From the outset when we mentioned to anyone locally that we were planning to make our own olive oil we were met with totally incredulity. Of course we ran the gauntlet of the sucking of teeth, the shaking of heads, hands thrown up in despair and the rather strange Italian habit of pointing knowingly at the eye with the index finger as though summonsing up unknown horrors of old. Of course we were told it really took an Italian, no a Ligurian, who knew what they were doing to be able to make extra virgin olive oil!
Every producer in Italy (and probably producers in all olive growing regions of the world) swears that theirs is the most flavorsome, the most superior and the healthiest oil.
Pre-warned by Jason and Cathy the founders of Nudo, who had gone through all of the same in their olive grove in Le Marche, I kept my head down taking their advice that there was only one way to do this and that was to learn for myself.
There really is no great unfathomable mystery to growing olives or making great extra virgin olive oil. There is undoubtedly a great deal to learn for the novice but olive trees are notoriously hard to kill so even when starting out learning how to prune, it is unlikely you will finish off a tree for good with a bad haircut. There are corners certainly not to be cut and most importantly the friendship of an honest and serious miller. But once you understand how to care for your trees, are prepared to put in the time and investment and to continually learn about new pests (currently a terrible virus sweeping through some Italian groves) and how to prevent your trees from being attacked by the evil olive fly, farming olives is not too dissimilar to caring for the apple and plum orchards I remember from my childhood when visiting family on the banks of the Severn in Gloucestershire.
Toby tasting his own oil for the very first time in November 2007
Toby with his first 'vats' of oil
The annual olive tree cycle
In early spring, after the cold and snow of winter but before the sap rises in the trees, we prune them. The technique involves cutting away any excess growth so that three or four main branches form a bowl shape, or technically speaking a ‘polyconic vase’. This shape means that all parts of the tree get maximum sunlight, and it also makes the olives easier to pick.
Over the summer the buds flower and then the olives start to develop. We leave them pretty much to their own devices, adding some organic fertilizer, trimming the grass around their trunks and keeping an eye on the wild boars that forage for roots around the groves.
By autumn the trees are dripping with green olives, which turn first to a mottled purple colour and then gradually to dark brown or black. Not everyone knows that green olives are just immature black ones.