As a consequence of global warming we are all going to have to face increasing temperatures and a growing shortage of water, so it is useful now to look at how others cope with these problems. For example, Syrian farmers have faced heat and semi-arid conditions for many, many years and have developed a practical response that may be worth adapting for use elsewhere.
During a visit to Syria several years ago before the recent troubles I visited one of the prime olive-growing areas around the town of Idlib some 70 km southwest of Aleppo.
Along the way there I noticed that the olive trees were an unusual shape, almost globe-like on their trunks, and later I learned that they are pruned this way deliberately. There is no attempt to keep the centre of the tree open with three or four main branch systems sticking up like fingers as we do in Tuscany; on the contrary, the top of the tree is allowed to close and the vegetation is kept thick to protect the branches and trunk from the sun. Pruning is thus kept to the minimum.
Another technique practised in that part of Syria concerns mulching. In that semi-arid climate there is not much ground vegetation in the olive groves that can be used as mulch, so the farmers have come up with a simple, if laborious, solution: spreading limestone dust. Two sources of this dust are readily available: stone houses that but have collapsed, and the landscape itself (this is limestone country). The limestone dust is then taken out to the fields, where it is distributed around the base of the olive trees as if it were grass and weeds.
This practice retains whatever moisture there is in the ground by protecting the soil from the sun, reflects sunlight up into the heart of the tree (which is almost closed on top because of the pruning method mentioned above), and discourages unwelcome insects which are deterred by the reflected light.
While we don’t have limestone dust (ours is sandstone country), we can still do something to protect the heart of our olive trees from sun damage. For some years we have been clearing out the interiors of the trees but leaving some horizontal branches at the tops. This helps to break up the intensity of the sun’s rays and thus to protect the trunks and major branches. Sun damage to our trees has never been on the scale of that in the photo above, but I am convinced that our efforts are worthwhile.
This latest post comes from an old and faithful friend of Boggioli, Brett Donham. Brett is an architect, and he and his wife Priscilla live on an old and beautiful property in rural Maine.
Brett raises two important issues, both of which can be related to our situation in Tuscany. Here many small hill farms, unprofitable and often primitive, were gradually abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s and the forest moved in. (Tuscany is Italy’s most forested region, though not the largest.) Some farmhouses have been restored and often used as second homes, but actual hill farming has been greatly reduced. The main beneficiary of this of course is our local wildlife which has increased in numbers dramatically in the last few years.
The other issue highlighted by Brett is the growing concern about where our food comes from and how it is produced. We in this part of Tuscany now have several farmers’ markets, one of them permanent, and the term ‘organic’ is now widely accepted as a basic criterion for choosing which products to buy. It still means that you can buy fruit in particular out of season, but you don’t have to have if local suppliers can offer you a locally produced alternative. And you can always grow your own!
No Farms No Food
As you drive through rural northern New England you see on older model cars and pickup trucks bumper stickers that say NO FARMS NO FOOD. Two hundred years ago New England was 90% cleared land for field crops, orchards, pastureland or hay and 10% forested land. Now the ratio is reversed; 5% farmed or pastureland, 5% urbanized development and 90% forested land. Stone walls demarking former cultivated fields and pastures and now wandering off into second-growth forests are vivid testimony to this. Abandoned farmland is being converted to second homes or “camps” and low-intensity commercial development. Much is just reverting to a thick impenetrable tangle of forest; with New England’s abundant rainfall an abandoned field is unrecoverable in 15 to 20 years.
In the 1970s a nascent “back-to-the-land” movement tried to reverse this trend but it petered out. The unexpected hard physical labor, lack of access to markets, the inability to afford health care and save for retirement, and the constant capital expense drove many of them to a more predictable lifestyle. More recently, in the last 20 years or so, a new wave of “back-to-the-landers” has appeared on the scene, at least in the part of rural Maine we live in. For those for whom really fresh food, the aesthetics of open worked farmland, and the human fellowship of farmers’ markets are important, this is good news indeed.
So what has changed to encourage this second wave of new farmers? One is the nationwide growth of interest in healthy food. Many restaurants now list on their menus the source of their meats and vegetables with emphasis on local farms. Another is the explosion in the number and availability of farmer’s markets. In our immediate area there is at least one farmer’s market every day of the week in warm weather and two a week all year round. Favorable tax policies have helped. By placing a permanent farmland easement on property in some jurisdictions the assessed value of the land and thereby annual taxes can be reduced. And finally, charitable organizations have been created to help. The Maine Farmland Trust , for example, being a non-profit is qualified to accept farmland easements on farm property, thereby reducing the value for inheritance and land taxes and making purchase by new young farmers easier. They arrange farming apprenticeships so new young farmers can learn the trade.
Awareness of our carbon footprint and our individual responsibility to reduce it play a role here too. Fresh raspberries in January taste terrific until you think about the carbon cost of flying them 4,000 miles to mid-coast Maine. Local apples and root vegetables are available all year round in New England and always have been.
More Farms More Food
Thank you Brett.
A very welcome appreciation of our olive oil in a prestigious annual guide
It’s hard to imagine that there are still some people who remain unconvinced that the weather is changing. On a global level we see images of devastating fires and hurricanes and melting ice caps, but the changes are also felt at the local level – at least, at our local level.
Our summers are longer, hotter and drier. Fortunately in the autumn and winter the water table and the aquifers are normally replenished by periods of heavy, almost violent rain, storms, hail – you name it. In 2020 for instance we did not see a frost until late November, almost unheard of. And during this past winter we have had only two short spells of really cold weather but a lot of rain.
This means that we have seen some unusual events. For example, our late-fruiting raspberries were giving us delicious fruit in mid-November, and we had roses out in January!
Also in November I saw a praying mantis, an insect that we normally see in September, perhaps in October. I wondered if it was a relative of the spindly creature that I saw on the windowsill of my office in the spring. It was almost transparent, and I eventually identified it as a mantis nymph.
What does all this mean for our olives? Fortunately the olive tree is very resilient. It will survive periods of extreme heat and cold, but each variety has its own limits. The trees there may be damaged and need reshaping, but in a few years they will again be productive. As the climate warms we may have to consider planting varieties now grown in southern Italy or North Africa that are more resistant to heat and drought.
It was reported recently that some farmers in Apulia are already experimenting with growing avocados, bananas and even mangoes. Perhaps that is what the long-term future holds for us too.
Two days ago I read that the Italian Constitutional Court had given the go- ahead for killing wild boar. The reasons it gave were that wild boar can be a danger to humans, cause serious traffic accidents, destroy crops and spread disease.
The boar are definitely a nuisance and are increasing alarmingly in numbers. When I first came to this area in 1975 for several years I never even saw a boar. As their numbers increased we became accustomed in the autumn to the cries of the boar hunters and the barking and squealing of their dogs. Apparently wild boar from Hungary were introduced into Tuscany after the war and, as there were no natural predators then (wolves arrived much later), they multiplied rapidly. There are signs of them everywhere as they dig up the fields, erode the banks and block the ditches. They are usually not dangerous except when defending their young, but you have to be wary when you walk in the woods in the early morning or at dusk.
This news was strangely very topical because just two days before this announcement our Maremmana, Alba, was gored by a boar defending its young. This happened quite unexpectedly in the late afternoon while Alba and her companions Emi and Siria were being taken on a walk in the woods,. Alba is usually very savvy when it comes to confronting boar, so she must have been ambushed or taken by surprise when she chased one of the very young boars into the undergrowth.
The gash under her left shoulder was long but not deep. We luckily found a vet who was working on a Saturday evening and had the wound stitched up. It all went just fine, but now she has to take antibiotics for five days and wear an uncomfortable collar. Fortunately she is a very good patient.
All in a day’s work when you live in the country.
To all our friends who have enjoyed Boggioli and our oil
we send you our very best wishes
HAPPY, PROSPEROUS AND – ABOVE ALL – HEALTHY
Helen and Keith Richmond
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.