Oliva: How Ancient Fables Become Award-Winning Olive Oils

Combining local varieties from ancient and young trees with organic practices and Sicilian terroir help Francesca Oliva's oils stand out.

Francesca Oliva
Feb. 16, 2022
By Paolo DeAndreis
Francesca Oliva

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A mod­ern olive mill sits strate­gi­cally between the moun­tains and sea in one of the world’s most famous oil-pro­duc­ing regions in south­east­ern Sicily.

Azienda Agricola Oliva wel­comes vis­i­tors with prickly pear cacti, thou­sands of cen­tury-old olive trees and scores of col­or­ful lemon trees.

We are proud to live in a friendly land full of col­ors and cul­ture, and that is what our Favola (extra vir­gin olive oil) is about.- Francesca Oliva, owner, Azienda Agricola Oliva

For years now, the Oliva family’s extra vir­gin olive oil has won cov­eted qual­ity awards, includ­ing a Gold Award at the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

The small-scale, high-end pro­ducer boasts more than 5,000 olive trees, and their olive oils have been fea­tured in local restau­rants for decades. The fam­ily started its olive oil adven­ture in 1957, and the founders built strong roots within the local com­mu­nity.

See Also:Producer Profiles

Oliva means olive in Italian. In Sicily (and else­where in south­ern Italy, too), many com­mon sur­names are con­nected to the tra­di­tional eco­nomic activ­i­ties of the region.

Our fam­ily sur­name comes from the his­tory of this area, where olive grow­ing has ancient roots,” Francesca Oliva, the company’s owner, told Olive Oil Times. In more recent times, since the 1960s, our olive oil mill trans­formed olives from the whole area and the fam­ily also used to buy olives from grow­ers in adja­cent loca­tions.”

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Given the grow­ing inter­est shown by our inter­na­tional guests and friends from abroad, in 2013, we decided to turn our oper­a­tions into a com­pany focused on our olive trees,” she added. The excel­lence of the prod­uct helped us to reach abroad.”

Since then, we have slowly added new olive orchards to our land,” Oliva con­tin­ued. We do also plant new orchards. But we do not aim at becom­ing large-scale olive oil pro­duc­ers, as we aim for qual­ity, organic and sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion.”

One of the dri­vers of the Oliva fam­i­ly’s efforts to reach the inter­na­tional mar­ket was the many guests vis­it­ing the mill and tast­ing their extra vir­gin olive oils.

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Today oleo­tourism is the focus of recent Italian leg­is­la­tion paving the way to a new form of tourism. The lat­est effort to pro­mote tra­di­tional olive oil pro­duc­tion comes on the heels of the suc­cess of eno­tourism, which has com­bined tourism and wine pro­duc­tion in the last cou­ple of decades.

We have been greet­ing our vis­i­tors for many years before the law,” Oliva said. When they arrive, we show them around, let them dis­cover the extra vir­gin olive oil’s best qual­i­ties, have them taste our prod­ucts and get to share with them the pas­sion and the work behind such excel­lency.”

The Oliva fam­i­ly’s main olive vari­eties include the local Tonda Iblea, both for olive oil and table olive pro­duc­tion. Strong and tall, Tonda Iblea trees thrive in the island’s gen­tle hills and are also known for their large dru­pes.

From these dru­pes, the Oliva fam­ily pro­duces Favola, fable” in English, an award-win­ning organic extra vir­gin olive oil.

Our olive oil rep­re­sents the roots of agri­cul­tural Sicily, of a time, not too far gone in which farm­ers and work­ers shared their days in the farm, gath­er­ing at night around the same table to nar­rate to each other the cunti, the tra­di­tional tales told to enter­tain guests,” Oliva said.

Favola is a small piece of our his­tory,” she added. It is also the tale of our food cul­ture, a prod­uct har­vested and bot­tled by hand.”

Favola is a robust mono­va­ri­etal with tast­ing sen­sa­tions of arti­choke, red chili pep­per, tomato and herbs.

We do not use chem­i­cal treat­ments on our olive trees,” Oliva said. We care­fully fol­low every step of ripen­ing and hand-har­vest at the best pos­si­ble moment of the sea­son. Usually, it would be an early har­vest to con­firm Favola’s unique qual­i­ties year after year.”

Within 12 hours of the har­vest, the olives reach the highly tech­no­log­i­cal fam­ily mill and are trans­formed into extra vir­gin olive oil.

We are proud to live in a friendly land full of col­ors and cul­ture, and that is what our Favola is about,” Oliva said. Tonda Iblea is the most valu­able cul­ti­var of the Syracuse area. Its char­ac­ter­is­tics pro­duce the green tomato leaf fruity tast­ing sen­sa­tion that makes it rec­og­niz­able and often unfor­get­table.”

The Oliva fam­ily also grows Cerasuola olives, the trees of which can eas­ily be spot­ted across west­ern Sicily. Using this other local vari­ety, the Oliva fam­ily also pro­duces the Sicilian mono­va­ri­etal PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).

Among the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Cerasuola vari­ety, it is resilient to drought and a hot­ter cli­mate.

Yes, our orchards are actu­ally very close to the mete­o­ro­log­i­cal sta­tion, which reported the high­est tem­per­a­ture on record last year,” Oliva said.

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In July 2021, heat­waves in south­ern Italy pro­voked unheard-of tem­per­a­tures, includ­ing the 48.8 ºC recorded in Sicily, a record-high for con­ti­nen­tal Europe.

This heat­wave was fol­lowed by exces­sive rain­fall, which stretched into the first weeks of the olive har­vest­ing sea­son.

Still, the cur­rent season’s har­vest is mod­est in terms of quan­tity, but the qual­ity has increased over the most recent years,” Oliva said.

The Oliva fam­ily also uses Cerasuola olives in their Favola blend, along with the Sicilian Nocellara Etnea vari­ety.

Nocellara Etnea usu­ally has got a slight fruiti­ness, bit­ter­ness and pun­gency of light or medium inten­sity,” Oliva said. It can remind notes of almond and, some­times, ripe fruit.”

The fam­ily also pro­duces a mono­va­ri­etal Moresca extra vir­gin olive oil, touted for its high polyphe­nol con­tent. The vari­ety is also widely appre­ci­ated by farm­ers for its mostly con­sis­tent yields, which are only par­tially affected by olive trees’ typ­i­cal alter­nate bear­ing pat­tern.

Compared to the Tonda Iblea mono­va­ri­etal, Moresca olives pro­duce a less pro­nounced, fruity olive oil, with just a few bit­ter­ness and piquant notes and scents of almond and green apple.

Among the Oliva family’s goals is to pro­vide their cus­tomers with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of extra vir­gin olive oil and its pric­ing. Olive argued that this edu­ca­tion sim­ply begins with tast­ing the prod­uct.

Producers should get together to give the right value to their prod­ucts,” Oliva said. They could approach the con­sumers in novel ways, make their cus­tomers taste the dif­fer­ent cul­ti­vars and under­stand their char­ac­ter­is­tics.”

It does not require a pro­fes­sion­ally edu­cated palate to appre­ci­ate the fla­vor of an excel­lent extra vir­gin olive oil when com­pared to lower qual­ity olive oils,” she added. Excellent extra vir­gin olive oil can­not be sold at an unsus­tain­able price.”

The fam­ily also invests in intel­li­gent pack­ag­ing for their extra vir­gin olive oils, with its bot­tles tra­di­tion­ally shipped in recy­clable and reusable light-pro­tected con­tain­ers.

When we talk about sell­ing extra vir­gin olive oils to house­holds, large tin cans should be out­lawed,” she said. Families buy that tin. Then they have to pour it in other con­tain­ers, which puts qual­ity and resilience in dan­ger.”

Those tins also retain part of the prod­ucts, which is unac­cept­able given the qual­ity,” she added. More should be done to give value to the prod­ucts.”

Apart from tra­di­tional bot­tles, the fam­ily has also invested in other for­mats, such as 25-mil­li­liter con­tain­ers, often sold to restau­rants. This pack­ag­ing method also pro­tects the prod­uct while allow­ing inter­ested cus­tomers to taste the dif­fer­ent vari­eties’ fla­vors.

We believe that olive farm­ing can be a valu­able dri­ver for change while also sup­port­ing other busi­nesses,” Oliva con­cluded. It can pro­duce new value for tourism and increase inter­est in devel­op­ing a new green econ­omy.”


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