There has been a break in communication owing to the fact that we were involved in the olive harvest. This year has been particularly good crop, and we are very pleased.
We are happy to have a post written by Robin Ellis, whose recent book Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking (already reprinted – terrific!) was featured a few weeks ago. He and his wife Meredith have visited us several times during the olive harvest, and this is his recollection of one of their visits.
Today is the first day of the olive harvest at Boggioli high in the Tuscan Hills and we are guests here to help–in principal! We are awoken by a faint chugger-chugger of a tractor engine–it’s 7.40am and daylight is struggling to establish itself. The tractor and its trailer are driven by Peter who will work tirelessly with the other four pickers for the next 10 days–depending on the weather–to strip the farm’s thousand-plus trees of their beautiful purple-green olives and transport them to the frantoio (the olive mill) to be processed miraculously into green gold liquid: olive oil!
The team of five works a long day. From eight in the morning until five as the daylight fades, with an hour for a snack lunch. They work at the trees with long electric rakes, lifting them high and stroking lightly downwards through the branches to bring the olives tumbling through the leaves onto the wide supple nets spread out on the ground. Each man carries a battery on his back, that powers the rake. It’s tough, steady work.
When a tree has yielded all its treasure, the nets beneath are carefully drawn together in a motion that guides the little runaway olives into piles. These piles are then distributed between colourful plastic crates, full of vents to keep the fruit aerated. These crates are then transported to the mill the next day.
Driving through the olive groves that stretch away down the valley you still see more traditional methods in use with wooden ladders pitched against the trees and families harvesting their precious fruit by hand.
Ah yes, our job is to sort the debris of leaves and small branches from the olives while avoiding stepping on and squashing them. Not so arduous but a useful part of the day’s work, we tell ourselves.
Thank you, Robin. And so the oil is now safely stored in our stainless steel containers and protected by nitrogen to prevent oxidation, the end of the process. Time to start selling it!
This is our first guest post, and we are grateful to David Lewis for his contribution. David is the founder of Kitchen Ambition, a resource site for home chefs and those in pursuit of the perfect kitchen. He is also very much interested in the raw materials that chefs require. Here is what he has to say about the quality of olive oil.
David Lewis – Kitchen Ambition
I am the creator of Kitchen Ambition, and have been cooking seriously for about 10 years. Originally, I’m from the American South. Gathering with family and friends around the dinner table has been a tradition since I was young, but my interest in the kitchen didn’t actually begin until I left home in my 20s.
In my family, olive oil always represented quality cooking. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the background to understand that not all olive oil is created equal. After all, the average American consumes about 20x less olive oil than in many Mediterranean countries.
At the beginning of the last decade, an American university published a report that ⅔ of “extra virgin” olive oils sold in the States were defective. It dawned on me that I had no concept of what made an oil “defective” in the first place or how to distinguish it from the good stuff.
In the years that followed, I’ve learned that much of finding a great oil depends on your individual sense of taste. At the same time, there are a few underlying principles worth knowing.
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the gold standard. It has the lowest acidity of any virgin oil, and should be free of flavor defects at the time it is bottled. EVOO is not cut with seed oils or refined. It is picked and pulled from the first processing of a new harvest, making it rich in good fats and antioxidants.
Fresh oil is the best oil. EVOO remains good for about two years after harvest. Most labels now mark the harvest or “best by” date. Once opened, it’s best to use a bottle within about 3 months. Exposure to light, heat, and oxygen cause olive oil to go bad over time.
Use it or lose it. Many people have a habit of saving “good” oil for a special occasion or using it sparingly. Unfortunately, you lose out on a lot of flavor this way. And as your bottle ages the healthy fats in fresh olive oil become damaged and less beneficial.
These principles have served me well in the journey of developing my palette. They’re a great jumping off point for anybody beginning to search for the best ingredients and flavors.
Thank you, David. I am sure that our readers will find this very useful information.
I had a very welcome surprise a couple of weeks ago. When I opened our mailbox at the top of our hill I found a package containing a gift from our friend Robin Ellis: his latest cookbook, Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking.
After a very successful career as an actor, over the last few years Robin has embarked on a successful second career as a writer of cookbooks (four in all so far), all of them aimed at those who suffer from Type 2 diabetes. Make no mistake though. You don’t have to have diabetes or be a vegetarian to enjoy preparing and eating these delicious dishes.
Here is how Robin described his reaction on publication day:
A joyful day for Meredith (photographer, chief-taster and bottle-washer) and me (writer and cook). Meredith and I are not fully paid-up veggies but we’ve both enjoyed this voyage of discovery ’round the Mediterranean Sea.
The recipes are simple, seasonal and do not have long lists of ingredients. Dare I say they are delicious too?
The ingredients are often similar in the different countries that border the sparkling waters, but the treatment varies–like the difference between a French omelette and an Italian frittata. Herbs and spices feature strongly; olive oil is the cooking medium and the sun an ever-present element, ripening the ingredients and honing the flavours.
It is available now on Amazon.uk, Foyles, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Hive and The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) and from good bookstores. It’s available as an ebook too! In North America, the publication date is not until August 18th–but The Book Depository will send it to you NOW.
Robin gives full credit to the importance of extra virgin olive oil and readily uses it in his recipes. It is after all the archetypical Mediterranean ingredient. He knows about its taste and health benefits from the many visits that he and his wife Meredith (who took the mouth-watering photos) have made to Boggioli during the olive harvest.
This not a book to sit gathering dust on a coffee table. This book lives in the kitchen always close at hand. You will use it, use it and use it – and will probably need to order another copy before too long for yourself – and several for your friends. I confess to not being a cook but I may just have to have a go myself.
You can always be sure that spring is on its way out when the eating chestnuts (marroni) are in flower. They are the last of the fruit and nut trees to blossom and they give the woods a golden sheen.
When in flower these trees are much sought after by apiculturists because the honey that bees produce from their flowers is highly prized: very dark and delicious. In fact, there were two lots of hives at the top of our hill where the bees had easy access to the trees. But in the old days was not just the honey. Chestnuts are very nutritious and can be used to make a kind of flour. There is still a rural tradition for making castagnaccio, a kind of sweet cake,from this flour.
Most of our chestnut trees were planted and cultivated by previous inhabitants of Boggioli on the north-facing slopes of our ridge. They are now deep in the woods and are almost impossible to reach, but every autumn there are always a few older members of the community who come to harvest what they can – and to have a pleasant walk in the woods.
If they do so they had better keep their eyes open. The wild animals don’t seem to have heard about lockdown and have continued with their busy routines. There is a lot of boar activity; we often see a group (‘sounder’ is the strange collective noun) of 2 or 3 adults and 10 or more piglets scuttling across the olive grove. Deer are also there. As I had feared, a roe deer (capriolo) came one night and ate all the flowers on the roses below the house, three metres from my office window!
We also have daylight photos of of a lone wolf and of a group of red deer (cervi). There is an increasing number of these impressive animals, of which the prime males seem to enjoy the company of a ‘harem’ of females.
And to cap it all, there is an inquisitive porcupine (istrice) that comes to the house at night to look for scraps (especially dog biscuits).
The other day a friend asked me, ‘What’s happening at Boggioli?’ ‘Everything,’ I replied. And it is.
Now that lockdown has eased up a bit we are able to get out and about more freely. We no longer need to fill out a form justifying our travel, no matter how local, and can move between comuni and even provinces provided that they are within the Region of Tuscany.
Where this will leave tourism is anyone’s guess. Italy’s frontiers will be open in early June for EU citizens to leave or enter, and let’s hope that restrictions will be eased soon after for travellers from the rest of the world. Tourism is one of the supporting columns of Tuscany’s economy, whether it is the hospitality industry or the sale of products like wine – and olive oil.
Meanwhile everything is blooming. The roses are fabulous this year; like most trees and plants, they must have benefitted from the warmth of February that for once was not followed by a cold spell in March. The grass is almost chest-high in places, and the cherries are starting to ripen (must get to them before the birds do!). Lizards and birds are active everywhere. In fact, there is a pair of redstarts that has built a nest in a wall near the house – and they are very busy.
We have just finished spraying all the olive trees with a foliar fertilizer of various ingredients including boron, an essential element that is lacking in our soil. This fertilizer is absorbed very quickly and helps to increase the numbers of flowers that eventually turn into olives. We do this just before the flowers come out and administer another dose after the fruit has formed.
What we really need now is rain, and a lot of it.
The cuckoo is back from its winter sojourn in Africa. I heard the distinctive call on 30 March from lower down our valley while I was pruning an olive tree. The bird is very punctual; it always seems to arrive in Tuscany in the last days of March. Compared with 5 or 6 years ago the number of cuckoos has gone down. Sometimes we used to hear 3 or 4 calling at the same time, and occasionally we would actually see one in flight mobbed by smaller birds, making it very clear that the bird was not a welcome visitor.
Four years ago I had an unusual and direct experience of the bird. One morning a friend came to me and said, ‘There’s a dead pigeon in front of the laundry door’. I went and, to my amazement, found not a pigeon but a dead cuckoo! It had evidentally crashed into the door (or into the kitchen window above it) and broken its neck.
As if this was not enough, the next day a second cuckoo flew into another door, a glass one this time. I picked it up and was relieved to find that it was only stunned. After being placed gently on a table it flew away, so I was left thinking that I may be one of the very few people to have held both a live and a dead cuckoo in his hands in consecutive mornings!
A few days ago I heard the gentle call of a collared dove and the drilling of a woodpecker. The martins should be here soon, so these are all positive notes to counter these dark and troubling times.
Now we know what that really means, alas!
We are under complete lockdown like the rest of Italy and watch with horror what is going on in other parts of the country and progressively in other parts of the world. Yes, pandemic is right.
Living on a ridge 3 km from the nearest village we are isolated by geography and feel relatively safe. We are lucky not to be confined to a small apartment in the middle of a city and to be able to take the dogs for a walk in the woods whenever we like. On the rare occasions when we have to shop for food or go to the pharmacy we find deserted streets and no traffic noise or pollution, very small comforts in distressing times.
In our part of Tuscany there have not been many cases of the virus so far, and people here seem to be taking the precautions very seriously. It is reassuring to see that most countries in Europe are now adopting similar measures: better late than never.
Meanwhile, agriculture goes ahead as usual. We are continuing to ship our oil as there are no restrictions on the movement of merchandise. Our pruners are hard at work on the olive trees, a time-consuming but vital task. The trees have all been given organic fertilizer, and next week we shall be planting a small number of young trees to replace those that are no longer healthy or productive. Each of these will have to protected by wire netting as there is nothing the deer like more than fresh olive leaves – except for rose buds!
In short, like most of us nowadays we are ‘keeping calm and carrying on’.
Now that our new web site has been tested and is now up and running, it is time to get started on the new Boggioli blog.
The 2019 harvest is long gone and we are busy sending the new oil to our friends and customers all over the world. On the farm we have just finished spreading organic fertilizer (2 kg per tree) and will start pruning in March. Exactly when this will happen is hard to say as so far we have had a very mild winter, so it is highly probable that we will have a cold snap at the beginning of the month. When this happened 2 years ago, a light coating of snow froze on the branches of some of the olive trees and essentially killed the affected limbs. There was a lot of dead wood to be cut out, and only now are the damaged trees starting to look almost normal.
We shall use this space to keep you informed about what is happening at Boggioli and in the world of olive oil. Every so often we hope to have a contribution written by a guest which will provide an extra voice coming from someone outside Boggioli. Of course, your input and comments will always be most welcome.
That’s it for the moment. This first blog is just intended to open the door and to invite you to sign up for future issues.
I find it hard to believe. Forty years have passed since I first set foot on Boggioli soil, my first tentative steps towards the azienda agricola of today and prize-winning extra virgin olive oil.
The entry for my diary of 25 August 1975 reads: ‘Morning damp, threatening rain. Boggioli deserted and moist, overgrown. Looked in upstairs only – good condition considering. Great barn. Water (pump down the hill) and electricity. Many, many olives. Vines also. Fruit trees.’ I asked for a week to think about it – and did I ever think about it!
The following Saturday I told the sellers that I would buy the farm, albeit with less land (which I eventually bought some years later), and the next day, 31 August, I signed the compromesso, the document that committed both seller and buyer. At a celebratory dinner that evening one of my friends said that he didn’t believe that I would ever go through with it. At times I had wondered that myself.
The sale actually went through the following November. The journey had begun.
I am talking about the rain. We have just had 7 days without a drop, the longest period since early December, and now the rain has started all over again and looks like continuing.
Luckily we took advantage of a few dry days at the beginning of the week to spread the fertilizer on the fields. Now it would be impossible to get a tractor anywhere off the track; it would sink up to its axles. At least the rain is allowing the fertilizer to sink straight into the soil, and the faint smell of chicken excrement (the base of the organic fertilizer that we use) has gone.
But what is happening? Look at the extreme weather in the eastern US and western Europe – can anyone really remain in doubt as to whether the climate is changing? We have had no snow this winter, not even a flake; in fact, apart from a few cold days in early December we have hardly had a winter at all so far. March, though, is quite capable of springing a nasty surprise, but the fact remains that this year spring seems to be a month early, whereas last year it was more than a month late.
I keep a daily record of rainfall (very boring, says Helen), and in 2013 we had 1.47 m (yes, metres) of rain, the most since I started recording in 2004. And so far this year we have had 20 cm of rain. It all flows into the river Arno and goes out to sea beyond Pisa, so it is no wonder that the coastal areas have had to face all the flooding. Up here in the hills it is erosion and landslides that are the main consequences, plus the many trees that fall because the soil holding their roots has been washed away.
Noah, you’re on standby!