` Q&A with Piero Gonnelli, Frantoio Santa Tea - Olive Oil Times

Q&A with Piero Gonnelli, Frantoio Santa Tea

Jul. 26, 2010
Lara Camozzo

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In the sec­ond of our two-part series, Lara Camozzo sits down with Piero Gonnelli, direc­tor of the Frantoio Santa Tea, and head of a fam­ily olive oil busi­ness that has spanned more than 400 years. Mr. Gonnelli’s answers are trans­lated from Italian. 

When did the story of Gonnelli olive oil begin?

The mill was built in 1426, and my fam­ily bought this place in 1585. I grew up here, and began work­ing with the olives when I was a young boy — I was four­teen years old. The world was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent place.” He points out the win­dow towards his land and says, All of the land in this region was made up of gar­dens and olives trees, and there still existed in Italy La Mezzadria.” This term stands for an agri­cul­tural agree­ment that existed between the pro­pri­etor of the land, and the farmer who lived on and worked the land with his fam­ily. It was called la mez­zadria because they divided the pro­duce in half, mezza — half to the pro­pri­etor, and half to the farmer and his family.”

Can you recount some of your mem­o­ries from this time?

I remem­ber from when I was young, the fatigue of these peo­ple who worked the land. First, they’d work the soil, and in November they’d begin har­vest­ing the olives. However, since the har­vests were done com­pletely by hand, it took quite a long time — until February or March, when the ground had frozen. So these peo­ple would har­vest the olives first from the trees, and then from the ground — all by hand — dur­ing a cold that you can’t imag­ine. It was a ter­ri­ble job. Then, with indus­tri­al­iza­tion, the world changed; we no longer har­vest the olives that have fallen on the ground, because it isn’t convenient.”

What has changed today with respect to the past?

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Now, we har­vest the olives after much antic­i­pa­tion. When you wait until January or February the olives have become too mature and have fallen to the ground. It’s the same thing as if you were to take a piece of fruit from the ground — it’s not good any­more. And so the qual­ity of the prod­uct that they obtained in the past was not like what we are capa­ble of pro­duc­ing today. Today we take the olives before they are ripe, because it is said that the opti­mal time period for the har­vest is fif­teen days — but it’s not pos­si­ble to har­vest every­thing in fif­teen days. So we have to be shrewd; some types of olives, like the fran­toio, are best har­vested very early, when they are not yet ripe, in order to pro­duce a supe­rior qual­ity of oil. This alone was a big change, but what truly changed the qual­ity of the prod­uct was a new sys­tem for work­ing with the olives — new machin­ery. With these new machines we’re now able to har­vest the olives, press them imme­di­ately, and get the oil in the very same evening. So there’s no fer­men­ta­tion, the acid­ity is extremely low, and the level of qual­ity is extremely high. With the old sys­tem, the press, this was­n’t pos­si­ble, because we could­n’t press the olives just after har­vest­ing them — the olives were left to fer­ment, to get soft, before we could press them. The first cen­trifu­gal press was intro­duced in 1962, and Santa Tea was the first mill in the world to use this new sys­tem. In 2002 we were also the first in the world to use an oxy­gen free pro­duc­tion sys­tem; by adding nitro­gen to the tubes and tanks dur­ing pro­duc­tion and stor­age, we decreased the oxi­da­tion index by 50% and increased the shelf life of our olive oil to two years after bottling.”

What sets Gonnelli olive oil apart?

One char­ac­ter­is­tic that sets us apart is our machin­ery. I designed all of our machines, except for the cen­trifu­gal press which is made by Alfa Laval. All of the other machines are made here at Santa Tea. I’ve been involved with this activ­ity for forty years — mak­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the machines and inno­vat­ing var­i­ous new types. We’re always geared towards bet­ter­ing the qual­ity of the final prod­uct. In addi­tion, the way we man­age our fac­tory, our selec­tion of prod­ucts, and our capac­ity to select good olives, which is impor­tant because the con­sumer should know what they are buy­ing — these are all aspects that set us apart from the others.”

features-profiles-qa-with-piero-gonnelli-frantoio-santa-tea-olive-oil-times-observing-the-centrifugal-machine-at-14
Piero Gonnelli (third from left) observes the new cen­trifu­gal machine.

How did you become involved in the design of your machines?

When I was 14 years old, we started using the new cen­trifu­gal press for the first time. This Swedish com­pany, Alfa Laval, sent all of their tech­ni­cians in order to put this new sys­tem into place. I spent my whole Christmas vaca­tion in the oil mill, learn­ing about the world of mechan­ics along­side these tech­ni­cians. I became pas­sion­ate for con­struct­ing my own machines, so at 18 years old I began work­ing with my father who ran the other agri­cul­tural side of the busi­ness — the vine­yards, the can­tina, etc. But, what I enjoyed most were the mechan­ics of the olive oil mill, because I had the oppor­tu­nity to develop some­thing, to think and cre­ate some­thing new. So at 18, my father left me in charge of the mill.”

What changes, if any, did you make when you took charge of the olive oil production?

I wanted to spread the knowl­edge of our prod­uct, so I took it around the world to fairs and con­ven­tions in search of buy­ers. It’s point­less to make great olive oil if no one can find it and taste it. It was­n’t easy, because clearly an oil like this has a higher price due to the meth­ods we use and also because the earth in the Chianti region is dif­fi­cult to cul­ti­vate. One of our trees makes 1.5 kilos of olive oil. In Maremma, a south­ern region of Tuscany, one tree can make 6 kilos of oil. In Puglia, one tree makes 20 kilos, and in Spain, using the super inten­sive sys­tem, every hectare pro­duces 4000 liters of olive oil — an enor­mous pro­duc­tion. One hectare in Chianti makes 400 kilos, but the qual­ity of the prod­uct is dif­fer­ent, and our prices reflect that. When I started with the com­pany in the 1960s, we were sell­ing next to noth­ing — maybe 1000 to 2000 bot­tles. Now, we sell 6 to 700,000 bot­tles of oil every year, and we’re growing.”

What are your thoughts on the New World” extra vir­gin olive oils?

Well, first I want to make clear that all oil, if made well, is a spe­cial prod­uct that is good for your health. The best and the worst depends on us, on our own per­sonal taste — it’s sub­jec­tive. Obviously, if a per­son grows up in a cer­tain place, from a young age they will become accus­tomed to a par­tic­u­lar taste, and they will think that the prod­uct from that place is the best in the world. For me, Spanish oil, I can’t eat it — it makes me nau­seous — but the Spanish eat it, and they like it — it’s absolutely sub­jec­tive. In terms of pro­duc­tion, our meth­ods are dif­fer­ent, and the olive vari­eties them­selves are dif­fer­ent. Even if the same meth­ods are used, if you change the olives, you change the prod­uct — like all things. Like with fish­ing; fish are all fish, but one has a dif­fer­ent fla­vor from another. It’s the same with olives; every prod­uct has cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics that are reflected in the flavor.”

What of the dif­fer­ences in meth­ods of pro­duc­tion, is one bet­ter than the other?

At the moment, we are exper­i­ment­ing with new har­vest meth­ods, but we are not con­vinced at all by the machines that are used in Australia and California. These machines shake the trees which, in our opin­ion, dam­ages the plants and leaves the best olives still attached to the tree. For exam­ple, there are par­a­sites that some­times infect the olives — clearly, we don’t want to use these olives, because they would ruin the prod­uct. If a plant has 5% infected olives, and I use one of these machines to har­vest, these weak olives will all fall to the ground while 20% of the good, strong, healthy olives will remain attached to the plant.These machines dete­ri­o­rate the qual­ity of the prod­uct — this is why I don’t love them. There is also a super inten­sive sys­tem, in which the olive trees are planted like vine­yards, which allows a machine to pass through the rows tak­ing the olives like bunches of grapes. I don’t like this method either because it bangs the fruit around and dam­ages the plants. At Santa Tea we use a hand rake that grabs a sin­gle branch at a time and vibrates until the olives fall into nets cov­er­ing the ground. This sys­tem does­n’t dam­age the fruit or plants, and it allows us to har­vest all of the olives; it’s a step ahead of har­vest­ing by hand, but it’s very expen­sive. In the future we must find dif­fer­ent alter­na­tives for har­vest­ing by hand, we must evolve.”

How old are the trees on your properties?

In 1985 we had a big frost that destroyed at least 50% of our trees. Many of those trees were 100, 300, even 400 years old. After the frost, only 5 or 6 trees remained that were 150 years old. Today we have around 22,000 trees in the provinces of Florence and Siena, most of which are 24 — 25 years old.”

What does olive oil mean to you?

It means every­thing. It means tra­di­tion, it means fam­ily, it means work. I’ve ded­i­cated my life to this work — it’s a work that I love, so I am a lucky man.”

Did you ever want to fol­low another path in life?

My life has always been tied to this work, but I’ve done other things. I worked for ten years pro­duc­ing con­struc­tion mate­ri­als, tiles, etc. I also con­structed houses. But my work with the olive oil is my heart — my heart is here — the rest is business.”

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