Whenever there’s talk about the 100-mile diet, I always say, sure, I’m all for it – as long as within that 100-mile radius two things can be grown – vitas vinifera and olives.
Whether I toss olive oil with aceto balsamico invecchiato (aged balsamic vinegar costs more, but you only need a bit and it makes all the difference) on a salad, drizzle it over bruschetta (no shushing please! it’s broo-skate-tuh) or grilled vegetables, or use it in a pasta sauce – shrimp or broccoli with garlic is one of my favourites – hardly a day goes by that I don’t eat olives in one form or another. And whenever I go to Italy, I always try to include the olive in my itinerary. The olive groves in Tuscany are particularly beautiful.
The beauty of Puglia’s olive groves has little in common with the manicured groves of Tuscany. Down in the hot, arid south the beauty comes from the fantastical shapes of the centuries-old trees.
The photo below may give the feeling of a lovely warm day but I remember wishing I had packed warmer clothes when I took it. It was December and this was my first trip to Puglia. I didn’t really know what to expect, except that it was bound to be warmer than back home and I hoped would be full of interesting sights – a much-needed distraction from the frenzy of December in Toronto. If I had to listen to ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ one more time …
It was warmer than Toronto, but not as warm as I had anticipated. There were quite a few days when I envied the locals their winter jackets. But it was interessante. Molto interessante. For starters, it was the season of the raccolta dell’oliva. Olive harvest. One day I was taking my time along a quiet, country road on my way to Castel del Monte, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the image on the back of Italy’s one cent coin (post to come), when I saw an olive harvest taking place by the side of the road.
It was one of those narrow roads bordered by rough, stone walls. There was only a foot or two of shoulder, but I hadn’t seen another vehicle for miles so figured it would be OK to stop. Hoping they wouldn’t mind, I started walking towards the group. They all stopped to stare at the straniera – a little unnerving – but I said Buon giorno and explained I was interested to see how they harvested the olives. As usual, once they realized I was neither crazy nor in trouble, they were as friendly as could be.
I’m always amazed at the rudimentary tools and containers many Italians use to create the most exquisite products. Some of the most delicious meals I’ve eaten were prepared in a hodge podge of battered, old pots and pans. (Not always, but if I have a feeling no-one will mind – if I’m staying at an agriturismo for example – I like to go round to the kitchen after a day of exploring and visit with the cooks as they prepare the evening meal.) For the roadside harvest in Puglia, they used not the lovely, hand-made wicker baskets we see in ads and coffee table books, but a motley assortment of beat-up, plastic crates to transport the olives to the frantoio (fran-toy-yoh) – olive mill.
After the nets had been gathered up, the older gentleman – the father? – went around and gathered up all the olives that had been missed.
The high regard – reverence even – in which the olive tree and its fruit are held goes back centuries and centuries. Some would say all the way back to the gods of ancient Greece. But before we go on, a word of clarification in case you’ve been wondering if I’m not sure how to spell ‘olive’ in Italian and have been hedging my bets by going back and forth between an initial ‘o’ and an initial ‘u’. I have been hedging my bets, but not because I don’t know which spelling is the right one. ‘Olive’ is one of those words that are described – with a lyricism only Italians can get away with – as an example of uso oscillante (o-shil-lan-tay). Oscillating usage. So although there are regional preferences – ‘o’ is more common north of Rome – an olive tree can be un olivo (0h-lee-voh) or un ulivo (ou-lee-voh). Mercifully, whichever first letter you prefer, the endings for all words olive-related do not oscillate. If you’ll just bear with me for a moment, the following may one day help you avoid ordering a tree instead of a few nibbles with your evening aperitivo.
The Italian word for ‘tree’ is albero (al-beh-roh), which, like most masculine words, ends in ‘o’. The Italian word for ‘fruit’ is frutta (frout-tah). The final ‘a’ tells us it’s feminine. It gets a little confusing when you factor in the plurals – masculine ‘o’ becomes ‘i’ and feminine ‘a’ becomes ‘e’, but apart from that it’s a beautifully simple system. Trees are masculine and fruits are feminine. An apple tree is un melo, an apple is una mela; a peach tree is un pesco, a peach is una pesca. E così via. And on and on. There are a few exceptions of course. Like anything we humans use on a daily basis, the system has developed a few glitches. Pompelmo is the grapefruit tree and the fruit, which leads to the question as to how it came to be that trees are masculine and fruit feminine, but that would be another digression. For now, the important thing to remember is that when you’d like some olives with your Aperol, don’t ask the waiter for an olive grove (olivi). Ask for a few olive (oh-lee-vay).
Back to the ancient Greeks. One day, maybe he was bored, the excitement of his latest exploit had worn off and even the head of the gods couldn’t go down to earth every day and wreak havoc. Or maybe he was fed up with the constant bickering among the gods and goddesses under him. In any event, one day Zeus decided to hold a competition. To ensure a lively crowd of spectators, he limited the contestants to two – Athena and Poseidon. Zeus may also have been feeling magnanimous – or maybe guilty – one of his latest exploits involved flying down to earth disguised as a swan and having his way with a lovely, young mortal on the eve of her wedding night. In any event, the challenge he set the two gods was to create the most useful gift to humanity. The God of the Seas went first. He hurled his mighty trident against a boulder and immediately water started to flow from the rock. Impressive. Then Athena went down to Earth and ordered her to produce a new and marvellous tree. Seeking outside help seems rather a dodgy move on Athena’s part, but there was no rule against it. Since the competition was Zeus’ brain child, there probably weren’t any rules. In any event, Earth was happy to oblige – perhaps she had previously had some pleasurable encounters with the Goddess of the Hunt and the Forests – and from her depths brought forth a magnificent olive tree. Whether they got it right is debatable – fresh water would seem to be a pretty useful gift for us mortals – but in a rare moment of harmony the Gods and Goddesses of Olympus agreed that the olive tree was the more useful gift and declared Athena the winner.