New Efforts to Promote Rare White Olive Variety in Calabria

Archaeologists are working to preserve the cultural heritage of the Leucocarpa cultivar as producers are starting to grow and transform the ivory-white fruits.
Xu Yinan
Apr. 8, 2021
Paolo DeAndreis

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The Leucocarpa cul­ti­var, a rare white olive vari­ety once widely spread in the south­ern Italian region of Calabria, has been offi­cially rec­og­nized by the regional gov­ern­ment as a sym­bol of the region.

Its unique appear­ance, his­tory and the dis­tinc­tive oil that it yields have led to a renewed inter­est in fur­ther research­ing and devel­op­ing the cul­ti­var in the region.

This tree is a sym­bol of Calabrian nature. With our announce­ment, we are recon­nect­ing with our past and pro­mot­ing the idea that our soci­ety was founded on peace among cit­i­zens and nations.- Sergio De Caprio, Calabrian regional sec­re­tary for envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion

The deci­sion of the regional gov­ern­ment will pro­tect the Leucocarpa vari­ety and pro­mote Calabria’s roots,” Sergio De Caprio, regional sec­re­tary for envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, told Olive Oil Times.

The announce­ment comes on the heels of the work of experts and vol­un­teers who recently began map­ping the pres­ence of the ivory-white fruit-bear­ing tree through­out the region.

See Also: Rediscovering Ancient Varieties to Meet Today’s Challenges

Those white dru­pes are fas­ci­nat­ing; their con­nec­tion to the reli­gious his­tory of our peo­ple comes imme­di­ately to mind. The tree gives off a unique sense of purity and beauty,” De Caprio said.

This tree is a sym­bol of Calabrian nature, intro­duced by Basilian monks from the Greek island of Kasos in the 6th cen­tury A.D.,” he added. With our announce­ment, we are recon­nect­ing with our past and pro­mot­ing the idea that our soci­ety was founded on peace among cit­i­zens and nations.”

Environmental orga­ni­za­tions, such as Italia Nostra and the World Wildlife Fund, are coop­er­at­ing with arche­ol­o­gists to under­stand bet­ter the role the white olive tree played in the region’s his­tory. Meanwhile, the local gov­ern­ment is work­ing to bring young peo­ple and stu­dents to appre­ci­ate its unique her­itage.

We planted the first Leucocarpa tree in the San Luca vil­lage together with the local stu­dents,” De Caprio said. Our goal is to involve them in dis­cov­er­ing their roots and pro­mote extra vir­gin olive oil cul­ture.”

Every year, we will plant those trees with stu­dents through­out the region and the extra vir­gin olive oil qual­ity and cul­ture will be brought into the schools,” he added. Extra vir­gin olive oil is part of their her­itage, as is the Leucocarpa tree.”

Leucocarpa olives turn ivory-white when they are ripe due to chloro­phyll degra­da­tion when the syn­the­sis of antho­cyanins and other flavonoids do not acti­vate. These polyphe­no­lic sec­ondary metabo­lites are respon­si­ble for the stan­dard darker drupe col­ors in other cul­ti­vars.

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Photo: Gino Vulcano

There is so much we do not know yet about this tree, such as how it was grown and per­ceived,” said Anna Rotella, an arche­ol­o­gist work­ing on the project. But thanks to the work of the vol­un­teers, we can already con­firm its pres­ence near many places asso­ci­ated with cults in Calabria.”

Rotella and her col­leagues believe that the dis­tinc­tive olive oil derived from Leucocarpa played a role in cult activ­i­ties.

In the past, tem­ples and churches could not count on suf­fi­cient ven­ti­la­tion, so the choice of the right fuel for using indoor lamps was vital,” she told Olive Oil Times. Leucocarpa olive oil pro­duced only mod­est smoke emis­sions, unlike lam­pante olive oil.”

The researchers believe the intro­duc­tion of elec­tric­ity ren­dered that spe­cific use of the Leucocarpa olive oil obso­lete, which led to many trees being aban­doned.

We used to con­sider Leucocarpa a rare plant and while it is still quite rare, it spread across our region more than we thought,” Rotella said. Some farm­ers still cut them down in their fields because they do not believe it can bring them a profit and, over time, wild­fires have also lim­ited the pres­ence of the tree in the ter­ri­tory.”

Still, many remem­ber those trees in the vicin­ity of churches,” she added. Others asso­ciate that olive oil to its ancient use in child nutri­tion.”

Rotella explained that its pres­ence near tem­ples and grave­yards demon­strates the role of the tree in reli­gious rit­u­als.

A beau­ti­ful tra­di­tion in the Spezzano Albanese vil­lage included a funeral pro­ces­sion, which streamed through the streets of the town and ended up just in front of the white olive tree,” she said. As the cof­fin would become heav­ier for the bear­ers, they would lean it right on the tree.”

However, she added that the his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion of the tree with the peo­ple must con­tinue to be inves­ti­gated.

These white olive trees come with a spe­cific iden­tity, which is why we need to gather all those streams of mem­o­ries before they fade away,” she added.

See Also: Remains of 2,500-Year-Old Mill Discovered in Southern Italy

A renewed inter­est in the Leucocarpa tree could help estab­lish what Rotella described as the white olive route,” a touris­tic and gas­tro­nomic project that would involve all of the 80 Calabrian vil­lages where the tree has been iden­ti­fied. This project has piqued the inter­est of some local olive oil pro­duc­ers.

Antonio Muzzupappa, a grower who also oper­ates a mill in the Calabrian city of Vibo Valentia, has planted 350 Leucocarpa trees in recent years.

Propagating this olive tree by graft­ing can be a real chal­lenge,” Muzzupappa told Olive Oil Times. Whereas with the tra­di­tional graft­ing, we have a very low per­cent­age of fail­ures – 50 of every 1,000 at most – with Leucocarpa, almost half of them will not work. Still we hope to add 150 more white olive trees in the next few months.”

Muzzupappa remem­bers how his ances­tors prop­a­gated the tree by using the radial shoots, result­ing in trees whose roots would often not be strong enough.

Muzzupappa focuses on grow­ing and trans­form­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent vari­eties of olives, which nat­u­rally led him to the idea of pro­duc­ing organic Leucocarpa extra vir­gin olive oil, both for cook­ing and for blend­ing with other oils.

This past sea­son, we already had a few olives to har­vest and we pro­duced a sam­ple of about 20 liters of Leucocarpa oil,” Muzzupappa said. It is trans­par­ent and at first, it looks like seed oil. We hope this olive oil will be increas­ingly used for fry­ing as a sub­sti­tute for lesser-qual­ity oils.”

When used to this end, it does not pro­duce smoke and still encom­passes all of the good qual­i­ties of a true extra vir­gin olive oil,” he added.

Muzzupappa con­firmed that he is work­ing with other Calabrian grow­ers to expand the cul­ti­va­tion of Leucocarpa olives and to pro­mote it as a per­fect-for-fry­ing olive oil.

The extra vir­gin olive oil obtained from the olives has the same char­ac­ter­is­tics as all the oth­ers con­cern­ing the com­po­si­tion of fatty acids, fla­vors and aro­mas typ­i­cal of a light fruity prod­uct,” Innocenzo Muzzalupo, an olive researcher at the Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, pre­vi­ously told Olive Oil Times.





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