Umbria’s Coveted Gold
Umbria, “Italy’s green heart”, is green all year thanks to the non-deciduous live oaks blanketing the mountains and the silver-green olive trees which cover our hills. Umbria boasts about 56,000 acres of olive trees in the region and 27,000 producers of top extra-virgin olive oils. This is a golden year for our liquid “gold”: production is up 35 %.
We’re all celebrating the production of our liquid “gold” (which is actually green) now: the olive oil mills churn night and day as the pressed olives release the coveted Umbrian olive oil. Alain Ducasse, famed French chef, wants only the superb olive oil of the Assisi/Spello area on his personal table, rating it world’s best. I’ve tasted the olive oil Ducasse lauds. Buonissimo. So is ours. Friends joined us for our harvest in mid-November and Pino took the olives to the mill the day after picking.
He was there at the mill to watch the pressing of our olives, making sure (as is the custom), that only OUR olive oil fills our huge stainless steel cannisters. No mixing, please: our olive oil is organic. A late night for Pino: our “turn” came at about 2:30. At the mills, tractors and trucks loaded with just-picked olives rumbled in as the huge stone olive mill wheels churned. On November week-ends, the Umbrian millers explain to visitors the milling process: the Frantoi Aperti (best translated “Open House at the Olive Oil Mills”) festival from the end of October to early December celebrates the newly-pressed olive oils. On the outskirts of tiny hamlets – such as Gualdo Cattaneo, Giano dell’Umbria, Castel Ritaldi. Montecchio, Campello – and near the more famed Umbrian hilltowns – such as Assisi, Spello, Spoleto – olive oil mills welcome visitors for tastings of the new olive oil on hot bruschetta. The villages and towns come alive in the evenings with cultural events of all kinds.
And why not celebrate the noble olive tree, the perfect representative of our region? After all, the olive tree is a symbol of peace and this land of St. Francis is often called “The Holy Land of Italy”. On Palm Sunday in Italian churches, all receive olive branches: an abundance of those as we’ve all prune our olive groves in early spring and we don’t have palm trees! Of long lifespan and slow growth, the olive tree synthesizes Umbria’s loving preservation of century-old traditions handed down from generation to generation. And naturalmente, the exquisite Umbrian extra virgin olive oil is key element of the region’s cuisine, characterized by the simple, seasonal ingredients of our cucina genuina.
The climatic conditions of Umbria are perfect, enabling the slow ripening of the olives, so necessary for the production of an olive oil with an extremely low acidity level. The predominance of the moraiolo olive variety (leccino, frantoio, San Felice and dolce agogia are other prevalent varieties) assures the piccante (sharp) retrobite and greenish color of top olive oils.The soil of our hilly land is a key factor as well: permeable rich earth that allows the roots of the trees to penetrate easily. The timing of the olive harvest is crucial: the harvest must start early in the olive’s natural maturation process. Olives are picked just as ripening starts (generally in early November), when the olives are only partially dark and the fruity flavor is at its peak. This assures lowest acidity.
Experiments are underway now for a mechanical technique for picking olives without damaging them but hand-harvesting still reigns. We all try to get our large plastic crates (years ago, we all used burlap sacks) full of olives to the mill as soon as they are picked – to avoid “heating up” of the olives and to insure best flavor of our oil. The ideal position of Umbria’s olive groves (90 percent are on the hillsides and 10 percent in mountain areas), favorable conditions of the terrain and our idyllic olive-growing climate ensure “liquid gold” for our region: approximately 90 percent of our entire production (an average of 8 million kg per year) is extra-virgin.
Best way to savor the new olive oil?
On bruschetta, of course! *Toast a flavorful crusty bread on both sides. (We toast our bread on the top of our wood-burning stove – and yes, the flavor IS different if toasted in a gas oven!). Rub toasted bread slice with a garlic clove. Drizzle on (ideally) newly-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. Here in Umbria, we have to sprinkle salt on our bread: there is none in the Umbrian bread, due to Pope Paul III’s tax on salt in his Papal states (what is now Umbria, Marches, Latium, Abruzzo) in 1540. Can we buy bread with salt in our local bakeries? Of couse ..but..why eat “foreign” foods!?!
Read about an olive gathering with friends
Read about a past harvest (with a recipe!)
Click here to read about Umbrian olive mill celebrations
Click here to read about – and see! – our prized olive oil
Read about Trevi’s famed olive trees
Click here to find out how Spello celebrates olive oil
Don’t miss Assisi’s olive oil celebration