There are 55 million of them in Puglia. Maybe as many as 60 million. Almost one for every Italian. Not vines, but olive trees. The highest concentration in the world.
The olive tree grew here in prehistoric times but the Messapians took things to a whole new level when they grafted oleo sativa onto olivastro, the less productive, wild olive. They had left their homeland, modern day Greece, when land became scarce. In Puglia they recognized a terrain and climate similar to what they had left behind. They knew it was a land in which the olive cuttings they had brought with them would thrive. But you have to wonder if they had any idea just how well the olive would do here. Of Puglia’s 60 odd million olive trees, six million of them have grown so large they have been declared Monumentali. ‘Natural Monuments’. And a half million are Secolari, many centuries old. There are even some between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, which means they were planted by the original Messapian settlers.
I had booked a tour at the Antica Masseria Brancati, a seventh generation olive grower a few kilometres north-east of Ostuni. According to the website it was an easy, five-minute drive from the White City. I’m always suspicious when something is described as easy – notwithstanding the chirpy title of a piano book I once owned, Mozart is NOT easy – and given an uncanny ability to get lost, I decided to allow myself a half hour.
For once I didn’t get lost – not even one wrong turn – and when I arrived, just over the five-minute time frame, no-one was around. I went over to have a closer look at the trees close to the walls that surround the compound.
On the back of one of the columns was a chart. AGROECOSISTEMA was a bit of a mouthful. The trick is to figure out where to split up the vowels. Agro-eco-sistema. I’ve seen a few references to ‘Agroecosystem’ in English but we don’t seem to like piling up too many concepts in one word, so usually it’s shown as ‘Agricultural ecosystem’. An OLIVETO SECOLARE is an olive grove that goes back centuries. And finally the subject – ERBE COMMESTIBILI. Erba is grass, the green stuff we walk on – at least in North America where, unlike in Italy, it’s not proibito. Recently it has acquired a secondary meaning. Instead of erbaccia, the traditional Italian word for weed, the marginally legal stuff is also referred to as erba. While the erbe on the chart are not illegal, I was surprised to see so many ‘weeds’ not merely tolerated, but celebrated in the middle of a reputable olive grove. But I shouldn’t have been. In the citrus groves of Sicily I had often struggled to get a nice close-up of the fruit, without any bugs and ugly blemishes. And the fields of poppies in May that I’ve oohed and aahed over and stopped again and again for ‘just one more photo’ are the clearest – and most beautiful – indicator of a widespread Italian philosophy with regard to agricultural practices. They may lose part of their harvest to pests and those poppies are a nuisance in the wheat fields, but many Italian farmers still will not resort to the herbicides and various other toxins that are routinely used in other parts of the world.
The number and variety of weeds that are allowed to grow amidst the olives at Brancati is amazing. Perhaps even more amazing is that they are all commestibili (comb-mess-tea-bee-lee). Edible. Some I recognized. During the years I lived in Tuscany I’d eaten a lot of bietola. It’s like spinach – you boil it and then sauté it in olive oil and a bit of garlic. And although I never saw them in Toronto before leaving on what turned out to be a much extended Third Year Abroad, a few of the plants are now readily available here. Spicy Ruchetta aka arugula is almost mainstream and, in a touch of irony, many upscale grocery stores carry high-priced salad mixes with the flowers of the weeds. Things like Borage and Calendula. Some of the plants on the chart were more of a puzzle. Surely no-one made coffee with Cicoria any more and exactly what part of the poppy were they promoting?
I had just spotted another chart – of the local fauna – when I heard a car drive up. It was the guide, Pietro.
We chatted for a while as we waited for the others – a group of Americans – to arrive. When it had passed 10, the scheduled start time, Pietro surprised me by suggesting that since we were already in the olive grove, why not start? When the others arrived he would continue the tour and then after the tasting take them over the part they had missed. I was delighted. On two accounts. First, to learn I wasn’t the only one who got lost and secondly, because, until the Americans arrived, Pietro and I could carry on in italiano.
Pietro was a wonderful guide. Affable, appassionato and with the perfect balance of facts and numbers. He started with the legend of the origin of the olive tree – which I already knew (previous post) – but it was fun to hear him tell the story and then moved on to reality with the arrival of the Messapians – whom I had never heard of.
It’s hard to take your eyes away from the fantastical shapes, but since the whole purpose of things here is olives and olive oil, we did talk about that too. It takes 100 kg of olives to produce 15 litres of oil. In comparison, it takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of maple syrup. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course, because kilos are mass and litres are liquid, but you get the point.
As the olive tree grows, it dies from the centre core outwards. The hollowed out areas can get quite large, providing shelter for local fauna – and, according to a popular tale, a family of nine and their dog who once waited out a sudden storm in the centre of one of the ancient trees.
The olive tree has few natural enemies. But like the elephant and the lion and the whale and a whole host of creatures and plants, it is defenceless against one peril. Mankind. Not too long ago it became fashionable, among the wealthy elites of central and northern Italy, to have one or two of the ancient beauties in the gardens of their weekend villas. For some farmers, the enormous sums they could get by selling a tree, compared to the low prices their oil fetched was too great a temptation. And whatever your views on digging up a centuries old tree to transplant it in a northern garden where its chances of survival are maybe 50/50, at least those farmers were digging up their own trees. When the usual miscreants got wind of the new money-making scheme, theft exacerbated the issue. Photographs were published in local newspapers of ancient olive trees that had mysteriously appeared in the gardens of wealthy northerners – even Berlusconi had one – and there was a huge outcry. In 2007 the regional government of Puglia passed a law prohibiting the transplantation or destruction of the ancient trees. To give meat to the new law, the trees at risk were catalogued, entered in a database and are now monitored by satellite.
Pietro then led me over to a tree at the far end of the field. It was the oddest looking thing, all twisted, wrapped around itself, had barely any foliage and if it weren’t for a few rocks propping it up, would be lying prostrate on the ground. I figured Pietro wanted to point out how bizarre the tree shapes can get. I certainly had no inkling he was about to introduce me to the oldest and in some ways most treasured tree in the entire region. It’s called Il Grande Vecchio. The Great Old One.
While no-one has yet to come up with an explanation as to why the tree grew the way it did, there is little doubt as to how long it’s been here. In ‘De Re Rustica‘, Columella, a Roman agronomist living in the 1st century AD, recorded agricultural practices of the time. His description of an olive grove, already well-established with trees several centuries old, bears a striking resemblance to Masseria Brancati. Both are north of Brindisi and close to the Via Traiana, the road Emperor Trajan built to link Rome to Brindisi and the lucrative markets in the East that we saw in the post on Polignano (Lunch Bis, July 10, 2016). And in the section on planting techniques he specifies that the trees should be planted in straight rows, 60 bracccia romane apart. In today’s terms, approximately 18 metres. Pietro pointed out the unusually large space around Il Grande Vecchio and the straight lines formed by the other large trees. Columella gives no explanation for the recommended spacing. Was it to ensure each tree would be bathed in full sunlight even when mature? To provide room for herds of sheep and goats to graze? Or did the 60 braccia ensure clear sight lines, thus discouraging theft by the brigands that roamed the countryside?
At this point we saw a couple of cars slowly making their way along the uneven driveway. The rest of the group had arrived. Pietro and I headed over to join them. There was the usual confusion of hellos – as expected they didn’t speak Italian – and then, we walked through the the entrance gate to start the next part of the tour.
A masseria (mass-seh-ree-uh) is a fortified farmhouse. The Antica Masseria Brancati is now a lovely B&B/agriturismo, but in centuries past four or five families would have lived inside the high white walls. With all the children and animals running around, and an orchard and vegetable garden there was no wasted space, little peace and quiet and probably even less privacy. And whenever the alarm sounded, signalling another attack by the so-called Turchi – the (obviously politically incorrect) generic name for the various bands of marauders – the day labourers who worked in the fields would also seek refuge inside the walls.
Given how tight space was it’s not surprising that the pressing of the olives was carried out below ground. But space wasn’t the only consideration. Olives and the oil were a valuable resource, the basis of the compound’s survival. The hidden location added an extra layer of protection from theft. A third advantage were the less volatile temperatures below ground. Temperatures in Puglia can range from single digits (centigrade) in winter to 30 and above in summer.
The olives were picked in late summer, early fall, and if the harvest was particularly good, it could take until the following summer to process them all. This meant that the ten men in charge of pressing the olives sometimes worked – essentially lived – down here all year round.
Perhaps even more wretched than the men were the three animals who, attached to the wheel in eight hour shifts, kept the wheel turning 24/7.
It had been a relief to enter the cool cellar. But after only a few minutes, even on a blistering hot day, the mould and bone-chilling dampness became palpable – no wonder the workers all suffered from debilitating arthritis, rheumatism and a host of painful ailments. I was glad when Pietro motioned us to the exit and we climbed back up into the sunlight.
He led us over to a small white building next to the main house.
The tour over, Pietro led us to a table that had been set up for the tasting. While he made a few last minute preparations we had a chance to look around the courtyard. He saw me looking beyond him, and laughed. By now I had seen so many fantastical shapes that didn’t look as if they could possibly have been formed by the hand of Nature and he had caught me in that moment where I wasn’t quite sure what was up.
Under the never-ending embrace we sampled Brancati’s olive oils. A thoroughly delicious experience. And after a tasting like that, who could pass on a visit to the small shop? I bought a few latticini – the tin cans aren’t as pretty, but much lighter – one for me and the others for friends.
And then, because I couldn’t resist, I also bought a small bottle of the lemon infused oil.