Olive Oil … Puglias Liquid Gold
Since ancient times, predating the Romans even, the landscape of Puglia has been dominated by its legions of dusty green olive groves, with today as many as 58 million olive trees providing 70% of Italys Olive Oil, and a significant contribution of the total world supply.
In olden days, Olive oil was the lifeblood of Puglia’s economy and was exported throughout Roman and medieval Europe in earthenware amphora and jars. Used primarily as lamp oil to illuminate peoples houses, with a much smaller proportion actually consumed as foodstuff, so vital was this resource that victorious Rome’s punishment for the area’s support of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, was to cut down the olive trees. Allegedly this brutal act set back the local economy by over 100 years causing widespread poverty and hunger throughout the land.
Today, Puglias vast expanses of olive groves hum with cicadas whilst sheltering the regions dusty earth by providing shade from the blazing sunshine. All the while the fruit slowly swells and ripens throughout the long hot summer and into the days of autumn.
Most of Puglias groves are prepared by summers end with the farmers tilling the soil under the trees to free it from weeds, and then rolling it flat and level leaving a hard packed surface to collect the olives fromduring the harvest.
The small black olives start to fall in autumn, leaving dark circles on the ground around each tree, as enough fall and approx every 2 or three days, the farmers gather them up. In bygone days with brushes and baskets even their wives and children helping, thankfully nowadays the olives are collected up with mechanised “carpet sweeper” type machines and the bigger growers using tractors with heavier machinery to gather them up.
The olives are sieved to separate leaves, twigs and stones, loaded into crates and packed onto trailers, pick-ups and Puglias ubiquitous three-wheeled Apés. The rich harvest is transported to the local mill to be cold pressed into oil. Even our towns name is a tribute to the areas history. (Torchiarolo being derived from Turch D’oro or “press of gold” …ie Oil press or mill )
At the mill the olives are weighed, graded, then unloaded into hoppers and washed before being taken through the modern mechanical crusher and press. Each grower has the choice of selling his olives to the mill, or paying for them to be pressed and him keeping his own oil, or a combination of the two options as he so wishes. The golden/green oil separates from the dark red coloured watery pulp left from the pressing. The oil passes through a filter and then flows into large storage vats, or is barrelled up for the grower who is taking his own away.
Nowadays the best grades of Extra Virgin green Oil are prized for salads, dressings and for dipping, the lower grades in descending order are used for cooking, frying, processing food, cosmetics & make-ups, soaps & solvents, animal feeds and in industrial cleaners and solvents.
Throughout the winter after the harvest, the growers tend and prune back their trees, to provide young growth for the crop next year. The twiggy off-cuts are baled as fuel for kindling, whilst the sawn up wood provides fuel for domestic fireplaces in the winter and to feed Puglias vast array of wood-fired ovens in the regions pizzerias.