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Supporting a good cause: heroic olive farming methods

Luigi Caricato

High-altitude oils, namely those obtained from olive trees growing on hill- and mountain sides, which are therefore quite difficult to tend, have high production costs, and in this respect they are similar to those made from olives growing on centuries-old, tall trees.

In Italy they are a significant part of our overall national production, yet important though they are, these extra virgin oils are never fully appreciated. It is a very serious mistake not to highlight their true value.

Oils obtained under difficult conditions deserve greater consideration. It is not only a question of respect towards those farmers who choose to continue producing oil under extreme environmental conditions or using ancient trees. There is also a social and ethical component, so we should always give our support to these producers, even when the oils are not outstanding.

Consumers and retailers are not the only ones to blame for this oversight. The olive growers themselves often fail to highlight their production, so more often than not these features do not stand out. Liguria is an excellent example. In certain parts of this region, characterized by steep hills, what goes by the rightful name of “heroic” olive farming is a common agricultural practice. Things are not easy there, and therefore many groves have been abandoned and now lie in a state of wilderness. It is a difficult task, looking after these olive trees, and one risks falling and getting seriously hurt. Moreover, production costs are very high, because it is not possible to mechanize any process. In spite of all this, since the uniqueness of this oil is not adequately highlighted, the market prices are in line with those of all other extra virgins, hence the effort put into production is not duly rewarded.

It is not an easy situation, but some farmers choose to carry on, and not abandon their high-altitude olive groves. A new cultural movement, TreeDream, has been founded: olive farmers meet and discuss all their problems, help each other out and try to have a stronger position on the market by acting as one. Their goal is to raise awareness, so that purchasing olive oil becomes a moral issue. Their oil is not something simply obtained from the local Taggiasca olives, but a sustainable product that contributes to preserving the local landscape, and its typical, terraced olive groves. Should these be abandoned, the hills would soon be eroded and problems of stability occur.

If this production method is not duly supported, a farming system of remarkable environmental impact and importance will soon be lost forever. There is a similar risk further south, in the regions of Puglia and Calabria. Here there are many, centuries-old olive trees of great beauty and with an outstanding history behind them, yet they too are not adequately appreciated. Indeed, the oils produced by these plants are often sneered at, and their quality belittled. It should not be so. Excellent products can be obtained, but obviously, at a higher price. If the producers’ efforts are not sufficiently supported, it will be to the detriment of their oil. There are now many praiseworthy projects aimed at raising awareness, such as “Lampa!”, whose mission is to take repossession of abandoned olive groves in Paduli, Salento, and invite all the locals to take part in public harvests.

What is the sensory profile of these oils? More often than not, they are delicate extra virgins, sweet at first, but not less fruity, bitter or pungent than any other oil on the market. Whoever buys them, does so to support a good cause.

Luigi Caricato - 19-07-2015 - All rights reserved

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