Athena’s Gift, Part II

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.


Olive trees and a few grape vines near Cisternino.

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.


A couple of olive trees  provide a welcome bit of shade.

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.


To be declared Monumentale. an olive tree must have a diameter of at least one metre at a height of 1,3 metres from ground level.  And it must also possess carattere.  Character.

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.


Unlike the rough stone columns I’d seen elsewhere in Puglia, here they were a pristine white, like the walls of Ostuni nearby.

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?

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Shepherd’s purse, Hare Hunter and Tiny Puglian Umbrellas are all apparently edible.

I had just spotted another chart – of the local fauna – when I heard a car drive up.  It was the guide, Pietro.


Bats, hedgehogs, foxes and an astonishing assortment of uccellini (small birds) that hopefully, will not end up on the grill are all part of the delicate balancing act between man and nature.

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.


For someone used to North America patterns of growth, the gnarled old trees produce an astounding quantity of foliage – and olives.  In fact, in years of severe drought the oldest trees often produce more, and higher quality olives than the younger ones.

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.


The locals have had lots of time to find all sorts of creatures in the contorted bark. Pietro pointed out a snake and a few other creatures I will have to come back to really make out.

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.


Local fauna – and sometimes humans – seek shelter in the hollowed out centres.

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.


The bark these tags are screwed into looks a lot like the skin of an elephant or rhino.  One advantage the olive tree has over the endangered animals is that the tree is only worth anything if it is alive.

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?


My great young guide next to The Great Old One.

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.


Projectiles and whatever else they used to defend themselves in those days could be launched at the attackers through narrow slits in 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.


Steps leading down to the frantoio ipogeo. Underground olive press.


During winter, a fire was kept going to maintain the ambient temperature at around 16 degrees in order to prevent the oil from crystallizing, a threat at temperatures below 12 degrees.

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.


Five stone ‘beds’ were shared by the ten workers. No more were needed, because while half of them slept, the other half worked.

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.


Pietro showed us a fiscolo, the mat traditionally used for pressing the olives. Nowadays the shape is still the same, but the woven fibres have been replaced by that modern, all-purpose and ubiquitous material – plastic.

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 chapel. Since work never stopped, there was no time to go to mass in Ostuni, the nearest town.  Instead a priest would come to the masseria once a week.


I was so taken with the chapel, I didn’t think of asking if it was still used.


I wondered about the choice of support for the Acquasantiera (font for the Holy Water).

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.


L’Abbraccio. The Embrace. Romano Pentassuglia. Scultore. Ostuni. June 15, 2010.

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.


The red dots of the back of the can indicate the best before date.

And then, because I couldn’t resist, I also bought a small bottle of the lemon infused oil.


A souvenir well worth lugging around in your suitcase.



Athena’s Gift, Part I

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.


Insalata caprese drizzled with olive oil. Ravello.

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.


Vineyards and olive trees in the Val d’Orcia of southern Tuscany.


Olive trees in the Chianti area.

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.


On a moonlit night it would be easy to imagine dancing spirits.


Let your eyes wander over one of the behemoths for a few moments and you’ll start to see all sorts of creatures and faces.


A creature from Tolkien emerging from the earth?

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 …


Where the trees lean precariously, rustic stone pillars keep them from crashing over.  Ripe olives scattered around the base of the tree are the giveaway as to the time of year.

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.


Hard to imagine that a bunch of olives like these could be transformed into liquid gold.


One of them started up the ladder.


He almost disappeared in the thick foliage.


Then he emerged – ta da! – and posed for the camera before he set to work shaking the branches.

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.


Plastic bins and all, I had a feeling the olive oil would be exquisite. A culinary treasure that would be savoured throughout the following year by family and a few lucky friends.

After the nets had been gathered up, the older gentleman – the father? – went around and gathered up all the olives that had been missed.


Every last uliva.

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.

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Roses grow up an ancient olivo near Ostuni.

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).


Olive flowers in May. Provided it doesn’t rain, the flowers will be pollinated by the wind and l’oliva will begin to grow.

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.


Building and maintaining Puglia’s dry-stone walls is labour-intensive and expensive, but no expense or effort is spared when it comes to the olive tree.



It Doesn’t Exist!

As much as I craved the sea, there were a couple of things that now and then lured me away from Puglia’s spectacular coastline.


As you walk along the path between Baia dei Turchi and Torre dell’Orso (Turks’ Bay and Tower of the Bear – love those names!) there’s the never-ending temptation to go just a little bit further to see what lies beyond the next rocky outcrop.

The chance to visit a garden was one of those things.  Especially in a place like Puglia, where almost all the land that isn’t covered in rock has been planted with olive trees and vineyards since the days of the ancient Greeks.  So when I stumbled across a garden/nursery close to Monopoli – there really is such a place – it’s midway between Polignano and Ostuni, my next base – I was intrigued.  It was called Lama degli Ulivi.   Up until now, apart from the animal (only one ‘l’ in Italian), which had yet to come up in everyday conversation, the only meaning I knew for lama had to do with a coltello (knife) or una lama a doppio taglio.  A blade that cuts two ways.   A garden called ‘Blade of the Olive Trees’ was definitely something worth checking out.


Of course, once you get to that rocky outcrop there’s always another one. And another.

To make sure the garden wasn’t just a ruse to attract customers to the nursery’s cassa (cash register), I roamed around the Internet a bit.  What I found was not encouraging.  Ma dov’è??? (But where is it???) wrote Domenico from Rome.   OK, I thought, maybe it’s some northern, city guy out of his element.  But then there was a fellow from Taranto, one of Puglia’s bigger cities, who lamented,  Difficile da trovare, il navigatore impazzisce.  (Difficult to find.  The ‘Navigator’ – as Italians call the GPS – goes crazy.)  Given that Taranto is only 65 k from the garden, this was a little unsettling.  But it was a reviewer from Salerno, a city on the east end of the Amalfi Coast, that really had me wondering if I shouldn’t just skip the garden and check out more of the coast.  Non esiste! he started off. (It doesn’t exist!) Non c’è modo di trovarlo, he continued. (There’s no way to find it).  And instead of going crazy, the navigatore in his car had taken him altrove (a wonderfully evocative word that brings up visions of vast, unknown places).  Adding insult to injury,  nessuno in zona lo conosce (no-one in the area knows about it) and after driving around for three hours he’d come up with a big, fat nulla.  On a slightly less agitated note he added that, in compenso, the whole area was full of ulivi secolari bellissimi.

The nice thing about having ‘planted one’s cabbages’ as the French say, is that you can go on longer trips.  I was going to be in Puglia for almost three weeks.  If I wasted a half-day on a wild, goose chase – pazienza. 

Since I am a Luddite and never use a navigatore, I looked up the directions on the garden’s website.  Given the experiences of Domenico and company, Come raggiungerci (how to reach us) looked suspiciously straightforward.  Take the SS16, the four-lane highway between Bari and Brindisi, get off at the Monopoli – San Francesco da Paola exit and follow the signs for Vivai Capitanio Stefano.


In the Fasano plain south of Polignano, many of the olive trees are 2,500, even 3,000 years old. They are so revered there is a special name for them – olivi secolari – not ‘secular’ as the computer gnomes suggest, but ‘centuries old’ from secolo meaning century.

I was a bit nervous as I whizzed by the various exits for Monopoli and then I saw the sign for San Francesco da Paola.  I took my time on the narrow off-ramp and when I reached the inevitable, multi-directional cross-road, I was relieved to see a sign for Vivai Capitanio Stefano.  With a helpful arrow pointing the way.  In case you’re thinking ‘helpful’ is redundant, you probably have not done a lot of driving in Italy.  Despite years of driving there, every trip there are always a couple of arrows that mess me up.  Soon I was on a narrow, country road surrounded by the ulivi secolari bellissimi  the Salento reviewer had written about.


I’ve visited a lot of olive groves in Italy but I’d never seen the trimmed branches gathered around the base of the trees. A way to retain moisture in the arid landscape?

One of the (many) times I stopped to take photos of the olive trees, I heard bleating nearby.  I couldn’t see any sheep, but a bit further along the road I saw the pastore (pass-toh-ray).


They do like to stick together. Beyond the sheep, a stone tower supports a precarious branch.

The shepherd saw me too and since I had been taking photos of his sheep it seemed rude not to say hello.  Unlike the stereotypical image of a lone wolf – bad image – try again – solitary figure who shuns social intercourse, this shepherd was eager to chat and was clearly very proud of his pecore (pay-coh-ray).  He owned 100 hectares, which struck me as an impressive chunk of land (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), but then I live in a city where semis on 25 foot wide lots are going for a million dollars and more.  It had cost him 100 million euros.  This seemed rather a lot of money for a shepherd to put together, but my twitch-prone eyebrows must have stayed in place for once because without skipping a beat he added that in addition to la terra propria (his own land), he had another 100 hectares in affitto.  Rented.


Herd mentality and all, there always seems to be one that likes to keep an eye on things.

I followed the sheep as they moved from mound to mound of clipped branches.  And the shepherd followed me.  Or was he following his sheep?  In any event, my self-appointed guide continued to tell me about life in the region, which was, like so many places in Europe nowadays, molto difficile (deef-fee-chee-lay).  You could faticare the whole day long for 60 or 70 euros and then the government would take half.  (This I knew to be accurate because the owner of one of the B&B’s I stayed in showed me his receipt book.)  The shepherd sighed.  Italy was going through un periodo molto brutto.  A very difficult time. Coming from someone who was clearly old enough to have lived through the horrors and deprivations of World War II, this was indeed a grim reflection.


It wasn’t yet 10 am – opening hour at the garden – and it was already pretty hot. The sheep headed for a bit of shade.


The black tubes around the base of the olive trees are for irrigation.

We waxed philosophically about the state of the world for a few more minutes and then I told him I had to be going.  I was on my way to the ‘Blade Garden’.  He knew it – it was just a few kilometres further along the road – and despite the brutto periodo, we wished each other una buona giornata.


I slowed down when I got to this gate, but there was no sign so I kept on going.

Maybe the owners had seen the reviews and put up new signs because there were lots of them – and they weren’t the pathetic little brown and white ones the government uses for Heritage Sites all over Italy – these were big, colourful affairs.  I turned into the driveway and you would have thought half of Puglia was there.  This being a Sunday, the other half was presumably al mare.  At the sea.  A young gardener turned parking lot attendant for the day directed me to an opening – I would not call it a spot – next to a stone wall.  ‘Eh, no! I protested,  Sono dal Canada.  There is no way I can park there’.  What I really meant was there was no way I’d be able to get out of there.  He laughed, had a chat with his colleague and waved me over to an off-limits area close by.


Advertisement in Lecce, 110 km south of Monopoli.

I parked in a nice, big, isolated spot and looked around for the biglietteria (bill-yet-teh-ree-uh).  Ticket Office.  The entrance fee was €7, not an unreasonable amount, as long as the garden was worth seeing.  A big crowd was gathered by the entrance.  The ticket line-up? But when I got closer I could see they were just milling around chatting.  By this time it was 10:15, fifteen minutes past opening time.  What was going on?  There were two young girls at a table nearby. Were they selling tickets?  No, signora.  Oggi l’ingresso è gratis!   (Today the entrance is free.) It was June 5, the last day of the sixth edition of  Il Colore in Giardino (Colour in the Garden), a celebration of plants, flowers and fragrances with tastings, workshops and activities for the young and young at heart. I had expected it would be a bit crowded on Sunday, but I was surprised at how many people there were.  What I hadn’t counted on was that the organizers would choose the LAST day of the festival to hold the Opening Ceremonies.  I had arrived just in time for the festivities.  Two adorable ragazzini, all dressed up, cut a bright orange ribbon to great applause and then there were speeches from local dignitaries and the owner of the garden, followed by more applause.   Then we made our way under a leafy archway into the garden.


From the entrance all that was visible of the garden was a Jacaranda, my favourite tree, in all its glory.

The reason I hadn’t been able to see the garden from the entrance was because it’s in a lama, which, I discovered when I looked it up, is una formazione carsica.  Then of course I had to look up carsica, which led me to one of those vicious, circular definitions.   (And for the record, even though I would love to take credit for it, ‘vicious’ is not me ranting, it’s the official term.) Carsica means Karst.  Una formazione carsica is ‘a Karst formation’.

So far my experience with geology had been limited to looking for just the right shape and texture of rocks for my garden.  However, mindful of the barrage of warnings about the importance of learning new things if we want to ward off the onset of any number of ways our brains can succumb to neurogenerative decline,  I googled formazione carsica.  From what I could make out it had to do with rainwater dissolving rocks, which was obviously wrong, so I tried ‘Karst formation’.  Same talk about the dissolution of rock by water and the same off-putting chemical formulas.  CO2 + H2O + CaCO3 = Ca(HCO3)2.  It was comforting to know my Italian wasn’t the problem, but not so comforting to think of what the source of the problem might be. I decided to take a breather and check out the images on the Italian websites. And almost right away I came to a photo that looked familiar.  Sure enough. It was the beach in Polignano a Mare.  The charming little cove I’d visited was  a lama.  A Karst/carsica formation!  I went back to the geology websites which suddenly didn’t seem quite so intimidating and here’s my take on how a lama – which is where all this started – is formed.

As rain falls it collects carbon dioxide (CO2).  If it’s not one of the violent cloudbursts we’ve been experiencing lately, rather than  running uselessly off to gardeners’ and our farmers’ despair, the rain hits the ground and seeps through the soil picking up a bit more CO2 along the way.  Eventually the rainwater turns into a (very weak) carbonic acid, which, given enough time, can dissolve bedrock –  IF that bedrock is composed of carbonate material aka calcium carbonate aka limestone.  Puglia is covered in limestone.  Over thousands of years the cracks and crevices that the CO2 laden rain drops had landed in dissolved, creating fissures and eventually underground caves and grottoes and charming, cozy inlets like the one in Polignano.  This unlikely process – or maybe that is the nature of all geological processes – explained why there were so many caves in Puglia. On a previous trip I’d been to one of the most spectacular (and safest for tourists to visit) – Castellana Grotte – and was hoping to take a boat ride or two to visit some of the grottoes along the coastline.  The garden of the Lama degli Ulivi had been created in the shelter of one of those ancient, geological formations.


I’m sure the garden would be a delight any time of year, but as soon as I got my first glimpse of one of the installations, I was glad to be visiting it during the festival.


Gorgeous labels.  Had they been set out especially for the festival?


A path to the left led to the Jacaranda Tree I’d seen earlier.


A tree fit for Paradise.

The fallen blossoms looked almost as lovely against the red soil so I took a couple of photos. Then I saw the Iris.


A brilliant combo.  Or was it serendipity?

So that I could ID the flower  later, I took a photo of the label in front of the clump.  Dietes Iridioides looked like some kind of iris to me and sure enough, the ‘common’ English name is African Lily.  Also Fortnight Flower, which seemed odd, but like all of these common names, has a logical explanation.  The individual flowers last only one day, but the plant blooms in bursts that occur at two week intervals.


The young woman with half her head chopped off – I was focused on the label and didn’t notice her at the time – is a photo, part of the exhibit from the Academy of Fine Arts in Bari.


There was some discussion amongst the visitors as to whether the flower had been placed there or was growing out of the trunk.


Elettaria Cardamomum. Cardamum Ginger. The flowers made me think of lychee.


How do the flower petals not get pierced by all those thorns?


A flower made for hummingbirds. Or is it the other way round?


That first letter looks like a ‘J’, but there is no ‘j’ in Italian. It’s an ‘I’ which looks like an ‘l’ (el) in this font. It isn’t. It’s an upper case ‘i’.


A pistachio tree? I’d seen some in Sicily on an agriturismo a few years before.

Sicily 210

Pistachio tree at an agriturismo near Agrigento, Sicily, 2005.

What I found on the first website for Pistacia Terebinthus didn’t seem right, so I checked a few others.  The sites varied a little in their emphasis but they were all in agreement as to  its principal use.   Turpentine.


The tree I’d seen in Sicily, the one with the edible pistachios, was Pistacia vera.

The path led down to the lower level of the lama, where the exhibitors and vendors had set up their wares.


So tempting. Especially the blue ones.



Vivaio (vee-vigh-oh) from vivere (to live). So much better – and less confusing – than our ‘nursery’.


Lemons and verbena. What a great combination. But not for eating.


Here’s one I hadn’t seen before. Perfumed sand. According to the sign, it lasts 6-7 months and is re-perfumable.  Is ‘Summer Fruits’ meant to give it an exotic touch?


When I got to this stand, I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask if they were real.


Imagine being able to take one of these home and plant it – outdoors – in your garden.


For some reason the beekeeper and all his equipment struck me as a strange sight in this tropical oasis.

The most surprising sight of all was off to the side.


Canapa – yes, it’s what you think – the plant that regenerates man, the environment and the economy.

There were also two chiese rupestri (cave churches) but these were by guided tour only and with all the activities and demos and vendors, I couldn’t see any tours being given.  I didn’t mind, as I knew I would be seeing some later in my trip.  Besides, by now I was starving.  One last look at the Jacaranda and I headed back to the coast.


Next:  The White City




The Lemon Grove – A Good Place to Start

Il Limoneto is an agriturismo an hour’s drive south of  Fontanarossa – ‘Red Fountain’ – the airport halfway down Sicily’s east coast, which was presumably named in honour of, or perhaps in a feeble attempt to placate Etna nearby. I could have stayed at ‘The Lemon Grove’ at the end of my trip, but I knew that jet-lag, getting used to the rental car and local driving habits would make even this fairly straightforward drive, for which I had printed off detailed directions before leaving home, enough of a challenge.  As it turned out, shifting gears came back surprisingly quickly, but after almost three weeks, I still hadn’t got used to being passed on blind curves, drivers coming to a ‘stop’ when they were already half-way through the intersection, or having to back up narrow, twisting, mountain roads to make room for tour buses.

Entrance courtyard of Il Limoneto.

Entrance courtyard of Il Limoneto.

Of course I hadn’t counted on a fire in Fiumicino’s Terminal 3 a few days before my departure.  It was still wreaking havoc when my flight arrived, causing massive flight delays, including my  connecting flight to Catania.  Nor had I counted on overgrown oleanders covering the road signs.  By the time I arrived at Il Limoneto I was exhausted, maybe past exhausted.  I rang the bell and Dora came out to meet me.  Previous guests have written extensively about the warm welcome and solicitous care of the hosts at Il Limoneto.  Their reviews were not exaggerated and during my stay I became very attached to Dora and her family. After she had shown me to my room, she offered to take me around the property – dinner would be served at 8 pm, not for another hour.  This was the perfect antidote to lying down ‘just for a few minutes’, which would inevitably lead to my falling sound asleep and then I’d miss supper, wake up in the middle of the night starving, which would make me irritable and on top of everything else, I wouldn’t have made any progress adjusting to the local time. I grabbed my camera and off we went.

As we walked through the lemon grove, Dora told the story of how Il Limoneto came to be. Her grandfather had had four sons, three of which had followed the usual, parent-pleasing career paths – one was a doctor, the other an engineer and I forget now what the third one did.  But the fourth did poorly at school, and, as time went by, showed no interest in applying himself to anything.  Finally, one day Dora’s grandfather had had enough.  He told the errant son he would give him a piece of property.  He was free to do whatever he liked with the land, as long as he found a way to guadagnarsi (gwah-dun-yar-see) la vita .  Earn his living.  The son decided to grow lemons.

Another guest, an American who had joined us, had been taking lots of photos, while my camera dangled idly around my neck. I wasn’t worried.  It always takes me a while to get adjusted, into the spirit of a place.  When I feel the urge to take the first photo, I know a trip has really begun.  This time, it happened when we came to the olive trees at the edge of the lemon grove.


The first photo of the trip.  An ancient olive tree at sunset.

On the way back, Dora pointed out something she knew we hadn’t noticed.  One of the lemon trees had long thorns on some of its branches.


A wild offshoot.


Obviously, also a wonderful teacher, she showed us the difference in the leaves – the leaf on the left is from the wild lemon.

The next morning, before breakfast, I retraced the route we had taken the evening before.


Dora had told us that citrus trees don’t produce fruit all year round, as many visitors arrive believing. (I’m not sure what I thought.) However, as if not to disappoint us, the different trees – they also grow a wide variety of oranges, mandarins etc.- have a wonderfully staggered fruiting season.


In a citrusy survival of the fittest race, which of these tiny buds would push and shove their way to maturity?

In one area, each tree had its own sprinkler, whirling around half-way up the trunk.  Dora had told us they called them baffi (moustaches).


A whirling moustache.


Some disease had been attacking the Nespoli. The ghoulish blue-green reminded me of the bizarre installations at Chaumont-sur-Loire. (Gardens of the Seven Deadly Sins, July 20, 2014)

Along the east side of the property was a remarkable, mortarless stone wall.  So beautiful to look at, walls like this have become a source of concern to their owners, as the craftsmen who built and maintained them die off, with no young people interested in replacing them.  On the other side of the wall was an enormous field of artichokes.  I thought the dark, purplish heads lit by the early morning sun were stunning.


Dora was much less impressed with the neighbour’s artichoke field. The farmer had let them grow too big; they were worthless.

After breakfast I packed up all my things and followed Dora in my car to another agriturismo a kilometre down the road where I would be staying that night.


Entrance courtyard. Case Damma.

When you are trying to book a room, one of the many words you hope to see in the reply to your query is lieta (lee-ay-tuh).  Happy, pleased.  As in “We are pleased to inform you that…”  Of the many words you do not want to see are purtroppo (poor-trope-poe), always a harbinger of bad news and al completo.  In Dora’s reply to my first email, in which I had requested a room for four nights, data d’arrivo il 13 maggio, she had used all three. First of all she was lieta to learn I was interested in staying at the Limoneto.  Purtroppo, she continued, the night of the 14, they were al completo.  Full.  Perhaps I could change my dates.


Given the scarcity of roses in the gardens of the Amalfi Coast, I hadn’t expected to see any in the even hotter, drier Sicily.

A bouquet on a stem.

A bouquet on a stem.

In the flurry of emails that followed, it was clear that I had my mind set on spending time at Il Limoneto and Dora was equally determined to find a solution.  Which she did, talking the owner of Case Damma into accepting a guest, in caso eccezionale, for just one night.


My room was just around the corner from this rose bush. It was really quite lovely, but after the roses in the courtyard, I’m afraid I barely gave this one a glance whenever I passed it on the way to my room


After Dora left, it was still early, so I decided to check out the Giardino Storico before setting out for the day’s adventures.


Yet another of Nature’s mysteries.  This Nespolo, barely a kilometre down the road from Il Limoneto, hadn’t needed spraying and was covered in fruit.


Move just a foot or two, and a different apparition emerges out of this ancient olive tree.


Here the space between the lemon trees was allowed to grow wild.


Beyond the garden, poppies and lemon trees alternated with olive trees as far as the eye could see.

That evening, I had just settled down on the terrace with a glass of white wine, when Carmelo, the owner, came up to me.  Having learned that I was interested in gardens – one notion I’ve been disabused of over the years is that no-one is watching as I wander around the places I stay at – he insisted on giving me a private visita guidata of the giardino storico.   I thanked him – it was ‘molto gentile‘ (jen-tee-lay), but I knew it was a busy time of day at an agriturismo and besides, I had already visited the garden that morning.  He insisted.  There were things I hadn’t seen.  There was no point getting in a huff; besides, in Italian it sounded a lot more like a lovely invitation than a put-down of my observational skills.  I left my wine to bake in the sun and followed him.

Of course he was right.  The first thing he pointed out was the carruba.  It was such an enormous specimen I hadn’t even noticed all the seed pods dangling high above me.  In ancient times, tribes of the Middle East had discovered that the seeds of the Ceratonia, from the Greek keratin, had a remarkable, and useful characteristic – uniform weight – and for centuries had used the carats to weigh gemstones and precious metals.  Knowing the story of those seeds helped me save face. Somewhat.  Wondering what else I had missed, I followed him.


Inside the carob pods, the original ‘carat’.

He pointed out several other plants of interest, various citrus trees and a lovely melograno that I had managed to notice on my own.


In  fall when the pomegranates are a bright orange, they are easy to see, but in spring the newly set fruit is easy to miss.

He led me over to the centuries-old olive trees I had admired, and taken so many photos of that morning and showed me where, during World War II, the locals had hidden their guns in a hollow of the ancient tree.  Then – I could sense we had reached the highlight of the tour – he pointed out something else.


Cascading around the trunk of one of the olive trees were the branches of what was obviously a fig tree.  So where, he asked, not quite gloating, was the fig tree?  This was obviously a trick question, but he had been such a wonderful and knowledgeable guide so far, it seemed only fair on my part to at least make a show of looking around, until he would tell me what was up.  Well, what was up, was that somehow, who knows when, a fig tree had taken root in centre of the olive tree.  Sadly, as the fig grew, it started to split the trunk of its host, which would, inevitably, die.


In the centre of the olive tree, the smoother bark of the fig tree which will eventually kill its host.

I thanked Carmelo for the tour and went back to my no longer cool wine on the terrace.

The next morning, as lovely as my short stay at Case Damma had been, I was glad to drive back to Il Limoneto and get settled again in ‘my’ room.


During my stay at Il Limoneto, I passed by this ancient olive tree many times on the way to my car. There was always something new to see.

A few days later, when I had to leave Il Limoneto for good, I was wishing I had booked a longer stay.  Perhaps Dora was feeling something similar.  I was on my way to the car after Arrivederci‘s and kisses to her and her family, when I heard her call out to me,  ‘La Feijoa ha fiorito!’  I had first seen this unusual flower in the Giardino Ravino on the island of Ischia (Leaving Room for a Little Whimsy, Jan. 19, 2014) and had only learned its name a few days earlier at Case Damma.  After showing me around the garden, Carmelo had handed me an enormous binder of all the plants in the garden, including la Feijoa.

I retraced my steps to where Dora was standing and sure enough, the strange flower was blooming.  I took a few photos and then again we wished each other Arrivederci!


Feijoa, aka Pineapple Guave.

Next – The Garden Where Once There Was Nothing.