` Farming On the Edge of an Olive's Comfort Zone

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Farming On the Edge of an Olive's Comfort Zone

Sep. 28, 2010
By Lara Camozzo

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Friuli Venezia Giu­lia cov­ers the north­east­ern cor­ner of Italy, which bor­ders Slove­nia and Aus­tria, and is just a stone’s throw away from the neigh­bor­ing Croa­t­ian coast. Clearly, this isn’t Tus­cany or Puglia,” Franco Dia­coli of Olio Ducale tells me, we’re in the most extreme north­ern region where it is still pos­si­ble to cul­ti­vate olive trees, but in many ways this extrem­ity pro­duces an oil with very intense char­ac­ter­is­tics, aro­mas and fla­vors.”

The Bianchera olive vari­ety hails from the province of Tri­este, where the warm sea breeze mit­i­gates the cli­mate and keeps the olives safe from freez­ing win­ter tem­per­a­tures. The pia­nura — plain is tucked under the hills where strong winds from the north carry away the humid­ity. It’s always well ven­ti­lated in this area, and this is in favor of the cul­ti­va­tion of olives, because humid­ity car­ries the freeze,” Dia­coli explains.

In 1929, the Bassa Friu­lana suf­fered a frost which left almost all of the region’s olive groves destroyed. Olives need sgrondi ter­rain made of ghi­aioso – well drained and gritty — not humid in the earth or in the air.” Where the earth is made of gravel and rock it retains less water and the olives suf­fer almost no dam­ages at all in the event of a frost.

This year Franco Dia­coli was lucky; on the evening of Decem­ber 19th, 2009, the tem­per­a­ture dropped from 8 to 10 degrees Cel­sius dur­ing the day to ‑12 degrees Cel­sius overnight. In the region of Civi­dale del Friuli where Dia­coli cul­ti­vates 7 to 8 vari­eties of olives, the land is more gravel than terra, or earth, there­fore his olives were mostly saved.

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Apart from the Bianchera and a few other autochtho­nous vari­eties, Dia­coli also cul­ti­vates Tus­can vari­eties such as Fran­toio, Lec­cino, and Mau­rino, because the micro­cli­mate of Tus­cany is very sim­i­lar to that of Civi­dale del Friuli with respect to the rain­fall and tem­per­a­ture. Clearly we can’t grow vari­eties from Sicily in Friuli, because the dif­fer­ences in cli­mate are too extreme.

Our quan­tity may not be that of Puglia, for exam­ple,” Dia­coli points out, how­ever, from June to Sep­tem­ber it never rains there, so the olives stop grow­ing until the rain starts again. Here in Civi­dale, we always get rain, so our olives never stop grow­ing and devel­op­ing intense fla­vors and aro­mas.”

The Bianchera olive pro­duces a unique oil with pri­mary char­ac­ter­is­tics of arti­chokes and herbs. It has a very low acid­ity level and very intense fla­vor, and for this rea­son it is often blended with other oils while stay­ing true to the DOP cer­ti­fi­ca­tion para­me­ters, or Denom­i­nazione di Orig­ine Pro­tetta, which reg­u­lates the qual­ity and ter­ri­tory from which the oil comes, and pro­tects the olive oil con­sumer. How­ever, Dia­coli makes an extra vir­gin olive oil using 100% Bianchera that, he points out, placed among the top 10 out of 220 olive oils at a recent event in Croa­tia.

Apart from the Bianchera which I pro­duce and, like they say, la cam­panile di casa e sem­pre piu grande, — the bell tower of your home is always the largest — the fla­vors and aro­mas of Sicil­ian olive oils are the best in my opin­ion. They have par­tic­u­lar sen­sa­tions of toma­toes — the leaf and the fruit.” How­ever, Dia­coli admits, It always depends on the qual­ity of the olives, the land from which they came, and how the oil was pro­duced; you can have ter­ri­ble olive oil from the same place where beau­ti­ful oil is made.”

In the north, it is typ­i­cal to har­vest the olives while they’re still green, before they’ve matured, because once the ground has frozen it’s too late to pro­duce an oil of good qual­ity. We har­vest in very late Novem­ber, before the olives turn black — this gives us intense fla­vors and aro­mas,” says Dia­coli. We can’t think of har­vest­ing in Feb­ru­ary, as they do in the south. In Puglia and Sicily they often har­vest the olives when they’re very mature, they even let them fall from the tree. So the per­cent­age of oil is more, but the qual­ity can be less.”

In order to make a good prod­uct, it’s impor­tant to fol­low strict guide­lines; you have to bring the healthy olives to the press once they’ve matured to the per­fect point — you can’t wait for the olive to become over­ripe, they should be half green and half dark; at this point the olives don’t con­tain the max­i­mum amount of oil, but they have the max­i­mum aro­mas and fla­vors. Then you need to har­vest and press in the same day, which takes some coor­di­na­tion.”

Dia­coli har­vests his olives by hand and takes them to a pub­lic press used by other olive oil pro­duc­ers in the province of Civi­dale. I have to stick to a sched­ule; I have to make an appoint­ment to bring my olives to the press at a cer­tain time, but not first thing in the morn­ing — if the press has been sit­ting overnight with the pulp from another farm, I don’t want that oxi­dized pulp mix­ing with my olives and dete­ri­o­rat­ing the qual­ity of my oil.”

Dia­coli began cul­ti­vat­ing olives 9 years ago when a friend offered him a piece of land from his farm. It hap­pened by chance; the farmer who was work­ing this piece of land had quit, and my friend didn’t know what to do with it — he has a large farm, so it was noth­ing for him to invest a lit­tle some­thing in a new project. We decided to plant some olive trees and when it was time, we’d har­vest the olives. We didn’t have a clue about how to make olive oil, but this was our idea.”

They had some help from ERSA, Ente Regionale di Sviluppo Agri­colo, the agency for the rural devel­op­ment in the region. They gave us a hand, told us how many trees to plant on this piece of land, how far apart, and what we’d need to go about mak­ing the olive oil,” says Dia­coli. Over the years, Dia­coli has dis­cov­ered the pas­sion and ded­i­ca­tion it takes to cul­ti­vate and har­vest olives, and pro­duce a high qual­ity olive oil. When you taste a good olive oil, it shouldn’t dirty your mouth. The fla­vors should be intense and per­sis­tent, they should linger, but the olive oil should leave your mouth clean. If it leaves a greasy film on your tongue, then you know some­thing went wrong dur­ing the pro­duc­tion process.”

When it comes to select­ing extra vir­gin olive oil in a super­mar­ket or spe­cialty store, Dia­coli advises, It’s not true that the price makes the qual­ity; it’s the oppo­site. If any­thing, the qual­ity makes the price.”

So why buy an olive oil that hails from Friuli, a region bet­ter known for it’s won­der­fully crisp white wines and pic­turesque views of the Alps? In all typ­i­cal prod­ucts, there is the ter­roir. I like to give this exam­ple: In Friu­lano olive oil there are the char­ac­ter­is­tics of amaro e pic­cante, bit­ter and spicy, of the Bianchera olive, which are quite strong and intense. Come la per­sona, just like a Friu­lano, with respect to our typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics; we are tosto, ruvido, grezzo – tough, coarse, and raw — we’re not very expan­sive as a peo­ple. Over the years we’ve endured many bar­baric inva­sions and mas­sacres in this region, and we’ve become closed and dis­trust­ful towards strangers. But when a Friu­lano man­ages to put their trust in another, it becomes the con­trary; we are more affa­ble than all the oth­ers.”

Surely, Ital­ians from the south are more open and accom­mo­dat­ing from the begin­ning — like the Napoli­tani. Their olive oils are also sweeter — the bit­ter ele­ments hardly exist at all. This comes from tra­di­tion, from a way of think­ing. I’ll explain: If I har­vest 100 kilos of olives and leave them in the sun to dry out, when I put them on the scale I’ll have 60 kilos of olives, but the same amount of oil either way. What has hap­pened? When I take the olives to the press, I have to pay by weight, not by the olive oil I pro­duce. When the econ­omy was in bad shape, it became a habit for peo­ple to leave their olives out in the sun to dry. This pro­duced an oil of lesser qual­ity — it was still an olive oil that had fat and gave energy, but the cost was cut almost in half.”

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This men­tal­ity still exists in the south; not every­one, mostly old fam­i­lies have con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion of dry­ing their olives out in the sun before going to the press. Some­times they even wait to har­vest the olives until after they’ve fallen from the tree. This is the prob­lem with oil of bad qual­ity; to make an olive oil of good qual­ity, the olives must be har­vested before com­plete mat­u­ra­tion. We lose a bit in the oil, it costs us at the press, but in the end we have an impor­tant oil,” says Dia­coli. I gave my olive oil to some peo­ple from the south to taste, and they said that the oil from this region is no good — it’s raw.”

When asked if he is look­ing to pro­duce the same tastes and aro­mas with each har­vest, like a wine maker, Dia­coli replied, No. With olive oil you can’t change any­thing. You can screw up, make a mis­take, and ruin it. But, if you do every­thing well, it can be won­der­ful, because your trees had water, sun, etc. Or it can be a bit less, because it was a dry year, or who knows. With wine, you take it into the can­tina, and you work it — with olive oil you can’t do any­thing. What the press gives you is what you get.”

With respect to Diacoli’s prized Bianchera, he says, It’s very dif­fi­cult to cul­ti­vate, because it’s a vari­ety that’s sus­cep­ti­ble to a fun­gus known as, l’occhio di pavone, that attacks the leaves of the tree.” Yet ulti­mately, It gives us an excep­tional olive oil, and — like most things in life — it’s the things that are most dif­fi­cult that are almost always most appre­ci­ated.”

Pho­tos: Lara Camozzo for Olive Oil Times

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