While many producers in Italy and other European countries ruefully sum up the small, if any, output of their harvest and are faced with a poor income, some others are satisfied with their results and proudly show the work in progress of olive picking and pressing on social networks.
That is the case of Miccione farm in Buccheri, a small village in the remote area of the Monti Iblei, in south-eastern Sicily, well-known for the very good quality of its tomato-scented extra virgin olive oils.
Probably due to altitude (Buccheri is at 820 m, or 2,690 ft above sea level) and the good weather that blessed the Sicilian summer, the olive trees were not attacked by olive fly or other parasites and were in excellent condition at the moment of harvesting.
The great attention paid by the owners to quality is a contributing factor, and it explains how Miccione was able to gain impressive recognition for the first release of its eponymous product last year, including a Gold Award at NYIOOC 2014.
The farm is not a standard one in any respect: no inherited land, no old family tradition to preserve, just a great passion and a strong willpower that brought together two families.
One of its founders is Daniele Miccione, a journalist who writes about food and sport and currently editor-in-chief at Italy’s main sports daily newspaper. Born in Catania not far from Buccheri, he lived in Milan for a long time before he discovered the remote village when his brother moved to Buccheri. “I went to visit him,” Daniele said, “and so I discovered this enchanting village and its old traditions, including the olive oil production.”
The decision to buy an old olive grove in 2011 was more an emotional one than an intention to go into the olive oil business: “We bought the land from an old man who was no longer able to look after it. It is located in a hardly accessible area out of the village, called ‘a stritta’ (the narrow), in a sort of canyon where the ancient cities of the former inhabitants of this part of Sicily once stood,” said Miccione.
“This was a place of a stunning, heart-breaking beauty. (The old man) told us the story of the place: these were the poorest lands that were given to World War I veterans as compensation. His father, who was a shepherd, herded his sheep there and, at night, he built the dry stone wall to mark his land. The old man was still able to describe every single tree his father planted. We realized we needed to preserve that tradition but work in a more modern, effective and quality conscious way.”
In a short time, things got serious; he involved a friend as a partner of the new company, and their families including their daughters and son, became part of the team. They bought more olive groves and asked an experienced agronomist, Luigi la Rocca, to help them produce a great oil.
“Here there is a fantastic raw material, Tonda Iblea which is a great variety and Buccheri is the top location of the area,” Daniele said. “We knew we could do very high quality, but this required a lot of attention and care and we had to balance the books, too.”
Olive picking can’t be done with machines here, due to the steep, terraced land. Early harvesting and immediate pressing at a near, modern olive mill promise highest quality, but a low yield. The results were reassuring though, and this year they crafted four different extra virgin olive oils — all made with Tonda Iblea olives.
Beside the Tuttotonda oil, they make two “crus” named after the single estates where the olive trees grow: Pietrenere, where the olive groves face the Etna volcano and the ground is made of black stones giving the oil a strong and spicy character; and Terrealte, from the century-old trees growing on the area above the village, almost on the top of the mountain.
They also decided to experiment with a blend between Tonda Iblea and wild olives growing on a friend’s land. While the wild olives are small and very hard to harvest. they might give an unexpected twist to the oil that will be named TondaPiù.
As the harvesting and pressing is done and the oil is resting in the stainless steel vats, Daniele and his partners are working at the design of labels and a website with the help of German designer Laura Buddensieg and photographer Diana Thorimbert. Involving friends and customers in the life of the farm is part of the philosophy here.
“For us this is an enjoyable family adventure,” Miccione explains, “but we are deeply involved in it and we personally follow the harvesting and milling procedures. We really want to show local people that it is possible to make great oil here, and sell it for the right price; many producers are abandoning the groves because they are old and tired, and their children don’t want to take care of them.”
“They can have a fantastic product but they don’t know how to make it profitable,” he continued. “We deeply believe in single-variety oils to enhance the Tonda Iblea features.” Miccione hopes to open a showroom in the village and a tasting room, hoping to share notes with other producers.
“We know that we can’t make big quantities here, so we have to work on quality, on packaging and communication. We have to find the balance between quality and profitability. But I have to say that looking at the Etna from the olive groves at dawn, rewards every effort made.”