Most of us daydream about whisking away to Tuscany to soak up the sun on a gloriously lazy day, feasting on freshly pressed olive oil. For Amy, a certain Tuscan dream has been realized, but to get her own fresh olive oil, she did the hard work of harvesting the olives. Let Amy’s story inspire you to get thyself to Italy in 2013! Happy New Year! -Maggie
I like to think that each one of us has a place on this earth that is our most favorite; a magical spot where we feel most at peace, calm, and connected. For me, that place is the estate of Chiarentana, a medieval castle that served as a stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Rome during the middle ages.
My husband and I have been visiting the estate since 2001, and were married in nearby Montepulciano in 2003. Together with our wedding guests we were all temporary residents of Chiarentana for that week in June, and celebrated our reception with an intimate affair on the south-facing lawn.
The estate was converted to an agriturismo by its owner, Donata Origo, with six apartments available for weeklong rentals. Recently, Donata committed to revitalizing the olive oil production on the estate’s grounds.
The estate, at 500 meters above sea level, is at the end of the range for successful olive growing. Despite this, the olives currently in production at Chiarentana are small and firm, resulting in olive oils that have been lauded by Slow Food and awarded the top award of three leaves by Gambero Rosso in their annual olive oil guide.
Each autumn, that same south-facing side of the agriturismo now houses a state-of-the-art olive press where the estate’s award-winning oils are made. When Donata told me that there would be a special week-long celebration of the olive harvest at Chiarentana last year, including an opportunity for us to harvest the olives, I simply couldn’t pass it up.
On a warm Sunday at the end of October, my husband and I joined Donata, her grandson, and a few other guests to harvest Leccino olives – one of the four traditional Tuscan varieties grown at the estate – in the grove adjacent to the apartments where we were staying.
As we walked through the groves, passing the not-yet-ready-for-harvest Frantoiano, Moraiolo, and Pendolino olives, toting our woven baskets, gloves, and rakes, Donata explained the process to us. It was quite simple, really. Select a tree. Look for olives. Reach up, rake down, pulling the olives off of their branches. Be careful of getting olive debris in your eyes, as it’s an irritant, and you may want to wear gloves to avoid blistering your raking hand.
The only detail that was left out was the quantity of time it would take to see any significant olive accumulation in our bins. The amount varies, but in general, it takes 5 kilos of olives to make just one liter of olive oil. As a temporary manual laborer with the promise of receiving as many liters as olives I harvested, I was compelled to harvest every last olive I spotted.
Three hours, and one very sore raking arm later, my husband and I had picked 3 medium-sized trees clean, filling each of our two bins with 15 kilos of olives. For that effort, we were to receive 6 liters of olive oil.
Two nights later, Donata hosted an olive oil tasting dinner, serving dishes designed to complement the four monovarietals of olive oil grown and pressed on her estate.
All four varietals, Frantoiano, Leccino, Moraiolo, and Pendolino, had traditionally been grown on the estate, we learned. In the time of the mezzadria, when tenant farmers worked the land, it was critical that they produce enough food and oil to see them through the winter. As a result, the olives were picked with quantity in mind, and were often pressed days after harvest.
Now, at Chiarentana, the focus is on quality, with each variety harvested at its peak, then pressed within 24 hours of harvest. The state-of-the-art press at Chiarentana can be adjusted to mill each variety in a way that is optimal for the characteristics of each.
With an annual output of 2500 liters of oil, our 6 liters felt very special, indeed. We opted to take most of the oil in 250-milliliter tins, better for gifting, we thought.
At the dinner, we tasted our Leccino oil. It was pleasantly bitter, and quite peppery, leaving a lingering burn in the throat. Donata recommended that we enjoy it with roast beef, grilled chicken or pork, mashed potatoes, or with asparagus and fresh pecorino – a particular favorite at our house.
And so we have, using it liberally on spring salads, summer grilled dinners, and on autumn mashed potatoes, all the while, pledging always to splurge on good quality, small-production olive oil.
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