From tree to bottle

olive oil: from tree to bottleLeccino, Moraiolo, Pendolino, Frantoio these are the pretty names of some olive varieties grown in Italy. Each area perfected its own varieties through age-old acclimatization, cross-breeding and experimention on the original Olea Europea Sativa. The olive tree thrives on hilly ground up to 700 mt, though it can be grown quite satisfactorily at sea level as well.

Harvest time

Olives mature in late autumn through winter, when temperatures drop and trees are nearly at rest. They are derived from the flowers that managed to survive the endless threats nature throws on the path of the biological cycle, which turn into "drupes", i.e. fruits having thin skins, moist flesh and a wooden stone protecting the seed. When the silvery green leaves of the olive groves are shimmering against the cold sky of early November is then the time to harvest at Pornanino.

Picking olives

At Pornanino the method used for harvesting is the traditional manual "brucatura". Workers equipped with long ladders, pick the olives by hand collecting them in baskets tied to their waist. Only the olives that give easily are picked. Only small family-run operations such as the Lombardi's can still afford to pick olives by hand, as it is time-consuming, expensive, and very hard work. Olive growers always dreamed of a harvesting machine and many techniques were developed over the centuries, including the simple expedient of just waiting for the olives to drop off of their own accord - but that is the best way to make poor oil, since olives don't all ripen at the same time so that the first batches lay on the ground for weeks, becoming easy prey to rot and parasites.

Beating or shaking?

olive oil: from tree to bottleSince ancient times olives used to be "bacchiate" - men armed with long clubs beat the branches to detach the fruit, which fell in nets or sheets hanging all around and were then collected. This method is still in use, particularly when the trees are too tall to be reached by ladders. Mechanical shaking is applied to the trunk and sturdier branches, so that only ripe olives fall off while the others remain on the tree. This system is only used in large estates, where reduced yield is balanced by lower labour costs. The harvesting method is paramount to preserve the quality of the olives and thus of the oil. Olives should be as healthy as possible, unblemished and still fresh when they reach the oil mill (frantoio), this is before fermentation sets in. To prevent it, the olives are spread out in layers not thicker than about 10 cm and stored in wire-mesh beds to ensure aeration. Beds can be superimposed provided a gap at least 15 cm high is left in between. But what is that small rounded fruit exactly? Under the smooth exterior (epicarpio) there is a tasty and oily flesh (mesocarpo) enshrining a wooden stone (endocarpo). The flesh is made of water, oil, celluloid, sugars and proteins. Some oil, in the form of tiny drops, is also contained in the stone.