Production

A Merry 'Tonda Iblea' Harvest in Sicily

Dec. 1, 2014
By Luciana Squadrilli

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Azienda Agricola Miccione part­ner Dario Calogero (left) and agron­o­mist Luigi Larocca

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.”

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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.

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“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.”

Wild Olivastro olives used to make the TondaPiù Blend at the Miccione Farm

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.

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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.”

Mt. Etna from Miccione Farm