Take a walk or short drive in the countryside around Montisi. You will not fail to notice the many olive trees planted in neat rows on sometimes terraced hillsides. They are not native to the area. At around 400 meters above sea level Montisi is at the limit of where they thrive.
It is thought that the Greeks brought olive trees to the coastal areas of their central Italian colonies at least 2600 years ago. The inhabitants of ‘la Tuscia’, the Etruscans, subsequently grew olive trees but only in small numbers. The oil was used for lamps and cosmetically.
This remained true until the 14th century and the widespread adoption of a feudal system. Production became a mainstay of the local economy. In fact around Montisi organised olive production had started even earlier under the influence of La Grancia owned by the Ospedale della Scala di Siena.
Under the feudal system a family would farm a specified area. The landlord, in this case La Grancia, would take a proportion of the produce as rent. Each farm or ‘podere’ would have access to sufficient land to support a family and pay the necessary rent. In addition to the olive cultivation they would have some animals and grow other fruit and crops. The results of this system can still be seen today. Farms are spread around the surrounding countryside, often atop a hill and surrounded by olive groves, orchards and vineyards.
This feudal system eventually gave way to more modern systems of agriculture. Many of the old ‘podere’ were abandoned and fell into disrepair. At the end of the 20th century it became fashionable for outsiders to buy up these properties and to restore them. In most cases when they were sold they came with land and with the land came with olive trees, sometimes hundreds and sometimes just a few. So it happened that a number of ‘stranieri’ found themselves custodians of a plant of which they knew almost nothing.
In 2006 I found myself in exactly that position with about 30 trees. Enough, if managed properly, to provide enough oil for ourselves and have some left over. Not enough to make it worthwhile for someone to farm them for me.
The temptation to take on the maintenance of the trees, to make our ‘own’ oil and to proudly present it to our envious family and friends in pretty green bottles became impossible to resist. After all how hard could it be?
The problem is that the olive tree cannot simply be left to its own devices. I soon found out for example that it needs regular pruning. The olive grove neighbouring our house provided a perfect template of what a well pruned tree should look like. Long fronds of olive branch descended and were covered in olives. The tree would split into several branches, usually 4, spread out in a bowl shape with few internal suckers. At regular intervals along each branch two side branches appear and from these the olive bearing fronds descend.
When I looked at our trees it was by no means obvious that they had or would ever have this shape. I have subsequently learned that pruning an olive tree is not a simple task. It is a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is not uncommon to get advice from ‘nonno’ or grandpa on which branches to cut and which to leave.
Closer inspection showed that there is not just one species of olives in the area, but rather 4 or 5 and I have examples of each. Pruning is subtly different for each variety. In parenthesis, having several varieties of olive adds the quality of the oil and to its variety as each variety tends to crop differently each year.
The next problem is the dreaded olive fly which lays its eggs in the new olive. The larvae will cause discolouration and damage to the mature fruit and affect the quality of the oil. The fly remain dormant in the soil over winter so we pray for hard frosts (but not too hard or the trees can die), and dry summers (but not too dry or the olives will not form or develop fully).
Finally the olives need feeding, ideally with a natural fertiliser. It seems this is best done in the spring which is precisely when we are rarely here.
So how are we doing? Not so well actually. Last year was a disaster because the olive fly infection was very bad and the olive variety I have most of failed to set any olives. This year is similarly disastrous because of a major drought throughout the area which means many trees have no olives at all and others have much reduced crops. Even my neighbour, who is my hero, will also not do well.
I am however not disheartened. I’m convinced next year will be stellar (unless it isn’t). Perhaps I can find an Italian ‘nonno’ to help.