take a short break to go over and say hello. The ground was littered with olive filled plastic boxes. On our way toward where we could see Massimo using his mechanical rake to drop this olives into the tela, we heard someone calling our names off to the right. We looked up the slope and there we saw Massimo and Irene's daughter Valeria enjoying a rest with her cousin Daniele. Daniele is a regular with his brother Federico and their mother at our dance lessons and Valeria comes every now and again too.

We said hello, talked for a bit, and then went over to see the adults hard at work among the trees. 

Massimo demonstrates how the mechanical rake moves as his brother looks on... 
The mechanical rake called the asta if powered by electricity which is generated from the harvester's car or tractor battery therefore it is a bit noisy when you use an asta but it sure speeds up the work. In year's past, when we visited Casperia, we would often ask Massimo if we could purchase some of his local oil. Conad is a national chain and sadly only national brands are usually sold there, but we wanted the good stuff. Massimo's oil is dark green, powerful, peppery... beautiful on a bruschetta, a salad, or on fresh grilled meat. It was great to finally see where that oil which we have enjoyed over the years has its origins.

Everyone was busy at work, except for Daniele and Valeria, so we said our ciaos and headed back to where Pino, Helen and Ritchie were hard at work. Richard asked if he could try out the asta. You have to be careful when you do this work and remember to look down when you move your feet across the tela otherwise you will step on and damage the olives. 

After a few minutes of Richard raking through the branches Pino looked at Richard with a big smile took back the asta and teased him saying, "Richard, you are a great dancer, but out here, you need a little practice." 

Richard laughed and handed Pino back the rake. He and I hand picked olives while Helen and Ritchie did quality control making sure no twigs went into the plastic boxes. 

Every so often we would help Pino move the tele to a new tree where the process would start all over again. Sometimes, when the tree being harvested was on a steeper slope we would help hold the nets so that the dropping olives would not roll outside the net.

I am not sure exactly how long we spent helping in the harvest but at some point in the early afternoon Pino said it was time for him to quit for the day.  

Richard and I asked Pino if he was going to pick more olives the next day. He said he was, so we said we'd be happy to come again and help in the morning.

The next morning we had no trouble finding Pino. He was already hard at work filling boxes from the olive filled tele.

We helped Pino move the empty tele to the next tree where he started raking the branches in long smooth motions. 

Armando's trees were in need of a good pruning. Pino explained that it was very important to be careful with the asta as the tines could break if they got caught among the thicker branches. 

Richard and I took turns holding the net when needed. I did a lot of hand picking inside the tree where the asta could not reach and Richard worked cleaning out the twigs from the olives and helping Pino transfer the olives from the tele to the plastic boxes.

Pino rakes olives from the branches with Casperia in the background

Richard with his "Here's a big one off the bucket list look"

One more box full

Almost ready to go home
Shortly after noon Pino indicated he was finished. It was time to go home for lunch. Richard and I were ready for a nice leisurely walk back home but Pino said, no, that we should all go home in his tractor. Tractor? We couldn't believe it. It was like being kids again, except with older bones and joints... I wasn't very graceful getting in the backRichard rode up in the front with Pinobut it sure was a wonderful ride. I swear I saw a number of people do double takes as they saw us ride into town. What a hoot! It was so fun. 

Pino drove us right up to the Porta Romana where we hopped off and walked up the basalt and limestone cobbled steps back to home. What a day! I can't wait to do this next year.

A couple of nights later there was a knock on our door. It was Pino. In his hands he had two litre tins of the olive oil made from the olives we helped harvest, one for us and one for Helen and Ritchie. Thank you Pino. Grazie di cuore! 

Later that night we toasted bread on the fire and tasted Pino's oil... our oil, for the first time. The colour was an intense green and it had a fresh fruity aroma. I don't know which of the nine Sabina cultivars were included in the blend but the flavour was bold, intense, grassy, with a beautiful bitter pepperiness at the finish.  Just how we like it. Assolutamente strepitoso.  

But wait! There is more. Our hands-on harvest experience over, we had one more event related to Sabine Olive Oil on our bucket list. This was a motorcycle tour of Sabina featuring visits to a number of Frantoi, olive oil mills in the nearby town of Montebuono, and some historic sites in the neighbouring hill town of Cottanello.

This tour was organised by our friend Fiorenzo Francioli who works for the town of Montebuono, the Pro Loco of Montebuono, and a local motorcycle club called the Sabinacci. If you have been following this blog you will be familiar with Fiorenzo and his work in Montebuono from this blogpost that I wrote a number of years back. 

Fiorenzo guiding us on our first tour of Montebuono and Fianello

Fiorenzo and I at Fianello some years back

Fiorenzo has been organising this tour for a while. Though neither of us can drive motorcycles, ever since we found out about it, both Richard and I have been intrigued with the idea of going on this tour. We had thought that we would find a way to go last year but the event was cancelled due to the fact that there was no olive oil.

This year, not only was there olive oil, but the promotional information for the tour indicated that for those not yet cool enough to be able to drive a motorcycle, that coming along by car was okay as well. When we found out this, we called our friends Helen and Ritchie to see if they were interested and they were so on November 9th of this year, bright and early, we took the winding road to Montebuono.

It was a beautiful sunny day by the time when we arrived.

The plan was for everybody to meet at the small parcheggio outside Montebuono's town walls. There was already a crowd of people in the parking lot when we arrived. We were not sure which way the group would be leaving when we headed out so we parked along the edge in the parking lot, got out and went to the registration table to pay and have breakfast. The entire tour which lasted from 9am to 3pm, and included visits to two olive oil mills, guided tours of two historic sites, breakfast, lunch, and a complimentary little bottle of freshly pressed Sabina DOP olive oil from Montebuono cost only TEN EURO!!! 

Each participant got one of these

The complimentary breakfast
Oh my!

We found Fiorenzo in the midst of the growing crowd and went over to say hello. We had not seen each other since September of 2014. It was so good to see him. 

As we waited for everyone to arrive, we milled through the crowd, taking pictures. We met four Japanese women from Collevecchio coming on the tour. They were travelling by car too so we were not alone.

Ritchie and Richard hamming it up, striking a pose... It would be a little more convincing if they actually had a motorbike
At about 9:30 Fiorenzo made a formal welcome to everyone, explained the day's schedule, laid out some ground rules, and then we were off...

We followed the long line of motorcyclists to our first destination, an olive mill in Montebuono called "Olio Sapora" di Daniela di Mario. Group movement was very well organised. At each intersection, one of the members of the Sabinacci would stop their bike and direct traffic.

When we arrived at Olio Sapora, work was in full swing. The place was a hive of activity. Not only did they have to cope with 130 visitors on motorcycles, but there we dozens of local producers with their trucks and three-wheel api dropping off their olives or picking up their oil. The frantoio was on a hill facing the Tiber valley with an amazing view of Monte Soratte. 

With everything going on, it would have been impossible to have a properly guided tour of the mill. The line of operation, however, was pretty clear. People would arrive with their olives, presumably at a pre-appointed time, dump them in a large hopper, from which the olives would be carried into the mill on a conveyor belt, washed, leaves and twigs extracted, then crushed in various stages and pressed into oil. The smell of the freshly pressed oil was intoxicating. There was a large fire in a camino (fireplace) on one side of the mill where bread was being toasted for bruschette.  

There was a huge line up at the table where the toasted bread, fresh off the coals, was drizzled with freshly pressed fragrant green olive oil and lightly salted. Forget the lineups for free samples at CostCo. People were circling like sharks waiting their turn for a precious slice of oil soaked toast. It was well worth the wait. In the first 30 minutes of this amazing tour, I got my 10 euro's worth! Yum! 

But then someone started handing our plastic glasses of farm-made red wine! This tour was getting off to an excellent start. Cin cin!

As we drank our wine in the crowd of bikers an elderly contadino drove up with his ape, pronounced ah-pay, the three wheeled mini truck so ubiquitous here in the countryside, whose name means "bee". He patiently manoeuvered through the milling bikers and proceeded to load up his ape with his freshly pressed oil.

When it came time for him to leave he just backed up into the crowd, people moved, and with a friendly push from one of the bikers, the old contadino was off with his precious oil.

As we got ready to head off to our next destination I went into the mill for one last look at the fragrant liquid gold, Giuseppe's "Divine Nectar" streaming out of the press. No wonder the ancient Romans were crazy about Sabina... not just for their women, but for this precious green gold liquid so central to the life of every Italian, and that of all Mediterranean people. Maybe Giuseppe's book is not so tongue-in-cheek after all!

It was time to head off. Different clubs took last minute group photos in front of the olives, and then Vroooom! Vroooom! 

We were off to Cottanello to see the ruins if its ancient Roman villa. Cottanello is one of Sabina's most imposing hill towns. Situated high on a hill at the entrance to a strategic pass leading to the Rieti valley, Cottanello has had a turbulent history.

The villa we were about to visit was owned by Aurelia Cotta's family. Aurelia Cotta was the mother of Julius Caesar. Richard and I had visited the villa, along with the Hermitage of San Cataldo and the Cottanello marble quarry a few years back with our friends Fern and Ina from Canada, Heidi from Norway, Alessandra from Rome, Marco from Ponzano and Irina from Cottanello. 

Montage of Cottanello images courtesy of Alessandra Finiti
It was a marvellous excursion guided by Monica Volpi from the Cottanello town office crowned by an unforgettable luxurious long lunch at La Foresteria in the same town. As we had taken the tour before, and it was crowded, Richard and I left the group in the good hands of Luigi, the town guide, and we went off by ourself to reacquaint ourselves with our favourite mosaics in the villa.

Luigi, the expert and very patient guide from the town of Cottanello

The cock and the hen mosaic on the threshold of a private room... The square holes held the door post mechanism

The Villa of Cottanello is well worth a visit. For more information on the history of the villa and the archeological excavations, please follow this link. Guided visits of the villa, the Hermitage of San Cataldo and the Cottanello marble quarry can be arranged through the Cottanello town office. 

Originally, the plan was to visit the Hermitage of San Cataldo as well as the villa but we were getting behind schedule and people's tummy were starting to rumble as loud as motorcycle engines so it was agreed that we would skip the hermitage and head to our next Frantoio where lunch was waiting for us.

The Frantoio Minicucci Cairo in Montebuono, just a couple of hundred metres beyond the famous medieval frescoed church of San Pietro ad Centum Murum (well worth the visit which you can arrange with the Montebuono town office) was even larger than the mill we visited in the morning and seemed even busier. Half the parking lot was taken up with picnic tables for our lunch. So what would have seemingly been a chaos of producers arriving with their olives and leaving with their precious oil was exacerbated but no one seemed to lose patience...

The impatient ones were those waiting for the BBQ to fire up and for lunch to be served. All that history, culture, and olive oil education makes a person mighty hungry!

Sausage being made ready for the BBQ

Thankfully the was the opportunity to buy cheese at a stand operated by a Water Buffalo cheese producer in Magliano Sabino. The name of the caseificio was Perle degli Angeli, Pearls of the Angels.

They were handing out samples of their wares: Bufala mozzarella, bufala ricotta, smoked bufala mozzarella, bufala yoghurt, etc. All of them were delicious so we bought a bit of each. The samples sort of held us over until lunch was ready. A tantalising smell of cooking sausage and bruschetta wafted over the entire group from the BBQ a couple of metres away. Coals dropped from the burning logs in the hopper at the back of the BBQ were carefully raked from the back across a metal base over which metal roasting frames held the roasting sausages and toasting bread.

We all held our tickets in our hand, waiting for our turn to pick up our lunch. By the time food was served I was so hungry that I forgot to take a picture of what we ate. It was delicious, but not photographed.

After lunch we took a tour of the mill and followed the course of the olive from delivery, to washing, crushing, and the extruding of oil. With lunch over, the smell of BBQ was replaced with the heady enticing smell of fresh crushed olives.

The oil we had tasted on our bruschette was so good that we all bought a number of litre tins of it.  The oil famine of 2014 is over. Lets hope that from 2015 onward, the feast will continue.

What an amazing couple of weeks this has been. October and November really have been spent in great anticipation of this year's olive harvest. Olives and olive oil are the heart of mediterranean culture. When there are no olives, it is like the heart goes into palpitations from stress. 

A few weeks ago, we took some friends to one of my favourite places on the planet. We went to visit the Great Olive Tree of Canneto in Fara in Sabina. This amazing tree is somewhere around 2000 years old... It is likely older than Christianity, and older than the Roman Empire... L'Ulivone di Canneto, as it is called in Italian, has seen the rise and fall of many Mediterranean powers. For close to and possibly over 2000 years it has given and continues to give life. How many people have sat in its shade? How many thousands of people have enjoyed oil produced by its fruit? Sabines, Romans, Byzantines, Lombards. Franks (Charlemagne passed close by enroute to his coronation when he took the road from Farfa to Rome in 800), maybe even Arabs as they laid siege to and destroyed Farfa Abbey in 890s. By some great miracle this tree has survived into the 21st century. If humankind can pull a rabbit out of the hat and stop global warming, it might survive another 1000 or so years. Who knows. I sure hope we do. Either way, it is an amazing tree that exudes wonderful energy. One day I would like to buy oil from the owners knowing that somewhere in the tin or bottle is oil from this tree's fruit. Now where is that copy of Giuseppe's book?